A Few Weeks with the Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch

Making calls like Dick Tracy

Recently, Samsung Canada sent me their new Galaxy Gear smartwatch (in black) and the recently updated Galaxy Note 3 smartphone (also in black) to try out. I’ve been using them together for a while now, with the Note 3 being my primary cell phone paired with the Gear smartwatch.

After about two weeks of usage, ranging from moderate to heavy, I have to say, I’m impressed with both devices. As I mentioned previously during my first look at the devices, I liked the direction Samsung had taken with the Gear and Note 3 so lets dive a little deeper.

Galaxy Gear Smartwatch
I’ll start off by saying that the Gear is not for everyone. Watches like these still have a pretty niche audience of geeks and folks that live on the bleeding edge.

As I had suggested during my preview of the watch, it seems like Samsung is testing the waters with this and throwing everything at it to see what consumers like and don’t like so they can refine it.

Also as I mentioned before, it’s currently only compatible (and useful) with the Note 3 with an update coming soon that will allow the other Samsung phones to work with it. Right away, that limits the audience that would be interested in this watch. In the brief time I’ve had it, I’ve showed it to a lot of people who asked about it working with their iPhones. I don’t know if this is something Samsung is going to offer in the future but I think it would be a smart move.

Palm vs Pebble

It’s actually not much bigger than my Pebble watch and definitely slimmer than previous ‘smart’ watches I’ve had in the past. It actually feels very good on my wrist and I didn’t even need to adjust the clasp to fit out of the box. I’m notorious for bashing my watches on walls, desks, doors, etc and I have yet to have this connect with anything which may mean it’s just the right size.

Unlike the Pebble, which has a changeable band, the Gear’s band has a built in camera and the metal clasp contains the speaker and dual mics. I’ve been worried about putting my wrist down onto on a table that might have salt or water that could damage the clasp or camera but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s supposed to be water resistant but the numerous water warnings in the manual seem to indicate you should keep it completely dry.

The bright and stunning OLED screen on the Gear makes for a very nice display but I found it almost too bright so I dropped it down a little. Outdoors though, it was very difficult to see the screen. Even with the ‘outdoor mode’ turned on (full brightness basically), it was near impossible to read the time.

As a watch, the Gear looks great but has one major difference to the Pebble that was annoying – the screen isn’t always on (to conserve battery) so you can’t just glance at it while driving or whatever. To wake it up, you need to move your arm. Trying to find the sweet spot of minimal movement has still eluded me and I end up with an almost exagerated arm sweep to make it wake up. Sometimes a subtle flick of the wrist works but not consistantly in my experience. This is where the Pebble’s always on, e-ink display shines, albeit in glorious greyscale versus the full color Gear OLED display.

The Camera
There is a 2mp camera built into the watch band. Reaction has been almost 50/50 about having the camera built into the watch. People either think it’s really cool or really creepy. It is pretty stealthy but there is no way to mute the shutter sound (likely to prevent creepycam incidents) so you can’t be too stealthy with it. There aren’t many options for using it beyond taking a still image or a 15 second video clip. Once you take a photo, you need to transfer it to your smartphone to share it. You can however, share to apps like Evernote on the watch directly. Would have been nice to be able to tweet a photo directly for example.

Here’s some sample images taken with the Gear:

Since the video is limited to 15 seconds, it’s actually perfect for Instagram video:

So what does the watch do that makes it so smart?
Like the Pebble, one of the appeals of a smartwatch is to receive various notifications on the watch, without having to go to your phone. Using the Gear Manager app on the Note 3, you can configure a number of notification options for how the watch works and interacts with the Note 3. I set it to notify me of any incoming calls, Facebook, Twitter and emails as well. The notifications are a little lacking as this is what you currently get when something happens on Facebook for example:
Facebook notification on the Galaxy Gear

Not a lot of info other than you have a notification and the time it occurred. On the Pebble, you’d get a preview of the notification. If you tap the screen or press the button on the Gear (the only physical button it has), you’ll get a notice to check your phone for more details.

Since it has a camera and a microphone, apps like Evernote work great with it to quickly capture an image to send to your notebook in Evernote as well as you can use it to record audio that will be transcribed as a note. There is an app called Vivino that can capture your favorite wine labels and remember a favorite bottle. Sure you can do these with your smartphone too but it’s arguably easier to just use your watch.

Here’s an Insta-Video of the menu options on the Gear:

Things I liked about the Galaxy Gear Smartwatch:

  • smaller than I was expecting (although still big for some people) and has a nice solid build quality and sleek look
  • battery life was much better than I was anticipating
  • screen is beautiful and had many customizable options out of the box
  • touchscreen gestures worked well and was quite responsive
  • 2mp camera was actually decent
  • app integration – limited now but should grow with developer adoption
  • speakerphone worked very well and the dual mics did a great job of noise cancelling on calls
  • S-Voice was very good at recognizing things I’d say and had no trouble hearing spoken numbers to dial – better than Siri for me (at least while in my car)

Things I didn’t like or needed improvement:

  • screen is pretty much unreadable in bright sunlight
  • notifications should show more info about the service like a preview of what was updated
  • motion gesture to turn on watch needs work – having to raise my arm repeatedly to wake it up got old fast
  • needs more watchface options
  • clasp (mic/speaker) and camera locations seem like prime targets for damage by just resting your arm on a table
  • dialpad on the watch was too small for my (not-so fat) fingers
  • no way to disable shutter sound on camera
  • notification vibration was weak – not as strong as the Pebble so I didn’t always notice the alerts
  • expensive for current limited functionality and lack of support for other platforms besides Samsung devices

Overall I was happily surprised by the Gear. It did take a little time to grow on me. I know there have been lots of negative reviews about it and no doubt there is room for improvement, but it’s pretty decent for a 1.0 version. I’m always curious about the negative reviewers due to the ‘quick to judgement’ nature of the internet where they didn’t give the watch a real chance (if they even had a physical unit to review) and if they were (smart)watch wearers previously.

Many of the shortcomings can (and hopefully will) be addressed with software updates. I’d like to see cross platform support for it as well. I like what Samsung is doing here and look forward to see where this goes but it’s going to be a niche (and geeky) market for a while.

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