Samsung Galaxy Gear: Because Your Phone Needs Help

As expected, Samsung rolled out its smartwatch the Galaxy Gear in Berlin yesterday, Sept. 4. The device is designed as a companion to other Samsung devices -- for now, only the Galaxy Note 3 phablet and new Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. The company promises that it will eventually be able to pair with the Galaxy 4, Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II. But even though the device runs on Android, there seems to be no promise that it will connect with other manufacturers’ phones using the Google OS.

And this is very much a device that needs to be paired. The smart functionality really emerges in tandem with the phone: control of music playback, call making and hearing (via on-board microphones and small speaker, message notifications, etc.) The device will come with about 70 available applications at launch on September 25, Samsung insists. The device does have a pedometer built in and fitness apps. Initial third-party apps include Path and TripIt, but none of the major social media brands appeared to be represented here yet.

There is a low-res camera capable of taking stills and about ten seconds of video. You can give voice memos to the Gear.

Initial response from the gadget press was decidedly mixed. Time magazine reporter Jared Newman observed: “this looks like a case where Samsung’s condiment-laden approach to mobile computing has become a burden. The technology doesn’t yet seem powerful enough, miniature enough or inexpensive enough for everything Samsung wants to accomplish.”

CNet’s Rich Trenholm was more enthusiastic, arguing that you needed to wear and use it in order to enjoy the Gear’s charms. “Smartwatches are designed to cut through the noise of your phone, with its apps and games and notifications and social networks and alerts and alarms and little red numbers shouting for your attention -- and the Gear manages that with a playful elegance. “

We weren’t aware that this category of device was designed to spare us the apparent pain of having to pull a smartphone from our pocket. But, okay -- it is as good a rationale as any we have heard so far. In its announcement about being the first travel app available for the Gear, Tripit touted the user's ability to check flight times and call airlines and agents attached to their trip without having to pull out their cell phone. 

The Verge’s Vlad Savov admired the feature-rich technology packed into the device. But he noted that the tech was not quite up to the task. Performance was sluggish and the touch commands cryptic. The speaker is faint. Actual battery life is unclear (a full day at least is promised), but recharging requires a dedicated cradle, which may not travel well for many of us.

Engadget’s Zach Honig also notes poor performance and an overall lack of smooth user experience. “The Gear is very much a first-generation device when it comes to usability, too; you can only load a total of 10 third-party apps, for example, due in no small part to the limited 4GB of built-in storage. The interface also feels a bit clunky and unpolished at times, and the S Voice feature, which responds to commands just like its smartphone and tablet counterparts, can only be activated by tapping the home button twice -- hardly convenient when you're running or riding a bike.”

At $299 just about everyone notes its steep price, which puts it out of fun toy range. The one thing you didn’t hear among all the hands-ons and first impressions was “Wow, I gotta have one.” 

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