Sunday, December 22, 2013

Samsung Galaxy Gear review

Samsung hasn't shied away from exploring new product segments. They basically created the "phablet" segment of the smartphone market and are now taking on "wearable tech". The Galaxy Gear is Samsung's first foray into wearable tech and while they might not have been the first to put out a smartwatch, it certainly is one of the most high profile launches we've seen. Today we see if Samsung has put together the right ingredients together for the first big "hit" in the smartwatch segment in our review of the Galaxy Gear.

Overall Construction
Given that this is AndroidBugle's first smartwatch review, there isn't any past experience for which to draw comparisons to, especially considering since most, including myself, have stopped wearing watches.

That being said, the Galaxy Gear is very solid piece of hardware. From the real stainless steel frame, to the high quality polycarbonate casing, to the tastefully exposed screws, to the soft touch rubberize plastic wrist band the Gear exudes the kind of build quality that we've longed for in Galaxy smartphones.

At roughly 11 mm thick, the Gear isn’t as svelte as most regular watches but is in the range of other high end wrist watches. The metal clasp which closes the band around the wrist houses a loudspeaker used for placing and answering calls and to be frank is a tad thick and impeded typing comfortably on a keyboard. The band also houses its 1.9MP camera on the front band which means aftermarket straps are probably not possible with the Gear.

In terms of weight, at 73.8g the Gear isn't overly light but isn't bothersome enough to be a major detractor. At roughly half the weight of many of Samsung's smartphones it will certainly be noticeable on the user's wrist. That being said, a lot of the weight can be attributed to the materials used in the construction of the smartwatch and to be honest we have no issues overlooking the heft if it means the product feels solid.

Overall, the Galaxy Gear feels really nice for a first generation product and really surprised us given Samsung's previous track record. The designers that worked on the Gear did a fantastic job putting together a fine piece of hardware.

Samsung Galaxy Gear

While the touch display on the Galaxy Gear is certainly important as it is the face of the watch you will be looking at quite often throughout the course of the day, it might not be as important for it to have cutting edge specs for a good experience since it won't be used as a content consumption device.

All things considering, the Galaxy Gear display isn't bad at all with a 1.63-inch display with a 320x320 resolution, it actually clocks in at a respectable 278DPI which to us is far more than enough to display crisp text on the watch.

Naturally since this is a Samsung device, the Gear is rocking a Super AMOLED display. While we will re-affirm that the quality of the display isn't of primordial importance on a smartwatch like it is on smartphone, for those interested in knowing, the display is in fact using a PenTile pixel array. Thankfully, it is the same arrangement as the one on the Note II which to our eyes looked almost as good as LCDs with the traditions RGB matrix.

Overall the screen on the Gear was good enough for what it is capable of doing. In fact, we'd go as far to say, that with its current capabilities. Samsung could have gone for a slightly smaller display with a slightly lower resolution if it could result in a slightly smaller footprint to the watch.

Buttons and Navigation
Unlike Android Smartphones, navigation on the Galaxy Gear is heavily based on gestures, from turning on the display at the "flick" of a wrist, as if one were to glance at their watch, to the contextual swipes from the top and bottom bezels to perform various actions.

This decision makes perfect sense given that Samsung was looking to maximize screen size and ultimately means that the Gear only has one button and that's the Power/Lock button which, as expected performs much like on Android smartphones. There isn’t much else to say about it other than it felt solid, had good travel and wasn't easy clicked by accident. Not that it matters as much as on a smartphone since we expect users will rarely use the button.

Battery Life
With its 315mAh battery, the prospect of good battery life on the gear didn't look and unfortunately that's how things turned out. While our experience wasn't as bad as other reviews, the Gear certainly fell short of what we expected to be "decent" battery life. The Gear would typically be able to hold a charge from 1-2 days on pretty moderate days that included constant Google Now notifications, as well as a decent amount of messaging and email notifications.

We wouldn't be surprised if power users needed to charge nightly. While this is par for a smartphone, watches, in our opinion, should last at least a week on a charge given that real watches go on several months if not years without needed a change of battery.

This is compounded by the fact that the Gear "charging case" is required to be able to charge the device. While we like that it results in a clean look, on the Gear with the pogo pins in place of a micro USB connector, this means opportunistic charging at available USB ports throughout normal day isn't possible without carrying around the case.

Given the thickness of the watch we are surprised that Samsung went with such a small battery. Overall we were not pleased with the battery life of the Galaxy Gear and look forward to Samsung improving on it with software updates and ultimately with a successor in the Gear 2.

Internal Hardware
As we've made it painfully obvious by now, smartphones and smartwatches serve two different purposes despite an almost symbiotic need for one another. This means that the power needed for a smartwatch is far less than that needed by a smartphone.

- 800MHz Samsung Single Core Exynos Processor
- 512MB of RAM
- 4GB of Internal storage
- Bluetooth 4.0
- 1.9 MP camera with 7200p video recording capabilities

Given that a smartwatch will probably not be used to watch a movie, or browse a media rich website, or play a intensive 3D game, the 800MHz and 512MB of RAM seem like overkill in this situation. While we don't know if a slower processor and lower RAM would be a detriment to the fluidity of the device, we can't help but think in the back of our mind that there could have been a huge improvement in battery life with less powerful hardware.

Nevertheless the Gear performed flawlessly in every pre-loaded app we tried on the device, which is without a doubt good to see.

Speaker and microphone
One of the use cases that Samsung has been touting for the Gear is to make/receive calls. While we are still averse to answering the phone "Dick Tracy" style, it certainly is a selling point of the Gear. As far as microphone and speaker performance, it was as good as we've seen on other Bluetooth devices.

There isn't much to say about the Galaxy Gear camera, it takes stills and video. With picture quality that is almost on par with the first generations Android phones like the HTC Dream, Magic and Samsung own Samsung Galaxy (not Galaxy S!) the Gear's 1.9MP shooter is nothing to write home about. Shots lacked sharpness, was grainy in low light and frankly wasn't very good.

Video recording fairs a bit better as the Gear takes 720p footage that is okay at best but like with still wasn't very sharp and is limited to 15 second clips. We suspect that both stills and videos have these limitations because of the tiny 4GB internal storage and that is a bit of a shame.

We have to admit that for the quick Instagram upload the camera performs fine and that having a 720p recorder on your wrist can come in handy. But ultimately, since the Gear needs to be tethered to a Galaxy smartphone, you will always have a better camera on hand.

This is all without mentioning the potential for abuse of the camera by taking pictures or videos of people without their knowing. Creepiness aside, we have no doubts that some people will be drawn to this feature, but we hope that Samsung can improve performance in the next Galaxy Gear.

Sample Pictures


Samsung customized Android 4.2.2
At a quick glance there is nothing to indicate that the Gear is in fact running Android as it is a heavily customized version of the mobile OS. This is understandable given that the device will primarily be used for a specific subset of tasks like displaying information or like using it as communicator.

The version of Android being used is Android 4.2.2 but realistically we don't see the version being of very high importance as this build of Android isn't likely to be running most of the Android stack and is stripped down to the bare essentials for practical reasons.

Using the Gear is a bit odd at first (at least to an Android or iOS user) as it is completely buttonless. The standard "Back" action in Android is handled by a Swipe down from the top bezel in any given app while a tap on the power button acts as the "Home" action familiar to Android user. We do however expect most users to stick with a swipe down from the bezel for most of their needs as we don’t suspect many apps to have more than one or two states.

From the clock or "Homescreen", a Swipe down from the top bezel is a camera app shortcut and a swipe up from the bottom bezel is a shortcut from to the dialer app to place calls. Swiping left and right will navigate through the horizontal list of applications and settings available.

On the topic of applications, the Gear comes pre-loaded with what you'd expect from a smartwatch including, the camera app, dialer app, contacts, gallery (shots and video taken with Gear), pedometer, media control and S Voice. Additional applications can be installed via the Samsung App store but as far as we could tell offerings were pretty sparse. There were some third party social media apps as well as some entertainment and health/fitness apps but not any of the must haves on Android or iOS.

Being one of the first products in an emerging product segment has it downsides and the lack of compelling apps is an obvious one. With burgeoning app stores for Windows Phone and Blackberry 10 only hitting their stride (relatively speaking) after several years of work, we wonder how long Samsung would need to put support behind the Gear before seeing real growth.

Until the big players behind the most popular apps get behind the idea of making apps for the Gear, it will be a tough uphill battle for Samsung. But it has already taken steps in the right direction to try to bridge the gap.

The first step was to pushout an update to allow notifications sent from Google Services to be read on the device. Previous to this update, notifications from Google Apps like Google+, Google Now and Gmail would simply notify the user of a new notification and ask the user if they wanted to see their notification on their phone which completely defeated the purpose of getting the Gear in the first place.

The next step was to broaden compatibility of the Gear. Since the Gear only has Bluetooth as a means of connections, it does require a host device to be any more useful than a regular wristwatch. Being that this is a Samsung device it's not surprising that the Galaxy Gear will only work with Samsung Galaxy Devices. At launch the Gear could only work with two devices, making the pool of potential users downright laughable.

At the writing of this review, Samsung has rolled out Android 4.3 Jelly Bean to just about every device that was slated to be compatible with the Gear so that includes the two devices compatible at launch the Galaxy Note 3 and Note 10.1 (2014), and also now includes the Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note II. So in that regard things have improved.

S Voice on the Gear could have been a killer addition, but sadly S Voice has not really improved since its debut on the Galaxy S III and we wonder if Samsung has the software chops to get it to the usability of a Siri or Google Now. For now it’s a hit or miss for S Voice, but if Samsung can improve the functionality and accuracy of the natural language processing, it certainly can make the usage of the Gear that much more interesting.

Find my phone is another included application that can be useful if you're the forgetful type that often misplaces your phone. The functionality also works in reverse where you can use the host phone to "Find my Gear", although we find the scenario a bit more unlikely.

As for the look and feel of the software, we weren't huge fans. The display on the Gear is a fully colored RGB capable display, but you wouldn't know it from the color palette used in the UI design. While the heavy use of black is understandable from a power savings point of view, a little bit of color wouldn't have hurt.

Also worth noting, our review was conducted with a Galaxy Note 3 but the experience should be similar with any compatible Samsung Galaxy Device. Pairing the Note 3 and the Gear was as simple as tapping the Gear (in its charging cradle) on the Galaxy Note 3 to trigger the NFC pairing.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear is certainly an intriguing device. It's shown several things, for one that Samsung can make a beautiful solid piece of hardware and that there is indeed a place for wearable tech. What's unfortunate is that it still feels like a "beta" experience. From the non-rich notifications at launch to the lack of compelling smartwatch apps, the Gear is a hard sell.

What makes it an even harder sell is the price tag, at $300 we find it extremely difficult to recommend. Fortunately, for those looking to pickup a Galaxy device on subsidy, it looks like carriers are willing to eat some of the upfront cost of a Gear and are offering some deals where the Gear can be bought for $50 with a new Galaxy Note 3 on contract.

Overall, we do have to commend Samsung for a good try at what is basically a first generation device. While we wouldn't bet on it selling like the Galaxy S' and Galaxy Notes of the world, it is an interesting glimpse as to what the future holds for smartwatches and other wearable tech. For now we recommend biding your time and passing on the Galaxy Gear, but to keep a keen eye out for the Gear 2 as we suspect we will see it sooner rather than later and as a much more compelling offering, either in price or features or both.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9/10
- Great feeling solid hardware. A tad thick at both the body and clasp, would benefit greatly if a tad thinner.

Screen: 9/10
- Fantastic screen that quite frankly is overkill for the use cases of the Gear.

Buttons and Navigation: 7/10
- Nice power button, gestures are a bit a learning curve but make sense.

Internal Hardware: 7/10
- Throttling of hardware could have improved battery life, otherwise flawless performance. More internal storage would have been nice

Battery Life: 3/10
- Abysmal battery life. One day of use is not acceptable.

Speaker and Microphone: 8/10
- Solid performance all around, as good as any Bluetooth device for voice calls

Camera: 4.5/10
- The best camera is the one that's on you, in this case it's the one on the phone that's tethered to the Gear. Avoid using the camera on the Gear for now, you'll just end up looking like a creep.

Functionality: 7/10
- With update, the Gear is actually quite useful. Without it, the score would have been far worse. We are eager to see more apps and improved features in updates.

Final Score: 6.8/10

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