Samsung Galaxy Gear: Big, Bold and Challenged

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Samsung’s Galaxy Gear Smart Watch is an attractive, albeit bulky, entry into the suddenly white-hot smartphone and wearable technology market, but it only represents a fresh beginning in the never-ending quest to marry consumer interests with wearable technology.

I believe in wearable technology and truly believe it’s the future. Products like Google Glass and now Samsung Galaxy Gear offer real promise that, someday, we’ll all have tech and digital information very close to — if not a part of — our bodies.

Getting Close

First, though, let’s consider the new Samsung Galaxy Gear. It’s not nearly as big as some reports made it out to be. One media outlet that shall go nameless put the device size at 3-inches diagonally. That would have been a monster on the wrist and dead on arrival. I still can’t believe anyone bought that Samsung, a company now known for design and an understanding of screen sizes would build such a thing.

The actual gear is 1.45 inches x 2.2 inches x .41 inches. The screen size is 1.63 inches diagonally with a very sharp (based on my time with the Gear) 320 x 320 resolution. It’s also quite bright. I noticed that the screen times out after a few seconds (we eventually changed the settings to 5 minutes). Since it’s a battery-powered device, there may be some concern about daily battery life. Samsung didn’t spend much time on it, but I’d assume that you’ll get a day. For those who wear battery powered watches that work for months, charging every day could be frustrating. To be fair, even the e-ink-based Pebble needs a charge every 8 days or so.

Unlike the Pebble’s button-only interaction, the Samsung Galaxy Gear’s screen is multi-touch. I was able to fit two digits on it to pinch and zoom on a photo. There’s a near-2 megapixel camera on the band – a truly odd spot for it. In fact, when I activated the camera (though Apps – again, not a great choice), the screen immediately turned into a viewfinder, but I couldn’t figure out where the camera was on the watch. Of course, it’s not on the watch. That means you better take good care of that band.

Wearing the Gear for 15 minutes or so felt pretty comfortable thanks to the smart watch’s adjustable band and nicely curved back. The screen, however, is flat.

You navigate the Gear via taps and swipes. Using it reminded me of an earlier Android-based smart watch I tested two years ago: the WiMM One (Google bought them last year). Like the WiMM, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear includes pre-loaded apps (like Banjo and Evernote) and strong hooks to another device.

Connectivity Is Limited

Most smart watches (past and present) have offered Bluetooth connectivity to your smartphone of choice. The Gear, for now, is not that versatile. It only connects to the brand new Samsung Galaxy Note 3 smart phone. It’s the kind of limitation that could turn off a lot of potential customers. Fortunately, this is temporary. Samsung has confirmed that software updates will let the Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note II work with the Galaxy Gear. These updates should start getting pushed out in October.

In the meantime, that connection is strong and, in some cases impressive. As I noted, you can take photos and video with the device. I can’t say the Gear is entirely intuitive here, but I soon figured out how to take stills and video and then I selected transfer. Samsung had all the Gears paired with Note 3’s. Within seconds, my video was on the adjacent device. That’s at least one selling point for this strong marriage; others include, contacts, music and more are all accessible via the tiny touch screen.

The ability to access your information on your wrist as opposed to having to pull another device out of your pocket is somewhat compelling. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the benefit is great because the Note 3 is a phablet-sized phone.

Overall I liked the screen navigations. Most of the time, the Gear does not try to fit too much on the screen; it keeps it simple, glanceable. The main screens are a single icon. Apps puts four per screen, but once you get into an app, they appear redesigned for the 1.63 inch screen.

Size Doesn’t Matter

As I noted earlier, the Gear is smaller than I expected, but by no means a small watch. On the other hand, some people, primarily men favor large watches. One of my female Twitter followers, though, cried foul when she saw my first photo, saying this phone was not designed for women. Naturally, Samsung had at least a dozen women at Wednesday’s event, all sporting Gear watches. At least they come in a variety of colors.

Big questions remain for the Samsung Galaxy Gear and wearable tech in general. The Gear is clearly powerful and smart. It is, in a way, elegant and convenient to have notifications on your wrist and the “S Voice” assistant that can answer spoken commands (if you have a decent cell or Wi-Fi connection) is a good Siri competitor (it understood my voice even in the din of the demo room), but there’s no getting around the fact that wearing it is almost a physical commitment. I think some people will love the style, others not.

It’s fundamental truth of all wearable technology that it has to be fashionable. I’d argue that, to speed adoption, wearable tech should be a little fashion-foreward: sleeker and sexier than its analog counterpart. The Gear is creatively designed. I’m not sure it’s “fashion” and definitely not “fashion-forward.” I might say the same thing about the Pebble Watch, though that smart watch is small enough that you may not feel like you’re making a digital “fashion statement.”

Price is another consideration. Key next-gen wearable tech like Google Glass is not yet (at over $1,000) priced for the average consumer. The Gear, at $299 (global pricing*), is a decently priced watch, but could be considered pricey for technology, even cutting-edge wearable technology. It’s certainly not an impulse purchase. At this point, no one is talking bundle pricing (Note 3 and Gear together), though I think Samsung and its partners, like T-Mobile, have to if they want this to work.

Samsung also has to hurry up and create the linkages between Gear and the rest of their Galaxy line and, if they’re really smart, make it work with the iPhone , like, tomorrow.

Do I see potential in the Gear? Absolutely. But despite all of this week’s hype, Samsung and others in the wearable tech race may face a steep climb. Remember, smart watches failed a decade ago, just ask early-mover Microsoft (SPOT Watches anyone?), and could do so again if manufacturers like Samsung, Pebble, Apple and, even, Microsoft don’t take a very deep breath and keep climbing, perhaps while wearing a Samsung Galaxy Gear to keep track of their progress.

Image: YouTube, SamsungMobile

*Editors’ Note: According to Samsung, the price mentioned during their Berlin launch event was for “global pricing.” At the time of this writing, no pricing has been set for the U.S. market.

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