Samsung's Galaxy Gear Smartwatch Leaves Door Open For Apple

A man tries a Samsung Galaxy Gear, right, next to his regular watch after the presentation in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Sep
A man tries a Samsung Galaxy Gear, right, next to his regular watch after the presentation in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Samsung has unveiled a highly anticipated digital wristwatch well ahead of a similar product expected from rival Apple. The so-called smartwatch is what some technology analysts believe could become this year's must-have holiday gift. Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Gear on Wednesday in Berlin ahead of the annual IFA consumer electronics show. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

If the wrist is indeed the next battleground for personal technology, then it's still open territory, because there's a long way to go before it's conquered.

The Galaxy Gear, the $299 smartwatch that Samsung unveiled last month goes on sale this week, sounds pretty good on paper: It connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth and lets you take pictures, record short videos, send and receive text messages, make phone calls and control music playback, among other things.

But on your wrist, it's another story. Samsung may have beat its rival Apple in releasing a smartwatch, but the device just isn't quite there yet.

We'll start with the good. It's a pretty cool looking watch. I wouldn't consider myself a man with good style by any means, so take this with a grain of salt -- but I'd wear it. I've commented to people that the plastic-backed Samsung Galaxy S4, the tech giant's flagship smartphone that was released a few months ago, feels a bit flimsy and cheap. But the Galaxy Gear, with its metal edges, rectangular glass display and decent heft, doesn't feel that way at all.

It's not the most comfortable thing in the world -- I haven't worn a watch in years, so I'm not used to having something on my wrist -- but after a few hours, I forgot it was there.

When it comes to using the watch, I was impressed with how easy it was to get used to navigating the menu and features. The only physical button, on the top right of the device, wakes up the display, showing the time, date, temperature and weather. You can customize the button to do other things, but by default, two taps activates S-Voice, Samsung's Siri-like voice activated personal assistant.

You can think of the watch's glass face like a small smartphone display -- swipes to the right or left on the glass scroll through different pages, allowing access to different apps and features. If you want to open one, like the pedometer, gallery of images and videos or media controller, simply tap the display once you've scrolled to that app.

A swipe on the glass from top to bottom serves as a "back" button in most apps, although if the default clock face with the time and weather is displayed, that swipe activates the 1.9-megapixel camera on the wristband. A swipe up when the time and weather are displayed gives you a dialpad to make calls. It may sound like a lot to remember, but it's actually intuitive and you get used to it quickly. And looking down in the morning and seeing the temperature on your wrist -- and then giving a tap for a detailed report -- is pretty cool.

Now time for the bad: First and foremost, the watch only works with the Galaxy Note 3, the new "phablet" slated to be released in the coming weeks, costing $300 to $350 (with a two-year contract). CNET reports that other Samsung Galaxy devices will be compatible with Gear by the end of the year, but don't hold your breath that it'll work with anything aside from Samsung phones and tablets.

The Galaxy Gear is also slow. Maybe I've just become accustomed to fast smartphones and tablets, but everything -- scrolling through the menu items, taking pictures and even using S-Voice -- seems to lag. The watch is supposed to sense movement and come to life when you raise your wrist, but even that is slow to respond.

If I got a text message, the phone would buzz in my pocket several seconds before I got a notification on the watch. So much so that after I felt the phone in my pocket, I'd look down at my wrist only to stare at a blank screen and wait in anticipation for the notification to show up.

And speaking of text messages: You can get texts, but not picture messages. You can take pictures with Galaxy Gear -- and they're decent pictures -- but you have to transfer them to your phone before you can send them to anyone. Strangely, you can send Snapchats -- the popular self-destructing pictures -- but you can't receive them, and the watch wasn't even alerting me when I got them.

When you get a text message, you can choose to respond by either calling or using S-Voice. Calling was simple, but I had mixed results with dictating messages. I successfully sent a couple of texts, but "just testing out this Galaxy Gear" was transcribed twice as "Just testing out this Galaxy dear." And it's not like you can use a cursor to change a single letter.

The watch, of course, can also be used as a phone, thanks to a speaker and microphone on the wrist band. But remember -- it's connected to your smartphone via Bluetooth, so your smartphone is actually the device using the network. You can choose to have the volume low and talk into your wrist Dick Tracy-style, or raise the volume and use it more like a speaker phone. Samsung representatives explained that it's the type of feature that would be used if you needed to answer a call while driving, although I think that the type of person who would spend $300 on a first generation smartwatch may also have a car that's equipped with a Bluetooth hands-free system, which is far superior.

The call quality wasn't bad, but the people I called said I sometimes sounded "muffled" or like I was using a speakerphone. My colleague Bianca said she had no problem hearing me when I kept my hand at my side and she was in a quiet room, but when she was on a New York City sidewalk, it was more difficult to hear what I was saying.

I was able to use the watch's media controller to pause, change the volume and control playback on both the Pandora and Spotify apps running on the Note 3. I can see this as being a great remote control feature for runners and those listening at the gym. But don't forget -- you'd have at least $650 of electronics on your wrist and in your pocket.

The concept of the watch is great, and I imagine that smartwatches will one day become as ubiquitous as smartphones are today. But they won't be the first generation of the Galaxy Gear, and I don't think we'll see very many people walking around with Galaxy Gear right away.

In the end, it's difficult to justify spending $300 on a first-generation smartwatch that doesn't work very well … yet. Save the money and wait for the next model, or even something from another manufacturer.

Apple, the ball is in your court.



Samsung Galaxy Gear