Samsung has finally presented their smartwatch offering - the Galaxy Gear - that has had half the tech world thirsting for months. I had the chance to test it already and I have to tell you, right up front, that in terms of the expectations held for the wearable device, unfortunately this thing is a huge disappointment. This over-hyped clock is set to be the next big smartwatch flop.
The Arm Brick
I knew it as soon as I saw the thing for the first time. Samsung had a PR manager and the designer of the watch fly in from Korea to Berlin to showcase their supposed gem appropriately. She stood beside a power point projection, smiled shyly and then slid up her right sleeve, where the highly anticipated Gear was revealed. I had already suspected it, because the bulge was so obvious under the fabric. There's a certain tragedy that the people involved in the development of the product provide the first example of why the Gear will flop: for normal people it is simply too big and clunky.
I also think the design totally fails because it further underlines the flashy size. A solid metal frame is fixed with visible screws into the housing that surrounds the huge clock display (1.63 inches, AMOLED, 320 x 320 pixels). It is held on the arm by a thick plastic strap that is held in place with a big metal clasp. The Galaxy Gear will be available in 6 different color combinations: from black to "wild orange."
Samsung advertises the Gear as a "perfect companion device for the Galaxy Note 3,'' and and that is exactly how it must be understood: without a smartphone that acts as a control center, the watch is completely useless. The data exchange is via Bluetooth and the initiation is via NFC. This worked easily and was hassle free. Once paired, you can use the "Gear Manager" app to access a wealth of watch designs, or specially adapted apps such as Runtastic. With the built-in motion sensor, the watch can, for example, count your steps when jogging, just to name an obvious example of the device's applications. As of September, there are about 70 other Gear apps for Samsung.
In the armband Samsung has integrated a 1.9-megapixel camera, which can be used when you want to snap a quick photo without spending the extra time to pull your smartphone out of your pocket. Pics proudly snapped in James Bond-style are automatically synchronized with your phone as soon as you're finished with the camera app on the watch. A quick look at the photos that are stored on the phone in an automatically-created gallery confirms what was already clear in principle before: the quality is bad, and they're useful as little more than thumbnail images.
The Late Starter
The interaction with the smartphone is a determining element. The Galaxy Gear offers some access to Samsung's smartphone voice control, S Voice. In addition, any notifications will also be displayed on the watch display when an email arrives or an appointment is pending. You can also make phone calls, which I could not try using the integrated speaker/microphone combination. As soon as we get the opportunity to test this feature we'll let you know.
I did get to try many other things though, and it struck me that the proprietary system responds to input only with a delay. Starting the photo app took two seconds to launch and it felt like it was always laggy switching between individual menu entries. To get from menu to menu, the watch is controlled by swiping horizontally across the screen, a swipe from top to bottom, however, always leads back to the next higher menu level. If you got lost somewhere, just press the only physical button on the top right.
I can't make any sense on the inertia of the system. The resolution is low - only a few pixels have to be controlled - and the processor seems well enough equipped, with a clock speed of 800 MHz and 512 MB RAM, to handle this humble task.
Success with Trial & Error
The fact that, according even to Samsung, the battery barely holds a day's charge and that you have to charge the device in a special charging cage (which is basically an adapter for the pogo-pins), is just the last nail in the coffin for the Galaxy Gear. Do Samsung really believe it will be a success? I have my doubts. But in the product segment, the Koreans have operated for years with the same nonchalance that also characterizes Google: trial & error, raised to an art form. Products are simply dumped on the market and then they look to see what happens. This strategy is responsible for some serious product innovations such as the Galaxy Note, which, as is well known, introduced the phablet era.
Conclusion: The Tech World Has Been Waiting For Nothing
The Galaxy Gear will be the next big flop smartwatch, and I wonder just how many more will follow until the world finally realizes that this product concept is currently doomed to failure. No man needs a watch as an extended smartphone display, it simply doesn't provide enough value. In five years...maybe. When flexible displays are marketable and affordable, then, yes, maybe. But now? No. Now I'm really just waiting to see Apple collect a bloody nose when they release their iWatch too. Pebble, I'm Watch, Sony SmartWatch, Galaxy Gear: the smartwatch graveyard is slowly filling up.
[Update 20:45 Berlin time 04.09.2013]
The Samsung Galaxy Gear will go on sale for 299USD this month - on sale in selected countries on September 25th.
[Video Update 10:00 Berlin time 05.09.2013]
In case you had problems viewing the hands-on video of the Galaxy Gear, we've refreshed the upload and it should be fine now. Apologies for the glitch. Our very own Loie also managed to get her hands on the Galaxy Gear at the Samsung Unpacked event and did get to test the connection between the smartwatch and Note 3. If you lose your phone you can ask your watch where it is (and vice versa) and either device willl beep, glow and vibrate until you've found it. And you can initiate and receive calls from the Gear that route through the Note 3 (although they are initiated from, spoken into and heard from the wearable itself) as well as call the watch from the companion smartphone (which at present is only the Note 3 and Note 10.1). Her verdict? Everything worked as advertised but we will still put the two devices through their proper paces at the first available opportunity, because of course, call quality in a busy trade show doesn't exactly make for rigorous testing conditions! More soon.