Galaxy Gear: Experts' views on Samsung's smartwatch

By Leo Kelion
Technology reporter

  • Published
Media caption,

The Galaxy Gear is being made available with a range of colourful watch straps

Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch has been the big launch at Berlin's consumer tech show Ifa, but has the firm got its timing right?

The device features a 1.6in (4cm) screen which owners can use to make "hands-free" calls; use apps, including a number of fitness trackers; check email and text alerts; and track their activity.

A camera in the wristband also allows them to snap pictures, but not engage in video chats.

However, Samsung's eagerness to beat rivals Apple, Microsoft and Google to the punch means that the device is not the sleek flexible-screened gadget that many had expected.

There's also the question of battery life. Samsung says the device should last roughly a day with "regular use" when new, but those wanting a more intense experience will have to recharge it more often.

Image caption,
The watch needs to be linked to one of Samsung's newer smartphones for all its functions to become available

Part of the reason is that it uses a colour LED screen. To save power the display turns off when not in use. People are used to that with a smartphone, but not their watch.

In contrast, chipmaker Qualcomm is showing off another watch, the Toq, which features its new Mirasol screen tech, similar to e-ink but in colour. Its display may be less bright than Samsung's, but it is always on.

The Toq's battery - which is built into the wristband - is said to last between three and five days.

Samsung has also raised eyebrows by limiting many of the watch's functions to working only when it is linked to some of its newer Android handsets. That saves users needing to take out a separate mobile subscription, but limits its use as a standalone device

The BBC asked four experts what they made of the news.

Tony Cripps, Ovum

The launch of the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch is merely the tip of a bigger gadget iceberg that will generate headlines, if not necessarily huge additional profits, for smartphone and tablet makers.

The intention of next-generation accessories such as these - Sony's QX detachable camera modules are also good examples - is to add value to two categories where meaningful innovation and market differentiation is becoming harder to come by: namely smartphones and tablets.

While significant improvement in these smart devices is ongoing in areas such as screen, network, camera and processor technology, the fundamental user experience of these devices has changed little since the first iPhone.

The current fixation of manufacturers in areas such as variations in screen size and colour - and even the resurgence of cameras with ever higher megapixels - is at least somewhat symptomatic of this.

Next-gen accessories are a way to try to claw back some real differentiation.

But while they undoubtedly have their utility - and an undeniable "fun factor" - their primary purpose is to help sell more smartphones and tablets. They are, after all, accessories, and almost entirely dependent on their host device for real utility.

As such we expect a growing number of them to be offered as sweeteners in new retail bundles.

We shouldn't expect gadgets such as smartwatches to compete with the volumes sold of their host devices but that doesn't stop them being a worthwhile business for their brands.

However, there may also be a backlash from consumers who have become used to accessories, apps and services largely interoperating across different devices.

Many of the new accessories are designed with only their maker's smartphones and tablets in mind.

Their relatively high price tags demand more flexibility. Erecting new barriers of interoperability may make sense for manufacturers but may not do so for consumers.

Deyan Sudjic, Design Museum

The Galaxy Gear is not going to be a defining product for Samsung in the way that the Walkman or the iPhone were for its competitors. But the build-up to unveiling what is not quite a wrist computer has been brilliantly, cynically effective.

It is an essential part of Samsung's relentless life-or-death drive to set itself up as the kind of company that one day soon will have the kind of cool that Apple still has for the moment.

Critics have focused on the fact that this is not a self-contained device, but is really an extension to a smartphone.

There are questions about the battery life, and the suggestion that you will need to carry around a separate dock to charge it.

Samsung's problems aren't just technical. Their designers have tangled with something that goes beyond technology. We wear wristwatches for all kinds of complex emotional reasons, of which telling the time is no more than an alibi.

You never actually own a watch, you just look after it for the next generation, as one irritating but brutally effective advertising campaign puts it.

In those terms, the Galaxy Gear is a clear failure.

It is schizophrenic about the message that it is trying to communicate.

The rubbery strap in a choice of fruity colours that meshes seamlessly into a screen owes a big debt to the kind of thing that Philippe Starck was doing in the 1990s, and murmurs "lifestyle".

The metallic frame for the screen, with the four visible screws set into it, is clearly intended to signal watchmaking precision, a reference to a Cartier Tank watch detail.

Put the two together and you have an object which is more like an attempt to make a friendly-looking heart monitor than something that is going to put Rolex out of business, at a price that comes close to the smartphone that you will also need to buy to make it work.

Now if only they could have done something like a smart Swatch, that really would have been a category definer.

Sophie Charara, Stuff magazine

The wrist is quickly becoming a crowded battleground and I fully expected Samsung to launch a smartwatch promising to save us from our increasingly wobbly selves with a whole host of fitness features at Ifa.

Instead, the Galaxy Gear arrived with a compact, relatively easy-on-the-eye form factor but not too much fanfare over fighting the flab.

In a brief hands-on, the pedometer and S Health apps showed promising hints of training programmes.

But the lack of a GPS (global positioning system) chip to provide location data is a bit of a head-scratcher for anyone wanting to accurately track running distances and stats.

The question of whether the Galaxy Gear becomes the go-to health accessory depends on whether it can nail no-hassle synching of exercise and food information to both Galaxy phones and full-blown desktop interfaces via Samsung's own software or third-party apps like RunKeeper.

Second-screen functionality means it could become more of an everyday essential than Jawbone's Up or Nike's Fuelband activity trackers too.

That could prove tempting enough for legions of early-adopting fitness junkies.

Dr Ulf Blanke, ETH Zurich university

Looking back, it was hard to believe that a smartphone requiring daily battery charging would ever be successful.

Yet Apple has verified that we, as users, trade this effort with a device that connects us continuously to the web, navigates us through the city, and offers us a multitude of apps to work or to play with.

But using it all the time, when can we actually charge it? The simple answer: at night, when we sleep.

What makes this answer ingenious is that we do this almost automatically. In fact, connecting the smartphone to the docking station became as natural as brushing teeth before going to sleep.

But does this principle hold true for smartwatches?

Samsung says the Galaxy Gear should last "about a day" when new but its battery is not removable, meaning owners will need to be get used to taking the watch off to recharge it at least once every 24 hours.

But many users tend to wear ordinary watches continuously throughout the day and even at night.

Nevertheless, our daily routines leave space, where we put our wearable accessories aside - for example, while showering.

Equipped with small batteries, a smartwatch may be charged within the duration of having a shower and could be indeed seamlessly integrated into daily life.

I believe the question is not "Do we accept the battery life in absolute duration?" but "Can we make it part of our daily habits?", so that we do not notice battery charging as an extra effort, but as a natural routine action.

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