This is the year of the smartwatch. This is the year when all of our wrist-mounted computer dreams are going to come true. Or at least that’s what’s expected based on the hype surrounding wearables. But for Samsung, it’s actually year two of the smartwatch, a second round to right the wrongs committed by its first effort, last year’s Galaxy Gear.This is the game Samsung plays: it leverages its massive size and deep infrastructure to crank out products quicker than anyone else. It was the first major smartphone maker to jump headfirst into the modern era of smartwatches when the Galaxy Gear was revealed in September 2013. A scant four months later, Samsung took the curtain off of its successor, the Gear 2, before any of its big-name competitors could really mount a response to the first effort.
Last year’s Galaxy Gear was sleek, but very big, and had its own wrist strap that actually housed a camera lens. This year’s Gear 2 has the same brushed-metal inspiration, but that camera’s now housed above the screen, on the body of the watch itself alongside a mini IR-blaster that’s new, too. On the bottom is a home button. The wrist strap, made of a textured rubberized plastic on my unit, can be replaced like a regular watch band: you could put a leather band on, or a DayGlo one, or find one in a watch store. Samsung’s Gear 2 band has an click-to-secure metal clasp but is adjustable using small holes along the band.The Gear 2 is IP67-certified for water and dust resistance, an improvement over the original Galaxy Gear. You could wear it in the rain or even in a shower. I got it thoroughly wet and showered with it, but it’s not meant for swimming.To charge it, you need a little clip-on plastic dongle, which fastens over the back of the Gear 2 and lets you plug in the included Micro USB charger, or find one of your own. Don’t lose that dongle, though: and yes, it’s a different-fitting dongle than the Gear Fit.
It’s annoying, but a lot better than the snap-on cradle the original Galaxy Gear used. A full charge takes a few hours, and I was able to use the Gear 2 fully connected for over three days before needing a recharge.
The Gear 2 has much better water resistance than the Galaxy Gear had. While the OG Gear was only good for the occasional splash, the Gear 2 is rated IP67. That means it stood up to a test where it soaked in 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes. As you can see in the image above, I dumped a glass of water on it. The watch came out as good as new.
Once you’re connected over Bluetooth, you’ll need to download the Gear Manager app from Samsung’s own store, and then you’re good to go. As a warning, you’ll be hanging out in the Gear Manager app a lot for the first few days. It’s where you can change the watch face, adjust pretty much all the settings and download apps. Often, it’s quicker to change a setting via the app than to do it on the watch. Mind you, it’s not difficult to change settings directly on the Gear; it’s just that you might feel more at home on your handset.The Gear Manager part is relatively unchanged the second time around. The big deal when it comes to software is Samsung’s decision to have the second generation of Gear devices run on Tizen, rather than Android. What does that mean beyond the lack of “Galaxy” branding? Firstly, it means any apps you were using on the original Gear are no good here. That’s a big deal. Not just because it causes a fracture in the user experience, but also in the ecosystem as a whole. One of the biggest problems facing the Galaxy Gear was the dearth of third-party apps — a situation that improved only slightly in the months after it launched. With the introduction of Tizen, however, what tiny progress that was made has basically evaporated.For those wondering what the OS switch means for the user experience, the answer’s actually very little. If you’ve used the Galaxy Gear, and someone gave you a Gear 2, there’s nothing in the UI to suggest something new is running under the hood. The font, icons and menus are almost identical to the Android edition. This means it’s still a pretty basic, homemade-looking interface (much like Samsung’s TouchWiz phone UI, to be fair). That said, it’s functional, tidy and easy to use.One area where the software has improved is in the number of native apps. While you wait for Facebook and Twitter to build apps for the Gear 2, there’s a host of tools on the watch that go some way to making the watch useful right out of the box. These include things we’ve seen before, such as a stopwatch, phone dialer, a media controller and access to contacts and call logs. There are also a few new additions such as: Exercise, Heart Rate Monitor and a self-contained media player (which plays music locally from the watch, not via the phone). Most of them are fairly self-explanatory. The Exercise app, in particular, is basically a stripped-down version of Samsung’s S Health app. Which is to say, you can tell it you’re about to go for a run, do some walking, ride a bike or go on a hike. If you’re doing anything more exotic, or just knocking out your weekly dose of Insanity/Zumba (Zumbanity?), you’ll need to pick whatever’s the best fit.Another area that seems to be improved in version two is notifications. For many, this is what a smartwatch is all about, allowing you to glance at tweets, calls and messages from your wrist. The original Gear was a bit hit-and-miss in this regard. For example, if you used Samsung’s own email client, it would send a fairly useful notification to the watch. But with Gmail notifications, all you got was a mostly useless alert letting you know that email had arrived. Thanks! The Gear 2’s Gmail notifications are much better, with a decent snippet of the message included in the alert. It’s usually enough for you to determine whether it’s a message you want to deal with now or later. The list of apps for which you can get notifications is also surprisingly extensive, and includes pretty much every app on your phone.
You can speak to the Gear 2, just like the Samsung Galaxy Gear. But what for? Web search is not supported. Certain questions like “What’s the time in Boston?” or “What’s the weather?” will get answered. You can voice-dial people, but the number of steps and the time it took for S-Voice to process and load, made me wonder why I wasn’t just taking the Galaxy S5 out of my pocket instead.Voice memo is the best use of the mic: I found myself recording quick reminders. It’s also helpful that the voice memo functions works offline, too.
There is, of course, a camera. It’s a 2-megapixel affair, a negligible improvement over the 1.9-megapixel shooter from the first edition. There’s the same 720p video shooting, and, well, not a lot else. A camera is one of the less common features in the smartwatch world, so it’s a differentiator if nothing else. When I first played with the original Gear, I couldn’t imagine a time you’d opt for the watch camera over the much better one just inches away in your pocket. But I was wrong: I’ve used it quite a lot. Not really for photos I’d ever want to look at, but for quick “scrapbooking” of things I see, or want to remember. Perhaps to remind myself to Google something when I get home. That is, of course, the exact same experience on the Gear 2. I can’t really tell much difference between the old and new camera, but it serves a purpose, and is all the better for being housed within the watch’s body (and not the strap). If you’re curious, there’s a gallery below so you can see the quality for yourself.
Compatibility and competition
In addition to the Samsung Galaxy S5, the Gear 2 will work with Samsung’s Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 Mini, Galaxy S4 Active, Galaxy S4 Zoom, Galaxy Mega, Galaxy Note 2, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, Galaxy Note Pro, and Galaxy Tab Pro (12.2, 10.1, 8.4). The Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo don’t work with any non-Samsung phones.There aren’t many serious smartwatch contenders right now, so the Gear 2 naturally ends up on the top of this short list for those that crave lots of features. The Pebble, the best smartwatch out there, earns its keep because it’s easy to use, simple, waterproof, has an easy-to-read screen in bright sunlight, and works with a huge number of iOS and Android phones, plus it has one of the best app stores in wearable tech at the moment. Samsung’s Gear 2 has superior hardware but limited phone compatibility, fewer apps, and it isn’t as simple to use. It’s also fairly priced: the Pebble Steel is $250, only $50 less than the Gear 2, and doesn’t have nearly as many baked-in features.The real competition in the space is yet to come. Google’s Android Wear, already championed by future smartwatches like the Moto 360, promises to be the beginning of a new platform for wearables. Apple will have something, someday, but no one knows if it’ll be a smartwatch in the same sense. Android Wear is the biggest threat to the Gear 2. But it also shows what Samsung’s immediate future destiny will look like. Samsung is a hardware partner with Android Wear. How long will it be before Samsung has an Android Wear watch, and will it be better than the Gear 2? It’s only been six months since the last Galaxy Gear. Sooner than later, more watches will come.
The good news is that Samsung has addressed some of the major issues that plagued the original Galaxy Gear — namely, the short battery life. But, the company also deserves credit for squeezing more hardware into a smaller space, and generally polishing the design. The Gear 2 looks better and performs better than the original in every possible way. But here’s the rub: Of all the things it does, it doesn’t do any of them well enough to justify the price. It still feels like something of an executive toy. Sure, there will be those for whom the Gear 2 is a great fit (no pun intended), but unless you’re a loyal early adopter, there isn’t a compelling reason to lay down the $300 asking price. And that’s not least because of the small app selection. If Samsung can lure enough developers over to Tizen, it might become a more appealing prospect. But, until then, you might want to wait and see what Google’s Android Wear platform brings to the table.