This is the year of the smartwatch. This is the year when all of our wrist-mounted computer dreams are going to come true. Or at least that’s what’s expected based on the hype surrounding wearables. But for Samsung, it’s actually year two of the smartwatch, a second round to right the wrongs committed by its first effort, last year’s Galaxy Gear.
This is the game Samsung plays: it leverages its massive size and deep infrastructure to crank out products quicker than anyone else. It was the first major smartphone maker to jump headfirst into the modern era of smartwatches when the Galaxy Gear was revealed in September 2013. A scant four months later, Samsung took the curtain off of its successor, the Gear 2, before any of its big-name competitors could really mount a response to the first effort.
Now, we’re just a few weeks away from Google’s annual developer conference, where the highly anticipated Android Wear platform is expected to make its formal debut. Samsung has already been named a partner for Android Wear, despite offering a smartwatch system of its own for months. The $299 Gear 2 has been available for purchase for just over two months now, yet it’s all but assured that the Android Wear devices will steal its thunder.
Where does that put the Gear 2? It’s a marked improvement over last year’s Galaxy Gear, with a better design and useful new features, but it doesn’t radically change the premise of the Gear or make it that much more attractive as a smartwatch.
Samsung’s big advantage last year was being first, but it wasn’t able to make the best of it and the Galaxy Gear suffered as a result. This year, its big advantage is experience. But learning from the past and preparing for the future are two entirely different things, and Samsung needs to prove it can really do the latter if it wants the Gear 2 to survive once Android Wear arrives.
Last year’s Galaxy Gear was big, chunky, heavy, uncomfortable, and frankly pretty ugly. Things are different this go around: the Gear 2 is thinner, lighter, more comfortable, and better looking. The new design moves the camera, microphone, and speaker into the watch housing itself, allowing you to change the strap for the first time. It’s — dare I say — handsome, with a brushed metal finish and no gaudy logos or visible screws. Unlike with its plasticky smartphones, Samsung isn't afraid to use metal on its smartwatches, and I welcome that. The Gear 2 is still pretty big overall and it doesn’t quite shake the "I’m wearing a computer on my wrist" look. But I wasn’t as ashamed to wear the Gear 2 in public as last year’s model.
The Gear 2 doesn't shake the 'computer on my wrist' look
Front and center on the Gear 2 is the same, 1.63-inch square Super AMOLED display used on the Galaxy Gear. It’s bright and colorful, with wide viewing angles and good outdoor visibility. It’s still a touchscreen and your main point of interaction with the Gear 2, but Samsung has moved the physical home button from the side of the watch to below the display so you don’t need to rely on gestures quite as much. The display is not always on, but the Gear 2 is much better at waking up when you lift your arm to check the time, making it a slightly better timepiece. It could stand to be a beat or two faster to be truly seamless, though.
Being able to change the strap on the Gear 2 with any standard 22mm watch strap sounds trivial, but it’s actually a pretty big deal. My review unit was a rather loud orange color (the Gear 2 also comes in staid black or a pretty ugly rose gold), which works at the gym, but not in the board room. In less than five minutes, I changed the plasticky rubber strap out for a leather option that looked nicer and was more comfortable to wear.
The Gear 2 has a couple of new hardware tricks not seen on the Galaxy Gear. Next to the camera is a new IR blaster for controlling an entertainment center. Using this took me back 15 years to when I was a teenage geek wearing a TV remote watch and terrorizing my local Applebee’s. The Gear 2 also has the same heart-rate sensor found on the Gear Fit, and while it’s a nice concept, it’s just as unreliable in execution. It can now count your steps, making it a suitable replacement for a pedometer. Ironically, it’s much more accurate in step counting than the Fit, but its larger size and bulk make it less comfortable to wear during a workout.
The Galaxy Gear’s interface was rather unintuitive, and not much has changed this time around, though Samsung has improved a few things. Samsung has carried over the user interface of the Android-powered Galaxy Gear to the Gear 2, with its grid of icons and Android-like status bars and menus. (Even the recent apps menu looks like it was lifted straight out of Android.) Icons can now be rearranged right on the watch, and the swiping gestures have been reduced to just side to side for scrolling between home screens and down to go back a step.
The Gear 2's interface is improved, but not radically different
There’s been a lot of hay made about Samsung’s switch from Android to Tizen in the Gear 2 (it’s the reason the Gear 2 doesn’t carry the "Galaxy" moniker), but the vast majority of people won’t see any difference when using the device. Things move faster and it feels like the Gear 2 is more responsive than last year’s model. It’s still pretty tedious to use, however, and actions like clearing notifications still take way too many steps. It’s less likely that you’ll get lost in the interface now, though, thanks to the universal swipe-down-to-go-back gesture and the relocated home button.
Notifications are the primary use for smartwatches, and Samsung’s first effort was pretty abysmal. It’s slightly better this time around, but not by much. To get the most out of the Gear 2’s notifications, you’ll have to commit to using Samsung’s email and messaging apps on your smartphone. Aside from seeing an email or message come in and reading a few lines on the Gear 2’s display, you can’t do much else with most notifications. Third-party apps, including Gmail and Hello SMS, can’t take advantage of quick replies from your wrist, nor can you use your voice to send messages with them. I’d love to be able to delete or archive emails without ever touching my phone, but I won’t use Samsung’s email app for the privilege. Based on what we’ve seen of Android Wear, this exact functionality will be included in that platform.
Samsung’s new platform does support third-party apps, which you have to install via the Gear Manager app on a Samsung smartphone. Your choices are pretty limited — most of the apps I found were basic calculators or custom watchfaces. The Gear 2 also comes with 4GB of internal storage, so you can put songs on it and listen to them with Bluetooth headphones, eliminating the need to carry your smartphone on a run or during a workout. But getting tracks on to the Gear 2 is a clumsy process and it does nothing for you if you use Spotify or another streaming music service.
Samsung’s new fitness apps, which sync with the S Health app on a smartphone and are the same as what’s offered on the Gear Fit, are a nice addition to the Gear 2. There is built-in coaching for running, walking, cycling, or hiking, and the Gear 2 will give you status updates on your progress. Fortunately, step counting is much better with the Gear 2 than the Gear Fit, though you still have to remember to turn on the pedometer when you first get the watch. Sleep tracking is available too, and Samsung has updated the S Health app to show sleep data after a sync. But you have to remember to start sleep tracking every night before you go to bed and stop it when you wake up, which is not nearly as convenient as the automatic systems used by Basis and others. I slept with the Gear 2 on my wrist for a few nights, but it’s a bit too large and uncomfortable to wear every night.
One of the big features Samsung touted for the Galaxy Gear last year was the ability to make and receive calls from your wrist, Dick Tracy-style. The Gear 2 maintains this capability, but call quality hasn’t improved much — I had to really project my voice for callers to hear me, and the audio when they spoke was often crackled and low quality. It’s still more of a parlor trick than a useful feature, and I’m not convinced it’s a good idea at all, despite what decades of comic books want me to believe. You can do other things with your voice — the Gear 2 has the same S Voice technology Samsung has included with its smartphones for some time now. It’s super convenient to set a timer or check the weather with your voice, but most actions require you to confirm your command by touching the screen, which defeats the purpose.
The most obvious benefit of Samsung's new wearable platform is improved battery life
The most obvious benefit to Samsung switching away from Android for the Gear 2 might be improved battery life. Battery life was a big problem with last year’s Galaxy Gear — you had to charge it every day alongside your smartphone, lest you be stuck with a non-functioning gadget on your wrist on day two. The Gear 2 is greatly improved, but it’s still not great. I was able to use it for about 2 1/2 days before it needed to be plugged in, and it still requires a clunky, easy-to-lose clip-on adapter for charging. A smartwatch that can be charged on the weekend and last through to the next weekend would be ideal, but the Gear 2 is not there yet. The Pebble can very nearly manage this, but we’ve yet to see what the coming Android Wear watches will offer in terms of battery life.
I have to give Samsung credit where credit is due: it has addressed a lot of the problems of its first generation smartwatch with the Gear 2. It’s sleeker, faster, lasts longer on a charge, and lets you easily swap the band. The addition of step tracking and fitness coaching are also nice improvements. It’s the best smartwatch Samsung has created, and it’s definitely better than the Galaxy Gear or the fitness-focused Gear Fit for pretty much everything.
But it’s still far from perfect, and the nagging issues with the interface and notifications and suboptimal battery life give me pause. Not to mention the fact that in order to use the Gear 2, you have to already own another Samsung smartphone or tablet, which keeps it out of the running for a lot of people.
It feels like the Gear 2 is a stopgap, a holdover until the real smartwatches come later this year. If you’re already in Samsung’s mobile ecosystem and want a smartwatch right now, the Gear 2 is likely your best bet. But for the rest of us, we’re probably better off waiting.
Essentially, Samsung has turned the smartwatch into a commodity, a product that can be pumped out every few months with little apparent effort. And it’s done this before the majority of its competitors have even entered the market. Other companies have already adopted Samsung’s strategy of releasing subpar wearables with the idea that they will just iterate on them over time. Acer’s CEO Jason Chen recently told Engadget that its wearable strategy is “get the product [out] and see how it goes,” indicating that quality isn’t of the utmost concern.
Samsung is one of Google’s many partners for the promising Android Wear project, which is expected to launch formally in just a few weeks. Samsung’s wearable strategy isn’t entirely clear yet — it could ditch the Gear platform and put its full weight behind Android Wear. Or it could offer both options at the same time — being the world’s largest electronics company affords those luxuries. If it’s able to take the best of the Gear 2 — the step tracking, IR blaster, and display — and mate it with Google’s platform, we might have something interesting on our hands (and wrists). Until then, it might be wise to hold on to your cash and see what’s coming in the near future.