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Gear Fit REVIEW: Not Quite At Full Fitness

by Brandon Russell | April 28, 2014April 28, 2014 1:00 pm PDT

Samsung isn’t new to the wearable market, but its Gear Fit announcement in February was a major surprise. Not only did it see the company make an unexpected entrance into the crowded world of activity trackers, it saw Samsung really flex its (mostly unused) design muscle. From the start, the Fit showed plenty of promise, and was by far the most attractive fitness gadget we’d ever seen. But beauty will only get you so far. Samsung had a huge opportunity to capitalize on the booming fitness market, but instead fell short of the Olympic gold.

What we have here is a classic case of unfulfilled potential. Most fitness trackers today are eyesores that feel more like rubber cuffs than useful bracelets. But the Gear Fit looks like something straight out of the future—like it was suddenly dropped off from 2025. It’s sleek, sophisticated, and ultimately one of the coolest looking gadgets we’ve seen in the past four or five years.

But looks alone aren’t enough to throw a device into game-changing territory. You buy a watch because it’s beautifully engineered and serves its purpose well. You buy a fitness tracker, like the Fit, so you can track your steps and keep a log of your exercise activity. The Fit does those things and more thanks to its limited smartwatch features. But it doesn’t do much to pull away from the pack. It comes in at just above average, relying more on appearances than innovative functionality.

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Design

Samsung typically receives mediocre marks for its mobile design; the company’s smartphones look decent enough, while its lineup of Gear smartwatches are just OK. But its Gear Fit, on the other hand, is a lovely and immaculate activity tracker, plain and simple. You might even have a hard time believing this was actually put out by a company so content to play it by the numbers. Someone actually asked me in disbelief, “That’s a Samsung product?” I showed him the Gear branding to prove it. Let’s hope this sets a precedent for future wearables.

The main attraction of the Gear Fit is its 1.84-inch curved, full-color AMOLED touchscreen display, which looks like a futuristic VISOR for the wrist. The display is surrounded by a chrome border that accents the device well; the screen itself is actually quite nice, too, displaying the same level of quality expected from a Samsung device. You can easily read it outdoors, which is obviously a big key for wearables, and its responsive enough for a tiny wrist gadget. Flicking around from setting to setting is simple and relatively intuitive. There’s a lone sleep/wake button that functions exactly like you’d expect, but otherwise the experience is completely touch. Nothing seems out of place, and it’s all stuffed into a neat package that isn’t the least bit obnoxious.

The backside of the device doesn’t have a curve that’s quite as pronounced as the screen itself, but it still rests comfortably on the wrist, and isn’t overly bulky, either. Curved displays in mobile have become more novelty than functionally useful, but the implementation here actually makes sense, adding to the overall experience. On the underside the Gear Fit is fitted with a heart rate sensor, along with little connectors to charge the device. Charging the device is perhaps the biggest annoyance in terms of design, requiring you to plug in an adapter that can be easily misplaced. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future iteration have a charging solution built right in, but right now users will have to put up with multiple pieces.

Like other recent Samsung gadgets, the Fit has an IP67 rating, so you can wear it in the rain or submerge it in water (in the bathtub!) with no problem. All of that technology fits quite snugly into a textured rubber strap that’s flexible and durable without being uncomfortable. The straps are interchangeable—there are six different colors—and holds the Fit in place very well. It features a two-peg clasp system that is surprisingly strong. You won’t have to worry about accidentally knocking it off your wrist, or having it suddenly fall off while jogging.

Samsung rates the Fit’s battery at 3-4 days of regular usage, and I found that assessment to be more or less on the mark—your mileage will vary depending on your own personal usage. I got to the end of the third day before needing a charge; that isn’t amazing, but its an improvement over Samsung’s first smartwatch, and won’t produce too much battery anxiety among users. If you do find yourself stranded without the little USB charging adapter, however, one heavy holiday weekend of use will probably mean you have a dead wearable by the time things are said and done.

Samsung Gear Fit 8

Samsung Gear Fit 7

Samsung Gear Fit 6

A Smartwatch, Kind Of

The Gear Fit promises to provide a hybrid of smartwatch/activity tracking capabilities, and for the most part it performs those functions well. It’s perfectly capable of acting as a second screen, feeding you notifications for apps like Gmail, Hangouts, Twitter, and more, displaying a couple lines of text so you can quickly decide if you want to address it or not. When a notification does come buzzing in, you have the choice to show it on your device, prompting the app to open right there on your phone. Easy, and mostly useful. Mostly.

The shape of the Fit, however, makes reading messages that do come streaming in a pretty painful experience, only allowing a snippet of text to appear on the screen at a given time. Limitations are to be expected, since the screen is small and skinny. But the solution dreamt up by Samsung makes it so you’d rather just quickly take out your Samsung device and skip the Fit almost entirely. I would have liked to see the company come up with an elegant way to address this, to find out how to make notifications and text work, but instead it looks as though Samsung figured the implementation right now is good enough. A software update can easily fix this.

Also consider when you first get the Fit, it’s orientated in landscape, meaning you have to pretty much contort your body in an uncomfortable way to read any text. Looking on Samsung’s site right now, the Gear is displayed in portrait, but the text runs horizontally. It looks hilarious and weird—you have to cock your head sideways to see what the screen has displayed. You can change the orientation, luckily, but that’s only a slight improvement. For how lovely the Fit looks, you sometimes lose out on usability because of how the hardware/software communicate.

Digging further into the Fit’s smart watch capabilities, you can reject calls right from the device, and there are canned text responses that let you quickly reply to friends and family. But you can’t really do much with many of the notifications that come buzzing in and, as mentioned, the screen’s dimensions cut off messages. You can limit notifications, and there are other options that you can change from your Samsung phone, such as Smart Relay, the ability to keep the screen off, and an option to turn message previews off entirely.

You wouldn’t get the Fit solely based on its smartwatch capabilities, but it’s not terribly bad, and still lets you glance down when a notification or messages come in. There’s also this neat gesture you can perform; when the screen is off, bring it up toward you like you’re trying to check the time, and the screen will come to life. That’s a nice little trick that works pretty well. Otherwise you’re stuck pressing the Fit’s small sleep/wake button, which becomes annoying when all you want to do is check the time.

On that note, it’s unfortunate that Samsung is so intent on keeping its wearables so confined to its own lineup of devices. Apple is notorious for this practice, and seeing Samsung follow the same approach certainly isn’t winning over any fans, especially given the history between the two companies. This kind of walled garden could be a taste of what’s to come, too, so we should just start getting settled in now. This is a Samsung accessory designed for Samsung fans. All you non-Samsung folks will just have to look elsewhere.

Getting Fit

It’s difficult to get motivated to use a fitness tracking device when it fails to accurately track your steps. The Fit seems to be way too overly sensitive to give you a proper reading of what you’ve done that day. I had a suspicion the Fit wasn’t accurately tracking my steps when I noticed it was well over what I tracked against an iPhone 5s (with M7 co-processor and Nike+ Move app).

So I went out for a walk and deliberately counted every one of my steps—2,100 from my apartment to the library down the street—and the Fit was way off that mark by over 650 steps. Thanks for padding my ego, Fit, but your lack of accuracy is doing nobody any good. It shows that the science of the Fit needs to be tweaked; the sensors are just a tad bit too sensitive. (I have yet to try other activity trackers, however, so I don’t know how it stacks up).

It would be difficult for me to track every one of my steps throughout an entire day, but if the Fit is indeed unable to give me a precise reading, or one that’s close to the steps I actually took, all it’s good for is essentially providing a reference. (From what I’ve read, that applies to most activity trackers.) I suppose that’s perfectly fine for those needing an extra nudge to be more active, but even compared to the built-in pedometer in the Galaxy S5’s S Health app (used during Fit testing), Samsung’s fitness tracker is way off—as if it didn’t pay attention and just fed me a number at random. You’d think since the two devices are designed to talk to each other you’d get similar results, but nope. It’s as though the they have never met, and are in some sort of forced relationship. That’s awkward! And not at all promising.

In addition to simply tracking your steps, the Fit is capable of recording a run, cycling (basically through your phone’s GPS, so a stationary bike doesn’t cut it), and hiking, and there’s an option to check your exercise history right from the Fit. Also worth mentioning, and then immediately forgetting about, is the fact that the Fit can track your sleep. You have to start and stop the sleep tracker manually, which is easy to forget to do, and when you are provided with your sleep history, you can’t do anything with it. You can’t even view it in the S Health app, which is weird and a bit maddening.

Through each fitness category you can setup a goal, which you can change at will, and you can easily see the history or reset the data that’s been collected. The pedometer information from your Fit can be synced in intervals—every three hours or once a day—or you can simply do it manually, though you have to open the app on your phone to do so. The benefit of this, obviously, is to see that data in a beautiful chart, allowing you to track your progress and set goals. Maybe one week you didn’t move around enough; having a chart will encourage you to make adjustments..

When you do use the Fit on a run, you can also setup coaching to help you keep motivated while exercising. Real-time coaching will buzz you with tips and encourage you to keep at it, whether it be to pick up the pace or to sustain the pace you’re at. Having a coach is nice because it helps keep you accountable so you’re not just giving up once you feel the slightest bit of pain. You can also make the Fit provide you with your heart rate on a run, otherwise you can manually track it (though you have to keep rigor mortis still if you want a reading).

Being able to take your heart rate is probably the device’s most important function, because it gives you on-demand information and a reference to whether you’re actually burning any calories. When sitting, you hardly burn any calories at all, and tracking steps doesn’t really give you specific data to determine calories burned. But with the step data you’re always collecting, your heart rate data can be used to tell you if you’re actually working up a sweat, which is an important distinction. Simply taking a stroll is a good start to better health. But if you’re not getting your heart rate up, you’re not burning the necessary calories to reach a realistic goal, whether it be to lose weight or feel more fit during a run.

Samsung Gear Fit 0017

Samsung Gear Fit 0009

Samsung Gear Fit Heart Rate Sensor

BUY/WAIT

The Gear Fit offers some limited smartwatch and activity tracking capabilities, but ultimately not enough to pass a fitness test.

The Fit isn’t horrible for a first generation smartwatch/fitness tracker hybrid. It’ll provide you with reference information after a day of walking around, and it’s capable of giving you real-time heart rate feedback, too, which is an important feature if you’re serious about your fitness goals. You can, however, just as easily take your heart rate without the Fit, but having it inside of a wrist band while you workout is obviously more seamless and convenient.

As a smartwatch, the Fit provides just enough functionality to get by, feeding the typical notifications (email, text, etc.) straight to your wrist. There are some limited actions you can take right from the device itself, too, but you’ll mostly spend your time responding back and dealing with emails and messages right from your phone. The Fit is limited like most current smartwatches in that it provides you with information you can quickly glance at. But beyond that it’s not much use as a “smart” watch—we won’t really get a taste of what that’s like, it seems, until Android Wear devices hit the market.

At $199, Samsung’s Gear Fit isn’t cheap—you’ll have to be really serious about tracking your activity to purchase one. From a design standpoint, the Fit is untouchable in the fitness market, providing an excellent display, comfortably wrist band, and just enough functionality to please casual users. It’s a pain to charge (and charges slowly), and the software can be a little clunky in places. But overall the Fit is an acceptable hybrid tracker that Samsung fans will love.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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