Google wants the future of Android on your wrist, but for now it's not a future that's not all that great to experience, and Samsung's Gear Live is all-too-familiar hardware.
I wake up. My watch is buzzing. It's my alarm. I also see it's going to be nice outside today. An email I was expecting last night came through, too. I'm ready to get ready to go, but I also just noticed that my watch battery icon's red, almost empty. Man, I wish I charged it last night. But I wanted to wear my watch so it would wake me up.
To wear the future on your wrist means submitting to a present that can't quite get us there yet. In the case of Google's new Android Wear watches, it also means confronting an odd number of compromises.
The Samsung Gear Live is Samsung's fifth -- yes, that's correct -- smartwatch in just nine months. It's also the first Samsung watch that works beyond Samsung's own cosmos of Galaxy phones and tablets. It's one of the very first watches that runs Google's new Android Wear software platform. And, while it looks good and has its moments of brilliance, this isn't a watch I'd recommend you buy. If you're really serious about Android Wear, you should wait...for a lot of reasons. First, software. Android Wear is a work in progress, and we don't know what it will really become yet. Second, and most importantly, Samsung's first Gear Live watch just doesn't seem impressive enough. Even at the reasonable price of $199 (£169, AU$250).
Android Wear is Android, on your wrist. But it's really like Google Now on your wrist, or Google Glass on your wrist minus a camera. It pushes notifications, can use voice commands ("OK, Google"), andalso has a touchscreen for swiping and tapping cards or menu commands. It also allows compatible Android phone apps to load bits of themselves onto your watch, and add on extra features.
Indeed, iPhone users are out of luck -- but we can safely assume Apple's rumored iWatch will be iOS exclusive -- welcome to the increasingly segregated ecosystems of the Apple/Google Cold War. Android Wear is voice command-driven, like Google Glass, but the watches don't have any cameras or speakers, just a microphone, a touchscreen, and a vibrating motor. Android Wear watches can be round or square, but they all need to be connected to an Android phone running 4.3 or later. And they're all supposed to work in roughly the same way, with the same operating system, and same-looking software. So no matter what Android Wear watch you choose, they'll all end up feeling like the same type of watch.
That doesn't mean they're all utterly identical. The Samsung Gear Live has different watch faces than the LG G Watch , the other first-out-of-the-gate Android Wear smartwatch.
I tested both the Gear Live and G Watch using a pre-release Android Wear app on a Samsung Galaxy S5 , and running a handful of pre-release apps alongside it. I stuck to one phone because of the specific pre-release software Google loaded onto it.
Android Wear pushes cards, just like Google Now, onto your watch face. They could be notifications like incoming emails, Facebook updates, Google Hangout chats, texts, Twitter interactions, or phone calls; it could be the score to a local game, the weather, directions to a place you've been before, or a reminder that music is playing on your phone. Each card can be swiped away or you can tap to read more, as well as occasionally swipe to reply.
In some cases, you'll need to do the rest on your own phone. With Twitter or Facebook, I clicked a "open on phone" icon and then had to wake up my Samsung in my pocket. The thing I was trying to read popped up immediately on the phone, but I sometimes wondered whether this defeated the purpose of using a smartwatch in the first place.
You can dictate a bunch of things to the Samsung Gear Live -- write a note, send an email, ask for directions -- but it doesn't always mean that Google will understand you. And if it doesn't, you'll have a hard time correcting what you said, or cancelling that mistaken message before a quick timer expires and it's sent away.
Some of the first Android Wear apps show extra promise. Tinder's Android Wear app has you swipe pictures like you can on a phone. DuoLingo has quick language-learning flashcards. Eat24 lets you quickly order food. Lyft can call a car service. Runtastic can start and track a run. Thomson Reuters Eikon gets quick business headlines and stock prices. Spendable and PayPal are offered for quick finance tools, but PayPal wasn't working for me yet in its early build. Wink will have an app to connect to its smarthome app and connected-appliance controls. That's already more than most smartwatches can boast, and Android Wear should get lots more apps in short time. How useful they'll be remains to be seen, but the potential for Android Wear to transform beyond what it seems to be now could be sky high.
At the moment, though, it still feels like a hobbled version of Google Glass; notifications, but without the fun ability to record video hands-free.
Pushing notifications has its ups and downs, too. I tried navigating via Android Wear while driving and nearly caused a car accident. Basic vibrations and no speaker mean the display randomly lights up, and upcoming turns weren't clearly indicated. And, it kept losing the GPS signal from my phone even though I was in an unobstructed town in New Jersey.
And if you're saying to yourself, "How's this any different from what I get on my smartphone?", you're right. It all comes down to whether or not you think interacting with a smaller screen on your wrist is more convenient than always whipping out your phone -- or not.
There's no denying it, the Gear Live feels a lot like previous Gears. It's attractive, but in a space-age way: more Star Trek communicator than the classic feel of throwback Pebble Steel or Martian Notifier design. It only has one button, on the side, to turn the display on and bring up Google voice, or dim it again. You won't be confusing this for an everyday "normal" watch.
It's a hybrid design of previous Gears: there's a metal body like the Gear 2 , yet it's camera-free like the Gear 2 Neo , with a simple swappable wristband that ditches a standard watch buckle in favor of a two-prong pop-on fastener, like the Gear Fit .
Feature-wise, if you follow smartwatches closely, it's really a Gear Neo Lite. Its feature set is even more limited than Samsung's last round of watches released in the spring. Yes, it has a big bright screen and metal design, but the Gear Live lacks speakers or a camera. It has a microphone for taking dictation, text chatting or asking Google Voice for things, but it can't currently record voice memos. A heart-rate monitor on the back, like previous Gears, is present, but it doesn't do much yet.
The Gear Live is IP67 water- and dust-resistant, like Samsung's Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit, and LG's G Watch. You should be able to wear it in the rain, while washing your hands, or even in the shower (I did), but not for swimming. And showering with it all the time might not be the best idea if you don't want to tempt fate.
So, what's it like wearing the Samsung Gear Fit running Android Wear? It's a bit like a super-powered Pebble watch using Samsung's Gear hardware. Android Wear is supposed to send context-specific messages throughout the day, automatically. I gave it a try, and after a few days it started hitting a certain odd rhythm. Weather in both New Jersey and New York City, where I work, were delivered to the display. Emails popped up as quick thumbnails, which I could respond to using my voice to transcribe. If it misunderstood me, I'd have a second or two to cancel, or the message would send as-is.
Google Hangouts, to my surprise, came through intact. Work-related chats popped up, and I could respond with voice-to-text. Incoming phone calls can be answered or dismissed with preset messages, but you'll need to grab your phone to actually talk: the Gear Live can't make phone calls, unlike the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo.
I started getting train times for the train I normally take, but also bus times for stations I passed on my train ride, which was odd. And there were a few other odd errors. In San Francisco, the Gear Live suggested travel time to a local "happiness therapist." Maybe it was reading my mind after all.
Unlike Samsung's own Tizen Gears, which had terrible voice recognition software, the Gear Fit was fast to recognize what I said. But I felt like I needed to speak to do most things on the Gear Live. Scrolling down to other features, settings, or connected apps was awkward. And swiping and interacting with cards could get confusing. Sometimes I ended up swiping away cards I meant to keep, but once cards are gone they're gone for good. Unless they come back later, which they often did. But it's out of your control. Cards pop up when they pop up, often in an odd order. Facebook and Twitter, for now, ended up sending compressed notifications on the Gear Live, requiring me to open my Android phone for more details.
The Samsung Gear Live has a bright 320x320 resolution 1.65-inch sAMOLED display, a higher resolution and more vivid display quality than the LG G Watch's 280x280 IPS LCD. But I can tell you, having used both side-by-side, the actual difference is slim. Both look fine and both, unfortunately, are terrible in direct outdoor sunlight, becoming nearly unreadable even at maximum brightness. Not smart at all, for a watch.
A small button on the side will turn the Gear Live's display on or dim it, but so will tapping the screen, or lifting the watch up to look at it. The LG G Watch doesn't have any external buttons at all. I prefer the comfort factor of one real button.
The Gear Live has a 1.2 GHz processor, 4GB of onboard storage, and 512MB of RAM. 4GB isn't a lot, but it's similar to what Samsung's other Gear watches offer, and the same as the LG G Watch. I don't know what app file sizes will end up being in the future, so it's hard to tell if 4GB will be limiting or not: right now, most of what Android Wear does involves pushed notifications, which probably don't take up much storage space at all.
The Samsung Gear Live will work with any Android phone running 4.3 with Bluetooth 4.0, but its fitness features actually aren't as good, right now, as those on Gears connected to Samsung's S-Health app. That's a shame, because S-Health actually wasn't that good with Gear watches to begin with.
The Gear Live counts your steps continuously, and can take your heart rate if you ask it to or pull up apps called Heart Rate, or Fit, buried in Android Wear's odd scrolling menu. But there's nothing you can really do with either piece of data. You can enter a daily step goal and track daily step progress, and see what your heart rate is over time, but there's no continuous exercise tracking using heart rate, coaching, or more significant social, calorie-counting or other lifestyle features.
Those might be added in future Android Wear-compatible apps, but it's not clear how, yet. Right now, your step count pops up randomly as one more card in the continuous flow of pop-cards that Android Wear ends up serving up throughout the day. Google has announced its own open fitness platform called Google Fit, which aims to knit together all fitness apps and accessories. We'll have to see how Android Wear watches end up dovetailing with Google Fit in the future, but it could get interesting.
Forget all the previous Tizen-powered Samsung Gear apps on the company's Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit watches. The Gear Live runs Android Wear apps, a whole different class. Android Wear apps live on Google Play, get installed on your Android phone, and install onto your paired watch. There aren't many available yet -- the ones I tried were early preview builds -- but that should change quickly. Unlike Pebble's app store or the aforementioned Tizen apps, Android Wear is really an extension of Android, and should be easier to develop for.
The Galaxy Gear (and all other Android Wear watches) pair with a simple app companion that lives on your phone. It connects easily via Bluetooth, one watch at a time. From there, you can check available compatible apps on Google Play, adjust alarms, watch faces and a few other settings, and mute notifications. By default, whatever apps ping notifications to your phone also send cards to Android Wear. Turning them off one by one is the way to fine-tune your watch's pings.
The app doesn't currently have any fitness-tracking hub features, or any deeper controls. It's a basic companion for now.
Of all the smartwatches I've ever seen, I can't remember one that's had a worse functional battery life than the Samsung Gear Live. The LG G Watch is close behind. Samsung's watch has a 300mAh battery, while the LG G Watch battery is 400mAh. A full charge in the morning didn't last me to the next day: I'd usually wake up and find the watch face black, battery dead.
That day-long-or-less battery life is with all functions running, and the screen display set towards the higher end, with a nearly always-on screen. By default, Android Wear dims the smartwatch display down to a low-power black and white screen after a few seconds: watch faces transform to cool, basic designs, and notifications turn to plain text. Lifting your arm or tapping the screen brings back full color and brightness. This also depletes battery life, of course. You can choose to keep the display completely dark after a few seconds instead, and light it up by tapping, pressing the side button or triggering the accelerometer by lifting your arm to look at the screen, like the previous Samsung Gear watches. That'll get you more juice, but it also defeats some of the purpose of Android Wear as an always-on watch.
The included AC charger and dongle is annoying, too. Samsung tossed in one of its standard AC adapters with a Micro-USB cable permanently attached, so you can't unplug it and use it with a computer. And the included clip-on dongle that snaps onto the back of the Gear Live, much like the other recent Gears (Gear 2, Neo and Fit), is small, hard to fasten, easy to lose, and means you need to charge the Gear Live with it lying on its side versus lying flat. The LG G Watch has a much nicer flat magnetic charge dock you can just snap the watch into on your desk.
The Gear Live shows that Samsung's settled in with its idea of smartwatch design, and used that as a way to install Google's new Android Wear software into a similar form. The result right now ends up being a pretty rough and mixed bag, with features that don't feel useful, software that's a weird mix of "automatic" and interactive but often too voice-driven for its own good, and a battery life that's painfully short.
Android Wear is clearly a work in progress: I reviewed the Gear Live on pre-release software, so stay tuned for a review update once Android Wear is officially up and running with a collection of apps to sample. The future of Google, and Android, may lie in a world of connected devices: right now, though, it boils down to a smartwatch that's got some interesting ideas, but just isn't smart or good enough. Yet.