Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Gear

NEW YORK—Today Samsung officially pulled the curtain back on the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and the good news is that it doesn't look quite as bad as the earlier leaked prototype. The watch is designed to be a companion accessory for a smartphone, and it connects over Bluetooth for a data connection, bringing you notifications and phone calls.
A Samsung representative takes us through the various features that come with the Galaxy Gear.
Now for the really, really bad news about the Galaxy Gear: it's only compatible with Samsung smartphones that run Android 4.3. That's pretty crippling. The silver lining is that the 4.3-and-up requirement means it will take advantage of 4.3's ability to send out notifications to other devices. Notifications should be remotely dismissible, fast, and have decent compatibility across apps.
All told, it was hard to get a feel for the Galaxy Gear at an event like this. Samsung had them locked down with huge security attachments that made it impossible to judge whether two of my primary concerns about a smartwatch—the thickness and heaviness—would be a factor on the Gear. The first two layers you see in the photo make up the actual watch, the bottom part is a solid steel security attachment. The other problem is that one of the primary forms of input is voice recognition, which is just not going to work in a noisy room. A smart watch is definitely something you need to spend some serious time with to judge.
The interface prioritizes the built-in apps as several one-icon, swipeable screens. The whole setup reminds me a lot of Google Glass. Any third-party apps go in an "all apps" bucket that shows a 2x2 grid. The main functions are Calls Log, Contacts, a watch face, Notifications, Voice Memo, S Voice, Gallery, Music, a pedometer, and, of course, settings. The swipe-down gesture functions as Android's typical Back button, and any menu duties are handled with an on-screen menu button in the top right corner. The Gear runs some form of Android underneath all the skinning, but Samsung wouldn't specify which version.
The voice recognition is handled by the Nuance-powered S Voice. The intuitiveness here leaves a lot to be desired; a few of us were playing with it, and no one could figure out when S Voice was loading, listening, or processing—we were just never sure what it was doing. Most of these voice recognition apps show some kind of sound visualization when they're listening, but this did no such thing.
The music app displayed simple play, previous, and next buttons, along with the name of the song. The other pictures show off the extremely simple pedometer readout and the "About" screen.
The Gear has a 1.63 inch, 320x320 touchscreen, which clocks in around 277DPI. That's not the ridiculous pixel density we're used to, but it's perfectly serviceable. The watch casing is made from stainless steel, and the band comes in six different colors, all of which are made of a textured, rubbery plastic. I wear a watch as jewelry, so something like a steel, sectioned band would have been nice. The colored plastic makes the watch look like a toy. Samsung did spring for ultra-hard sapphire glass, which should be nigh-unscratchable.
Of course, the watch makes phone calls, thanks to the tethered smartphone signal, a built-in speaker, and a microphone. This was a noisy environment, but the speaker sounded pretty terrible. The person trying it had to hold the watch up to her ear to hear anything, but of course, this is something we'll have to try in a quieter location.
Manufacturers can't seem to release anything anymore without cramming a camera into it, and the Gear is no exception. Integrated into the strap is a 1.9MP camera. Considering this requires a smartphone to function, and all smartphones have cameras, was this really necessary? And a 1.9MP camera? How badly do you want to take a picture of something? They could have skipped the camera and made the Gear fit a normal (classier) watch band.
Here you can also see the ribbing around the band and the overall cartoony look of a colored, rubberish watch band. This is a Samsung rep's wrist, and there's no security block on the bottom, so you can get a feel for how thick the Gear really is.
The band has a folding-style clasp mechanism that could almost be from a real watch. The only bad part about it seems to be the way the clasp attaches onto the rubbery plastic band: it uses teeth and pressure.
Samsung has put together a minimal spec list that leaves many unanswered questions: What kind of processor does it have? What version of Android does it run? We'll have to wait until we get one in our hands to find out.