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Samsung Galaxy S 5 and new Gear smart watches focus on function

In our exclusive first look, we found Samsung improved features you use the most

Published: February 24, 2014 02:00 PM

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Samsung Gear Fit, Gear 2, and Galaxy S

Yesterday Samsung gave us an exclusive sneak peek at the Galaxy S 5 and three new Gear smart watches—the Gear 2, the Gear 2 Neo, and the Gear Fit—a day ahead of the official debut at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona.

Samsung smart phones and wearables are known for their daring, sometimes marginally useful features, such as touchless touch-screen controls and smart-watch voice calls. And, frankly, with all secrecy leading up this announcement, we had expected more of the same. But we were pleasantly surprised.

With these new products, the emphasis is on making useful features easier to access and toughening up the devices to better withstand abuse from the humans they serve. For instance, the phone and the watches all support the IP67 standard, which mandates they withstand a 30-minute dunk in more than 3 feet of water. Is it worth ditching what's in your pocket or wrist to get these updates? Probably not. But it's a good sign that your next smart phone or wearable device will actually be a little better.

The Galaxy S 5 is larger and heavier than the Galaxy S 4 it succeeds (.2 inches longer, .1 inches wider, and .5 ounces heavier). It has a fingerprint scanner built into its home button for unlocking its screen and for authorizing PayPal purchases. The 16-megapixel camera promises to snap pictures in fraction of a second, while making the options for fixing them a snap as well.

The phone also has an Emergency Mode that, when activated, will automatically blast SOS messages to emergency responders and designated personal contacts. The Galaxy S 5 is fitness focused, too: Along with the pedometer that's part of the Android KitKat OS, the phone has a heart-rate sensor adjacent to the rear-mounted camera's LED flash (see photo below).  

The Gear watches are sleeker versions of the Galaxy Gear they succeed, and they support more than a dozen Samsung phones dating back to the Galaxy S III. The Gear 2 and Gear Neo inherit the Galaxy Gear's ability to make and take phone calls and its tiny, square (320x320) 1.63-inch SuperAMOLED touch screen.

The Gear 2 has a 2-megapixel camera and comes in a variety of polished metallic finishes. The Neo lacks the camera and has a plastic case that comes in a variety of bright colors. The Gear Fit has a curved, 1.84-inch SuperAMOLED (432x128) that allows the device to elegantly hug your wrist. Here are some of the finer points:

The S 5 has a heart-rate sensor on the back next to the camera's LED flash.

Galaxy S 5

Give it the finger. Like the iPhone 5S and HTC One Max, the Galaxy S 5 has a fingerprint scanner. Samsung's scanner, built into the home button, requires a single downward swipe to activate and can be programmed to recognize three different fingers. Its primary function is to allow you to unlock your phone with a swipe instead of using a PIN or password. It can also be used to authenticate PayPal payments. Yet, surprisingly, Samsung officials seemed hesitant to tout the security aspects of this feature and instead said it was more of a "convenience" feature. We'll have more details of this feature when the phone becomes available.

Pulse. This rear-mounted sensor sits right next to the main camera's LED Flash. When you put your index finger on it, you should see your heart rate on the phone's display. When used in conjunction with the included S-Health app, data from the sensor and other sources can help the app suggest changes to your routine to help you reach your fitness goals quickly and, one hopes, safely. We can't wait to try it out.

Faster connections. The Samsung Galaxy S 5 supports two of the fastest wireless connections available: 802.11 ac 2x2 MIMO and 4G LTE Advance. Both promise theoretical connection speeds that are much faster than other WiFi and LTE connections. The Galaxy S 5 has a setting that automatically chooses the fastest connection. But given what cell carriers charge for their capped data packages, we suspect this won't be a popular setting.

A display for outdoors. Spec-wise, the Galaxy S 5's 5.1-inch 1080x1920 SuperAMOLED display appears close to that of the one on the Galaxy S4, except that it's 0.1 inches wider. Samsung's SuperAMOLED displays have performed well in our tests indoors and out. But Samsung says it's added something new and noteworthy. When you use the Galaxy S 5 in the bright outdoors, it will automatically adjust display color, contrast, brightness to make it look as it does indoors. That claim should be easy to confirm in our tests.

A smarter, faster camera. Samsung ups camera resolution from 13 megapixels to 16 megapixels, and claims several performance tweaks. First, like the Samsung Note 3, the Galaxy S 5 can capture Ultra HD (4K) video. Also, the camera has the ability to automatically focus on a subject and snap a picture in 1/3 of a second instead of the one second other phones may take.

Do you need a smart watch? Read our reviews of six current smart watch models.

The S 5's USB 3 port lets the phone transfer data and charge very quickly.

It also takes less time to shoot a picture in HDR (high dynamic range) mode, a setting used in sunny settings that has the camera quickly take several shots at multiple exposures and combine them into one shot. When it works, HDR should bring out details that would have otherwise been lost in the shadows.

On most smart phones, HDR can be somewhat of a hassle. You have to hold the phone steady for a few seconds and then wait for the camera to process the shot to see the results. But on the Galaxy S 5, the process is appears to be instantaneous. In fact, the Galaxy S 5 saves you even more time by showing you a preview of your HDR shot before you snap the photo.

The Galaxy S 5 borrows some intriguing features we've seen on recent Nokia phones such as the Lumia 1520 and Lumia Icon. For example, when you snap a photo in Selective Focus mode, the camera simultaneously focuses on subjects within a few feet, subjects a bit further away, and infinity (such as mountain ranges and other distant objects in the background). It's easy to switch between focal points to compare so you can decide which element you want to focus on, then share that version.

Another Galaxy S 5 feature similar to the one we saw on the Nokia Lumia Icon is Shot and More. In this mode, the camera takes a series of photos a few seconds apart. You can do several things in this mode, depending on the subjects and circumstances of your photo. These include choosing the best still from the bunch; deleting a passerby who may have strayed into your picture; or swapping the best facial expressions from different pictures to make one "perfect" shot.

Never-say-die battery. The Galaxy S 5's 2,800 mAh battery, which has 200 more mAh of capacity than the one on the Galaxy S4, promises more work time between charges. But should you find yourself on a desert island with a battery charge of only 30 percent, Samsung says it can help you squeeze up to 8 more days in standby mode by switching on Ultra Power Saving Mode. In this setting, the Galaxy S 5 will sever its wireless connections except for sending and receiving voice calls and text messages. Also, if you need it, you'll be able to use the camera's LED as a flashlight for short periods of time.

Automatic SOS. Emergency Mode is a new Samsung feature that should make the folks at OnStar a little nervous. If you’re in a car accident or other emergency situation, pressing the Galaxy S 5's power button three times will trigger several actions that will be transmitted as five separate messages to multiple contacts of your choice, including 911. They include:

  • An MMS message with a link that, when tapped, will launch the recipient's map app to pinpoint your location on a map
  • A text message with your raw coordinates
  • A message with a picture automatically taken with the rear camera
  • A message with a picture automatically taken with the front-facing camera
  • A 5-second audio recording that begins right you activated Emergency Mode

Samsung says these multiple communiqués will improve the odds that concerned parties will be alerted to your plight, plus it will give them a clearer picture of your situation in cases when you can't speak on the phone.

The Gear Fit, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear 2 all focus on fitness.

Gear Smart Watches

Samsung's original Galaxy Gear, despite being among the first smart watches that could make and take phone calls, took some dings for having a bulky body, a clunky interface, and a battery that seemed to quit after a handful of hours. Samsung addressed some of these issues by promising a battery life of 2 to 3 days and giving these watches a makeover to improve functionality as well as looks.

All have optical heart-rate monitors on their back bezels to allow them to work with fitness apps—the fastest-growing segment in wearable technology—without the assistance of a smart phone. And thanks to their water resistance, you can wear them while in the shower or the pool.

The operating system is also new. Instead of Android, these watches run on a new Samsung-backed operating system called Tizen. This is why Samsung said it dropped the term "Galaxy" from the Gear brand. Like Android, Tizen is based on the Linux OS. But it's not clear that the switch to Tizen will provide perceptible benefits to Samsung customers.

One thing that, unfortunately didn't change: Charging Galaxy Gears still involves a plastic snap-on attachment that surrounds the watch. If you lose it, you won't be able to charge your watch.

The streamlined Gear Fit has a large, clear display.

Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo

Smarter design. The power button on these watches, which was on the side of the old Galaxy Gear is now on the front, providing easier access. Also, the 2-megapixel camera, which previously adorned the bulky wristband of the Galaxy Gear, has moved to the watch body. This not only makes the wristband less bulky, but you now have the option of replacing the wristband, which conforms to conventional watch standards, with one of your own.

Built-in storage. The new Gears have about 4GB of internal storage, and you can save your music there to enjoy (with a Bluetooth headset) when the network connection of a Samsung smart phone isn't available.

Wireless remote. These models come with an IR port that, when used with a Gear 2 version of the Watch On app, can control a TV and set-top cable or satellite box. But you won't be able to get programming info on the tiny Gear display, as you can on Galaxy S 5 and other smart phones.

The Gear Fit. This is a fitness-focused model that can't make or take calls, though it can alert you of incoming calls and send text message. The narrow display can't reveal some of the data—even from fitness apps—that the higher-end Gears can, but in many ways it's more appealing. The time, for example, appears much clearer, in a larger font that's very easy to see. Another advantage of the smaller screen: less on-screen clutter. The Gear Fit can only show you one reading, or one measurement, at a time. And when you're jogging, that's all some of us can really handle.

Samsung says that  AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, MetroPCS and U.S. Cellular will carry the Galaxy S 5. The watches will be available in the U.S. "across various channels." We'll have more on these devices, including pricing, when press samples become available in late March. In the meantime, check out our buying guide for advice on what to look for in your next smart phone, as well tips on getting the most from the smart phone that's in your pocket now.

—Mike Gikas

   

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