|Introduction & Specifications|
|Wearables in general--and smartwatches in particular--are among the hottest tech trends of today. Despite a great deal of hullabaloo over these devices, though, many aren’t quite finding them as compelling as you might think. As a result, there’s a sense that no one has yet figured out the secret sauce that makes a wearable / smartwatch a "much have" device.
Samsung is at the forefront of the smartwatch push, looking to develop that perfect swoon-worthy device. The company is already on the second generation of its smartwatch line with its Gear 2, the wearable that we’re looking at today.
Samsung makes some fine mobile devices, but the smartwatch is a different beast than a smartphone or tablet. Is the Gear 2 the smartwatch we’ve been waiting for?
The Gear 2 features a 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display and is housed in a pretty yet sturdy brushed-metal chassis. The watchband itself is rubber with a metal clasp, and the whole thing is IP67-certified dust and water resistant.
Under the (tiny) hood, there lies several sensors including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a heart rate sensor, and if you can believe it, there’s a 2MP camera embedded on one side. The Gear 2 also offers Bluetooth 4.0 LE to connect to not just your smartphone but also devices such as wireless headphones.
Samsung promises that you can get 2-3 days of life out of the Gear 2’s battery under typical usage, and up to 6 days with “low usage”.
For such a tiny device, those aren’t bad specs to be sure, but it’s important to note a thing or two about the Gear 2 right off the bat. First, it is very much an accessory, designed to enhance the experience of using your smartphone (although some of the functionality works quite nicely on its own). Without being Bluetooth-connected to a smartphone, for example, it can’t make calls, send texts, or view emails, and it possesses no ability to connect with the Internet on its own. (I.e., you can’t browse the web with it--not that you’d want to on such a tiny screen.)
|Design & Setup|
|The Gear 2 is a pretty piece of tech; the brushed-metal finish of the chassis looks great and, in our usage, resisted both fingerprints and scratches quite well. The display, which is just 1.63 inches square, is a delight. It’s bright and clear and feels surprisingly large whenever you glance down at it, and it’s plenty bright enough outdoors.
The watch itself is not too big and not too small. Admittedly, I have slender wrists for a grown man (I can’t lie, it’s true), and the Gear 2 fit me fairly well. If you’re a woman with small wrists, the Gear 2 might stick out a bit too far for your liking, but most adults with normally-sized wrists will find the Gear 2 to be an appropriate size.
The bezel sticks out just a bit further than the display itself. There’s a physical button below the display that functions as both an on/off button as well as the home button. Above the display and down the side a bit is the camera (with an IR blaster nestled next to it), and underneath the chassis, touching your skin, is a biometric sensor.
The watchband our Gear 2 came with is a black rubber number with a bumpy texture on the inside (touching your skin) and a more svelte pattern (somewhat reminiscent of the back of the Galaxy S5) facing out. The look is subtle, and the rubber is nice and waterproof for when you’re running around and sweating, and we were pleased to find that even after a spirited workout in high temps, the band didn’t smell at all.
The included charger for the Gear 2 makes use of microUSB, just like most smartphone these days, but instead of using up valuable chassis real estate on building in a microUSB port on the Gear 2 itself, Samsung designed it so that you can securely pop the smartwatch into a cradle that has the port. There are five metal contact points on the back of the Gear 2 that connect to the cradle for charging. You can use any microUSB power cord with the cradle, which is another subtle but welcome feature.
Setting up the Gear 2 requires a few more steps than we’d like, but as we mentioned earlier, this is after all an accessory as opposed to a standalone device. First, you need a compatible smartphone. We went with the Samsung Galaxy S5, but you can pair it with 17 devices from Samsung including the Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S4, Galaxy Mega 6.3, Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014), and Galaxy TabPRO.
You have to have the Samsung Gear Manager app installed on your phone or tablet. You turn on the Gear 2 with the physical “on” button, launch the Gear Manager app on your smartphone, and select the Gear 2 from the list. You’ll be given a passkey to confirm, and then you press “install additional software” on the phone’s app. It will connect to the Gear 2, and after you agree to legal notices, you’ll click Finish and be ready to roll.
|The Gear 2 ships with several apps pre-installed, primarily those germane to the basic functionality of the device. For example, there’s a notifications app, camera app, pedometer, exercise app, heart rate monitor, contacts, a dialer, and settings.
There are also more interesting apps including a music player; WatchON Remote (for controlling your TV right from the smartwatch); Find My Device (which will make your smartphone ring on command if you’re within range; S Voice (to enable voice commands such as calling a person); and Voice Memo.
If you go with the default watch face, it will function as your home screen and show you the time; date; and camera, pedometer, and settings apps. You can swipe right or left two screens to see more apps, just as you would on a typical Android smartphone.
Aside from the healthy smattering of pre-installed apps, there aren’t that many available. Not that you really want or need a huge number and variety of apps for a smartwatch--do you really want to play Angry Birds on a 1.63-inch display?--but the Gear 2 just doesn’t have much in its store yet.
You can get more apps from Samsung Apps (which itself is available only from the Gear Manager app) in several categories: Entertainment, Finance, Health/Fitness, Lifestyle, Social Networking, Utilities, and Clock. Just like the Google Play Store, there are tabs for All, Paid, Free, and New apps.
Some of those categories are woefully underpopulated. For example, there are just eight apps under Social Networking; eleven under Finance; and nineteen under Health/Fitness.
Because the Gear 2 runs on Tizen, not Android, you’ll never get access to the wealth of Android apps out there. That could be a serious problem for Samsung going forward.
By far the most populated area of the mini app store is watchfaces, and there are plenty of attractive, fun, goofy, cool, nerdy, and classy ones to choose from. However, one thing almost all of them have in common in that they are not persistent. That is to say, your smartwatch does not continuously display the time.
If you move your arm up to look at the time, the display will kick on and show you whatever watch face you decided on, but it’s rather annoying that you can’t just glance at your wrist to tell the time without moving your arm around. Further, it comes on at random times--say, when you’re reaching for a dish in a high cabinet--which is rather distracting, and it takes just a tick too long to actually show you the time.
We found one app that was designed to show the time persistently, but it wasn’t a watch face, it was an app. Thus, when you actually go to use an app on the Gear 2, it kills the watch face app, and you have to scroll through to your app page and open it back up.
A final note on the watch faces is that although so many of them are attractive, we found that we preferred the default face because it displayed so much handy information. In addition to the time, it shows the date and offers links to settings, the pedometer, and the camera.
An example of a Gear 2 watchface
There are, however, some compelling apps you can use right on your Gear 2. Just to give you a sampling, there are Tetris and Snakey (like “Nibbles”) games; multiple calculators; a run mapper and other fitness-tracking apps; a viewer for Facebook called FBQuickview; a “whiteboard” note taker called Wearable Whiteboard; My QR Scanner; and more.
Further, to be fair, the Gear platform is both relatively new to Samsung and not especially widespread yet, so devs aren’t going to be frenetically rolling out loads of new apps, but the dearth of apps is at this point a knock against the Gear 2.
|Camera & User Experience|
|Using the camera is easy, although it does take a few tries to get used to aiming the thing the right way; instead of holding it up like a smartphone or point-and-shoot, you have to hold your wrist horizontally.
When you open the camera app, it’s ready to shoot pics, and all you have to do is aim and tap the screen.
The camera has autofocus, and the controls are surprisingly extensive and include the ability to set the photo resolution (to 1920x1080, 1080x1080, or 1280x960); use auto focus or macro focus mode; add location tags to a photo; add a signature to photos; and set voice controls.
Yes, voice controls. When enabled, you can say “Cheese”, “Smile”, “Capture”, or “Shoot” to snap a photo, and you can start video capture (in 720p HD) by saying “Record video”. The Gear 2 obeys your voice commands with remarkable quickness.
When you’ve captured photos or video, you can view them in the Gallery (swipe left within the Camera app to get to it). From the Gallery, you can delete items or set them as your home screen background.
Frankly, we expected the camera to be nothing more than a novelty, and indeed that's about what it is. Sure, it'll snap a pic decent enough for a Facebook profile pic, but as you can see below, there's quite a bit of film grain, and the image quality seems curiously overexposed. You can't ask for too much more from a 2MP wrist-mounted camera, though.
Navigation on the Gear 2 is simple and intuitive. You can press the home button to turn the display on or off, and you can swipe right or left to see apps and options. To go back to the previous screen no matter what app you’re using, you just swipe down from the top of the screen. If you want to add an app to one of the home screen pages, you just press and hold its icon and then drag it.
We were impressed by how fluid and snappy the Gear 2 was to use. There’s very, very little lag no matter what you’re doing.
We must mention a few other salient tidbits from our time with the Gear 2. First, the Bluetooth connection with our Galaxy S5 was quite fast; any actions on one solicited a nearly instantaneous response on the other. That meant no waiting for syncing, no delay in picking up calls, and so on.
It was kind of neat to get messages on our wrist--note we said “neat” not “powerful” or “delightfully useful”--but easily the coolest feature is the ability to dial and make calls using only the Gear 2. You can quickly pull up a number and call someone from the Dialer app, and then you can hold the entire conversation just on the smartwatch via speaker. The call quality was excellent, despite the fact that--we can’t stress this enough--we were relying solely on the Gear 2’s speaker and microphone.
Other features are interesting and handy although perhaps not as compelling. For instance, the pedometer and heart rate monitor worked well (did you know that you’ll sprint nearly four miles over the course of a spirited game of ultimate frisbee?), but those aren’t necessarily applications that everyone needs.
Perhaps most importantly, the Gear 2 is comfortable to wear. It’s not at all too heavy and the strap is snug but doesn’t irritate the skin. I routinely forgot I was even wearing it, especially when engaged in physical activity.
|We always like to get a strong sense of battery life anytime we test a mobile device, but the Gear 2 doesn’t allow us to perform any of our normal tests. We typically use either a web browsing test (wherein we load up a webpage full of active content that refreshes every three minutes) or an actual battery test benchmark such as Battery Eater Pro or AnTuTu.
By dint of the facts that the Gear 2 doesn’t have a web browser and also doesn’t run all Android apps, we can’t run a battery test that compares to any other device in our test bank. (For that matter, we don’t have any other smartwatches to compare it to yet.)
Thus, we’re reduced to simply setting up a custom test. Because we expect the same issues with future wearables (the lack of a web browser and inability to run certain apps, that is), so we’re keeping it simple: We set up a persistent watch face app on the Gear 2, adjusted the brightness to 50%, and let the device run until the battery gave out.
Under that load, which is somewhat of a worst case scenario, the Gear 2 lasted approximately 6 hours and 50 minutes.
Samsung claims that under typical use the Gear 2 can last for 2-3 days, but we found that to be optimistic. We used the Gear 2 for typical tasks including receiving notifications, making a couple of phone calls, fiddling with different watch faces, and running the pedometer for a couple of lengthy workouts, and the battery conked out after approximately 40 hours.
|Summary & Conclusion|
|Up to this point, it is fair to say that smartwatches haven't quite captivated consumers in the way other smart devices have. Are we just incredibly spoiled when it comes to our mobile devices? A smartwatch is a computer on your wrist for crying out loud. That use to be the stuff of science fiction.
Making calls on the Gear 2 was quite an experience, and the camera performance certainly exceeded expectations. Further, the quality of every hardware component of the Gear 2, from the chassis to the band to the display, is impressive. The screen was bright and crisp, and using the device was smooth and snappy. The variety and number of watch faces you can customize your Gear 2 with is excellent, and most of the built-in apps just work properly.
Further, the smartwatch can’t actually do a lot without being married to a smartphone or tablet. It can’t make calls with its own hardware, and it can’t send or receive texts or emails on its own.
Smartwatch technology is on the cusp of something big, but no one has quite figured it out the perfect balance just yet. I can’t help but think back to using a Windows Mobile device years ago and marveling at the fact that I could check email and browse the web on the go--but being constantly frustrated at the user experience. It was just Windows, but tiny and horrible. And then Apple came out with the iPhone, which solved all of those problems and made the iPhone a must-have device that sent the masses into hysterics.
No one has developed a smartwatch yet that sets the bar impossibly high the way Apple did with the iPhone. (It’s easy to forget that it took Android years to catch up to iOS, and it took Microsoft even longer to develop its now-excellent Windows Phone platform.)
In that sense, then, the Gear 2 is not a must-have device. It’s still very much an accessory, albeit a mostly excellent one for all the reasons mentioned above. And then there’s the price tag of $299.99, which is high enough to turn off throngs of on-the-fence users.
However, if you really want a smartwatch and have one of Samsung’s compatible devices, the Gear 2 is a fine machine that you’ll be happy to own. We’ll be curious to see what the next generation of Samsung smartwatches has to offer.