A strong second attempt at a wearable, but the Gear Fit still has features we don't think belong on a smartwatch
Samsung’s first attempt at a smart watch, the Galaxy Gear, was not without its problems, but the company has been listening to its critics and is ready for round two. Launching alongside the Galaxy S5 smartphone, the Gear 2 watch aims to rectify the mistakes of its successor, and with a greater emphasis on fitness could replace your smart wristband too.
The watch itself is slimmer and lighter than the original Galaxy gear, sitting relatively flush to your wrist and sliding comfortably under a shirt cuff. Smaller wrists may find it spills slightly over the sides, as it’s unquestionably larger than most wristwatches, but we had no problems in the Expert Reviews office.
The Gear 2 commands a price premium over the cheaper Gear 2 Neo primarily because of the integrated camera, but the brushed metal finish also plays a part. It gives the Gear 2 a sleek, modern look, whether you opt for black, silver or the burnt copper model we were sent for review – which we grew rather fond of after a few days of wear. The large watch face will have its critics, and it certainly won’t turn heads like a Rolex or Omega Seamaster, but it still looks sleek and suitably high-end.
Unlike its more fitness-focused sibling, the Gear Fit, the Gear 2 has a sturdy metallic clasp that matches the colour of the watch face. It’s much more secure than the simple notched rubber band Samsung has used for the Fit, creating a tight fit around your wrist that ensures your expensive smartwatch won’t go flying off, even with the wildest gesticulation. It’s easy to adjust too, with a quick release system that doesn’t require tools or a pair of scissors.
By moving the camera off the strap and onto the watch body, Gear 2 owners will also be able to change the wrist strap for another of their choosing, letting them match a particular outfit or go for a different style. Have a favourite old watch you want to exchange for a smart watch? Then take that weathered leather strap with you. It uses standard locking pins, so most straps should work, although it’s worth keeping in mind Samsung made the strap from sweat proof and hypo-allergenic rubber for a reason; if you’ll primarily be using the Gear 2 for fitness, a leather strap may not be the best idea.
There are no ugly ports or connections at the front or sides of the Gear 2. In fact, there’s only one button, which is used to manually wake up the watch should you not want it to illuminate every time you raise your wrist.
Samsung has neatly hidden away the charging pins in the underside of the watch. This means you have to dock the watch to its bundled charging cradle to give it some juice. The dock is fairly small, but you’ll need to carry it with you when travelling, and should it get misplaced you would have no way to recharge the watch.
We managed around three and a half days of average usage, dropping down to two when we made frequent use of the Exercise mode which polls the heart rate sensor at regular intervals. This is an improvement over the original Galaxy Gear and an achievement considering how bright the screen is, but still falls short of simpler smart watches like the Pebble.
However, that may not be an issue once you get a look at the screen. The 1.63in square AMOLED display is absolutely gorgeous, mainly thanks to the 320×320 resolution which makes text look sharp and a very high brightness which means the screen is easy to read even in direct sunlight. We dialled down the brightness level several notches from the default 5, as in dimly lit environments like restaurants or cinemas the screen is like a beacon of light every time you activate it.
You can set the background to a darker wallpaper, which helps limit the amount of light bleed in the dark, and should also help keep battery drain to a minimum as the AMOLED pixels don’t need to turn on when displaying absolute black. You can also use your own images, either sent from a paired smartphone or taken using the watch itself.
If you had visions of Dick Tracey-style video calls from your wrist, the Gear 2 may come as a disappointment; you can’t video chat and the built-in camera faces outwards rather than towards the wearer. It also makes a very loud shutter noise when taking photos, so we doubt MI6 will be making the upgrade, although some may see this as a welcome privacy measure to avoid nuisance photographers. Images are automatically synced to a paired smartphone as you snap them, so there’s no need to manually transfer your images at the end of the day.
The camera itself has a 2-megapixel sensor, which is capable of taking basic 1,920×1,080 resolution photos in bright light. Even before the lights go down, though, images are noisy and detail quickly drops off as your subjects get darker. Seen side-by-side with cropped images from a Galaxy S5, there’s clearly no competition. It can also record short 15 second video clips in 720p, which again are of acceptable quality but nothing more.
The gear 2’s camera, right, cant’t compete with practically any smartphone, making it a bit of a novelty
Considering the relatively small list of Gear compatible smartphones, your handset is practically guaranteed to take better images than the Gear 2 so unless you’re caught without your phone when on a run we can’t see much call for its inclusion. The macro focus mode takes reasonably clear and detailed close-up shots, however, so it could have a place for quickly snapping important documents or hastily scribbled reminders.
We expected our first look at Tizen, Samsung’s mobile operating system designed to provide an alternative to Google’s Android, on a smartphone, but instead its debut has come on the Gear 2. The version seen here was built specifically for wearables, and as such runs incredibly smoothly on the 1GHz dual-core processor and 512MB of RAM that powers the Gear 2. The touchscreen is usually responsive, swiping between menus and opening apps without any major lag or slowdown.
There are plenty of apps to try out too. As well as the standard clock, timer, and stopwatch modes, you’ll also find music controls to play, pause, skip tracks and adjust the volume of the MP3s on your smartphone, a voice memo recorder, weather report, daily schedule and a handy Find My Device feature, should you misplace your smartphone but still be within Bluetooth range. WatchOn video control makes use of the integrated IR blaster to control your TV or set-top box, which could be handy if you’re constantly misplacing the remote and you can even trigger Samsung’s S Voice voice assistant to launch most of the Gear 2’s features just by speaking into it.
Although it doesn’t have its own SIM card, you can still make and receive calls using the Gear 2 as long as it’s paired with a smartphone. An integrated microphone and speaker let you communicate hands free, and there are handy dialler, contacts book and call log apps to help you find the right number without first reaching for your phone.
You can pin one app to a double tap of the home button, letting you jump straight into it rather than swiping and tapping the screen multiple times. We used it primarily for music controls, but it could be used for messages or emails if you always need to stay connected.
Arguably the most important extra feature is notifications. The Gear 2 automatically takes calls, messages and email notifications from your phone and alerts you with a vibration on your wrist, instantly letting you know when a mail or SMS has come through. You can respond to them with canned messages, which is great if you’re stuck in a meeting but don’t want to be rude to a friend by ignoring them.
You can add third party notifications too by adding them through the Gear Manager app, although you won’t be able to interact with them like you can with calls, texts or emails.
Although it isn’t as fitness focused as the Gear Fit wristband, the Gear 2 has the same accelerometer for counting steps and integrated heart rate monitor, so it can do exactly the same exercise tracking. The watch is also IP67 dust and water resistant, meaning you won’t have to panic should you get caught in the rain when out on a run.
We purposely delayed this review after speaking with Samsung, as the pre-release software our review units were loaded with was lacking some of the basic functionality we would expect from any fitness tracker. Now the post-launch updates have arrived, the Gear 2 makes a lot more sense as an exercise partner; as it counts your steps it syncs with the S Health app on your smartphone, displaying your movements on a home screen widget or on the lock screen. Data is synchronised every three hours, though, so it isn’t always up to date.
Sleep tracking is the latest addition, although it hasn’t been fully integrated into the app and you’re only told what percentage of your night’s sleep was motionless – there are no tips to improving your sleeping patterns.
You can manually check your pulse at any time using the heart rate monitor, but it isn’t particularly useful; it works far better when using the Exercise mode when running, walking, hiking or cycling as it polls the sensor once a minute to monitor your level of exertion. An audio guide can then tell you to speed up or slow down based on your goal. As long as you have a tight fit the watch should be able to read your pulse, although we sometimes struggled to get a reading without shunting the watch around our wrists first.
With 4GB of integrated memory and Bluetooth, you could feasibly leave your expensive smartphone at home when heading out for a training session, letting you track your workout and listen to music right from the watch with a pair of wireless headphones. There’s a small speaker built into the watch too, if you don’t mind irritating your fellow joggers with your favourite tunes. It’s worth keeping in mind that the watch uses GPS data from your phone to plot routes in S Health, so leaving it at home will mean no mapping data.
When you get back from a run, you can check your progress in S Health. All the important data, including distance, time, pace, speed and elevation are there, along with a chart plotting heart rate and a map of your route. Even so, S Health is a little convoluted, with many of those details hidden behind menus. If you’re already invested in another fitness app it may be difficult to adjust, although you may not have to: Samsung is working to incorporate big-name third party apps including Endomondo, MapMyFitness and RunKeeper into S Health to let you use your new hardware with familiar software.
As with the Gear Fit, and the Galaxy Gear before it, the Gear 2’s biggest failing is the need to own a Samsung smartphone in order to use it. Out of the box, it’s unusable without first pairing to a device, and even then there’s only a limited number of supported Samsung phones.
Now this does include some big hitters such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy Note 2, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4 mini and Galaxy Mega 6.3. Despite this, until Samsung makes it an open system it will likely remain a niche product that will only appeal to dedicated fans of the brand.
The other major concern is price. At £250, the Gear 2 is pretty expensive. As it stands right now, we don’t think it can be justified, we’d want more apps and we could happily lose the camera if that reduced the price, weight or both. Battery life is still a concern too; until we can go more than a few days without glancing at the battery indicator or carrying the charging dock with us on trips away.
It’s nice to have some smartphone features a glance away, saving you digging in your pocket every time but we’re not quite persuaded it’s a must-have device yet. It’s still early days for wearable technology, and Samsung’s second attempt is a worthy upgrade over the original, but the concept isn’t quite ready for us to part with the cash.