Relentless innovation. It’s a phrase Samsung uses all the time to describe itself, and they’re the same words the company’s U.S. telecom president used when introducing the Galaxy Gear smartwatch. It’s that very spirit that has enabled Samsung to be beat Apple to market in a category that’s expected to grow to 373 million units by 2020. Based on our in-depth Gear review, however, Apple has nothing to fear. At least not yet.
From built-in voice calling and a pedometer to an integrated camera, the pricey $299 Gear has practically everything early adopters could want — and many things they probably didn’t think of. Smart Relay is a great example. Open a notification on the smartwatch for an email or text message and then pick up your paired Galaxy Note 3 phone (without pressing a button) and the handset automatically opens to the corresponding app. Pretty cool.
The more we used the Galaxy Gear, however, the more cracks started to show. You can see who just texted you or emailed you (if you use Samsung’s mail app), so you can decide if it’s worth responding. But Gmail and Google+ just tell the watch you have notifications waiting. That’s practically useless. You also won’t find official Facebook or Twitter among the 50 apps available at launch. Instead, there are third-party apps that deliver the same type of impractically vague notifications.
To help users input content without typing on a puny screen, Samsung has integrated S Voice functionality into the Gear. With this Siri-like assistant you can make calls, send texts, get the latest weather and more. However, you can’t use S Voice to respond to emails, and in our testing, it had some trouble identifying names we spoke. S Voice can also be slow to respond. Unless you’re driving or absolutely need to be hands-free, you might be better off using your Galaxy Note 3.
Why not the Galaxy S4? Or Galaxy Mega? Or Galaxy S4 Active? For now, the Galaxy Gear works only with Samsung’s latest pen-enabled phablet. A future software update should add other smartphones to the roster, but there’s no timetable.
Despite all of its gee-whiz features, Samsung also forgot to nail one very basic thing on the Gear: telling the time. In an effort to save power, the AMOLED screen only turns on when you press the power button or bring it closer to your face.
Do I think the Gear is a total dud? No, because this smartwatch does a lot more than other products in the category, such as the Pebble. And, unlike earlier entrants such as the I’m Watch, the Gear actually does a good job making voice calls. But there’s also plenty of evidence that Samsung released this product before it was fully baked in order to beat Apple to the punch.
Based on various reports, I gather than Apple is paying much closer attention to the little details and is less willing to treat its users like beta testers. The iWatch is rumored to have a curved OLED display, which would make it slimmer than the Gear, as well as 4 to 5 days of battery life as opposed to the 1 day offered by Samsung’s device. It’s also safe to assume that Apple will focus more on fitness, as evidenced by its recent Nike hire and reports that the iWatch will rely heavily on biometrics and other sensors.
If history is any guide (see original Galaxy Note), Samsung will quickly refine the Gear and possibly release a sequel before the iWatch appears. It also helps that several big-name app developers are already on board, such as Evernote, RunKeeper and Snapchat. With Samsung’s own developer conference on the way, expect many more to join the Gear ecosystem. But the lesson of the Gear is that Samsung needs to better balance relentless innovation with good old-fashioned patience.