Samsung Galaxy Gear: Meet the smartwatch that tries too hard

Is Samsung making a serious run at the smartwatch market, or is the Gear just a clumsy experiment?

Damn my infernal pants pockets. The salesmen at the store said they would be useful for storing small personal items -- car keys, loose change, lint -- but he didn't warn me that they'd be a crappy place to keep my smartphone. Somehow, some way, whenever I need my phone the most, it's lodged deep in my front pocket, entrenched and inaccessible.

Sound familiar? Indeed. So a smartwatch like the Samsung's Galaxy Gear ($300) would seem to solve a lot of problems. In theory, it puts a bunch of critical smartphone functions directly on your wrist, saving you the trouble of extricating your phone from your pocket to make a phone call, snap a photo or run a few apps.

Galaxy Gear
Galaxy Gear

Well, that's the promise at least. In practice, the Galaxy Gear hints and teases at what a great smartwatch could be, but never really nails any single function. It's packed with potential, and even includes support for third-party apps. But it's a challenge to use at nearly every turn, and at $300, it feels like an expensive experiment.

Niche, nerdy, and not so cute

The Gear is not a standalone product -- it requires a Bluetooth connection with your smartphone to execute almost all tasks. And it doesn't just work with any old smartphone. At launch, the Gear only works with a single phone, the philosophically polarizing, 5.7-in. behemoth that is the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (though conventional wisdom says support for Samsung's S III, S4 and Note 2 is coming).

Still interested? Then take a good, long look at the Gear's design and ask yourself if this watch is anything you'd wear throughout the day. The watch fits my wrist just fine and I personally find its styling to be inoffensive, if a bit techy-cheesy. But the consensus among women isn't so generous.

First, the Gear is apparently too big for many women's wrists. Second, more than half of the women I polled found it a fashion faux pas. Vintage analog men's watches can make "cute accessories," but Samsung's interpretation is a different thing entirely, it turns out. "It looks like a prop from Battlestar Galactica," said one of my female friends. And don't even think about switching the band, as Samsung's band includes the Gear's 1.9-megapixel camera, an integral part of the watch's feature set.

The bottom line is that anyone interested in the Gear must be sympatico with an extremely niche smartphone, and have man-sized wrists and a high threshold for shiny brushed metal. Still with me? Then let's continue.

Shake and wake (in theory)

The Gear features a 1.63-in., 320 x 320 Super AMOLED display and a single-core, 800MHz processor. The display is too small to support an onscreen keyboard, so all data entry (if we can call it that) is handled by S Voice, Samsung's virtual digital assistant. With simple voice recognition commands, you can do things like check the weather, schedule a meeting, and get the time in another city. When the feature works, it's a pleasant convenience. But it didn't consistently recognize my very... carefully... enunciated... words. A Google Now on my HTC One performs more reliably, and every time S Voice failed me, I lost confidence in its overall ability to perform.

Battery life is rated for a stingy 25 hours, but I found it reached its low battery warning message (which kicks in at 15% capacity) after about 11 hours of moderate use, two days in a row. Mind you, I wasn't using the Gear continuously. Instead, a few times every hour I briefly shot some photos, sent some texts, explored a few apps and made some phone calls.

It's worth noting that when a smartwatch runs out of juice, you don't just lose smart functions. Your display dies, and you lose the ability to even tell time. At this point, you really need to appreciate the shiny brushed metal, because you're wearing nothing more than an expensive bracelet.

The Gear's touch screen display remains off by default, but thanks to a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, you can (theoretically) wake it from sleep with a shake of your hand, or by simply turning your wrist and looking at the watch face. Shaking the watch almost never cajoled the display into action. The wrist-flip maneuver was much more reliable, but not consistently perfect. During testing, I often had to suffer the indignity of waking the Gear by pushing its home button. Yuck.

Regardless, once the device is ready for business, you can swipe the home screen left and right to access various functions. There's a voice memo app for five-minute audio recordings; a media controller for whatever music app you're using on your phone; a pedometer (whose step counts can be viewed in real-time and appeared entirely accurate); and menus for Contacts, Settings and Apps, among other less glamorous features.

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