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Samsung Gear 2 review: The smart watch takes several steps in the right direction

Second-generation device shows improvements but limitations remain

Published: April 23, 2014 02:00 PM

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A mere six months after Samsung released the Galaxy Gear, its first entry into the smart-watch category, the company's next-generation Gear watches (no Galaxy in the name now) have arrived, with some real improvements and refinements. Whether those changes are enough to make the high price of the watches palatable to more consumers—and to persuade them that they even need a smart watch—is still an open question: The original Galaxy gear was innovative but had limited appeal. And the new watches are still compatible only with specific Samsung devices, but at least that list is growing. If you use a non-Samsung Android phone—or, of course, an iPhone—these smart watches are not for you.

The Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo are the most sophisticated devices of a wearable trifecta from Samsung that also includes the fitness-focused Gear Fit. We did an early first look on a press sample of the Fit a few weeks back. Then we purchased a Gear 2 ($300) and Gear 2 Neo ($200) for testing in our labs when they went on sale to the public. (The Gear 2 Neo is basically a less expensive version of the Gear 2: It has similar functionality, but it's housed in a plastic body instead of metal and has no built-in camera.) Here are our impressions of the Gear 2 after an informal evaluation; check soon for the results of our lab tests.

Getting started

It's pretty straightforward: To charge the Gear 2, you use a removable cap (smaller than the one for the original Galaxy Gear) that snaps onto the underside of the watch, to which you attach a charging cable. You'll want to be careful not to lose the cap—we kept it attached to the cable.

You then download the Gear Manager app onto your compatible Samsung device. These include the Samsung Galaxy S 5, Note 3, Note 2, Galaxy S 4, and Galaxy S3, among others; the company is continually adding to this list. You then pair the devices. You do much of your customization of the watch from that app—most settings and downloading new apps. Some settings can be changed right on the watch itself, though.

Navigating the watch interface via swipes and taps is quite easy. Swipe left or right to access menus, and swipe down to go back to the previous screen. You can move app icons around to where you want them by long-pressing and dragging them.

For more on wearable tech, check our lab tests of six smart watches.

The Samsung Gear 2 comes in a range of colors
Photo: Samsung

Look and feel

The Gear 2 body looks much the same as that of the original Galaxy Gear, but Samsung made some smart changes. For one, the microphone is no longer in the clasp but in the watch's body, so the clasp is less bulky. Even better, the camera was moved from the strap to the body of the watch—a definite aesthetic improvement, plus it lets you swap for a different color watchband (black, mocha gray, orange, or bronze). The Power/Home button is now on the bottom of the screen rather than the side, and it's easier to reach and press.

The 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display is impressive: Colors pop, and it's easy to see fine details. On the original Galaxy Gear, the display’s readability in bright sunlight was middling; our lab tests will determine whether the Gear 2 does any better. And as with the Gear Fit, you can customize themes, clock faces, fonts, and wallpaper—with the Gear 2, you can also use photos you've taken as backgrounds.

Battery life

Samsung claims that the watch will typically get two to three days of usage before needing a charge, and up to six days in light usage. We got a little over three days in our testing, and we used it quite a lot.

Apps

To add new apps, go to Samsung Gear Manager on your phone, find the apps you want, and install them on the phone; they then show up on the Gear 2. But you won't have much to choose from, at least for now: The new Samsung smart watches run on the Tizen OS instead of Android, so you can't use the original Galaxy Gear apps. Currently, the app selection is underwhelming, consisting largely of alternate clock faces. If Samsung really wants to forge a new mobile OS path with Tizen, it will need to get app developers interested and bump up the choices.

The Gear 2 does have some great built-in tools, though. The truly unique one is Dialer, which lets you dial and conduct a phone call right on your watch (as long as your watch and phone are connected). You can also accept or reject an incoming call; if you do the latter, you can send a canned message to the caller (these include "I'm driving" or "I'm in class" but sadly, not "I'm pretty sure I don't know you").

The Gear 2 also has WatchOn Remote, which lets you control your TV and set-top box from the watch, and Find My Device, which helps you locate your phone by using its ringer. Also, as with the first-gen Galaxy Gear, S Voice is built in: It lets you use voice commands for various watch functions, like making calls, doing searches, and so on.

Looking for the right smart phone for you? Do your homework with our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

Camera

The Gear 2's 2-megapixel camera is easier to aim, now that the lens is on the body of the watch instead of the middle of the strap. You simply frame your shot using the display and tap it. The resulting shots won't be blow-up-and-frame-worthy, but they're fine for sharing online. Your photos transfer instantly onto the connected phone, from which you can share or post them.

Notifications

Getting alerts from your phone on your smart watch is one of the Gear 2’s primary functions (as it is for all smart watches, at least for now). You set up the alerts you want in the phone app. Then you opt for either mild or strong vibrations and a choice of alert sounds, depending on the type of alert. Available alerts include the usual phone calls, texts, IMs, and e-mails. You can also ask for notifications for other apps you've installed on the phone. Even more granular, you can opt to see previews of various types of notifications.

Fitness

Fitness features work as they do on the Gear Fit. You set up a personal profile on the Gear 2, then use the pedometer to track your steps per day and to "coach" you in exercise sessions. The Gear 2 also has a built-in heart rate monitor.

Like the Gear Fit, the Gear 2 claims that it tracks walking, running, hiking, and road biking, thanks to the integrated accelerometer and gyroscope. When we tested the tracking on the Fit, we first took a quick walk. The distance-recording feature appeared to be accurate, as did the the pedometer (within 2 percent) when we did a short 200-step check.

Fitness info is uploaded to the phone at regular intervals that you specify. The Gear 2 can also display your progress without connecting to another device, which only a few other trackers can do. 

Bottom line

The Gear 2 is an improvement over the original Galaxy Gear watch, with a cleaner look, better design, longer battery life, and useful features. But the high price, sparse app selection, and limited selection of compatible phones could make the potential-owner pool a pretty shallow one. It will appeal to early adopters who own or want to own a compatible Samsung device—especially if they are into the fitness features.

Other specs:
Weight (not including charging cap or cable): 2.4 ounces
Dual-core 1-GHz chip
P 67 certified dust and water resistant
4.0 LE300mAh battery

—Carol Mangis

   

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