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Galaxy Gear Review: Samsung's elegant companion watch for Note 3 owners

We don't yet know if there is a smartwatch market, but Samsung's Galaxy Gear leads the pack with a functional and beautiful piece of jewelry. The Galaxy Gear likely has limited appeal, but contains lots of potential.
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1 of 40 Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Galaxy Gear on the wrist

Last month I wrote that I was primarily disappointed in the possible 10-hour battery life of the rumored Galaxy Gear watch. Samsung then revealed a sleeker version than we saw in rumors and after spending nearly a week with the Galaxy Gear, I placed my own order for one.

Hardware

The rumors showed a huge watch with a 3 inch display and rather ugly design. However, the Galaxy Gear Samsung actually launched looks like a high end timepiece with brushed stainless steel materials, a durable colored rubber band, and excellent color display. It does have four screws on the front, but they are on the curved part of a brushed steel surface and look good.

The display is fantastic with great resolution, bright colors, and dark blacks. Samsung knows how to make brilliant displays and they were able to bring this to the watch.

The band is well designed with an easily adjustable strap. I personally have it on the 2nd to the last hole though so if you have very large wrists then the Galaxy Gear may not work for you. The clasp snaps into place and holds the band closed securely.

The band is not replaceable because it contains integral parts such as the camera and speaker, along with the wires that connect those to the watch system. The camera fits into the front facing part of the band while the speaker is in the locking clasp piece.

On the back of the watch you will see five gold contact points that then match up to the docking cradle. In order to charge the Galaxy Gear you will need to use the docking cradle that is then connected to a standard microUSB cable. It's a good solution for keeping the Galaxy Gear design intact without open ports, but you have to remember to carry the dock when you travel to keep the Gear charged up. Then again, I have to use a special cable for my Pebble too so this doesn't concern me too much.

There is a single button on the upper right side of the Galaxy Gear, but all interaction is done via the touchscreen or voice control. I have a double press of the button set to launch S Voice so I can easily control things with my voice.

The Galaxy Gear is available in black, oatmeal beige (nearly white), wild orange, rose gold, lime green, and mocha gray. I saw all of them at a Samsung event in San Francisco and as a fan of orange I first pre-ordered that color. The mocha gray review unit then arrived and I felt it was more appropriate for business settings with a slight brown (one of my other favorite colors) hue and so I switched my order to mocha gray for my own personal Galaxy Gear. The rose gold color is the only one with a different brushed steel finish color (rose gold) with a white band.

Software

When you first open your Galaxy Gear, you should insert it into the charging cradle and give it a full charge. The next step is to press and hold the power button to turn it on. You can use it right away after that with the default loaded apps, but you really need to install the Gear Manager app on your Note 3 in order for data to sync to the Gear.

After removing the Gear from the charging cradle, make sure NFC is enabled on the Note 3 and then tap the charging cradle to the back of the Note 3. Instructions on the Note 3 will prompt you to download and install the Gear Manager software. This process will also initiate the Bluetooth connection between the Note 3 and Gear via the Gear Manager.

Within the Gear Manager, you can manage the Gear connection, change clock faces, organize the order of installed apps, install and remove new apps, and manage all of the settings for the Gear and the installed apps. Some people have stated that you have to swipe through the default apps, tap on the Apps icon, and then scroll through this list to then tap and launch an installed app. You can simply go into the Gear Manager on your Note 3 and select which apps you want on the main launcher and in what order. I personally have the shortcut clock watch face with single tap access to three preferred apps. Don't forget you can always just double tap the power button to launch S Voice and say "open [name of app]".

Settings include the ability to have the Gear unlock your Note 3 when in Bluetooth range, manage the notifications that appear on the Gear, set what app launches with a double press of the power button, toggle the selection to have content from the Gear viewable when you pick up your Note 3, and a toggle for the wake-up gesture by raising your arm.

A slick function of the Gear and Note 3 pairing is that you can use either device to find the other. Select Find my Gear or Find my Device on one of the devices and sounds will play until you disable on the found device or device searching for the other. You will also see a notification on each device when one is out of range of the other.

Samsung makes the Galaxy Gear experience better through some preset gestures. You can toggle on a setting to have the watch display turn on when you bring your wrist up and turn it to look at the watch and I find this works 95 percent of the time. The few times it didn't work I just made the gesture again and the display turned on.

You can then swipe right or left to scroll through the installed apps with the ability in the Gear Manager software to customize the order in which these apps appear on your Gear.

A swipe down from the top is the gesture for back that will eventually take you to the home screen/watch face if you are deep within an app. A swipe down from the home screen then launches the camera application. A swipe up from the bottom on the home screen launches the phone dialer.

Another gesture is the two finger tap and hold. Making this gesture on the Galaxy Gear launches the typical Android task switcher. Swipe from left to right across the application thumbnail to stop the application or tap on an application to quickly jump to it from the task switcher screen.

You can also double tap with two fingers to view battery and Bluetooth status with controls for brightness and volume.

Applications loaded on the Gear by default include voice memo, timer, image gallery, camera, S Voice, media controller, dialer, contacts, and weather. I like the idea of the pedometer on the watch letting me replace a device like the Fitbit, but it still needs a bit of work. It syncs to S Health on the Note 3, but for some odd reason syncs to the Exercise Mate part of S Health instead of the more likely Walking Mate part. Walking Mate is the module on the Note 3 that tracks steps so maybe Samsung is trying to keep this separate from the Gear tracking capabilities. It seems to me if you have a Gear connected then that would be the preference for the pedometer.

There are several 3rd party applications available, with more to come in the future. As an Evernote fan, I particularly like the functionality of this application and have it setup on the watch face as one of the quick shortcuts. You can create photo or audio notes on the Gear and have checklist note appear. These make sense for things such as shopping where it is more convenient to have your hands free and not holding onto a phone.

Vivino is an app that lets you use the Gear camera to capture wine bottle labels, Pocket lets you play/pause articles you have saved that are then played on your Note 3, and Path lets you capture photos with the Gear to share to your social network. You can also find apps such as RunKeeper, Runtastic, MyFitnessPal, Snapchat, ChatON, and more. Most either show some data from the "host" app running on your Note 3 or add quick functions such as camera capture. I have been testing these and feel that some are still in early beta phase, but as a geek I am excited about the future and the potential here.

Usage and experiences

I used SPOT watches for a couple years and currently own a Pebble smartwatch and MOTOACTV so I have experienced different intelligent watches in the past. The Galaxy Gear is easily the best I have ever used due to its quality construction, functional user interface, application support, smartphone connectivity and integration, and potential. It isn't perfect, but it is much better than I thought it would be and am finding it to be more useful than I thought a watch could be.

Battery life was a major concern, but so far I am finding I can go at least a full day and into the second with regular usage. I charge most of my phones nightly and am still a bit worried about a watch I will have to charge every day or two. I charge my Pebble weekly, but it offers much more limited functionality when compared to the Galaxy Gear.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear feels like an expensive watch and given the current launch price it is rather expensive. Smartphone and gadget freaks like me will likely appreciate the Galaxy Gear, but I don't think it will appeal broadly to all consumers. Samsung needs to get the Gear Manager out for the S4 and other current Samsung devices soon too. Then again, the Note line has been quite successful so if they can get many of these buyers to try the Gear then the concept is likely to improve.

After nearly a week, I find myself using the pedometer, Evernote app, S Voice app for calls and texting, and watch/weather the most. I like being able to control a large device like the Note 3 and am sold on the concept. I backed my excitement by ordering my own mocha gray Galaxy Gear that should arrive in a week.

I tested the pedometer alongside my Fitbit One and the step count each day was within 100 steps. The Gear was on my left wrist and my Fitbit One was in my front jeans pocket.

The speaker is adequate for quiet environments, but you won't be able to really hear it in a crowd. It may be handy for calls in the car or for having fun with your friends. As an early adopter of mobile technology, I plan to show it off a bit.

There is still lots of work for Samsung to do to make the device even better. The media controller utility only controls the Samsung music player so you can't control Google Play Music, Spotify, or other music applications you may have installed. Gmail just tells you a message came in and to view your Note 3 display. Social networking is a bit limited with no Twitter or Facebook app at this time. You can upload photos to Path and Snapchat.

Pros and Cons

To summarize my experiences and the specifications of the Moto X, here are my pros and cons.

Pros

  • Brilliant display with responsive touch
  • Quality design and excellent construction
  • Comfortable with easily adjustable band
  • Functional and useful applications

Cons

  • Charging requires separate cradle
  • Connectable to just the Note 3 (Oct 2013)
  • Limited battery life
  • Beta feel of 3rd party apps

Pricing and availability

The Samsung Galaxy Gear is available via various carriers and retailers for $299.99. I've seen some "bundle" deals with the Note 3, but they offer no savings on buying each device separately. This is higher than other currently available smart watches, but it has a look and feel of much more expensive watch. I have a nice Citizen watch that costs twice the Galaxy Gear, but prefer the functionality of the Gear and will likely wear it more often.

The competition

Sony has their SmartWatch with an OLED touchscreen display that offers Android smartphone connectivity. It is more limited than the Galaxy Gear, but also comes in at just $130. The Pebble watch connects to iPhone and Android smartphones and comes with a black and white e-paper display. It primarily focuses on offering notifications with most "apps" being custom watch faces. The Pebble is available for $150.

There are rumors that Apple may get into the smartwatch business eventually. Similar to what we see with the iPhone, it is likely that they will let companies like Samsung roll out full-featured smartwatches and see how they do in the market and then release a watch that does fewer things better. For now, Samsung is leading the way with advanced smartwatch designs and functionality and I look forward to their progress.

Specifications

I understand that the Galaxy Gear has some level of water resistance and may be used in light rain and splashing. However, it is not a waterproof watch and not designed as a workout accessory. That said, I used it during a very rainy soccer game to serve as my timer while coaching and it worked just fine.

  • 800 MHz processor
  • 1.63 inca Super AMOLED display at 320x320 resolution
  • 4GB internal storage memory
  • 512 MB RAM
  • 1.9 megapixel camera
  • Bluetooth 4.0 with BLE support
  • 2 microphones and one speaker
  • 315 mAh Li-Ion battery
  • Dimensions of 36.8 x 56.6 x 11.1 mm and 73.8 grams

Conclusion

I thought there was no way in the world I would spend $300 for a Samsung watch that connected just to Samsung smartphones. Then I tried the Note 3 and love what Samsung is doing in pushing Android further, especially with their S Pen improvements. After then testing the Galaxy Gear and how well it works with the Note 3 I never hesitated in ordering one for myself.

Battery life is better than what I expected and while I would like for it to go a week, it is highly dependent on how much you do with the Gear. However, as more apps are released and you use your Samsung smartphone more I think people will be using their Gear more and thus a daily charge is likely for early adopters.

I was thinking I could use it to replace GPS sport watches, but this is a higher end companion watch and not something designed for rugged stand-alone workouts. It is priced well below high end luxury watches and offers quite a bit of functionality that we haven't yet seen on a smartwatch. Taking a call on your wrist or performing important communications with a watch is safer, still not recommended, that pulling out your phone and navigating around the large display.

The Galaxy Gear is a well designed product and everyone I showed it to has been impressed with the camera quality, brilliance of the display, coolness factor of the functionality with the Note 3, and overall look and feel of the design. This is likely to appeal to the gadget fan and is a great step forward in wearable technology.

Contributor's rating: 7.5 out of 10

Further reading

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Galaxy Gear charging cradle

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Opened up cradle for Gear insertion

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Galaxy Gear in the charging cradle with microUSB port

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Front view of the Gear in the cradle

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Camera on the front of the Gear band

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View of the front edge with a screw

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Back view showing the charging contacts

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View of the closure clasp

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The speaker is in the clasp

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Underside view of the band on my wrist

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Side view of the mocha gray model

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First time connection on the Gear

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Home screen showing time with weather widget

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Swipe up to dial your Note 3

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Pedometer app on the Gear

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View of the media gallery

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S Voice works well

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Taking a photo, just tap the screen

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Photos actually look pretty decent

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An indoor restaurant photo

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Camera software options

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Evernote rocks on the Gear

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Android multi-tasking

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View of app launcher

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Some of the settings on the Gear

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Double finger tap brings up the status display

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Share your photos to other services

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Setting up Gear Manager on the Note 3

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Gear Manager introduction

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Making the pairing in Gear Manager

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Choose a clock face for your Gear

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Manage your favorite apps, including rearranging the order on your Gear

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Viewing your installed apps and accessing their settings

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S Voice settings in Gear Manager

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Voice memo settings in Gear Manager

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Pedometer settings for your Gear

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Weather settings in Gear Manager

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Finding more apps to install

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New Samsung Galaxy trio

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