I can finally cross “make a phone call from a watch” off my living-in-the-future bucket list, thanks to Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear watch. Yet most of my time with this $299 watch has felt less like a trek to a shiny tomorrow and more like yet another sojourn in the buggy present.
This companion to the new Galaxy Note 3 phone (and, later, Samsung’s other recent Android phones) has a worthy goal. We have too many things interrupting ourselves, and breaking out a phone to address them — much less one as hefty as the large-screen “phablets” of Samsung and others — is often overkill. Why not use a smaller screen, easily accessible on one’s wrist, to stay on top of those alerts and updates?
(See also the use case for Google Glass.)
The Gear, however, at best amounts to a prototype of that capable, connected watch.
You can’t always tell time with it. Left idle, the Gear’s 1.6-in. color touchscreen dims automatically after 10 seconds. Rolling my arm towards me or raising it usually caused it to light up as designed, but other times nothing happened. You can press the power button on those occasions, but that was a poor option while biking or driving.
An e-ink screen like what’s on the Pebble smart watch could stay on all the time. A grayscale display would be awful for taking photos with the 1.9-megapixel camera embedded in the Gear’s wristband, but does a watch need a low-resolution camera in the first place?
It’s too thick. Getting the Gear under half an inch thick must have involved some serious engineering, but it’s still an ingot of a watch to cuff to one’s wrist. The Gear felt cramped inside the cuffs of button-down dress shirts. And it appears even thicker than it is, thanks to a design that has it wider around the face than against your wrist.
This is the kind of problem that technology can usually solve — look at how thin Samsung’s phones have gotten – but a related issue may get in the way of that.
It needs charging as often as most phones. A few days with a Gear loaned by Samsung PR showed that the Gear can easily beat the quasi-official estimate of 24 hours of battery life. But when a day of frequent use of the watch left it with under a third of a charge, it would be a mistake not to charge it every night just in case. Unfortunately, you can’t just plug it into any micro-USB cable; you have to rest it in a special cradle instead.
The Gear should already be pretty efficient, thanks its use of a lower-power version of Bluetooth wireless to connect to its host phone. It may need nothing more complicated than a bigger battery, perhaps a flexible one incorporated into the band?
Not enough of the phone’s smarts surface on the watch. The Note 3′s Samsung-written versions of the standard Android calling, messaging and calendar apps paired effectively with the Gear. I could place a call with voice dialing or by selecting a name off the contacts list shown on the Gear’s screen — its microphone is sensitive enough to free from you having to hold the watch right to your face during a call, Dick Tracy-style — and read and reply to texts with voice input.
But third-party apps like Gmail, Twitter, Facebook or Google Now evidently haven’t been rewritten to push more than the most generic notices to the Gear’s screen, all saying that you need to grab the phone and check the app there. But if you have to clutch your phone reflexively to keep up with things, you’re stuck in the same situation that might call for a smart watch.
Credits: FABRIZIO BENSCH/Reuters/Corbis