Wednesday 18 October 2017

Review: Adrian Weckler on Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear smartwatch

Very useable – but will that be enough?

IT’S not a monstrosity. In fact it's not even as big as some conventional watches. Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch is a little clunky, but its modest heft won't be a main factor if it turns out not to be a roaring success.

Whether or not people are willing to start talking into their wrists, the Galaxy Gear is the most usable smartwatch that this tech journalist has tried yet. That doesn't mean that it's a must-have gadget, or even that tech enthusiasts are especially excited about it. But the thing works. And I suspect that there are probably enough Swiss Army Knife aficionados out there to give the gizmo an initial sales spurt.

THE SMARTWATCH CONUNDRUM

I've worn smartwatches before. (The closest I've had to the Galaxy Gear has been Sony's SmartWatch, which has considerably less functionality than Samsung's model.) I have always found that there is one issue that holds them back: their small displays. They're supposed to be a shortcut to communication. But after a while scrolling through mini-screens, one ends up simply taking the phone out to speed things up.

USING THE GALAXY GEAR

So how does the Galaxy Gear shape up? In the limited time I had with one, I put it through as many typical things I would want to do with a smart device.

Making a call seemed fairly straightforward. It did not bother me that I had to raise my wrist to my mouth to talk. I suspect that might change after a week or two, though: there was something self-conscious about the experience. For most people, this cannot be underestimated as a deterrent. Feeling like a wally as you walk down the street or sit on a bus is probably the biggest factor in killing off people's use of Bluetooth headsets, which are theoretically very useful.

FINDING ONE'S WAY AROUND

Most of the normal essentials for a phone are here and within easy reach. This includes recently called numbers, contacts and other such basics. Finding them is quite straightforward.

The Galaxy Gear has two main ways of navigation and both involve swiping. Scrolling horizontally moves you from app to app or function to function. Scrolling vertically takes you to a higher overall menu.

The watch has a single button on the right which acts a lot like the physical button on Samsung Galaxy phones. If you press it once it will activate or deactivate the screen. Twice activates the voice recognition feature (which works about as well as Samsung's smartphones). Holding it down for about two seconds will prompt it to ask you whether you want to restart or shut down the device.

APPS AND CAMERA

There were quite a few apps pre-loaded onto the watch I was using, among them Runkeeper and Path. Up to 70 are available, we're told, including Evernote. I'm assuming that services such as Facebook and Twitter will follow later.

I found the device's 2-megapixel camera (located in the strap) to be quite weak and a real throwback to the first smartphone cameras. It performed badly indoors for me. It also wasn't that quick to start up. This is important as speed and convenience may be the only reason why you would use this camera rather than your own phone's much better version. (Don't forget, your phone is in your pocket or bag anyway.)

BATTERY AND POWER

The gadget has a prescribed battery life of a single 24-hour day. That means that you'll need to recharge it every night. I have a fear that power-users might find it running out a little sooner than a day (when is the last time a phone's estimated battery life proved to be true?). There's quite a bit of power under the hood for such a weensy thing. This includes 4GB of internal storage, 512MB of Ram and an 800Mhz processor. It also supports Bluetooth.

EASE OF USE

To the credit of Samsung, it's quite easy to forget that you're using a watch and not a small phone. Although the version of Android is scaled down for a 1.6-inch screen, it really does feel like a familiar experience using the interface. I didn't need any instruction or guidance to get most of its functions going.

Samsung clearly is a big believer in this idea of a universal operating system across multiple devices. It is only faring moderately well with this strategy on its camera range, though.

NO WEB BROWSING

This is important: the Galaxy Gear is not a web-browsing device. There's no Google or Chrome, here. This is for the best: it would be absurd to rely on such a small screen for browsing the web.

CONCLUSION

Could I see myself using this instead of my ordinary watch? Possibly, but it would really depend on one bigger question: would I use smartphone services on this device when my smartphone is actually in my pocket?

There is one factor that makes this an immediate weak seller: it only works with two devices at present (Samsung's Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Note 10.1). That's right: no iPhones need apply. The phone is expected in Ireland sometime next month and is likely to sell for between €250 and €300

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