Posted in: Smartwatches, Tizen

Samsung Gear 2 review

Samsung would have you believe you want, scratch that, you need, the Gear 2 smartwatch. You may as well see a point there if you happen to own one of the 17 smartphones and tablets with a Gear Manager app – all of which, needless to say – are made by Samsung.

We make it sound like a devious plot but, in truth, it makes sense to – at the very least – be able to quickly locate a misplaced smartphone. And that’s on top of taking calls and telling the time of course. Then come perks like playing nicely with the heart rate sensor and the S Health app on a Galaxy S5.

The Samsung Gear 2 comes a year after the company’s first venture into a new niche – the Galaxy Gear. We thought the Galaxy Gear was a cool little gadget but pricey and with less than stellar battery backup. Despite running Android, a device with practically only home-brewed apps. In this review we’ll be taking a look at the Gear 2 and not the Gear 2 Neo but to set you with the correct perspective, there’s very little difference between both devices.

The Gear 2 is 13g heavier than the Neo but has a camera to show for it – a 2MP unit compared to last year’s Gear 1.9MP cam.

Samsung took a step out of its usual Galaxy comfort zone and into uncharted land with Sony the only big name on the block, sitting all on its own, unwilling to play with the cool new Pebble. Samsung rushed to market with a Galaxy Gear that seemed exactly that – rushed. Enough has been said about Apple’s iWatch and maybe Samsung was listening, scrambling to get there first. But if Apple is getting ready to conquer the smartwatch market it’s certainly taking its time, Samsung isn’t.

Now that the second generation of the Gear franchise is out, Samsung is looking to improve where improvement was much needed and is trying to outnumber the willing competitors. The Gear is now a three-headed beast: the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit. All three are powered by Tizen, an open-source OS that Samsung currently has joint custody of. Maybe Samsung has emancipation from the Big G on its mind to such an extent that it even converted the first Gear from Android to Tizen.

Hardware

But before we move on to what Tizen has brought to the table and what went away with Android, let’s focus on the hardware side of things. The new Gear 2 is close enough to its predecessor but also very different. For starters, the design looks more subtle and refined. Gone are the screws that adorned the watch’s body and now its face is only softly brushed metal and lightly curved glass.


Samsung Gear 2

The strap has seen the camera and microphone removed but the buckle remained unchanged so that now it’s easier to change it for one of the many, color options available through Samsung or third party providers. The strap itself feels high quality and offers a textured finish on the outside, ribbed on the inside. It’s very sturdy and feels like a mix between quality plastic and rubber. Samsung allows you to easily adjust the lock with a simple mechanism.

The new Gear 2 has a single button under its display that acts as a power button and features a double-press functionality that will either open the most recent apps or the app switcher. Across from the home button lies the camera. The microphone is on the right, while the speaker on the left of the watch body.

An optical heart rate sensor is integrated into the bottom of the watch’s body, like the one on the back of the Samsung Galaxy S5 that pairs with the S Health app.


Samsung Gear 2

The Samsung Gear 2 retains the 1.63″ Super AMOLED screen of 320 x 320 resolution and 278 ppi. The Gear 2 makes more sense ergonomically at 56.6 x 36.8 x 11.1mm, losing only on the thickness front compared to a 58.4 x 36.9 x 10mm Gear. Weight is improved as well, the Gear 2 tips the scales at 68g compared to the 73.8g of the original. The battery does better as well, despite it being 15mAh less powerful (at a total of 300 mAh) and in our testing easily got a solid two and half to three days of use compared to the underwhelming single day of the original Gear. We could chalk it down to a better-optimized Tizen but we’ll need to see if the Galaxy Gear, now just Gear, has seen the same improvement since it converted. Three days isn’t anything spectacular but it’s a start in the right direction.

The processor has seen a major boost from a single-core 800MHz to dual-core 1GHz, which should help get things done faster.

And finally, the most important hardware improvement of the Gear 2 is something very logical for a watch, smart or otherwise – water resistance. The Gear 2 is IP67 certified like the Galaxy S5 so it provides the highest level of dust protection and water resistance of up to a meter deep for as long as 30 minutes. For most watches water resistance is no big deal but perhaps smartwatches needed way more and we’re happy Samsung treated the Gear 2 accordingly.

The Samsung Gear 2 charges by means of a little cradle that has a microUSB charging port. And while the new attachable accessory is much smaller than the grotesque box of a charger of the original Gear, it still means you’ll need to carry it along and be careful not to lose it.

Charging aside, the retail box, which feels too large for such a small device, holds a microUSB charger too and some leaflets.


Samsung Gear 2

The Samsung Gear 2 is undoubtedly a better smartwatch than its predecessor. It looks better, feels better and has superior hardware. The choice to pack all the important things in the watch body instead of the strap is logical and allows you to more easily change the latter.


Samsung Gear 2 on hand

The IP67 certification is great too and we like it that Samsung decided to keep the quality Super AMOLED display leaving us wishing it had only improved the battery as well, capacity-wise.

Now, the price of $300 doesn’t seem like such a hard one to swallow either.

Software

The Samsung Gear 2 runs on a completely new operating system yet is operated in the same way and looks the same as its predecessor. If you’re coming from the original Gear, one of the first things you’ll notice is how much snappier the Gear 2 feels. Every gesture takes a split second to register and turning your hand upwards immediately prompts the Gear 2 to light up its colorful face.

We had a run in with the Gear 2 at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this past January and recorded some of the encounter. This functionality has not changed so here goes the video.

The Gear 2 has a very limited list of third party apps but those made by Samsung seem polished enough. The Gear 2 is mainly made to handle notifications from your Samsung smartphone and send distance walked, heart rate and calorie information to the S Health app.

You communicate with the Gear 2 on your smartphone via the Gear Manager app, found on the Samsung Apps store. It’s easy enough to set up and, once paired via Bluetooth, it will automatically connect upon bringing the Gear 2 within range.

The app covers much of the built-in settings of the Samsung Gear 2 – you can change the clock face, the wallpaper and the change will immediately transmit to the smartwatch.


Samsung Gear Manager app

One of the main features you can use with the Gear 2 is health tracking and, on the opposite side, you have S Health on your smartphone, which syncs the pedometer readings from your walks and runs.

Another cool sync feature makes us wish the Gear 2 was pairable (root-free) to other smartphones – and that’s notifications. The Gear 2 can be set to receive just calls and alarms or the entire range of notifications from your Samsung smartphone.


Samsung Gear Manager app

Another neat feature is Find My Device. With the Gear Manager app properly set-up, the Gear 2 can ring your phone and help you locate it – and it works the other way around too.


Samsung Gear Manager app

As we said most of those options are mirrored on the Gear 2 as well, which might seem like poor optimization but in truth lets you have the same functionality whether you reached for the smartphone in your pocket or the smartwatch on your wrist.

Thankfully, this year the boring brown accent of the user interface is gone and has been replaced by white on black mostly. You can freely choose a wallpaper but, in most apps and menus, there’s a black canvas with white accents combined with orange, green and other colors.


Samsung Gear 2

The exercise app works for running, walking, cycling and hiking. Each option includes monitored exercises and you can set goals for yourself. The Gear 2 can also be set to monitor your heart rate for which it needs an initial reading and you’re good to go. Sadly, the Gear 2 needs you to tell it which type of exercise you’ll be doing and hit the Start button – it doesn’t automatically detect what it is you’re doing.


Samsung Gear 2

Naturally, the Gear 2 taps into your phone’s notifications. There’s even a dialer and a call log, although it shouldn’t be surprising considering you do get a microphone and speaker, allowing you to take calls on the Gear 2 itself.


Samsung Gear 2

There’s even a built-in music player and you can play locally stored music on the loudspeaker (4GB worth of built-in storage) but the speaker is very quiet. With a Bluetooth headset however you can start to really appreciate the little smartwatch as a potent accessory.

There’s also S Voice, like on last year’s Gear. One of the most useful features is the IR remote. It can be set to work with many appliances including air conditioners, not only TVs and set top boxes. It works great and uses the Gear 2’s built-in IR blaster.


Samsung Gear 2

We can’t be too demanding of the Samsung Gear 2 interface and functionality. The UI is clean and stylish, and makes the best out of the Super AMOLED little screen. Using the Gear 2 is intuitive as well – you’re always a swipe away from getting where you need to be and the addition of the home button is nice as it gives you a quick way to either open up your most recent app or showing you a list of all your recent apps for added convenience.

We only wish the Gear 2 could intuitively recognize when we’re using it in a certain way. It would be better if it knew we were running without needing us to tell it.

The ultimate Instagram camera

The camera on the Samsung Gear 2 is good for snapping square 2MP images at 1:1 aspect ratio (Instagramers would appreciate it). It will do for an occasional quick shot of something you don’t want to try hard to memorize. Most of the time the Gear 2 is on you there’s a huge chance your smartphone will be as well, only inches away in your pocket so you’re covered in terms of more advanced photography too.

Still the detail level and the dynamic range are quite good for such a tiny camera.


Samsung Gear 2 camera samples

The placement of the camera on the watch body is such that it will let you shoot without anyone noticing – as if you’re just looking at your watch.

The Gear 2 can also manage 480p (640 x 640) videos, which are nothing special. Here goes a sample.

All in all we don’t see the point of adding a camera to the Samsung Gear 2 – especially one that cannot be used for video chatting. Then again, the cameraless Gear 2 Neo is definitely an alternative.

In the end…

The Samsung Gear 2 would have made a great first attempt by Samsung. There could be more to ask of number 2 but the truth is that Samsung has practically redesigned the Gear smartwatch from scratch this year – switching from Android to Tizen now seems the least of the changes.

We think a good smartwatch should hold a charge for more than a day or two, heck more like a week perhaps. It should enhance your smartphone experience of staying on top of your notifications and managing your calls. And it should be affordable to really take off – not many will pay half a smartphone worth of a price.

The Samsung Gear 2 is a mixed bag on those terms. It has a battery that’s three times better than the predecessor’s but still not good enough. It plays the companion part just right but it’s price is quite steep at $300.

Don’t get us wrong – you can tell it’s a premium piece of equipment with even a quick glance. Sure, it can be as geeky as the Pebble if you combine the right watch face with the right strap but it will fit in a more formal environment too. The screen is also tough to beat – e-ink is power-efficient but isn’t as flashy as the colorful Super AMOLED.

Aside from the Pebble, the Gear 2 has some tough competition to face as well. The Qualcomm Toq costs less, has better battery life but, admittedly, doesn’t look as premium. The Pebble is here to stay and offers a playful plastic version as well as the latest Steel variant. But as we said those are only e-ink.

The Sony SmartWatch 2 has the advantage of apps but fails to impress with good battery life or looks.

What it comes down to is the emerging competition. LG, ever looking to rain on Samsung’s parade, has the upcoming G Watch that’s said to feature Google’s Android Wear OS, designed specifically for the form factor. Speaking of Android Wear, many are watching Motorola’s upcoming Moto 360, which positively looks gorgeous. Apple is yet to have a crack at a smartwatch and the iWatch may as well feature next to the upcoming redesigned iPhone.

Samsung cannot obviously shun wearables, especially with a kind of competition that certainly means business. It’s a segment where third-party compatibility won’t be seriously on the cards for at least another while. With the Samsung line of smart devices behind it, the Gear 2 is well covered but the likes of the iWatch and Moto 360 may end up making a bigger splash.

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