If you've ever eaten a cheap frozen pizza, you know it's not exactly a delicacy. It's edible, but if you had to eat it every day, you'd probably lose your mind (and your appetite). Now, if you put some sriracha on that pizza, you do make it considerably better. But it's still a frozen pizza, it just happens to be marginally better than the other, non-sriracha'ed frozen pizza.
The Gear 2 is frozen pizza... with sriracha. It's noticeably better than the original recipe (the Galaxy Gear), but at the end of the day it still feels like a cheap imitation of the product we all really want: an amazing, useful, usable smartwatch. With no pineapple, because that's weird. Is anyone else hungry?
The problem isn't the Gear 2's hardware, or even its price - both of those aspects are worthy of some criticism in their own right, but they're not what makes the Gear 2 kind of sort of bad. The problem is the very way Samsung has conceptualized the smartwatch experience: it all feels terribly uninventive and extremely predictable. As a result, the Gear 2 just isn't a very good product to use. There is almost nothing it does that compels me to wear it - and that's a real problem for a highly conspicuous $300 wrist accessory.
Samsung Gear Fit
- Price: $300
- Processor: 1GHz dual-core ARM processor
- GPU: Unknown
- OS: Gear OS, based on Tizen
- Display: 1.63" AMOLED 320x320 (277 DPI)
- Network compatibility: None
- Memory: 512MB RAM / 4GB internal storage
- Cameras: 2MP
- Battery: 300mAh, 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: just under 10mm at thickest point
- Weight: 68g
- Design / hardware: While the overall look isn't a dramatic change from the Galaxy Gear, I think the Gear 2 just looks better in so many little ways that add up to a much more attractive, sleek smartwatch overall. It's not beautiful, but it looks more refined and elegant to my eyes.
- Battery life: I found Samsung's 3-4 day moderate use and 6 day light use estimates perfectly attainable. I could definitely handle a smartwatch if it only meant charging it twice a week.
- Display: Samsung's AMOLED works beautifully on a smartwatch, much as it did the first Gear. Great pixel density makes information very readable, and allows for a richer experience.
- Not completely useless: For glancing at email subject lines, seeing who's calling, reading text messages, and dismissing alarms or calendar events, the Gear 2 is reasonably useful.
The Not So Good
- Overkill: Samsung has tried to stuff its smartwatches with tons of features that no one will ever use, and it makes using the watch substantially less pleasant and simple. I do not want a full-on wrist smartphone, that's not what a smartwatch should be, Samsung.
- Notifications: While integration for 3rd party apps like Gmail and Hangouts has improved greatly since the first Gear (you can now go directly to an email or message from the watch to your phone), things still aren't great. Notifications don't cross-clear, they aren't persistent in a useful way on the watch, and non-Samsung apps still only have 2 interaction options for notifications (delete or view on phone).
- Price: Fact aside you're paying $100 extra for a camera you'll never use (the Gear 2 Neo is only $200), $300 for a smartwatch that does what the Gear 2 does is laughable. The useful functionality is nowhere near providing you your money's worth - this is 100% a techy enthusiast's toy that has essentially zero justifiability in the real world.
- Not all that "smart": Shouldn't a smartwatch set out to solve the problems having to take your phone out to do something causes? Make your life easier? Be highly intuitive and quick to use? Well, I'd say yes. The Gear 2, though, just feels like a slower, dumber smartphone for your wrist.
The high point of the Gear 2 is almost definitely the hardware - not only does it have a beautiful OLED display, its design feels more refined and modern than that of the original Galaxy Gear. The changes aren't huge - side by side, the Gear and Gear 2 look fairly similar, but it's hard to deny that the Gear 2 does look better.
The more pronounced brushed texture of the steel bezel surrounding the display looks more, well, watch-like. The removal of the rather tacky looking exposed screw heads on the original Gear also helps give the new device a cleaner look. The metal home button provides a nice accent, and the integration of the speaker, microphone, and camera into the watch body mean no more awkward lumps on the wrist band or clasp.
The checkered texture of the included band actually pairs pretty well with the Gear 2 - I find it much less visually grating than the original watch, which had a gray (or colored, if you so chose) silicone band that seemed reminiscent of a cheap digital watch you'd find at a convenience store. The wrist clasp, too, looks more elegant, particularly since the bulky speaker it once housed has been moved to the body of the watch. It's still too thick at the clasp though, and it makes wearing the Gear 2 while typing or using a mouse simply not worth the effort (or scratched surfaces), in my opinion.
The changes from the original Gear taken on their own are small, but together, they add up to a smartwatch that to me looks significantly more stylish, something the Gear 2's predecessor legitimately struggled with.
The bands on the Gear 2 are also interchangeable and use what appears to be a fairly standard pin-slide system. Samsung sent me a leather Fossil band with crocodile embossing as an alternative to the factory band. As I'm sure you'll agree, I quickly decided the included Samsung band was a much, much better choice.
I think the Gear 2 would look decent with a steel link band, or really any reasonably fashionable silicone band, but leather? Not so much. I think somebody just grabbed this thing out of the demo pile and said "good enough." Because yuck. Seriously uggo.
On the quality side, I think Samsung did a great job with the original Gear, and the Gear 2 still manages to feel yet more refined and solid. This does not at all feel like a cheap product, which is such a marked departure from Samsung's phones and tablets.
The display seems basically like the unit on last year's watch, but that 1.63" AMOLED is still an absolute looker with a totally respectable 320x320 resolution. Unfortunately, like the Gear before it, the Gear 2 doesn't have an ambient light sensor and so brightness still has to be adjusted manually. This essentially makes the Gear 2 an annoyance to use in bright sunlight since the maximum brightness setting (outdoor mode) only remains active for a limited time to conserve power, then goes back to the next highest setting.
The speaker on the Gear 2 is reasonably loud, though even at its maximum setting I doubt it would be particularly good for a phone call if you were in a noisy area. The microphone, too, seems to work pretty well, but most of my testing of that was indoors or in quiet areas.
The charging dongle for the Gear 2 is a marked improvement over the cradle of its predecessor, I'd say - it's a bit more likely to get lost (being smaller), but it snaps on to the watch easily and doesn't require much fiddling around with. I'd still like to see a dedicated dock or a wireless charging system for a smartwatch (with dongles maybe being used for travel), but for now, I guess dongles it is.
Battery life for me has been generally been above Samsung's estimates (2-3 days for "typical" usage, 6 days for low usage), though admittedly I don't really find much reason to use the Gear 2 all that much, so that's probably why. 3 to 5 days has been my experience, with the display being the biggest drain on power, obviously. I think for a full-color smartwatch that's adequate, though more would obviously be better.
Oh, the Gear 2 has a camera. It takes pictures. And like the original Gear, the direction it faces means taking a straight-on photo while standing is kind of difficult, because the viewfinder (the display) is at a very shallow angle to your eyes. Considering how much someone would actually use this (I'm guessing "almost never"), it's not really a big complaint.
The new Gear 2 does have some significant software changes apart from a switch to a Tizen-based OS. Navigating, though, is largely like it was on the Galaxy Gear, and I just don't find it to be a compelling experience for a number of reasons. First, though, let's talk notifications, as this is one of the key roles of any smartwatch.
Samsung has finally mostly fixed 3rd party notifications on the Gear 2 - emails from Gmail show up with a sender, subject, and body text, and tapping "show on device" finally sends you directly to that email, not just to wherever you last were in the Gmail app (as it still does even on the Gear Fit). This seems to work with most apps, including Hangouts. It will not work if the notification has been cleared on the main device already, though, suggesting this functionality is dependent on the notification in order to work properly. This is a major improvement over how things were previously.
Still, I go back to my basic problem with notifications on Gear OS [the following is ripped from my Gear Fit review]: 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.
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 (3rd party apps have basically zero functionality aside from "view on device"), 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 or answer 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.
The Gear 2 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 2's one interesting audio feature is music playback via Bluetooth. You can send music to the Galaxy Gear over Bluetooth (yeah, I'm sure that's real quick), though the Gear Manager app only scans the music folders the Samsung music player app does, so you have to store your music that way or drag and drop from your PC via USB (much faster anyway). The Gear 2 has about 2.6GB of usable space, enough to keep a reasonable number of playlists on if you so choose. The music playback works only with Bluetooth headphones, of course, so you'll need those if you want to use it. The point of this feature is to be able to go exercise without having to carry your phone, I assume, and in that sense, it is indeed useful. I'm not sure how much this will run down the Gear 2's battery, but I have to imagine it's a pretty significant drain.
Gear 2 also has WatchON integration, which allows you to use the watch as a remote for your TV via the built-in IR blaster. Why someone would want this on their smartwatch when their Samsung smartphone already does it (except more and better), I have no idea. Because gimmick, I guess.
The Gear 2 also includes all the Gear Fit's fitness features, including a pedometer and heart rate monitor, which you can read about in that device's review.
So, how about apps? There are indeed apps for Gear 2 on the Samsung app store, but the number that are actually, well, useful, is still pretty slim. I found a free calculator app, and for $2, an app that lets you control various functions on your paired phone like Wi-Fi, mobile data, silent / vibrate toggle, power-saving, sync, tethering, and Bluetooth (yes, really). There's also some golf app, eBay, Feedly, CNN, and a flashlight app that literally just turns the screen white. Woohoo. Other than that, there really isn't anything exciting going on with apps on the Gear 2 at this point. Samsung has strongly hinted developers will make creative use of the Gear 2's camera (which you pay a $100 premium for since the Neo doesn't have it), but I really don't see that happening, because it never did with the original Gear.
As far as performance is concerned, the Gear 2 is definitely faster than the original Gear, and that device wasn't exactly quick. Strangely, because the Gear Fit's animations scroll much more smoothly than the Gear 2's, though I'd say app opening times are about equal on the two. It's entirely livable from a speed perspective.
I think the simplest way to put it is this: Samsung looks at its smartwatches as a mission to downsize the smartphone experience and put it on your wrist - it literally advertised the first Gear as a wrist phone. But that's exactly what a smartwatch should not be. A smartwatch should augment and enhance the functionality of your smartphone, not seek to emulate it.
The catch, of course, is that doing one of these things is much harder than the other. If you just try to make a smartwatch a tiny smartphone, you know where to go - the functions and features are already laid out for you, you just have to design an experience around them. If you try to make a smartwatch more than that, you start running into really tough questions - what do people use their smartphones for that a smartwatch could make easier or better? How do you make it simple and quick enough to be worthwhile? Why would someone want to use their smartwatch for this activity or task versus pulling out their phone? What information do people really want at a glance? How much control should they have over that experience? It's the difference between making a product for a market and making a product to define a market.
This is something of a fundamental problem with most smartwatches right now, though Samsung's Gear devices may be guiltier than others. It seems like Samsung simply didn't ask any of those crucial questions, they just went with what was obvious and easy. That's not to say they didn't do anything right - on the contrary, some of the most obvious functions (dismissing alarms, calls, calendar appointments, quick replies to SMS messages) are among the most useful. But this is just a tiny cross-section of a $300 device's capabilities, most of which I would frankly never, ever use, and doubt most people would either. Even at $200, the Gear 2 Neo is really no better a value proposition. Samsung has built a smartwatch that very clearly was designed to mimic, yet cannot function without, a smartphone, and I think that's a dead end. This is one time when Samsung's "throw all the features at consumers and see what sticks" strategy can actually harm them: the Gear 2's usefulness is haphazard at best, weighed down by an OS that can't get out of its own way far too often. Buying a Gear 2 for what it does do well is like buying an eighteen-wheeler because the horn is loud: it is overkill to an obscene degree. No one needs a $300 (or $200, for that matter) smartwatch to do the things the Gear does - that's half the cost of a high-end smartphone for something that does maybe one tenth (if you count apps, maybe one hundredth) of the stuff. It just doesn't add up.
I think it's time to go back to the drawing board, Samsung - Android Wear's on the horizon, and I don't see the Gears weathering that storm well in their current state. It's not that they're terrible, it's just that they're not particularly useful, either.