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Samsung Gear Live review: Samsung's full-Google Gear only a so-so Android Wear watch

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Josh Miller/CNET

Living with the Gear Fit

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.

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James Martin/CNET

Specs

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Fitness?

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.

Apps: Android Wear, not Gear

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Android Wear, the app

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Battery life: not great

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Conclusion

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.

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