Review by Sunetra Chakravati,4/14/2014 5:21:18 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Waterproof and feels and well-made
Battery will last a full weekend
Screen is bright and sharp
Software can be fiddly to navigate
Camera is low quality and feels unnecessary
Accelerometer needs work
Far too expensive
By Alistair Charlton, Devices Editor
It would be fair to say last year’s Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch struggled to capture the industry’s imagination like we hoped it would. We all want a smartwatch, but this was a device that was too big, too clunky and too expensive to spearhead the wearable revolution we all desire.
Now Samsung has tried again with the Gear 2, which ditches Android in favour of its own Tizen operating system, moves the camera from the strap to the watch itself, and adds a heart rate monitor in the hope of tapping into the booming fitness and quantified-self markets.
But will these updates be enough? I spent a few days with a Gear 2 on my wrist to find out.
If smartwatches are to tempt buyers away from the regular watch market, then they need to absolutely nail the basics. This of course means displaying the time, but unfortunately the Gear 2’s screen often fails to light up when you need it to. A flick of the wrist should be all it takes, but I found the screen to stay blank even with exaggerated movement - the kind that would, and probably did, get funny looks on public transport.
Obviously an accelerometer is being used to work out when you want to check the time, but I found the Gear 2 so inconsistent I sometimes resorted to the phone in my pocket instead. Samsung needs to get the basics right, and if I can’t see the time by glancing at my wrist then it has fallen at the first - and smallest - hurdle.
Either the watch’s movement detection needs to get smarter, or Samsung needs to offer a screen that can stay lit permanently - something LG promises for its upcoming Android Wear smartwatch, due later this year.
The next hurdle is having a screen bright enough for outdoor use, but dim enough to not annoy everyone in the cinema. Smartphones manage by using a sensor to adjust the screen based on ambient light, but for reasons best known to itself, Samsung hasn’t fitted such a sensor to the Gear 2. I’d turn the brightness - tap settings, scroll down, tap display, tap brightness, adjust up or down, tap OK, press Home button - for indoor use, then be unable to see the screen in bright sunlight and with no hope of digging through the settings to crank it up. Alternatively, a long press of the Home button brings up a screen where one of the options is Outdoor Mode.
It is shortfalls like that that make the Gear 2 difficult to live with, and while there are some good features to come, being unable to reliably tell me the time is almost a deal breaker right out of the box.
Undeterred, I took a step back and focussed on the hardware. Samsung has moved the original Gear’s camera from the strap to the watch face itself, meaning any watch strap can be fitted to the new model, opening the door to near-limitless personalisation. The standard Samsung strap is rubber with a metal clasp mechanism that is easy to adjust to almost any wrist size and locks into place with a satisfying clunk.
The watch itself has a glass, plastic and brushed metal finish which is all unmistakably smartwatch - Samsung clearly believes smartwatches don’t need to look like their traditional analogue counterparts, but with Google’s Android Wear taking an opposing view we’d say the jury is out for now.
At 38mm, the Gear 2 is no wider than most traditional watches, but its 59mm height is certainly bulky. I couldn’t get the watch to fit under my shirt sleeve, and it never failed to attract looks wherever I went, due to its size and the screen lighting up as I moved. At 10mm and 68g, the Gear 2 isn’t too thick or heavy for someone used to wearing large watches on a daily basis, but its presence on your wrist can never really be ignored.
Boasting IP67 certification, the Gear 2 is dust and water resistant. This basically means it’ll be ok in the rain, but don’t go swimming with it.
Finally for the hardware, the Gear 2 is charged via microUSB but requires a cheap plastic dock to connect to the cable. Ten points if you manage not to lose this in the first year of ownership - and if you do, the watch cannot be recharged.
The large size if of course due to the Gear 2s display. Measuring 1.63 inches, it has a resolution of 320 x 320 and is impressively vivid. Icons are sharp, text is beautifully rounded and viewing angles are excellent.
Touch inputs are reacted to quickly and there’s even multi touch, letting you pinch-to-zoom on photos taken with the integrated 2-megapixel camera.
There are six levels of brightness to choose from, but the sixth - also called Outdoor Mode - only works for five minutes before brightness is trimmed back to level four in an attempt to save battery life. Check the time more than five minutes later, and if you’re still outside seeing the screen could be difficult.
As I said earlier, Samsung has replaced the original Galaxy Gear’s Android operating system with the company’s own Tizen software - and it’s also dropped the Galaxy name in the process. Despite the change, most consumers will be hard pressed to notice the visual difference between Android and Tizen. The user interface consists of a home screen with the time and app shortcuts, with multiple pages of apps to the left and right.
The Gear 2’s star attractions include a pedometer for tracking your walking, running, hiking and cycling, a camera, the ability to make and receive phone calls, and a heart rate monitor.
Powered by a 1GHz dual-core processor with 512MB RAM, the watch performs very well, with apps opening quickly and generally being very responsive. The general experience of interacting with a small screen on your wrist is never going to match that of a smartphone, so searching for a contact or a song to play will naturally be slower, but given the space constraints here I can’t complain too much.
You can assign a double-press of the Home button to a number of tasks, such as opening the camera app when the screen is asleep
Hoping to replace the Nike Fuelband and Fitbit exercise trackers, the Gear 2 can track your walking, running and cycling, and take your heart rate. This is all transferred via Bluetooth to your connected Samsung Galaxy phone and the S Health application. Unfortunately, the Gear 2 and Galaxy S5 don’t work in sync, so if you have both counting your daily steps they will record different results.
You can view data collected from either the phone or watch on the Galaxy S5, but this isn’t the default and having two numbers which, in my experience, differentiated by around 2,000 each day, is just confusing. It's also worth remembering at this stage that the Gear 2 cannot be used on its own; you cannot buy one and use it as your watch without pairing it over Bluetooth with one of 17 Samsung Galaxy devices.
The Gear 2’s heart rate monitor is thankfully much simpler; tap the application, tap start, keep still and let the Gear do its thing. The watch takes about 12 seconds to take a reading, and during this time it suggests you keep quiet and don’t move. Sometimes the reading would fail, asking me to check the watch was sitting flush against my wrist, before trying again.
A heart rate monitor makes much more sense here than it does on the S5, and those who exercise with the Gear 2 may well benefit from taking readings as they run, which S Health logs onto a graph over time.
Music can be stored on the Gear 2’s 4GB of internal storage, playable either through the watch’s small speaker (fine for calls, poor for music) or through Bluetooth headphones and speakers. Samsung’s WatchON Remote lets you control your television and set-top box with the Gear 2, just as you can with the S5.
Finally, S Voice means you can issue spoken commands to the Gear 2 just as you would with a Samsung phone. Tap the icon and say something like “Wake me up at 7am” to set an alarm, or “Text James message see you after work”. You can also check the weather, set yourself reminders, find a contact’s address, make a phone call, check your calendar, and more.
No one can accuse Samsung of not giving the Gear 2 a lot of features, and some of them are great, but I was often struggling to work out why performing these tasks on my watch was better than using my phone.
As for software problems, my Gear 2 refused to wake up for several hours one evening, and had lost most of its battery change once I finally reset it. Another time the watch needed a software update, but instead of saying this, it simply warned me that its connection to the S5 had been lost.
Samsung claims the Gear 2 will last between two and three days, and in testing I found this to be accurate. Leaving the pedometer on permanently, along with a Bluetooth connection to a Galaxy S5 and the screen brightness set at various levels throughout the day, I regularly saw two full days, and a third was possible with minimal use.
I really like watches. I have a box of them at home and I’d love to add a smartwatch to my collection. But no manufacturer is quite there yet, including Samsung. The Gear 2 improves on much that was wrong with the Galaxy Gear; it’s light enough and (just about) small enough to not be a chore to wear, but unfortunately I found it too much of a chore to use.
I really hope a software update can fix the inconsistency with how wrist movement wakes the screen, and Samsung badly needs to give Gear 3 an ambient light sensor. These tweaks will at least make Gear work as a watch, but the problem with the smartwatch generally is that consumers nor manufacturers know what it should actually be.
Does anyone really want to make calls by speaking into their wristwatch? Probably not, and especially not when their phone needs to be no more than 10 metres away. That said, a pedometer and heart rate monitor make perfect sense, as does music storage with Bluetooth headphone support.
But I’m struggling to see the ‘killer app’ here. Why should consumers spend £250 on a companion device which merely mirrors what their smartphone can already do? I'll say that again: The Gear 2 is £250.
My friends laughed when they saw the Gear 2 - many didn’t know what it was, which doesn’t say much for the original Gear’s sales figures - and they were shocked at the price. Making phone calls on your watch is a fun stunt to pull in the pub, but the honeymoon period is short-lived and beyond that the Gear does little to impress.
There's a phrase in amateur motorsport - 'all the gear and no idea' - to describe a newbie with the most expensive helmet, a custom suit and the newest, shiniest boots. That's what the Gear 2 feels like. It's got the shiny screen, sci-fi looks and bags of features, but it has no idea what it should be. This will change, but for now the smartwatch feels like a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.