Last year, I reviewed the original Galaxy Gear. Considering how that went, I'm not sure I am exactly the "ideal" candidate for reviewing the new-and-improved Gear Fit, but hey, it came with the Galaxy S5 I reviewed, so here goes nothing.
Samsung started over when it designed its new line of second-generation Gear devices, dropping the Galaxy branding and Android along with it, opting instead to power these new smartwatches with Tizen. The result, Gear OS, feels almost exactly like the Android-derived software we saw on last year's device. According to Samsung, the difference is mainly one of performance: the new Gears get much better battery life than their Android-powered predecessor.
Then Google went and announced Android Wear. At that point, most of us probably stopped caring about Tizen and the Gears, because, well, Google's software looks sexy. But we cannot simply ignore Samsung's competing hardware - the Gears will likely get more ad time and investment than all of the Android Wear hardware released this year combined because, well, Samsung. The tight integration with Galaxy smartphones also basically ensures that Samsung's watches will do things Android Wear watches can't, though of course the reverse will be true as well.
So, does Android Wear have something to be worried about here? In short, not yet. The Gear Fit is a wonderfully designed piece of hardware with very livable battery life, but the software is very limiting, even if it is a bit better than what shipped on last year's Galaxy Gear. The fitness aspect of the Fit, too, is pretty disappointing - to the extent that it doesn't even feel finished. Sorry, Samsung, but the Gear Fit really does end up being the worst of both worlds: a not very good smartwatch combined with a barely-passable fitness tracker.
Samsung Gear Fit
- Price: $200
- Processor: 1GHz dual-core ARM processor
- GPU: Unknown
- OS: Gear OS, based on Tizen
- Display: 1.84" curved OLED 432x128 (245 DPI)
- Network compatibility: None
- Operating system: Gear OS, Tizen-derived
- Memory: 512MB RAM / 4GB internal storage
- Cameras: None
- Battery: 210mAh, non-removable
- NFC: No
- Wi-Fi: No
- Bluetooth: 4.0 with BT Smart (LE)
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB (via dongle) / none
- Thickness at watch face: about 11mm at thickest point
- Weight: 27g
- The Gear Fit is a genuinely good-looking wearable. It doesn't try to look like a watch, so it doesn't have that tacky vibe of things like Pebble, Toq, or the original Gear. It looks futuristic, and the curved OLED display is just to die for.
- The screen. It's so beautiful. I don't see any real utility in a curved smartwatch display, but I'll be damned if it doesn't look good.
- Battery life is totally respectable, I got anywhere from 4 to 6 days typically.
- The Fit is handy for managing things like incoming calls, texts, and quickly reading emails. It is not useless, it's just not that useful.
The Not So Good
- Gear OS really isn't much different from the Android version of Samsung's smartwatch OS on the original Gear, and it still has most of that software's problems. Notifications are handled poorly in numerous ways, and things often just don't seem well thought out in general.
- No automatic brightness on the screen is kind of a bummer.
- The pedometer has to be activated manually, and it doesn't seem very accurate.
- The heart rate monitor is really finicky about when it will work.
- All the fitness features are locked in to S Health, an app that only exists on Samsung smartphones.
The Gear Fit is gorgeous. When I saw it for the first time in person at MWC back in February, I was awestruck by its bright and colorful curved OLED display. Every time it flickers to life, a little part of me just feels tickled with joy - it's so nice to look at. The band for the Fit is completely interchangeable, so 3rd party manufacturers can create their own, which is actually very neat. The band that Samsung includes is pretty nice - a black rubber with a texturized diamond pattern. It's nondescript, but it doesn't look cheap or tacky. It's also very easy to take on and off.
The actual smartwatch module, once detached from the band, is impressively small. The Fit isn't terribly thick, and because of the curve of the screen, the whole watch body is curved, too, making it wrap around your wrist like a bracelet. It's quite comfortable, really.
On the bottom of the watch you'll see the charging contacts, the heart rate monitor, and a small little plastic circle whose function I am not entirely sure of. On the side there is a single plastic button that acts as the screen on / off and home key. The Gear Fit has no speakers or microphones and no ambient light sensor, the latter of which I think it would really benefit from. There are 6 brightness levels, 1-5 and outdoor. The same two finger double-tap gesture from the original Gear can bring up a quick menu to adjust the brightness, but it's kind of hard to get the hang of, if I'm honest. Automatic brightness is really needed here.
Without a way to produce audio, the Fit instead uses haptic feedback to provide the wearer alerts for notifications and other events. The feedback is very light, but because the Fit is strapped to your wrist, you're very unlikely not to notice it when it occurs. The one exception, perhaps, being when you're driving - I found that LA freeways tended to drown out the Fit's relatively weak vibration.
Charging the Fit requires, you guessed it, a dongle! This particular dongle is tiny (har har), too, and I've already misplaced it on multiple occasions. I realize that the dongle is necessary if the Fit is to remain as trim and slim as it is, but if there were ever a product that would benefit from wireless charging, it's a smartwatch. Granted, that would probably raise the price of the product, but I think for those really serious about using a smartwatch, it'd be totally worth it. The other solution is to permanently affix the dongle to a USB cable (a la fitness trackers like Fitbit) so it's not as hard to misplace. This does mean a redundant cable, though, so I'm not sure it's much of a fix so much as a compromise that really only benefits people like me who lose things all the time.
On the subject of what happens once you do charge the Fit, I've found battery life generally to be within Samsung's estimates - 3-4 days. Sometimes even 5 or 6. Granted, I don't exactly use the Fit a bunch, as I've found it difficult to integrate into my daily life in a meaningful way. The primary draw on that battery is, of course, the beautiful 1.84" curved OLED screen. Its oddball 432x128 resolution (that's a 27:8 aspect ratio for those of you playing at home) can be an issue when it comes to actually viewing content, but I think it's less of a concern than most people would think.
Turning on the display is as simple as turning up your wrist - the Fit knows when you're bringing the watch to your face, and the display turns on automatically. You can disable this feature, of course, but I couldn't possible understand why - it's definitely convenient. I found that the reliability of the automatic illumination was less than perfect, though, and I actually think it worked a bit better on the original Gear. That's kind of a problem.
So, how do you orient this thing? I think most people will prefer the vertical layout, a feature Samsung added late in the development of the product after feedback at MWC. Using it in the horizontal mode does make reading text messages and emails a bit more efficient, but at the cost of having to arch your neck in a really awkward way. Let me put it this way: there's a reason watches are oriented perpendicular to your arm. I really think Samsung should probably be shipping these in vertical mode by default, but oh well.
The Fit is powered by a 1GHz dual-core processor of unknown type and is equipped with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage you can't really actually do anything with. It performs pretty quickly, though given the rather simple nature of most of the things it actually does I would expect as much. It does feel considerably more responsive than the original Galaxy Gear, and the animations are noticeably smoother, too.
As with the original Gear, this is where things really do fall apart for Samsung. The Gear Fit just isn't very useful, and even the added fitness tracking features don't help to make this a compelling product. Let's talk first about the Fit as a smartwatch, then as an activity tracker.
Shortly after the original Gear was released, Samsung patched the software and manager app to allow more devices to be paired with it (it worked only with the Note 3 at launch) and for almost any app to send the watch rich notifications. This was a big improvement over the shipped software, which only supported very basic notifications for 3rd party apps (eg, in Gmail, you basically just got a notification that you had a message, no sender or account info, no text).
Things there have basically remained the same on the Fit - non-Samsung apps can send notifications with actual information in them. Gmail messages show up with a sender, and tapping the notification gives you the body text, though all you can do at that point is delete the notification or tap a button to open it on your device. The latter might be nice if it actually worked in any kind of complete sense - 3rd party apps generally just open on your phone and then nothing happens. Gmail and Hangouts won't even open to the right account for the message, just to whatever one you last were using.
Granted, this is probably partly Google's fault and partly Samsung's, though I'm not enough of an expert to comment on just who really is to blame here. The point, though, is this: I can't act on most of the notifications I receive on the watch, and the one thing I can do with them (open the respective app) barely qualifies as useful. I can see if an email or text is important, sure, but that brings me to my next point: the way Gear OS handles notifications is fundamentally flawed.
With Android, we have come to expect a level of persistency and richness from notifications we receive. I can turn on my phone at any moment and a simple little icon can tell me if I have a new email, text, or some other notification - all with one press and a quick glance at the status bar at the top of the screen. Gear OS, once it receives a notification, then proceeds to bury it. You can act on a notification within a few seconds of it displaying on the watch, but once it's gone, you have to navigate to the notifications app to find it again. This is the same basic flaw that plagued the first Gear, and which I described as analogous to having a conversation with someone with severe short-term amnesia. Most of it still applies:
Galaxy Gear Fit: Hey, you have a notification!
Me: Thanks Gear, I'll look at in a minute, I'm kinda busy.
[One minute later]
Galaxy Gear Fit: Hi, I'm Galaxy Gear Fit, here's a watchface!
Me: Hey Gear, where's that notification?
Galaxy Gear Fit: What notification? I don't remember that.
[scroll to notification app]
Me: It's right here. *tap* It's a notification from Gmail.
Who sent it?
Galaxy Gear Fit: I have no idea! (This is no longer an issue)
Me: Should I tap it?
Galaxy Gear Fit: Sure!
Me: Oh cool, you'll open it for me on my phone. That's nice.
Galaxy Gear Fit: Absolutely, buddy!
[pick up phone, Gmail goes to inbox of last account used, no message there]
Me: Hey, there's no message here.
Galaxy Gear Fit: Hi, I'm Galaxy Gear Fit, here's a watchface!
Even though the notifications themselves are now rich, there's still no passive behavior on the Gear Fit's part to make you aware of them after the initial alert. The watchface homescreen really should have some level of notification integration. I don't think that's a terribly difficult or controversial thing to ask for. The other thing is that notifications don't sync: clearing them on your phone does not clear them on the watch, you have to do that separately.
There are richer experiences for notifications from stock Samsung apps, such as quick text responses (you can set them up and customize them on the Gear Fit Manager app yourself) for phone calls, texts, and emails. You can also dismiss calendar notifications, ignore calls, and snooze alarms. This stuff is definitely useful, but it's also far from exciting at this point - a smartwatch that didn't do these things would be kind of terrible.
How about apps? Well, I'd tell you about them... if there were any. There aren't. Samsung promises it's working with developers to bring apps to Gear OS, and Gear Fit specifically, but right now there are a grand total of zero. Yay.
The Gear Fit does have some other token functions, like a stopwatch (novel!), timer (handy), a phone locator (assuming it's paired), and a media controller that seems to work with pretty much any video or music app I tried on my Galaxy S5. The media controller, though, like the notifications, does not passively assert its existence. If I want to control the playback of music on my phone via the Fit I still have to turn the watch on and flip to the homescreen where the media controller shortcut lives, tap it, and then do what I want to do. I just don't get why Samsung couldn't throw the playback controls below / beside the time on the primary homescreen when you're listening to music. That might be convenient. As it's currently implemented, it really isn't.
The Gear Fit, like the old Gear, can also act as an authenticator for your paired Samsung phone. If the Fit is outside of Bluetooth range when the phone's screen is woken up, it will revert to a pattern lock. When paired with the watch, the phone will unlock freely. I find this feature genuinely useful, myself.
Moving onto the "Fit" part of the Fit, Samsung has integrated a fair number of new activity tracking features into the refreshed Gears. Unfortunately, like seemingly everything else in Gear OS, nothing about them is automatic. Even if you just want to use the pedometer, it has to be turned on manually to start counting your steps, and turned off to stop. Your heart rate is only measured passively if you activate an exercise activity and enable it in the activity settings, which will cause it to measure your heart rate something like every 90 seconds during the time you're doing an exercise. What I find odd is that when using the heart rate sensor manually via shortcut, it asks you stay still and quiet for the measurement, yet it can also apparently work while you're engaged in strenuous exercise? Something doesn't add up here.
The exercise modes are walking, running, cycling, and swimming. These activities automatically sync back to your phone in the S Health app, as do heart rate measurements (the source of the measurements is labeled, too). Pedometer counts also sync back to the phone, but be careful not to run the S Health pedometer on the S5 and the Fit pedometer at the same time - the software isn't smart enough to realize that you're recording a single activity on two devices, and simply combines the totals.
So, how accurate is the Fit's pedometer? Compared to my Fitbit Flex, not very it would seem. The Gear Fit consistently overcounted steps when I counted them alongside in my head. For 500 steps, the Gear Fit registered 694. The Fitbit Flex came in at 535. If you're going to make me manually activate the pedometer in order to use it, at least make it accurate, Samsung. This is kinda sorta really bad. So, what do you do with this inaccurate data once it's gathered? Head to S Health on your compatible Samsung(TM) Galaxy(TM) Smartphone, of course!
The S Health app itself is pretty nice, but here's the thing: the only way to view it is on your Samsung phone. There's no web dashboard, no tablet app, and the data can't be exported. Once you're in, you're in - who actually wants to be tethered to buying a Samsung phone in order for their fitness tracker to be useful? That's really a big pain point for me on the Fit.
At $200, the Gear Fit is just expensive enough to make for a legitimately regrettable purchase. It tries to be a smartwatch and a fitness tracker, but it's really not very good at either, and just ended up being a fancy wrist vibrator with a pretty screen to let me know someone's calling me or sending a text. That kind of functionality isn't worth $200, even if it does look cool. Hell, that kind of functionality is barely worth $100.
No third-party apps, an inaccurate pedometer, and an approach to the smartwatch concept that frankly does not seem all that well thought-out pretty much seals the deal: the Gear Fit is a "no buy" if you're actually waiting for a legitimately good smartwatch / activity tracker combo.
With Android Wear on the horizon, it's easy to fill our heads with the greener pastures of Google Now and the Moto 360, too, and Samsung's current offerings simply don't bring that level of excitement. We still know very little about Android Wear, though, so we'll have to see what actually ends up coming to be.
That all considered, I still think the Gear Fit is a pretty forgettable product. Even if Android Wear doesn't end up blowing our minds, I can't see Samsung's limp-wristed efforts catching on here, whether it be the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, or the Fit I tested. They're all different coats of paint on the same basic concept, and so I'm tempted to just condemn them all in one fell swoop.
But hey, at least the Gear Fit looks good.