October 21, 2013

Review: Samsung Galaxy Gear watch tries dialing the future

It took decades to figure out, but we finally know how Dick Tracy and “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk were able to place calls with their amazing wristwatch-communicator devices.

It took decades to figure out, but we finally know how Dick Tracy and “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk were able to place calls with their amazing wristwatch-communicator devices.

Apparently our fictional heroes also had enormous smartphones in their pockets.

Their watches connected to the phone via Bluetooth radios, and calls went out on a wireless-phone network that costs perhaps $70 per month to access.

At least, that’s how the new Samsung Galaxy Gear “smart” watch works.

The Gear is an exciting new gadget that will help popularize wearable-computing devices, a category that’s expected to soar over the next five years.

It works better than I expected and does plenty of tricks to impress your friends and co-workers, like placing calls, displaying e-mail and taking pictures and videos with a camera in the wristband.

But the Gear also feels a bit like a prototype – a work in progress that Samsung released early to build interest among app developers and beat its nemesis, Apple, to the punch.

The Gear also fails to live up to the promise of Samsung’s terrific TV ads, which show Dick Tracy, Captain Kirk and other characters using their super-duper watches. The ads suggest that we can finally buy something similar for everyday use.

The Gear is close, but not quite there yet.

It looks the part. Its case is about the size of a matchbook, with a 1.6-inch touch screen, and overall the watch weighs just under 3 ounces.

This is pretty big but reasonably sized for a watch packing the computing power of a circa-2010 smartphone or the PC your children may be using in school.

I’ve been testing one loaned by AT&T, which recently began selling the Gear last week for $299.

The price is a little misleading because you’ll probably need to buy a new, high-end phone to make it work. Samsung plans to make the Gear work with multiple Android-based devices, but for now it only works with Samsung’s new Note 3 phone.

The Note 3, with a 5.7-inch display and a stylus that slips into its leatherette case, is a nice option if you’re looking for a jumbo phone. But it also starts at $299, plus a service plan.

Once you’ve paired the Gear and the Note 3, they connect automatically when they’re within about 5 feet of each other.

Then you can receive calendar and message notifications on the watch, though e-mails and even tweets are difficult to read because you have to scroll through them on the tiny screen.

You can also use the Gear as a remote control for the phone’s music player and record voice memos.

Photos and videos taken with a 1.9-megapixel camera in the wristband can be saved in the Gear’s 4 gigabytes of memory, stored on the phone and shared wirelessly over the phone network.

Battery life is better than a smartphone but far worse than a normal watch. My Gear ran for several days without needing a charge. To maximize battery life, the display goes to sleep frequently, at which point you can’t see the watch face.

Wireless charging or a simple USB plug would have been nice ways to juice up the Gear. Instead you clamp a plastic charging case around the watch and plug the contraption into a power source to recharge. This make the Gear less appealing to road warriors who don’t want to carry extra bits and pieces.

The watch has a single button, for power, but the button can be programmed to also launch apps with a double press. You can control the Gear with voice commands such as saying “cheese” to take a picture, though I couldn’t get them to work.

Mostly the Gear is controlled with screen taps or gestures, such as a downward swipe to close apps and a sideways swipe to scroll through its menu. This takes two hands – one holding steady, the other tapping the watch – for things that often take a single hand on a phone.

Gear apps can be loaded through a control panel on the phone. For now there’s a limited selection of mostly social apps – including the location-notification service from Seattle-based Glympse – and exercise programs that take advantage of the Gear’s pedometer capabilities.

You can access contact lists and dial calls from the Gear, then use it like a speakerphone. The call is placed by the phone, which remains in your purse or pocket.

Smart-watch sales are likely to be slow at first but climb rapidly, according to research firm IHS. It’s expecting fewer than 300,000 to sell this year, but millions to be sold next year. By 2018 annual sales should reach nearly 39 million units.

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