Review: Samsung Gear Live smartwatch
Samsung is fiercely determined to be a leader in the smartwatch space. Back when other big companies were just rumored to be planning smartwatches, Samsung actually launched one. Then, six months later, it launched not just one more, but three more. And today? Join Gizmag, as we review Samsung's third-generation Gear watch (only nine months after the first): the Android Wear-running Gear Live.
In consumer tech products, I wouldn't say that software is everything, but it sure is important. For one example, look at Nintendo's 3DS portable gaming console. For its first six months or so on the market, it looked like an absolute dud. There was some cool hardware there, but sales were disastrous. It launched with a weak lineup of games, and nobody was buying the damn thing. It was only after the 3DS built up a solid gaming library – including one kick-ass Mario game – that the system took off. Hardware has a way of stealing the spotlight, but it's software that can make or break a device.
I always thought Samsung's smartwatch hardware was solid. Sure, the Gear watches always looked more like tech products strapped to your wrist than designer watches. But, on the other hand, they had nice stainless steel finishes, near-perfect display sizes and, for the first time on a watch, color touch screens. These devices weren't for everyone, but, on a hardware level, I thought even the original Galaxy Gear was cool enough that it was worth paying attention to.
But the software situation was another story. For starters, Samsung never opened up the original Gear's software to app developers (apart from a few handpicked devs that didn't do anything notable). Then the company did an about-face and switched from Android to Tizen for the Gear 2. But when the Tizen Gear finally opened its doors to app developers, it was too little, too late. At that point, we already knew about some new smartwatch software that Google was cooking up in Mountain View.
Which brings us to today, as Samsung is about to launch the first Gear watch with software that lives up to its hardware's promise. The Samsung Gear Live runs Android Wear, Google's impressive new operating system for wearable devices. We'll usher you to our Android Wear review for more on the software, but the short version is that this is the first smartwatch software worth getting excited about.
That means the Gear Live is taking some huge leaps forward from its forefathers. While the older Gears had barely serviceable voice control, the Gear Live has excellent voice control. The older Gears showed you notifications from your smartphone, but the Gear Live also has context-based notifications – and you can do much more with them. The last round of Gears had heart rate sensors, but the Gear Live ... well, actually the heart rate sensor is pretty much the same.
Like any of today's smartwatches, the Gear Live won't do much of anything on its own. You'll need to pair it, via Bluetooth, with a smartphone. This is another area where Android Wear improves things. While Samsung's older Gears required a recent Samsung Galaxy phone, the Gear Live will play nicely with any Android phone that runs 4.3 Jelly Bean or higher. It won't work with the iPhone, Windows Phones or Blackberries, but it's movement in the right direction nonetheless.
While Android Wear is the star of this show, that doesn't mean Samsung didn't improve the hardware as well. For starters, the Gear Live is 11 percent thinner than the Gear 2. It also sheds the Gear 2's front-facing home button, giving it a cleaner, slightly less "gadgety" aesthetic. It also drops the older Gears' cameras, which were never really an essential piece of the smartwatch puzzle.
The older Gears had a lot of smoke and mirrors concealing the fact that their software didn't have much going on. But the Gear Live has more of a streamlined focus. It exists to support the kick-ass software that it's now running.
Despite having a cleaner look, the Gear Live does still look very much like a tech product. Just look at it next to a rival smartwatch, Pebble Steel (below). Pebble has a more limited feature set, but the Steel watch has some advantages. Namely, it has a smaller footprint, and from a distance it could actually pass for a designer watch.
I think that's where wearables are ultimately going to go – marrying that jewelry aesthetic to the convenient features and functionality that we see in Android Wear. But the Gear Live isn't quite there. Its large and rectangular face, square screen and extended bezels curving into its band scream "I'm a smartwatch!" That isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but it also probably isn't an ingredient for mainstream success.
Like the 2nd-generation Gears, you can swap the Gear Live's band for any standard (22 mm) strap. The Live's rubbery default band is solid enough, using the same design language as older Gears. One difference, though, is that the two ends of the band are now separated, buckling together without the folding clasp we saw in the older Gear watches.
The Gear Live's screen is, as far as I can tell, the exact same one that we saw in the older Gears. It's still a 1.63-in Super AMOLED display, with 320 x 320 resolution. With a density of 278 pixels per inch, it looks plenty sharp at a typical watch-viewing distance. The screen can get bright (it's adjustable), colors are rich and contrast is very good.
The screen usually looks good outdoors, but not so much when the sun is beating directly down onto it. But once that does happen, well, you're just going to have to crank the watch's brightness to one of its highest two levels (there are five total). If you leave it on one of the lowest three levels and head directly into the sun, you'll have to strain your eyes to see anything but your own fingerprints on its glass. To make matters worse, there's no way to adjust the watch's brightness without first entering the voice control screen, and then scrolling down through a long settings menu.
The sunlight situation actually isn't as bad as I originally thought it was. Just leave the brightness set to either "4" or "5," and it will be readable in the brightest of sunlight (living in New Mexico, I have droves of that readily available for testing). But this is still one area that future Android Wear watches have room to improve on.
Any time you crank up a screen's brightness, battery life concerns can creep into the picture. Samsung estimates one day of typical use with the Gear Live, and I'd say it easily hits that mark. Even during long days with some heavier than usual testing (and brightness set to "4"), I've ended every day with between 25-45 percent battery remaining.
This isn't a multi-day device: if you buy a Gear Live, you'll want to plan on dropping it on a charger every single night. Though several days of use would be a nice bonus, all I can really ask from a wearable device is to get through a full day without any concerns. I can vouch that the Gear Live does just that.
Like the 2nd-gen Gears, the Gear Live has a built-in heart rate sensor on its backside. This is also one of the biggest ways that it differentiates itself from its only Android Wear rival at launch, the LG G Watch. Not much to say about the heart rate sensor, other than it does what it says. Pulse monitoring isn't a killer feature, but it's a nice extra – especially if you're a workout fiend.
Also like the second crop of Gears, the Live has IP67 water and dust resistance. This means it can sit in 1 m (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes, and keep on ticking. The water resistance in Samsung's recent products has been very good, so I had no doubt it would be here as well. I tested it just to be safe, though, and it handled both a dunking and a cup of water poured on it (see the evidence above) without any problems.
One more way that the Gear Live deviates from its ancestors is that it lacks a speaker. Android Wear is designed to be talked to, but not to talk back at you. I say all the better: having a one-way conversation with your watch is awkward enough in public without your watch talking back.
So do we recommend the Samsung Gear Live? Well, if you're looking for a smartwatch and don't mind it looking more like a tech product than a piece of designer jewelry, then I'd say absolutely. Android Wear is an enormous step forward for the Gear line – to the degree that it makes those older Gear watches completely irrelevant. It takes the hardware that Samsung has been gradually (and quite publicly) evolving throughout the past year, and finally gives it some software that does it justice.
I'm sure Samsung would prefer that you buy those older watches that run its own Tizen software (along with Samsung's own app store), but I think it's fantastic that the world's top smartphone seller is joining the Android Wear party. This is a terrific new platform for smartwatches – already miles better than any other wearable platform – and it's only going to get better. We're going to see this product category evolve, but the Gear Live is a very solid early smartwatch to showcase Android Wear. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, there are much worse ways to spend US$200.
The wild card here is the upcoming Moto 360. Though it's also pretty bulky, it has a stunning round screen and a more jewelry-like design than either the Gear Live or LG G Watch. I wouldn't get too carried away in comparing these watches to the Moto 360, as we still don't know its price or exact release date (not to mention we haven't yet put it through the paces). But if you're looking for an Android Wear watch with a more striking – and somewhat less smartwatchy – physique, then the Moto 360 might be worth waiting for (later this Northern summer).
To avoid repeating ourselves too much, we made this review almost exclusively about the Gear Live's hardware, barely touching on its software and function. This is really only half the story. For the other half, be sure to check out our initial Android Wear review.
The Gear Live is available for pre-order now, with a scheduled ship date of July 8. It retails for US$199, a $30 discount over its only Android Wear rival at launch, the LG G Watch.
Product page: Samsung