Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch – A Cool Dad’s Best Friend? (Review)

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After a good solid couple of weeks of usage, I finally feel confident enough to able to give the Samsung Galaxy Gear the review it deserves. If you haven’t already, I suggest checking out my previous preview post that dealt with my initial hardware impressions. You can find that here. For those who have been living under a rock, the Samsung Galaxy Gear is Samsung’s first attempt at a smart watch. Many knew this was coming, especially with the rumors circulating that Apple would be coming out with their own in 2014, so instead of being a follower this round, Samsung decided to release theirs first. Whether this was a good strategy remains to be seen as there have already been quite a bit of mixed reviews on it.

For this review, I’m going to keep it light on technical specs and focus more on actual usage and what I liked and did not like about the Galaxy Gear. This is all based on real world usage throughout my week. Mainly, the main reason for using the Galaxy Gear is to receive notifications for important emails, messages, and apps that I use often but can’t look at all the time when my kids are accessing my device or if I’ve placed it somewhere out of reach.

Hardware Impressions

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Again, if you didn’t read my initial hardware impressions, I suggest doing so here. This pretty much covers how I feel about the design of the Galaxy Gear and after using it for a week, my impressions of it haven’t changed much. There are some points I’d like to bring up however about its design.

Pros

  • Setting up your Galaxy Gear is actually very simple once you read the instructions. Without the instructions, I could not figure out what the heck I was supposed to do to have to pair with my Note 3. After I did, it was a breeze. Speaking of setup, the setup graphic on the screen when you first turn it on is a little bit confusing and doesn’t really tell you what to do. I mean it does, but not very clearly.
  • I like how there is only 1 real button while the rest of the watch is controlled via touchscreen. That gives the device a very clean look. I never even really had to use the button at all in my time using the Galaxy Gear. I have it set where I would just lift up my wrist to turn it on and it usually worked fine.
  • I like the details they put into the strap with the lines molded into the rubber strap. It gives the watch texture and a feeling quality.
  • The clasp at the bottom that you use to secure the Galaxy Gear to your wrist is strong and well made. It’s easy to adjust the sizing of the strap and the way in which they accomplish this gives the strap a cleaner look because there isn’t extra strap hanging around.
  • I’m a bit worried about scratching the glass on the screen, but so far, I haven’t had any mishaps yet.
  • The watch is very light. I found it to be very comfortable to wear for the most part and didn’t feel like it was weighing down my arm. It didn’t look overly huge on my wrist and I’m not a big guy either.
  • I found that the Galaxy Gear looked right at home with my business attire as it did in my casual attire.

Cons

  • You will get wide range of opinions about how the Gear looks from everyone you show it to. Some love it, while some hate it. It’s certainly not a device where a majority of people are going to have to same opinions about it. In my case, I don’t mind how it looks. I think it looks great in silver and black and has a very business/professional look in that color combo. It could do with some refinement however, especially on the face where the screws are showing. Either make the screws all facing the same direction or find a way to take them off the face completely as to clean up the look.
  • I don’t know how it looks in other colors because I haven’t seen it in other colors, but I’d assume that it might look a bit too much like a toy in bright colors.
  • Charging it is weird. You have to use the plastic dock it comes with in order to plug in the USB charge adapter and there’s no way around that. Leave the dock at home and there’s no way to charge it on the road. This needs to be addressed in version 2 of the Galaxy Gear. It’s inconvenient to say the least and the dock is far from attractive.
  • The watch can be a little uncomfortable to wear if you’re sitting at computer typing all day. The clasp portion where the mic sits is a bit thick and can dig into your wrist if you’re typing. I end up having to take it off if I know I’ll be typing something long.

That’s basically it for hardware. As you can see, it has it’s fair share of pros and cons. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but despite a few minor annoyances, I enjoyed wearing it around. I never felt “geeky” wearing it around even though it had a camera attached to the strap. Speaking of which, if you have the black version of the watch, no one even notices the camera at all, which is awesome. People don’t even question you about it. It’s very stealthy in black.

Software

Now here is where many reviewers seem to have a problem with the Galaxy Gear, mainly because since this is Samsung’s first Android smartwatch, there are bound to be a few hiccups and design quirks. Mainly I’ll be talking about my experiences with it so far and the parts of it I found useful in my every day life. I don’t expect most people to use all the features on it but I’m sure there will be some that you use more often than others.

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For starters, the Galaxy Gear works as a great watch. I mean basically speaking, all you want a good watch to do is keep accurate time and tell you what date it is. The Galaxy Gear does that. Not only that, there are numerous watch faces you can choose from to express your sense of style and function. There are regular analog looking faces as well as full digital faces that also include extras like feature shortcuts, the weather, or specific app information. If you don’t like any of those faces and you want something a bit more custom and you, there is an app called Watch Styler in which you can make your own watch faces, but that will be for another post. Anyways, back to the watch, as long as you can sync up with your mobile devices daily, your time and date should always be accurate.

Screenshot_2013-10-30-14-49-29Speaking of devices, you can really only use the Galaxy Note 3 at the moment to fully use the Galaxy Gear, although as I’m writing this, Samsung has already announced support for other devices like the Galaxy Note II, Galaxy S4, and S3. When you’ll receive these updates depends on your carrier.

For the most part, you are dependent on your mobile device, in my case, the Galaxy Note 3. You need your device in order to setup features on the Galaxy Gear. You do this using the Gear Manager app which is automatically downloaded to the Note 3 when you first pair with the device via NFC. The Gear Manager allows you to do all sorts of things with your Galaxy Gear. Here you can adjust clock settings and device settings, app settings for both included and downloaded apps, downloading new apps, and also the Find my Gear app which will allow you to find your Gear if you’ve misplaced it.

Of course once you set that up with the Gear Manager, you can pretty much do everything else on the gear, settings wise. Settings on the Gear allows you to change clock faces that are installed, sound and vibrate settings, volume, display, and others. None of this of course probably matters to you because you want to have fun with your Gear, not play around with the setting toggles.

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That brings me to the included apps on the Galaxy Gear. There are only a few that I can honestly say I use often. These are the apps I have saved as my favorites and are easily accessible by swiping left or right on the screen without me having to dig through the app menu. Some of my favorite apps include the weather app, pedometer, stopwatch, and the timer. The app I use the most however is the camera app, but that’s easily accessible by just swiping down on the main clock so I’ve left it out of the favorites list. Other than that, all the other apps reside in the apps section of the watch.

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Did I mention you can make calls with the Galaxy Gear? Just swipe up from the main clock screen and you’ll be taken to the phone dialer. As long as you are in range of your Note 3, you can place calls directly with the Galaxy Gear. It acts as a speakerphone with the mic and speaker being at the bottom of the watch band. You can either dial manually, choose a person from your contact list, or you S Voice to automatically call someone.

Usage

Everyone will have their own reason for using a smartwatch or have their own ideas of what they are looking for in a smartwatch. For me, there’s a very specific reason why I want to own a smartwatch. Basically, I rely on my smartphone for everything. I conduct my regular 9-5 business with it through phone calls, emails, and messaging as well as keeping up with my blog related social networks and emails. That’s a lot of information I need to keep up with and much of it needs to be checked up on as soon as it comes in. In a perfect world, I’d have my smartphone on my 24/7 but that’s not always possible. Sometimes I have to lend my phone to my children to keep them occupied or sometimes I just plain forget to carry it and leave it at home somewhere which is a big no no for someone who needs it all the time. That’s why the thought of having a smartwatch intrigues me, especially with the whole notion of being able to receive all your notifications on it without ever really having to look at your phone.

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The Galaxy Gear does this to some extent. Some of it, it does well. Some of it, it doesn’t. But I’ll get into that in a bit. I lend my phone a lot to my children when we are out at restaurants or if I’m waiting around at school with them waiting for their teachers to come. That means that while they are using my phone, I can’t get any of my notifications because my kids are too busy playing with games and don’t bother telling me when something important pops up. With the Galaxy Gear, I don’t have to miss notifications anymore.

With it, I can easily lend my Note 3 to my children to play and go about my business. When an email comes in, I can easily see who it is coming from and briefly read the message contained within. You have to use Samsung’s email app as it doesn’t work as well with the Gmail app. The Gmail app only shows you that you received, but you can’t see from who or what the contents are. The same goes for text messages. I can easily check these when they come in and decide whether or not I want to reply back to them or not. The coolest feature though is that I can even take phone calls with the Galaxy Gear. If someone calls while my kids are on it, I can see the caller ID on the Gear as well as pick up the call and talk through it without ever having to use my phone. That means my kids can continue playing while I chat.

As a bonus, there is a camera on the Galaxy Gear. I never even thought of putting one on a watch and didn’t think I would get much use out of it, but it really is handy.  It’s faster snapping a photo of something when you don’t have to dig in your pockets for your camera and the Gear camera is actually pretty snappy and fast. The resolution isn’t that high though, but for something like posting photos to Instagram, the quality is more than enough. The video feature of the camera isn’t bad either, though you are limited to only 15 seconds at a time.

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Not everything is quite perfect yet though with the Gear and there is plenty of room for improvement. For starters, my biggest gripe with it is the way in which you must charge it using the included dock. It’s very inconvenient and the dock is an extra piece that just shouldn’t be needed. Next up, there aren’t really that many third party apps available yet for it. The ones that are available aren’t really that great or are generally uninteresting and not something I want to put on a watch. Lastly, notifications need to be worked on. It generally works, although the implementation of it is very clumsy. I’ll explain why below.

Points of Interest

  • As long as you remain connected via Bluetooth to your device, you will receive notifications for calls, emails, messages, Twitter, and even Facebook. There are more you can have the Gear notify you on, but those I listed are the main ones.
  • The camera app works well for both photos and video. Taking photos and video is as easy as just tapping on the screen. There is no way to turn off the shutter sound however so no stealth photos can be taken unless you’re somewhere loud.
  • The weather app is powered by AccuWeather. It gives you the weather at your current location with both temperature and graphical representation. Tapping on the app also allows you to view the week’s forecast. You can set the frequency of updates the Gear fetches through the Gear Manager on the Note 3.
  • S Voice is a bit limited on the Gear. You are limited to phrases based on only what the Gear can do. That means S Voice only interacts with calls, messages, schedules and tasks, the clock, weather, timer, and the alarm. You can also use it to open an app. You can’t use it to interact with your mobile device.
  • Notifications generally work, although the interface for it is very clunky and not really user friendly. You’ll get a notification in real time when they occur, but if you look at them right away, they disappear and end up in the notification menu, not on the main clock screen. That means if you happen to have missed the notification, you won’t see it just by glancing at your watch. There should be some kind of visual cue on the main clock screen that stays there until you check them. Also, Twitter and Facebook notifications are a bit useless because you can’t read them on the Gear. Instead you have to view it on your mobile device.
  • If you decide to use the Galaxy Gear as a phone, note that everyone around you will be able to hear everything. There is only a speakerphone option available so instead of the usual 1-sided conversation strangers hear, it’ll be the entire conversation.
  • You do get funny looks if people see you talking into your wrist, though after the initial shock, they are generally interested in why you were doing that which leads to interest with the Galaxy Gear. By the way, kids love this thing and think you are the coolest by wearing it. It amazes everyone that I can make calls from it. Kids especially think I’m from the future.

Final Thoughts

From a geek perspective, the Galaxy Gear has a ton of potential. Right now, it’s very limited in features, but hopefully Samsung will continue to improve and update the apps on it and not just leave it as is. It does some things well, while other things need major improvement. However, I’m willing to stick with it because it genuinely is useful for my needs.

Which brings me to why I think smartwatches are great for parents. Despite a few problems with the Galaxy Gear, it has been one of the more useful accessories I’ve used so far in conjunction with my smartphone. I don’t have to worry about missing notifications anymore when lending my device out to my kids nor do I have to worry about missing important phone calls. I can now screen notifications to see if it’s worth my time picking up my phone, which is great if I’m also doing something with my kids. I used to stop everything I was doing to dig my phone out of my pocket but now, I can just quickly glance at my Gear and get an idea what that message or email contained and decide if I should bother pulling out my phone. This way, I also don’t look like THAT parent who is paying more attention to their phone then they are their own kids.

In the end, I’m glad I don’t have to miss notifications anymore and I can stop checking my phone every 5 minutes to make sure I didn’t miss anything important. Yes, the whole notification system on the Galaxy Gear is a little bit broken in some areas, but for calls, messages, and emails, it works well. I don’t know if it will do what YOU want it to do, but for my needs, the Galaxy Gear does what I need it to do and that’s all that matters really.

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