REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Gear

Samsung has taken its boldest step into the world of wearable tech with the Galaxy Gear but it faces an uphill battle trying to convince the wider public why they should pay $369 a pop for an unproven device.

Samsung demos the Samsung Galaxy Gear and how it interacts with the Samsung Note 3. 

Samsung has taken its boldest step into the world of wearable tech with the Galaxy Gear and spending some time with the so-called smart watch highlights why the Galaxy Gear is a mixed bag at best.

While Samsung has managed to nail most of the hardware elements, there remains a significant question mark on whether it can overcome critical barriers of price and battery life.  

The product as it stands, simply does not justify a $369 price tag and Samsung faces an uphill battle trying to convince the wider public of why they should pony up the cash for an unproven device.

The plus points

While not as slick, slim or light as Sony's SmartWatch 2, there is no noticeable heft once you slap the Gear around your wrist. The display doesn’t look out of proportion and the band is a snug fit.

Unlike the largely plastic build of Samsung's smartphones and tablets, the South  Korean giant has this time  employed a sturdier metallic material for the watch face and even encased the 1.63-inch super AMOLED screen in a hard to scratch Sapphire glass.

The display is quite bright and the screen was still useable in the peering sunlight of the demo room.

Text looks fairly sharp on the small 320x320 resolution display and images and videos  were perfectly viewable on the screen.

The shots produced by the 1.9 megapixel camera, which protrudes lightly from the watch band,  are  serviceable at best.  The lens uses a backside illumination (BSI) sensor with autofocus and the camera can even record up to ten seconds of 720P video. The Gear snaps photos pretty quickly but the shots that I took appeared had a washed out tone to them.

Navigating the simplified user interface is smooth and mostly responsive experience. The customised interface is clean, uncluttered and the menu consists of small-screen friendly icons.

There’s no real learning curve with the controls, which are largely limited to single finger swipes.  You can navigate menus by simply swiping left and right, while a swipe down from the top of the screen will take you back to the previous screen.

A two finger swipe down brings up the volume and brightness controls and a press of the sole physical button on the side of the watch launches you back into the home screen.

You can also immediately launch the camera with a single finger swipe down from the home screen.

Samsung says that the Gear uses a heavily customised version of the Android OS and it all runs well enough, with very few hiccups on the single Exynos 800Mhz processor.  In addition, the Gear uses 512MB of RAM and has 4GB of internal storage.

Graph for REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Gear

Tethered to the phone

The Galaxy Gear tethers to a smartphone using Bluetooth and as a result, can make use of the smartphones signal for data and calls. Apps running on the device can even use the phone's GPS for displaying location information.

Tethered via Bluetooth means that you need to keep your phone within a nine metre range in order for the device to receive notification data such as SMS, emails, call logs and contacts.  Step outside of the nine metre range and the Gear loses a lot of its 'smart' capabilities and becomes more of a regular sports watch but you can still use the built in pedometer for tracking movements and take photos using the camera.

At launch, the Galaxy Gear will only work with the Galaxy Note 3 but Samsung says that the Galaxy S4, S3 and Note 2 will also be supported once the Android 4.3 update rolls out to those devices.

S-Voice not quite there

Samsung has incorporated some useful interactions between the two devices such as "smart relay" which previews an incoming email on your Galaxy Gear and opens the email ready for viewing on your smartphone.

You can even reply to emails and text messages from the Galaxy Gear using Samsung's voice assistant technology, S-Voice. While S-Voice worked fine for rudimentary tasks such as setting an alarm, its voice recognition capabilities is far from ideal and simply not up to the task of translating your spoken word to digital text. It's a nice to have feature but most will still whip out their smartphones to respond to text messages and emails. 

Taking pictures and shooting video from the watch immediately syncs the captured content to your smartphone and an auto-locking feature that initiates the lock screen on your phone when you move more than 1.5 metres from your device.  Auto lock will also unlock the smartphone when the GALAXY gear is less than 1.5 metres away. 

What happened to the apps?

Applications can only be installed on the Galaxy Gear using the Gear Manager application on the Note 3. From there you can launch a Galaxy Gear specific version of the Samsung App store where you can search and side load apps to the device. 

Samsung touts that there will be twelve apps available at launch but none of these were available for testing during my hands on time with the device.

Some of the more interesting apps that will be available at launch include:

Evernote Watch, which lets you capture images using the Galaxy Gear's camera or record voice memos using the built in microphone and upload it to your Evernote account.  You can also pull content from your Evernote account and display it for quick reference on the Gear screen.

Pocket, which allows you to read back saved web content using text-to-speech article playback to the Galaxy Gear. .   

Line,  an instant messaging client which will presumably use S-Voice for text input.

Fitnesss app, RunKeeper, that tracks your runs including the distance, time, and pace of the run and displays that information on the Gear screen.

A Galaxy Gear version of the popular smartphone app, Tripit, is also set to make an appearance in a condensed format optimised for the Galaxy Gear screen.

While Samsung's first stab at the wearable market is certainly more capable than the other smart watch offerings such as Sony's SmartWatch 2 or the Qualcomm Toq, the tradeoff is a much weaker battery life. Samsung estimates a run-time of almost a day before it needs charging whereas Sony and Qualcomm's watches can run up to five days.

Another substantial limitation is the fact that the Galaxy Gear only works with the Galaxy Note 3 whereas both Sony and Qualcomm's smart watches can run on any Android smartphone.

The price is not right

It's hard to fathom what Samsung is hoping to achieve with its current pricing strategy especially when you consider the two major reasons why the Korean giant has entered the wearable market.

The first and most obvious reasons is so the company can stake its claim in the burgeoning wearable market that some analysts predict will be worth $50 billion by 2017. The market will become increasingly crowded and highly competitive as other major tech companies enter the market over the next couple of years and existing players iterate on their products.

The second reason can be found in the imposed restriction that the company has placed on the device itself - it’s a Samsung smartphone only device.  It's also another attempt by Samsung to lock in customers to its ecosystem where the company has the most to gain in the longer term.

Companies like Samsung are no longer trying to sell customers on the physical device but on the complete experience by providing services such as data backups (S-Cloud), customised user interfaces (TouchWiz), branded App stores (Samsung App Store) and interconnectivity with other consumer electronics (stream your mobile device content to your Samsung TV etc.).

It's what will potentially keep customers from jumping ship to another branded device once the phone or tablet's two year contract is up. 

It's a strategy that Apple has perfected so well while still being able to play the high-margin game.

But Samsung doesn't have Apple’s level of ecosystem and the marketing chic which is all the more reason why the company needs to compete heavily on price with the Galaxy Gear.

Without competitive pricing, it’s hard to see the Galaxy Gear finding enough of a foothold within the market for it to become a viable platform for app developers.

The success of the device will ultimately hinge on an active development community but if there is not enough of an install base, then app developers will simply have no reason to invest in the extra development time needed to create the apps for the Galaxy Gear. 

The importance of apps should not be discounted especially with a device that finds itself in a relatively new product category. Apps expand the use cases and bring to the table those 'killer' features that a device needs to succeed.

Had Samsung decided to sell the device close to cost or even taken a slight hit to get the retail price down to $199, that would be a justifiable price in the eye of the consumer.  Leveraging the success of their Galaxy Note series and bundling the Gear for free with the Note 3 is another way that Samsung could have driven mass adoption of the device. 

A competitive pricing strategy would drive uptake of the Galaxy Gear and set the foundation for a thriving app development community that will become critical to success in a market that is bound to heat up with competition in the next few years.

And if you thought that Samsung had some elaborate carrier deals up its sleeve that would remove the price obstacle, you would be wrong if the announced carrier plans are anything to go by.

At the time of writing, Vodafone is the only carrier in Australia that will be offering the Galaxy Gear on a contract. Provided customers jump on to a $75 a month plan with Galaxy Note 3, customers can add the Galaxy Gear for an extra $13 per month.  That is a substantial amount to pay on an already premium plan.