Review: Samsung Gear 2 smartwatch
Samsung's new fitness tracker, the Gear Fit, is easily the most eye-catching wearable the company has released. But it isn't the only one. Samsung also just launched a new pair of updates to the Galaxy Gear, dubbed the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo. Join Gizmag, as we review Samsung's second stab at making a full-fledged smartwatch.
When we reviewed the original Galaxy Gear (pictured above, on the left), I was pretty enthusiastic about the almost universally-panned smartwatch. Despite some obvious limitations at launch, I saw the hardware's potential, and figured the watch was only a firmware update and a few killer apps away from becoming the first breakthrough wearable. With the opportunity to get a jump on Apple and Google in a new product category, why wouldn't Samsung do everything it could to improve the Galaxy Gear as quickly as possible?
Well, I gave Samsung too much benefit of the doubt. What I didn't realize was that Samsung was already planning on ditching the Galaxy Gear's Android for its own Tizen OS. So the company never opened up the Galaxy Gear's software to developers. Instead, it only allowed a few hand-picked devs to create third-party apps for it. And Samsung's hands weren't picking very many. The result was that early adopters were left with an abysmal third-party app selection – even months after the watch hit store shelves. So much for those killer apps.
Just over six months later, Samsung has already released its first two sequels to the Galaxy Gear. And, sure enough, the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo cleanse themselves of all traces of Android, embracing Tizen in its place. To me, all of this paints a picture of a company that rushed into the wearable space without a clear long-term strategy in place. Now it's scrambling to shift gears (ahem) and move in a different direction – one that doesn't depend on its sometimes-rival, sometimes-collaborator, Google.
The best news out of this awkward strategy shift is that Samsung has finally made the Gear's software development tools available to all app-makers. If there's enough interest from the development community (a big "if"), then we could soon be seeing what developers' imaginations can really do with the Gear's hardware. That original killer app potential may not be completely dead just yet.
But there's one big problem. While Samsung was fumbling around, trying to figure out its smartwatch strategy, Google was privately moving in a much clearer direction. Now that I have the Gear 2 in hand (erm, on wrist), I can't help but compare it to the teaser Google gave us last month of its new Android Wear platform. By comparison, the Gear 2 looks a little primitive. And I imagine many an app developer will feel the same way. Advantage, Google.
At launch, the Gear 2's app selection is supporting this line of thinking. The Gear section of Samsung's app store is just as sparse as it was when the original Galaxy Gear launched. None of the first Gear's third-party apps were anything worth writing home about, and the Gear 2's Tizen-friendly app library is continuing that trend. The most useful app I found was a calculator. Yes, a friggin' calculator. This could come in handy on a smartwatch, but it also illustrates just how barren that landscape is right now – when the closest thing to a must-have third-party app is a generic-looking calculator app.
The Tizen operating system isn't the only change with the Gear 2, but the new watch does still have a lot in common with the Galaxy Gear. It has the same general look and feel, with a few key additions, and a couple of hardware features shuffled around. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. I liked the hardware design direction Samsung took with the OG Gear, and the physical improvements in the Gear 2 all move in the right direction.
The Gear 2 loses the screws that were visible on the front of the Galaxy Gear, giving it a cleaner, less industrial, look. It also now has a swappable wristband. That means that its camera has moved from the band to the watch's main body (though it still faces in the same outward direction). The only significant difference between the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, by the way, is that the cheaper Neo doesn't have a camera.
Samsung also moved the home/power/sleep button from the side of the Galaxy Gear to below the Gear 2's screen. It now feels more like a smartphone's home button. Since phones from Apple and Samsung have spent years programming us to mash the button below the screen to go home, I think this addition to the Gear makes sense. If the public has already been conditioned to think a certain way, you'd may as well use that.
We're still looking at a 1.63-in screen, surrounded by a stainless steel bezel. It's much bulkier than a standard watch, and its main body is roughly the same size as the first Galaxy Gear. A smaller footprint would have been nice, but I suppose that's a tall order when the second model arrives just six months after the first. On the whole, I think the watch looks and feels pretty good.
Along with the relocated home button and camera, there's also now an infrared blaster sitting above the screen. This lets you use your Gear 2 as a remote control for your TV and cable/satellite box (much like recent phones from Samsung and HTC do). I think this is a great idea. After all, it's never hard to change the channel when your remote is strapped to your wrist.
Unfortunately the Gear's WatchOn Remote app only has the most very basic of TV controls. You can adjust the volume, change channels and input, and power on/off. But more advanced menu, navigation, and channel guide features for your cable box are nowhere to be found. This could easily be changed with a software update, but, as it stands now, the remote feature isn't nearly as handy as it could have been.
Like the Gear Fit, the Gear 2 also has a heart rate sensor on the backside of its main body. It works exactly like it does on the Fit: fire up the Heart Rate app, try to hold still and be quiet, and wait for it to register your pulse. The Gear 2 also tracks your heart rate when you're working out (via the Exercise app). It's a useful feature to have – whether you're a workout fiend, watching your stress levels, or just drinking a lot of coffee.
In fact, the Gear 2 appears to have all of the same fitness capabilities as the Gear Fit. That includes the option for an always-on pedometer, which tracks your daily steps (it even continues to track your daily steps in the background while you're tracking individual workouts).
When the original Galaxy Gear launched, it only supported notifications from a core group of Samsung apps. That led to annoyances like having to use Samsung's stock email app instead of Google's (much better) Gmail app. But now the original Gear, along with the Gear 2, supports full notifications. All smartphone apps are fair game, and you can customize which ones you get alerts from. This is Smartwatch 101 stuff here, but it's nice to see Samsung finally getting that part down.
Samsung added individual apps to the Gear 2 for Email and Messages. But when you look closely, you'll see that they're really just hubs where you can read your recent notifications from those apps. They're also tied to Samsung's stock apps, so if you use the Gmail app on your phone instead of Samsung Email, the Gear's Email app will be empty.
The Email and Messages apps also let you reply to your messages. You can reply to texts by either voice dictation or canned (pre-written) response, but you can only reply to emails by canned response. Would it have been that hard to let us respond to emails by voice as well? I certainly would have used that feature, had Samsung thrown it into the mix.
Speaking of voice input, Samsung's S Voice (a halfway decent Siri knockoff) is back on the Gear 2. It lets you dictate and reply to text messages, set calendar appointments, initiate phone calls, and do a few other very basic tasks. But, unfortunately, it isn't improved at all over the S Voice app in the original Galaxy Gear.
I find the lack of forward movement there baffling. Isn't voice one of the most logical ways to interact with a wearable computer? If Samsung went to the trouble of updating its smartwatch only six months after the original, then why didn't it bother improving its voice assistant? Why not let S Voice compose emails, search the web, answer random trivia questions, or get sports scores?
The original Galaxy Gear let you control your smartphone's media output (play/pause, volume, and track skipping) from your watch. That feature is still on board with the Gear 2, but now it also lets you store music locally. You can then connect a Bluetooth headset and listen to MP3 tracks even if your phone isn't around. I suppose this could be useful for some people, but I stream most of my music these days, so this is a non-starter for anyone like me. A wrist iPod could have been a killer feature ten years ago. But in 2014, when Spotify, Pandora, and similar streaming services are as big as ever? Not so much.
The Gear 2's camera quality is roughly the same as it was on the OG Gear. It's surprisingly decent for a 2 MP sensor, but it also isn't going to come anywhere close to rivaling any shots from recent high-end smartphones. It is still a quick and convenient way to snap pics, though.
The new Gear still makes phone calls, and that part is also virtually unchanged from the Galaxy Gear. The call technically takes place on your phone, but you can answer and initiate calls from the watch. The effect is as if the watch itself is making the call. One difference is that, this time, the Gear's microphone and speaker live on its main body. So you'll want to talk more to the watch's face, and less to its band.
The Gear 2 has much better water resistance than the Galaxy Gear had. While the OG Gear was only good for the occasional splash, the Gear 2 is rated IP67. That means it stood up to a test where it soaked in 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes. As you can see in the image above, I dumped a glass of water on it. The watch came out as good as new.
Like all of Samsung's wearables, the Gear 2 is only compatible with Samsung Galaxy smartphones, running Android 4.3 or higher. Samsung took a lot of flak for that with the original Gear, but I see it as a fair decision. It syncs up with several apps that are only on Samsung phones, so it makes sense that only Samsung phones would play nicely with it.
Battery life is improved in the Gear 2, which we can probably chalk up to the battery-friendly Tizen OS. Samsung estimates two to three days of regular use, and that sounds about right to me. During my time with the Gear, even with pretty heavy testing going on, its battery only dropped around 30-40 percent each day. I don't think that's bad at all for a touchscreen smartwatch.
Samsung's odd charging cradle is back, though it's much smaller, and a little less awkward, this time around. Instead of wrapping around the front and back of the watch, clasping together, now it just snaps onto the back of the Gear's main body. A micro USB cable then connects to the cradle to juice up the Gear. In my experience, the Gear 2's cradle latches on much easier than the smaller one on the Gear Fit does. They're both less cumbersome (though perhaps more likely to get lost) than the full body casing that Samsung included with the Galaxy Gear.
So is the Gear 2 worth buying? Does its feature list and overall user experience justify its US$300 price tag? I'm not so sure. The new model is improved, but it still ignores several key areas. Why isn't Samsung's voice control improved, and a more integral part of the watch? Why add infrared, but then tie it to a barebones remote control app? And why didn't Samsung strike some content deals and nudge developers so it had an impressive lineup of third-party apps on launch day? The current lineup is anything but.
In fact, my favorite features in the Gear 2 are also in the ($100 cheaper) Gear Fit. I mostly use the Gear 2 for notifications, fitness tracking (including the heart rate sensor), and smartphone media controls. The Gear Fit has all of the above – plus a smaller body with a super-sexy-smooth curved display.
The Gear 2's app library is the wild card here. Now that developers have the keys to the kingdom, we don't have to rely exclusively on Samsung to do something with the Gear's promising hardware. If app development is active and fruitful, then the Gear 2 could improve in ways that the Galaxy Gear never did. That alone is enough reason to keep an eye on the Gear 2.
But you could also argue that it's too little, too late. Android Wear now has people's attention, and I'd imagine that attention extends to developers too. Upcoming watches like the Moto 360 and LG G Watch are going to launch with much better voice input capabilities than the Gear 2 has. They'll have contextually-aware Google Now functionality, and even features like music ID (a la Shazam) that Samsung could have easily added by now. I get the sense that Google better understands what customers will want out of smartwatches. Samsung has a few promising ingredients in place, but the Gear 2 still feels like it's missing something.
The Samsung Gear 2 is still a solid overall product. Despite my beefs with some of Samsung's decisions, I do actually like it – and think it's probably the best full-fledged smartwatch you can buy today. But, in its current state, I also find the Gear 2 hard to wholeheartedly recommend – especially with some more thoughtfully-designed smartwatch software waiting in the wings.
I think the gorgeous Gear Fit might be the better choice for most customers. Even though the Gear 2 replicates all of the Fit's workout-based features, I'm not sure if the Gear 2's additions – voice control, camera, phone calls, native MP3 playing, and infrared remote – justify the added bulk and cost. At least not until third-party developers give us something to get excited about.
The Gear 2 is available now, for $300, from a variety of online and brick & mortar retailers. Its sibling, the camera-less Gear 2 Neo, rings up for $200. And for more on Samsung's fitness-focused wearable, you can read our full Gear Fit review.
Product page: Samsung Gear 2