When Google's first operating system for wearable tech makes its debut, you'd better bet that Samsung is first in line. The Samsung Gear Live joined Motorola's Moto 360 and LG's G Watch at Google's annual I/O conference as the first three smartwatches to run the wrist-worn OS -- and as Samsung's fourth wearable in total.
The watch will pair with any device running Android version 4.3 or above, a major departure for Samsung -- a company whose usual mode of operation is to prefer its own devices to the exclusion of others -- but Google's condition for playing in the Android Wear sandbox.
You can preorder the Gear Live online at the Google Play Store. It costs $200 in the US, £169 in the UK, and AU$250 in Australia. We have one here at CNET and have been testing it out already: stay tuned for a full review.
Design and build
Samsung's Gear Live falls somewhere between the Galaxy Gear and Gear 2 Neo, and the Gear Fit band. It has the Gear 2's square metal body and thicker bezel, but has different curves on the edges and a dual-peg closure rather than a traditional watchband that folds over and clasps in place: more like the Gear Fit's band than the Fitbit Force or Garmin Vivofit.
The Gear Live's flat, smooth band feels comfortable on the wrist. It comes in black and wine red, but you can take a small screwdriver to the watch and switch out the band for various aftermarket options.
Even though the band is comfy, the watch's square 1.63-inch (33 millimeter) Super AMOLED screen makes a statement. Depending on the size and of your wrist, how accustomed you are to wearing watches, and your personal aesthetic, the Gear Live could fall anywhere from too large to the Goldilocks zone of being just right.
Specifically, the Gear Live will take up a fair amount of space -- it's 1.5 inches tall by 2.2 inches wide by 0.35 inches thick (38 by 56 by 8.9mm) and weighs 2.1 ounces (59 grams). Like the Gear brethren, the Live juices up through a clip-on charger outfitted with a microSD port.
The screen itself looks bright and sharp with the Gear Live's 320x320-pixel resolution, a little crisper than the LG G Watch by the numbers. Of course, that was also with a screen brightness set to level four out of five. You can dial it down in the settings, but there's no automatic mode, which could be a little awkward in a movie theater with the always-on screen blaring slightly less brightly, but humming all the same.
As for the rest of the watch, you have a power/lock button on the right side, and yes, a heart-rate monitor on the back. Right now, that's the one hardware feature that really makes Samsung stand out from its tiny knot of competitors so far. For fitness fans, being able to track your heart-rate and steps would be beneficial, as long as it's reliable.
Inside, you'll find a 1.2GHz processor, and an IP67 rating that certified the unit resistant to dust as well as underwater dives of up to 3 feet (1 meter) for as long as 30 minutes. That means you shouldn't worry about wearing it as you go about the day -- scrubbing dishes, cooking, washing the car, and so on.
The Gear Live also has 4GB of onboard storage, 512MB of RAM, Bluetooth 4.0, and a 300mAh battery. Samsung says that heavy users will get about 24 hours of the watch's battery cycle, with moderate users clocking about 30 hours before it's time to plug in again.
Android Wear = Google Now
If you're familiar with any of Samsung's smartwatches before the Gear Live, the Android Wear operating system is going to be your biggest shock. Gone are the on-screen menu buttons you previously used to navigate around. Instead, voice commands are your main form of input, along with some swiping and occasional long presses.
Here's how it breaks down. There's no standalone app storage or usage here. Instead, everything connects to your phone and the the management app on it -- and the experience is mostly an extension of Google's voice commands and Google Now.
The watch starts off dark (and dims after 5 seconds; this is immutable for now). To wake up the always-on display, you can press the lock button, twist your wrist (and wait a beat or two), or tap the display. If notifications await you, they show up in card form, which you can swipe away to dismiss or swipe up to expand. Swiping to the left reveals finger-friendly icons for making the next move, like opening the notification in your phone or launching into navigation.
You can swipe down from the top to view the date and your battery life meter, or mute and unmute the phone. A long press calls up wallpaper motifs, most of which Google supplied, though a few are Samsung's own. Holding on the lock button invokes the Settings and its various options.
Still, most of what you do on the Gear Live you do with your voice: setting alarms and reminders, navigating, and composing a text message or email to contacts. Samsung, by the way, has splashed out with adding its own stopwatch interface in addition to Google's. You can ask to see your heart rate, which triggers the monitor to do its thing; you can likewise demand to see how many steps you've taken.
Notification displays come in the form of miniaturized Google Now cards and pass along information like stocks, weather, sports scores, and social interactions. You can also control a music player and field phone calls. Notifications are larger and easier to read than notifications seen on Samsung's other wearables, but this is more controlled by Google than by Samsung, whose customized contributions are heavily curtailed with Android Wear.
Google's voice-driven interface has its ups and downs: we did manage to execute several voice commands, including sending short texts and email messages. But, one drawback popped up immediately: you can't approve or abort a message if Google's voice engine misinterprets you, or if you change your mind. Grammarians also won't like the usual issues that come with voice transcription -- mainly irregular capitalization and punctuation you have to voice yourself.
Android Wear is meant to be always-on: in the default mode, the Samsung Gear Live (and LG G Watch) have displays that are bright and colorful, but power down into dimmer, black and white displays that always stay lit to some small degree. As a result, our early impression on battery life isn't good. We got less than 24 hours of use on a full charge. Making the screen go fully dark after a few seconds should help, but then you'd need to wake it up to see the time or do anything else. Battery life seems like it could be a major drawback on the first generation of Android Wear watches.
In the much more closed world of Android Wear, Samsung is at a distinct disadvantage from the other guys. The company can put forward a few more wallpapers and app-interface alternatives, but that's the extent of things so far. Instead of carving out an identity based partially on hardware and partially on software extras, the Gear Live has to compete mostly on its hardware and its price.
Compared to the LG G Watch, the Gear Live has the slightly lower price ($200 versus $230; although in Australia they're the same at AU$250, and in the UK the G Watch is cheaper at £159). Samsung's watch has a sharper screen (320x320 pixels versus 280x280), and a slightly smaller battery. Both arrive in the US on July 7 and other countries at the same time or soon after.
While the Gear Live adds nothing surprising, Samsung's four prior wearables give it the advantage of experience, with a heart-rate monitor that will in theory more quickly connect to Android Wear's forthcoming health and fitness platform. But, with the Moto 360 on the horizon this summer, Android Wear will have a lot of other watch competition, too. Stay tuned for a full review.
For more announcements, check out CNET's full Google I/O 2014 coverage here.