The Samsung Galaxy Gear is the smartwatch that is hoping to move the devices from the niche market and into the mainstream.
Because the Gear isn’t the first to market with such a watch - not by a long shot. Sony has been dipping its toes in this water for some time now, and Italian firm I’mWatch making a pitch for the market. The Pebble smartwatch has also found its fans, so the Gear has a little competition.
But Samsung’s first effort is a good one. Like the rest of its ilk, the Android-based watch needs to be connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone. That gives it an internet connection so you can update apps, and also allows it to alert you to notifications for social media and calls.
With the current trend for bigger screened mobile phones gathering pace, the smartwatch may actually turn out to be a useful device. It’s more discreet for a start, and there is less chance of it being snatched from your hand if you check it on the street.
The Gear is trying to cover a lot of bases. It has a built in speaker and microphone, so it can be used as a handsfree kit. It’s built into the buckle on the strap, so it’s fine to use when you’re driving, for example, but try using it to call someone on the street and you may get more than a few funny looks. The call quality is decent though, which is the important thing, with a loud speaker and a clear microphone.
It also has a camera built into the strap, so you can take photos with the watch and send them to friends.
Setting up the watch is easy. You simply turn on your smartphone, enable near field communications, and tap the phone to the back of the charging cradle. That automatically sets up all you need on your phone, and starts the pairing process.
Part of that is installing the Gear Manager software on your phone, which will allow you to manage the smartwatch and its content. You can add apps to the watch via the portal, turning it into a social manager, a fitness device or even a radio.
Out of the box, the Gear comes with some useful apps: a pedometer to monitor your movement, a weather app and voice memos, among others. You can add to that through the Gear Manager app on your phone; although the watch is Android based, the small screen and hardware limitations compared with a regular smartphone mean you need apps built specially for it.
There are a few already in the store, including MyFitnesspal, Runtastic and RunKeeper. There’s also a Gear-optimised Evernote app, so you can add voice memos or photos on the move. What it’s lacking is the official Twitter or Facebook apps, with the only options being from third party develoers. It’s interesting to note that Snapchat got in there fairly quickly though, as did messenger app Line.
Using the Gear isn’t as fiddly as you’d think. The screen on the watch is responsive, so you don’t end up jabbing at it repeatedly in an attempt to access an app. Those with larger hands should probably stick to the handset to make calls, however; the phone keypad on the watch face is quite small, which may make it difficult to handle.
The main argument I have against smartwatches is that they need to be charged, often more regularly than your phone. But the battery on the Gear held out well for the day, although a more easily accessed battery indicator would have been useful.
One of the biggest drawbacks with the Galaxy Gear is that it only works with certain models of Samsung phone. The most obvious of these is the Galaxy Note 3, Samsung’s latest offering, but that might be a bit of a stretch for some aspiring smartwatch owners. Luckily, the device is also compatible with the S4, once it has the latest Jelly Bean update, so that widens the pool a little. Other phones may be added later, but at the moment, the choice is limited.
THE VERDICT: The Gear may not be perfect but it gives Samsung a good starting point to work from. It could be an expensive experiment for consumers, but the novelty factor has yet to wear off here.