Samsung officially announced its Galaxy Gear smartwatch Wednesday, revealing a slick slab of wearable computing that will initially only work with the company's just-announced Galaxy Note 3 smartphone and Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, 2014 edition.
Limiting the Gear's compatibility to just two niche devices is a curious move on Samsung's part, and suggests the company either wants to goose sales of its Note products, or simply couldn't offer compatibility with its much more mainstream mobile gear at launch. Samsung says Note II, Galaxy SIII, and Galaxy S4 users will get a software upgrade after launch that will allow them to use the Gear.
"I believe it will become a new fashion icon around the world," said Samsung's President and CEO JK Shin at a launch event in Berlin Wednesday.
In terms of raw hardware, the Galaxy Gear is a 1.5-inch by 2.2-inch rectangular slab that's constructed from stainless steel, measures 0.43 inches thick, and weighs 2.6 ounces.
All data and notifications appear on a full-color, 1.63-inch touchscreen. The Super AMOLED screen boasts a 320-by-320 resolution, and battery life is estimated to last over 25 hours of moderate use before needing a charge. The Gear is powered by a custom 800MHz single-core processor, and includes a gyroscope and accelerometer for physical gesturing and pedometer functions.
The Gear also manages to cram in both a 1.9-megapixel camera and speakers--the camera is integrated into the wrist strap, while the speakers are tucked into the clasp. The Gear features a solitary button, which when pressed takes you directly to the home screen. All other commands and functions are controlled via the touchscreen by a series of swipes (down to launch the camera, sideways to access apps and functions, up to go back).
Raising your Gear-clad hand to your ear enables the call feature. While you can place (and answer) calls using the Gear's on-screen dialer, wrist strap speaker, and two noise-canceling microphones, you can't read or respond to emails--the watch will display notifications but the messages themselves must be viewed on a Note 3.
The Gear can, however, use S Voice commands to call your friends, send texts, set an alarm, and check on the weather. It also features a Find My Device feature, which in conjunction with an Auto Lock enhancement, will lock your smartphone any time the Gear is more than five feet away. It can also make a lost smartphone beep, illuminate, and vibrate so you can locate it quickly.
On the software side, the Galaxy Gear runs a modified version of Android and syncs to compatible Android devices via a Galaxy Gear Manager interface. The Galaxy Gear will come preloaded with a number of apps, including Evernote, Path (a social network), Glympse (location sharing), Pocket (a "save for later" service), Line (a messaging service), and two fitness apps--MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper. More apps can be downloaded through the Gear app store, confirming rumors that Samsung would be eschewing the Google Play store.
To take photos with the Gear, you simply aim and swipe the screen. While 1.9 megapixels won't get you too far as far as "real" photography, they will facilitate what Samsung is calling "memography"--quick, spur-of-the-moment image capture. And, hey, who are we to turn our noses up at a camera inside a watch strap? Let alone one that captures images in a single gesture.
Pictures can be transferred automatically to a smartphone with Bluetooth 4.0 BLE. The Gear itself also features an image browser so you can see some of the pictures you've taken (as well as any you've transferred to the watch from the smartphone). And the camera doesn't just take pictures--it also has augmented reality features that can translate foreign languages into your mother tongue, and provide more detailed information about a product you're looking at.
"We want the possibilities of what you do with your Gear to be endless," said Pranav Mistry, Samsung's director of research, at the Berlin event.
There's not nearly as much fitness integration as was rumored. Still, the Gear does include a built-in pedometer to provide data to compatible fitness apps. Samsung has already dipped its toes into the fit tech trend with S-Health, so it's surprising it didn't announce any compatibility with this feature.
While the Gear will be available in six colors, it's not as durable as you'd expect for a device that sits on your wrist. It's rated IP55, which means it can withstand dust and water jets for a few minutes. Sony's recently announced SmartWatch 2 is rated IP57, meaning it can withstand submersion in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes.
In all, the Galaxy Gear looks to be a great companion for a crazy-large, 5.3-inch, phone-tablet hybrid. The smartwatch itself is launching in the U.S. in October, and compatibility with other Samsung devices is also scheduled for October. But that extended support can't come soon enough. The Note line has been a surprising success for Samsung, but the Galaxy S3 and S4 smartphones are the company's mainstays, and they give the Gear its best chance of becoming a legitimate smartwatch "thing."