As big names in the electronics industry like Sony, Microsoft and Apple remain cagey with regards to their own smartwatch projects, earlier this month Samsung released the second iteration of the Galaxy Gear—and the Gear 2 looks like a device that takes full advantage of Samsung’s headstart in the emerging smartwatch market.
In recent years, Samsung’s range of Galaxy smartphones have carved out a very strong foothold against products like the Apple iPhone and Nokia’s Lumia range, and it seems that their success in that arena has bolstered the company to make a concerted effort to corner the wearable market. Releasing alongside the health-centric Gear Fit, the Gear 2 seems to have amended many of the niggling issues that prevented the original Galaxy Gear from being a runaway success.
The first iteration of any electronic device—particularly something in a cutting-edge marketplace such as wearable technology—is always likely to have some issues, and the Galaxy Gear was no exception. Battery life and user interface were two of the major sticking points for users of the original device, and Samsung have attempted to conquer both obstacles by implementing a proprietary operating system called Tizen, which they had a hand in developing. Battery life, all important for a device like this, is significantly better than the original Galaxy Gear, which Samsung have attributed to the change in OS. The interface itself is also an improvement; it’s fast and clean, pretty much everything you’d want for a device with limited screen space such as a smartwatch.
The drawback of the move to Tizen from Android is losing the ability to use the many apps available for Android devices. And, with the limited amount of apps available for use on the original Galaxy Gear being a major talking point at the time of its release, this could prove to be a negative factor in how much functionality the Gear 2 enjoys over the course of its lifetime, compared to smartwatches running versions of more widely used operating systems. However, this isn’t something that Samsung are unaware of: they’ve already released a Tizen development kit to try and encourage development for the platform. Furthermore, the Samsung ZEQ 9000 device, set to be announced officially later this year, will be the first smartphone running the OS to be released commercially by the company. Based on this, it seems that Samsung are interested in Tizen for the long haul, so it’s perhaps too early to say that the shift to the OS will limit the Gear 2 in terms of usability as time moves on. If Samsung can light a fire underneath Tizen and make it a desirable platform to develop apps for, then the Gear 2 will reap the benefits—but it’s very much a question of ‘if’ at this point.
The software side of the Gear 2 may still be up in the air for now, but on the hardware side things are far more concrete. The device is immediately arresting, combining the sleek look of Samsung’s smartphone range with the a dash of the elegance of a designer watch. Smartwatches typically have to settle a balance between looking like a piece of high-end electronics and a luxury fashion accessory, and for the most part the Gear 2 does an admirable job. You can certainly see the benefit of the Gear 2 being the second iteration of an existing device in many of the decisions relating to the physical design of the product—for one, the new placement of the home button on the front of the watch face rather than on the side is no doubt in response to the negative reaction to the button’s placement on the Galaxy Gear. The sort of broad feedback that a company receives about a product like this through a commercial release cannot be matched by any amount of internal testing, and the fact that Samsung have learnt so much from the Galaxy Gear puts them in a very strong position as smartwatch manufacturers. It’s easy to imagine that their competitors will have their fair share of teething troubles as they prepare to release their own similar devices over the next year or so.
However, that’s not to say that there’s nothing at all wrong with the Gear 2. The slightly less expensive version—dubbed the Gear 2 Neo—simply can’t square up to the standard edition in terms of looks. It’s understandable, being that it is meant to be a more budget-friendly product, but it’s still disappointing that the small changes made for the Neo detract from the overall user experience as much as they do. That said, if looks aren’t that big a factor for you, it might be well worth looking into the Neo, as the lower price makes the device a rather more palatable purchase.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with the Gear 2, though, is the fact that it is only compatible with other Samsung devices. The reasoning behind this is understandable and perhaps even unsurprising, but even so it’s something of a shame that the Gear 2 is tied into the Samsung ecosystem in this way. There is the option to use the device without tethering it to a smartphone, but in doing so you won’t have access to most of the most useful features of the smartwatch—and the integration with your smartphone is so smartly put together, it’s something of a waste to use the device without taking full advantage of its full bag of tricks. At the somewhat hefty pricetag of the device, it’s difficult to say that it’s worth the money if you’re not going to pair it with your phone, being that using it by itself makes it little more than an exercise tracker, which would be far cheaper to buy as a device intended for that purpose alone.
All in all, the Gear 2 is a major advance over the solid groundwork made in the Galaxy Gear. It’s far from a perfect device, but it does enough right to warrant a purchase if you’re already a Samsung smartphone user and are looking for an accessory to further the functionality of the device you have already. The price point may be a stumbling block for some, but in practice the Gear 2 is a suitably refined product for the admittedly high cost of entry. A more pressing concern is the future of development for the Tizen OS—if it does indeed flourish, then the Gear 2 will no doubt follow suit, but that is far from a certainty at this point in time. That being said, there’s no reason to doubt Tizen as a platform, and if it does receive a suitable amount of developer attention then the Gear 2 will look like the one to beat on the smartwatch marketplace. It will certainly be interesting how the smartwatch projects shape up to the Gear 2—Samsung have certainly set the benchmark rather high.