We took the souped-up smartwatch for a spin. Here's what you need to know before you buy.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first.
The Samsung Galaxy Gear is not quite as smart or as indispensable as the pundits predicted. In fact, it might be about half as wonderful. This smartwatch feels a bit like it's trying to beat Apple to the punch.
The specs are certainly impressive. Inside the watch--which requires the Galaxy Note 3 smartphone for many functions, including making a phone call and texting--there's an 800MHz processor, a 1.9 megapixel camera (located on the wristband of all things), and 4GB of memory. The watchband comes in bright colors (my test version came in orange). It's a little big and bulky with a 1.63-inch AMOLED touch screen.
The biggest problem is that the watch just doesn't last very long on a charge. It uses a proprietary charge cradle so you can't just connect up at the office unless you carry around that connector with you at all times. In my tests, using the camera infrequently and only tapping the occasional text, the watch lasted about two days--not long enough in my opinion. The Pebble smartwatch, which uses a low-power e-ink display tech that's similar to a Kindle, lasts for an entire week.
I'm not a curmudgeon about this, though. I usually wear a digital watch anyway, so this is an upgrade for me. I liked the notifications. A few times, I was wearing the watch and there was a soft buzz and a message that reminded me about a meeting. A smartphone shows a similar message and can also vibrate, but I don't always have one with me. You can tap in a quick phone number and, as long as you are connected to the Note 3, make a call.
That's the great promise of wearable tech: it's always with you and it's always "on" and ready. That's why I started to imagine how all of this could work. In the past, I've tested smartwatches that seemed fairly prescient, including the old Microsoft SPOT. But the Gear actually delivers on some ideas: you can reply to a message by speaking to the watch, which turns your speech into text. You can say "camera" to use the camera. When you snap pictures, you can auto-record an audio clip to help you remember what you were doing.
Even so, I couldn't help thinking, this can go much, much further. If I'm going to wear a big clunky watch, it had better show me more info besides the weather and text messages. I wanted a widget for my current bank account balance (encrypted, of course) and one for two-way video chat over Skype--or even a multi-person video conference. I wanted the Gear to give me turn-by-turn navigation and tell me when I'm close to a coffee shop or standing in close proximity to another smartwatch buddy.
In fact, there are a host of widgets I'd want on a smartwatch: a controller for presentations, a stock market app, one for news snippets, a way to make purchases from the watch or unlock a hotel room (possibly using NFC).
The watch also needs to ditch the phone connectivity. I only had the Galaxy Note 3 with me about half the time, which means I lost half the functionality (like phone calls). It's okay if I choose to connect to my phone, but that shouldn't be required for so many features.
My final verdict: The Gear is seriously flawed, especially when it comes to battery life, but has more potential than the Pebble, which isn't nearly as fun to use. The Gear beats the Sony SmartWatch by a mile (although Sony is releasing an update very soon). The watch's ultimate success will depend on how Samsung improves the device--and how wearable technology evolves.