Launched alongside the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone at Mobile World Congress this year, the Samsung Gear 2 is the successor to the South Korean company’s first smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear. With a refreshed design, improved software, and a more ‘watch-like’ style, the Gear 2 is an iterative improvement that offers more than the first generation, but it still comes up a little bit short for the average consumer.
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I’ve been looking at the Gear 2 in conjunction with my review of the Samsung Galaxy S5. Sporting a 320×320 Super AMOLED screen, the Gear 2′s screen is probably the stand-out screen of the current crop of smartwatches if you are looking for colour and vibrancy. It is touch-enabled, and I fond the interface to be responsive to my finger. The main UI action is to sweep down from the top of the screen – this acts as the ‘back’ control – while swiping from side to side scrolls through the various screens of icons to select a function.
Touch targets such as on-screen buttons, check boxes, and menus, are all given sufficient space to make them easy to hit without the risk of accidentally hitting another control. The only physical button on the watch is below the screen. This acts as a home button, taking you to the main time screen, and you can set which app opens up when you double tap on this button. I initially set this up to open the camera (which is much more useful than you would think, but it’s still limited to around 1000 pixels square, and the physics of camera lens means the pictures should be regarded as ‘fun’ at best). In the end I set up the double-tap to open up the stopwatch application, which I can use for many tasks in real life.
The user interface on the Gear 2 feels a little bit haphazard. While the icons, with their stark white outline graphics stand out well against a desktop that can be customised by the user (especially in sunlight), there is little rhyme or reason to their layout. When you start with the Gear 2, the ‘time’ screen (essentially the home screen) is flanked by two screens of app icons on each side, for 16 functions in total. But one of these icons is labelled ‘apps’ and opening this leads you to more applications in a second level of the UI hierarchy, which presents you with 24 application icons (and a little bit of duplication as well).
I can see the thinking behind this layout, taking the metaphor of widgets and shortcuts on top of an app launcher directly from the Galaxy handset and transposing it onto your wrist, but it’s horribly clunky. As a member of the geekerati who lives for tech like this, even I find it clunky, and that’s not a good sign. Icons can be rearranged with a long hold on the icon and then shifting them around one by one, but it is a long and laborious task… and you still have to deal with the shortcut/app paradigm.
Speaking of clunky, charging the Gear 2 requires a plastic adaptor to clip onto the back of the watch, which you can attach a micro-USB cable to. This keeps the engineering and component size down on the watch itself – with just five pin connectors required on the back of the watch, but the solution is not an elegant one. Thankfully you only need to charge the Gear 2 after three or so days of use, but it gives you one more thing to lose. If you are a frequent traveller the charging caddy is one more thing you need to cart along.
The Gear 2 is designed to work alongside Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones. On connecting your Gear 2, you’ll be prompted to install and run the Gear Manager application. This is the main interface to the Gear 2, and from here you can set up the smartwatch, configure the home screen look, alter the settings for each application if some are available, and install third-party apps developed for the Gear 2.
This is a well put together application, and it maintains a consistent UI through the app. You can alter the Gear 2 settings directly on the watch, but it’s far easier to do so in the smartphone app and have them transferred over the low power bluetooth link.
I found that the Gear 2 has two main uses. The first, as with almost every smartwatch currently on the market, is to relay the alerts and notifications from your smartphone to your wrist so they are easily read and actioned (or ignored) as required. The Gear 2 manages this well, picking up the social interactions on your smartphone and passing over the ones you want. The Gear Manager app allows you to toggle which apps can send notifications to your wrist.
When a notification arrives you get a full-screen alert on the Gear 2 watch, with the app icon displayed acting as a quick visual reference as to the contest, alongside a little bit of text. Going into a notification (and these are stacked up, so your Gmail notifications are separate to your Facebook notifications) you can get a quick preview of the start of each notification, and the option to either dismiss it from your wrist, or to open the app on the smartphone and carry on with the interaction.
This is where the Gear really 2 shines. Passing back information from your wrist so it appears on the screen of your smartphone when you pick it up might seem something that saves only a second or so, but the Gear 2 provides context your next smartphone interaction. If I get an email I know I have to read, I’m going to be doing a tap on my wrist to dismiss it, so why not have an action that dismisses it and allows it to be there on my screen a moment later.
It just works, and those seconds will add up over weeks and months of use.
Look closer into the Gear 2 and you’ll find a lot of the work that you can do on your wrist is ‘preparatory work’ for your smartphone. You can call up someone from your address book ready to interact with them on the larger screen; you can dial the call from your wrist and then pick up the handset as it starts to ring; and you can pass back information gathered by the sensors in the Gear 2 (such as the pedometer and heart rate sensor). The media player lets you control playback on your handset, but also to store some music on the watch itself for standalone play.
More than the Pebble or Sony smartwatches, the Gear 2 feels like a two-way device to your smartphone. There are still huge areas for improvement - the typography on the UI and in the notifications is inconsistent and basic at best, a few changes in the presentation of information on the screen could lift the Gear 2′s perception up from ‘geek toy’ to ‘useful tool’.
The Gear 2 has built on the success and the feedback of the original Galaxy Gear smartwatch. The clunky seventies sci-fi styling of the first Gear has moved on to something that, while still on the large side, does not look out of place on a wrist; the camera is subtle enough to work, and is a good ‘fun’ camera to have ready to go at a moments notice (or a double tap if you think you’ll need it very quickly); and the battery life more than matches the competition.
That doesn’t meant the Gear 2 has a clear recommendation from me. At £300 in the United Kingdom, it’s almost three times as expensive as the Sony SmartWatch 2, and more than double the regular Pebble smartwatch. As a standalone purchase I don’t think the value is quite there yet. I don’t think that’s Samsung’s plan though. If the Gear 2 follows the same marketing strategy as the Galaxy Gear, I would expect to see the Gear 2 bundled not just with the Galaxy S5, but with the variants of the S5 that are sure to pop up throughout the rest of 2014. The value-add of ‘buy a smartphone and get a smartwatch with it’ will create an attractive bundle for networks to attract new customers.
The Gear 2 does what it set out to do. It shows Samsung are in the smartphone market, it shows that lessons have been learned and feedback on the original Galaxy Gear have been actioned. Gear 2 owners are not picking up a test-bed product here, the Gear 2 is well-rounded and useful in day-to-day life. It’s not at ‘must-have’ levels yet, but if you’re looking for a smartwatch, and are happy to be locked into a Samsung smartphone as part of that choice, the Gear 2 is a very attractive choice.
Disclosure: UK retailer Phones 4 U provided a Samsung Gear 2 and the associated Galaxy S5 for review purposes.