Samsung Galaxy Gear – The Evolution of the Smartwatch

Amid great fanfare, Samsung introduced their Galaxy Gear. The occasion for the introduction was the IFA 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, the largest of its kind in the world. It is even bigger than the CES trade show that is held every year in Las Vegas. There are so many exciting things coming out of this year’s event that it may take a while for us here at QTOOTH to even cover it all. For Samsung, this is their first foray into the brave new world of smartwatches. Let’s take a look at some of the exciting things that it represents, where they got it right and where they might want to improve the product.

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First, let’s talk about the fact that smartwatches will not be for everyone. The wearing of watches is at an all time low no matter how smart they are. People are quite comfortable with getting thew time and just about every other type of data from the smartphones, or their computers, cars, tablets, radios, etc… So even despite this limited market, it is interesting to see so many manufacturers getting on the bandwagon i the rush to provide some form of smartwatch. There are already ones on the market from major players like Casio, Nike and Sony, and the leading edge of this mania came from the small upstarts like the Pebble, Agent, and others. It is also a very strong rumor that Apple will be introducing their own smartwatch within the next few weeks.

Of course the reason we here at QTOOTH have our reservations when it comes to any form of smartwatch is the fact that they are not hands free. For us the reason to go wireless is so that we can “un-tether” ourselves from our technology. Just by the very nature of a wrist mounted device means that it will take not just one hand to operate but two! One to wear the device and the other to operate whatever interface is included. Plus, the watch is located near your hand which is often located in a position that makes it difficult to see, or to hear. Of course some things on a watch can be voice-controlled, but so far we haven’t seen a lot of functionality that can be accessed by voice alone on these first smartwatches.

That said, the Galaxy Gear is one of the best options in a smartwatch that we have seen so far. Seeing that all of the might of a behemoth like Samsung is behind the project, including all of their available technologies, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Starting with its screen, the Galaxy Gear has a 320 x 320-pixel, 1.63″ diagonal AMOLED touchscreen. The brain of this smartwatch is provided by an 800 MHz processor powered by a 315mAh battery. For audio, it has a speaker and a pair of mics for recording and playing back video content.  This also allows for communicating with phone calls using the built-in dialer that works with whatever Galaxy device to which it is paired. Mounted into the wrist strap itself is a BSI (back-illuminated sensor, or back-sided illumination) sensor with an autofocus lens so that the wearer can capture 1.9-megapixel still images or 10-second videos at 720p, 640 or VGA quality resolution with sound. We have yet to get clarification as to whether the sound is captured in stereo via the two onboard mics or whether those mics are only paired for noise cancellation purposes when in use for making phone calls. Samsung states that the camera is designed more for convenience than it is for image quality. The camera also comes with a pre-installed app called Memographer for media management.

So far there are a few dozen apps that will be available for the Galaxy Gear upon launch. This may be what sets this watch apart from the others. If Samsung can get a large amount of truly useful apps available quickly it will give it a real edge over the other entrants into this field. Like most of the other smartwatches, Gear can only display one app at a time due to its limited screen size and resolution. Each app is displayed as what’s known as a “card”, which is basically a slightly over-sized icon. To navigate your way around from one app to the next all you need to do is swipe the touchscreen with your finger. The other means of navigating your way through the watch’s offerings is to use the single button that is located on the right side of the body. A single press of this button will bring you to the home screen. Double pressing the button launches Samsung’s S Voice for voice controlling options and as triple press activates the “safety assistance” feature which will send your location info and a message to a saved contact in the event of an emergency.

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As much as it seems like the Galaxy Gear should exhibit some real power, it seems a bit slow when executing some pretty basic functions, like launching an app. This is surprising considering that its processor is faster than what many of us had in our main computers just a few years ago. Part of the reason for this may be because it is communicating and synching with the wirelessly attached device. This might be something that will improve as updates become available, even with its current hardware configuration. Some of the apps that did perform very well though were the watch faces, of which optional ones can be uploaded from the Gear’s Android companion app, as well as the Music app which is basically a remote control for any native or 3rd party app currently active on the connected device.

There are some odd limitations that come with what we are sure is the first generation of this device. Only 10 3rd party apps can be uploaded at a time. The interface could use a little bit of refining for a smoother experience. But one of the most interesting things is the fact that the S Voice feature can only be accessed by tapping the side button twice. That might be hard to do if your hands are otherwise occupied and misses the point of being hands-free. It would be nice if they included a specific voice command that would activate the voice control functions. That can be done as shown by Google Glass’ “Ok, Glass” to activate its voice command. As much as we’ve slagged on their device, that is one of the things that Google definitely got right.

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We have a mixed review as far as the look of the device is concerned. Leaked reports had the Galaxy Gear looking pretty hefty but the one on display today was much more svelte. However, it is still pretty big and considering the color options that they have so far. Two of the colors are Rose Gold and Mocha Gray which are definitely aimed at a more feminine fashion sense. The size of this device look plenty awkward in our opinion when worn on even slightly petite wrists. For men it seems to be just about right in size and proportion. Men may prefer the JET Black or Oatmeal color, but for the sporty or flashy of any persuasion they may opt for the Wild Orange or Lime Green. Speaking of which, because of the utilitarian/industrial funkiness of the design this may not be what many people would want to wear on more formal occasions, but we suppose that is a subjective call.

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Battery life on this device is pretty much limited to a single day of “regular” use. We are not sure what that means exactly yet, but that certainly puts it in a different class of fashion accessory than the average watch which can be worn for months at a time, or longer, depending on a person’s needs. That means that the Samsung Galaxy Gear will need to spend a fair amount of time on its included micro-USB-equipped plastic charging dock. The dock connects through five metal pins, or leads, located on the rear of the watch.

Another limitation, and perhaps its most significant, is that it is only compatible so far with the Galaxy Note 3 and the new Note 10.1. It is most likely to work with the Galaxy S4 phone when it gets the Android 4.3 update. What’s really unfortunate though is the fact that it will most likely never work with any non-Samsung smartphone or tablet.

So, to be honest, the future has arrived and the Dick Tracy watch is now a reality. In fact, it’s better and more powerful than anything he could’ve imagined. And yet will people want it? We’d love to get your feedback in the comments below or contact us directly.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch will cost $299 when it starts shipping on September 25th to the world, except to the US and Japan who will have to wait until October. Strange release dates. Perhaps they just want to tease the two biggest markets for a bit? Or perhaps they’re afraid that they’ll sell out immediately once the US and Japan csan get them directly. We’ll see!