The Galaxy Gear syncs with your Samsung Galaxy smartphone — only one model for now, which we’ll get to later — and allows you to make phone calls, send and receive text messages, control music playback, take pictures and record video and voice.
On stage in Berlin Wednesday, Pranav Mistry, Samsung America’s director of research, touted Galaxy Gear as “tomorrow’s state of the art.” But industry observers as well as reviewers who’ve had time with the device aren’t that impressed.
“I was kind of waiting for that killer app that would distinguish Samsung’s smart watch from the Pebble,” said Ben Arnold, director of industry analysis at NPD Group, referring to the croudfunded smartwatch that’s already available. “I’m not as excited about smartwatches today as I was three weeks ago.”
Smart, But Not That Smart
The Galaxy Gear is not a standalone device; that is, it doesn’t have the capability to connect to Wi-Fi and doesn’t have its own data connection. In order for it to connect to the Internet, it must be paired with your smartphone via Bluetooth. In that sense, it’s much more an extension of your smartphone, or a remote control, than an independent device. Samsung even calls it a “companion device” in a promotional video.
Google Glass, conversely, can connect to the Internet either by pairing with a smartphone or connecting to a Wi-Fi network.
Gear, for now, only pairs with Samsung’s forthcoming Galaxy Note 3 smartphone, but updates for the Galaxy S4 and S III to make them compatible with the device are expected later this year. Although Engadget called the Samsung-only compatibility “perhaps the biggest setback,” Arnold said that being “tied into the Galaxy ecosystem” may actually work to Samsung’s advantage.
If you’re not connected to your phone via Gear, you can still do certain things, like take and store pictures. And, of course, it works as — gasp — a watch!
Not Quite Voice-Activated
Samsung touted in its press release that someone with her hands full of groceries “could make a call by speaking into the Galaxy Gear without touching the screen.” But it seems you still have to press a button on the side of the watch in order to get Gear to listen to a voice command. It may not be on the screen, but it’s still not easy if your hands are full of groceries. In other words, Gear is less like the hands-free Moto X, which is always listening for the phrase “OK Google Now,” and more like Apple’s Siri, which requires you to press a button in order to give a command.
That said, Consumer Reports’ Mike Gikas noted that Samsung’s virtual assistant feature S-Voice was “100 percent” successful in setting several calendar appointments, and Gikas writes that you can also use voice commands to make a call or find a contact.
Music But No Speaker
People can use the Galaxy Gear to browse, play and pause music on the forthcoming Galaxy Note 3. Engadget’s Zach Honig notes that Galaxy Gear lets you control music from third-party apps, like Spotify and Pandora, not just music loaded on the device.
But none of Samsung’s “featured apps” for Gear are for music, and reps from Spotify and Pandora haven’t returned a request for comment asking if they’re developing apps specifically for the device. As The Verge notes, music can’t be played from Gear’s small wristband speaker, so it seems it’s merely a remote.
Slow And Steady May Not Win The Race
Multiple reports from reviewers who’ve had hands-on time with Galaxy Gear complain that the watch is slow. Indeed, even in the official video from Samsung and demonstrations from Samsung employees, it appears the screen is lagging.
Not-So-Long Battery Life
Samsung promises you can get a full day out of the Gear before it needs to be recharged, but as we all know from our experience with smartphones, battery life is never what it’s advertised and often gets worse with time. The Verge noted on Wednesday that the cameras on the Galaxy Gear demo units stopped working by the end of the press briefing because the device’s battery was low. The short battery life prompted Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst who has studied wearable tech, to write in a blog post that taking the Gear off to charge each night makes it less likely that people will make a habit of wearing it each day.
The Bottom Line
At $299, it’s a lot to pay for a companion device that doesn’t work independently. Tero Kuittinen, a mobile analyst and vice president at Alekstra, a firm that works to reduce companies’ phone bills, called the price “a major stumbling block.”
Kuittenen said people are already paying to upgrade their smartphones and now tablets every few years, which adds up.
“Now, people have both a smartphone and a tablet, so in order to create a new product category you’d have to put big demands on [the]budgets of households,” Kuittenen said.
Samsung hasn’t said when the Gear will go on sale in the U.S., but it will be available in 140 countries on Sept. 25.