Gear Fit's curved-screen styling shows the promise of wearables

Samsung’s new Gear Fit is a stylish activity tracker worn on the wrist-- not actually a smartwatch. What makes it special?  It includes the  world’s first curved SuperAMOLED color display, which measures 1.84-in. diagonally with 128x432 pixels.

When it was unveiled at Mobile World Congress in February, the Gear Fit got an unusual number of oohs and ahhs for looking so cool, compared to many square, oversized or plain geeky-looking smartwatches.  As an activity tracker with less functionality than a smartwatch, Gear Fit looks about as cool as the Nike+ FuelBand with the added ability to have an interactive touchscreen.

The Fit’s beautiful and clear display shows great promise for what wristband wearable devices can become—especially if and when higher computing functions can be crammed inside such a small package. If Samsung can cross the Fit’s styling with a more powerful smartwatch’s functionality, then Samsung will be on its way to competing against Google and Apple in the smartwatch category. Google’s already announced the Android Wear version of Android for wearables, and LG and Motorola are planning to release smartwatches soon.  Apple could capture the smartwatch category once it enters the space, possibly later this year.

Even though the styling of the Gear Fit activity tracker is good, my first thought in evaluating a review unit was why anybody would pay the retail price of $200 for it, in addition to hundreds of dollars more for the cost of a Bluetooth connected smartphone.

But that’s not meant as a condemnation of the device at all, since it seems Gear Fit is almost a preview of things to come in wearables, where small but stylish devices can be used to incorporate services and apps being built by a fresh new crop of  developers.  If I had the development acumen, and the time, I could see buying the device just to get up to speed on the technology to help engineer the next-generation of apps and services.

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The big question for potential developers is whether the Fit’s operating system—officially listed as Samsung Proprietary—will get nearly the developer interest as will the Tizen OS being used in Samsung’s $300 Gear 2 and $200 Gear 2 Neo  smartwatches released in April along with the Gear Fit. Last year’s first Samsung Gear smartwatch was based on Android.

Gear Fit relies on a Bluetooth connection to the Galaxy S5 smartphone and other Samsung devices, but the apps are so far limited, including with fitness monitoring through Samsung’s S Health app on the smartphone.

There’s no camera in the Gear Fit or a microphone or speaker as in some smartwatches from Samsung and others, but you can use the Fit to get notification of emails and calls on the display, and even can use the device to start and stop songs on the smartphone.   You can also press a button on the Fit's display to find your paired smartphone (if it’s within, say, 15 yards with Bluetooth range and your smartphone is on) and you can respond to an incoming call with an outbound, pre-set text message to say you’ll call back later.

The most unusual feature in the Gear Fit is a heart rate monitor that relies upon a sensor that projects light into the back of the wrist.  A number of reviewers and early users have questioned the reliability of such heart rate monitors from various vendors, and I had an inconsistent experience with it.

After nearly daily use over two weeks while running on a treadmill or along city streets up to three miles at a time, I can say that Fit’s heart rate monitor is clearly not of much value to athletes or active amateur athletes.  It might be a motivational tool to some couch potatoes trying to get in shape or people returning from an injury.

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The heart rate monitor in the Fit does work, even when disconnected from the Bluetooth connection to the smartphone, but the Fit will instruct you make sure the wristband isn’t too tight or it can’t even make a reading.  You also have to be still and not talking (the Fit will remind you of this) to get a heart rate reading, which sometimes takes up to 15 seconds.

So, pausing while you run to take a heart rate reading that takes so long is just, well, silly.  I’ve trained for half marathons and have relied on pressing my fingers to my neck—while running-- to get pretty accurate pulse readings (while watching a digital timer on a track or a coach nearby calling out seconds).

The other problem with the Fit is that if you sweat much, like I do, the sweat interferes with the reading. The color of one’s  skin tone also affects the readings, according to experts. The fact that the sensor is on the back of the wrist to monitor the blood flowing through the capillaries under the skin apparently doesn’t help.  A more accurate placement of a sensor that relies on light would be on the tip of the index finger, which is how the Galaxy S5 smartphone works with its heart rate sensor.

In 15 different side-by-side tests, I found the Galaxy S5 heart rate sensor was closer than the Fit to the heart rate reading that I got from hand sensors on a treadmill at my gym. The Fit’s sensor always came in lower than the smartphone or the treadmill, sometimes by as much as 12%.   A typical result was that the treadmill would read 134 beats per minute, while the smartphone had 130 bpm and the Fit had 122.  (Each time I would try to read the smartphone and Fit after pausing on the treadmill, but a person’s heart rate can drop drastically in just a few seconds and it took up to 15 seconds to register a reading).

The best way to perceive the value of the Fit’s heart rate monitor is to use it regularly, when paused after a run or other exercise, to judge if your rate has changed from one workout to the next. That way, it doesn’t matter if you are off by much from an actual heart rate as measured by an EKG administered by a doctor or even one of the many chest band monitors that use electrical impulses from the heart.

Other insights about the Gear Fit:

--Display:  The colors and resolution in the display are striking, and the curvature really adds to the styling. (As you can see from the photos, I missed my big chance as a hand and wrist model. ) The touch display also quickly reacts to swipes, unless you are perspiring.

On the other hand, Samsung has provided a number of clock faces, some with weather updates, that run along the long side of the display (in landscape mode) so that it’s hard to read the information with the Gear Fit worn on the wrist.  It’s particularly hard to see the button to launch the heart rate monitor because the start button for the monitor is located on the far left of the display.  There are several cool clock faces that work in portrait, which are easy to read and can be downloaded, but that doesn’t help with the heart rate monitor display.

--Durability:  While the Fit is listed as dust and water resistant, it is also not shock resistant.  I’m worried an active user is likely to bang the display against something sooner or later and break it.

--Battery life:  The Lithium Ion battery inside the Fit is listed at 210 mAh, with three to four days of typical use.  This is far lower than some smart activity tracker bands give.  In my use, I got about three days off a single charge,  but I would frequently turn it off after each use by pressing the power button on the side.  The Fit does have a lot of power needs:  it uses its power to run a full color display, a heart rate monitor and also to power haptic feedback vibrations. There’s even the ability to turn on the display each time you rotate your wrist upward, among other things. That latter function, supported by an accelerometer, didn’t work consistently for me. The Fit works with Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, which should theoretically reduce power depletion.

The Fit is recharged with a small coupler attached to the rear of the device that is plugged into the wall.

--Other specs: The Gear Fit is officially listed as just under an ounce in weight, and it does feel very light on the wrist.  Overall, the actual device, minus the wrist band, is 0.92 x 2.26 x 0.47 inches.  The wrist band is unfortunately a cheap vinyl that feels slimy when it gets wet from sweat. It comes in black, but optional straps, sold separately, come in orange or gray.  I didn’t explore too many of the third party apps, but some popular ones offer an array of different watch faces.

Overall, I’d recommend the Gear Fit for tech savvy users and developers, if only to learn what might be possible with future iterations of smartwatches and smart bands.  Google Wear seems to have a number of smartwatch hardware styles that could appear as early as June, and Apple might hit the market later this  year or next.  Samsung seems to have a good start with the Gear Fit and other Gear devices.

The overall market for wearables could be large,  but the real promise is finding good styling that people want to been seen wearing while adding powerful apps.  It’s pretty clear that both styling and the creation of powerful apps will go through a lot of changes in the next year.  My biggest hope is that the price gets dropped by half or more once these devices start shipping in large numbers and the component costs come down.

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