Samsung has unveiled a highly anticipated digital wristwatch at least weeks ahead of a similar product expected from rival Apple.
So-called smartwatches are what some technology analysts believe could become this year’s must-have holiday gift.
Samsung says the Galaxy Gear can act as an extension to a smartphone by discreetly alerting users to incoming messages and calls on its display screen, which measures 1.63 inches diagonally.
Users can even make calls, secret agent-style, without getting out their phone. The Gear also sports a basic camera and works with popular social media and fitness apps such as Twitter and RunKeeper.
The Android-powered device starts shipping in most countries Sept. 25 starting at $299. It will be compatible initially with two other products Samsung unveiled — the Galaxy Note III, which is a smartphone with a giant 5.7-inch screen and a digital pen, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1, a tablet computer with a 10.1-inch screen
comparable to Apple’s full-sized iPad.
With smartphones and tablets now ubiquitous, electronics companies are trying to create a new category of products to lure consumer spending. That includes building advanced computing technology into everyday objects such as wristwatches and glasses.
Sony introduced its latest SmartWatch in June and just unveiled an update. Google is working on Google Glass — a device designed to work like a smartphone and worn like a pair of glasses. Apple is seeking an iWatch trademark.
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, whose intensely black rectangular screen and orange strap was eye-catching on the wrist of a Samsung executive, is certain to pique much curiosity when it starts being worn in public.
Like similar products already being sold, the Gear is not an independent device. For useful functionality, the Gear needs to be linked with a specific Samsung smartphone or tablet computer. The pairing is done wirelessly over a Bluetooth connection built in to both sides.
The Gear’s display is a touchscreen measuring 1.63 inches diagonally. Its strap has an embedded camera. The Gear supports apps such as Facebook and lets the wearer answer incoming calls or check email without picking up the smartphone that’s paired with it. The Gear is not the smartwatch with a flexible display, as disclosed in recent Samsung patent filings.
Samsung wants to attract not only tech addicts who must have the latest gadget but also young, design-conscious consumers. The Gear’s design flair and ease of use are its sweetest attributes, but it may not entirely please either group. Although powered by the Android operating system, like many phones and tablets, it will work only with Samsung devices — and only with newer models.
The Gear is sleek, with a thin metallic bezel surrounding the display. The strap comes in six different colors — black, gray, orange, beige, gold and green. But the screen, which is pitch black in idle mode, probably draws more attention than a tasteful accessory should. The dark recess in the strap where the camera’s lens is embedded will also elicit questions from the curious.
In terms of what the Gear can do, it was easy to activate the camera and quick to shoot a photo. It left both hands free while placing and answering calls. The Gear alerts with a nice soft buzz and shows a preview of a newly arrived email. The full message can also be read. Samsung says replies are possible through voice dictation.
Taking photos felt natural except at very high or low angles, which forced the wrist into an awkward position.
Navigation of the touch screen one of the device’s biggest pluses. Samsung has dispensed with buttons on the screen, so there’s no home or back button. There is a button on the top right edge of the smartwatch face. Pressing it turns the display into a clock. One tap anywhere on the screen takes and saves a photo in the Gear and the smartphone that’s paired with it. In clock mode, one swipe from bottom to top pulls up a numeric keypad. Swiping from left or right shows a list of icons, including the S Voice, Samsung’s equivalent of Apple’s Siri digital assistant that responds to voice commands.
One downside is that the Gear doesn’t support a wireless earpiece, so both sides of any conversation can be overheard. (There is a way you can get around that, though: Link the wireless earpiece directly with the phone instead. But the Gear itself can be linked only with one device — the phone.)
The big disappointment for Samsung gadget owners is that the Gear does not work with most of its phones and tablets. The Gear needs the Galaxy Note 3, a smartphone with a giant 5.7-inch screen and a digital pen, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1, a tablet computer. Both will go on sale later this month. At a later date, it will be compatible with the Galaxy S4, released earlier this year, and the Galaxy Note II, which came out late last year.
In some countries, mobile carriers will bundle the Gear with the Note III on a two-year contract. In other places, consumers will be able to buy the Gear without a phone contract.
Overall, the Gear gives us more ways to imagine what wearable computing gadgets might do for us in the future. The Gear is smart but in a limited way, as it’s essentially a slave to the smartphone it’s paired to.