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Samsung Gear Live REVIEW: So Much Smartwatch Potential Left Unfulfilled

by Brandon Russell | July 15, 2014July 15, 2014 11:00 am PDT

We’ve seen so many smartphones and tablets over the past few years that we need something else to get excited about. Something new—something that makes us pause, widen our eyes, and maybe even squeal with delight. That next thing, all big companies seem to agree, is the smartwatch.

As mobile gets more powerful (and more dull), we’re starting to see a big transition over to the wrist. Instead of a tiny computer in your pocket, it’s now adorned on your person, always visible and accessible when you need it. You already (probably) wear a watch, so why not make it a smartwatch? Leave your phone in your pocket, and take a step toward the future.

That’s what Android Wear, Google’s smartwatch platform, promises. But Google’s big platform is only a small glimpse at what the future of wearables has to offer.

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Samsung Gear Live Video Review

Android Where?

Google’s smartwatch operating system, Android Wear, attempts to strip Android down into a digestible mini OS for your wrist. Things like Google’s always-listening buzzword, “OK Google,” Google Now cards, and deep integration with apps are there. The experience of a pocket computer has now been shrunk down into a gadget that you strap to your arm—as Google puts it: “Useful information when you need it most.”

And that’s a true statement; Android Wear does share useful information directly to your wrist. When you get a notification, it pings you. That goes for emails, texts, calls, and more. It’ll even provide you with cards regarding your next appointment, commute time, flight information, and how many steps you’ve taken that day. All great and useful.

All totally redundant and boring on your wrist

Here’s what’s going on: we’re so bored with our smartphones that anything new is immediately awesome and cool. That’s why we’re so earnestly holding onto the idea of the smartwatch. But, in practice, these devices are largely redundant accessories capable of only providing a moment of fulfillment. When you put it on and get a few notifications, it’s something that can bring your heart rate up; it’s cool and entertaining.

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But the more you use the Gear Live smartwatch, the more you realize everything you’re doing you could do on your phone. The love fades, and it doesn’t come back. For how sophisticated people want to believe smartwatches have become, they don’t do anything to benefit the experience. At least not right now. In fact, I’d say they mostly hinder tasks you’re trying to perform, not improve them. Text is small, so it’s not feasible to read longer emails. They have to be tethered to your phone at all times. That’s just one example.

The Gear Live is very capable of assisting with menial tasks, such as reading texts, checking weather and setting reminders. So, for example, instead of taking out my phone, I could raise my wrist, say, “OK Google, remind me to call my mom,” and it’ll set a reminder without incident. That’s neat and helpful, if not all that revolutionary. It saved me what, 30 seconds of having to fiddle with my phone? I can also ask it how many steps I’ve taken, and do quick Google searches right from my wrist.

But when you do perform searches, you’re prompted to take your phone out anyway. You might as well just search right from your phone. You can’t browse the web, can’t watch videos, can’t take pictures, and on and on. You already spent good money on your smartphone, so why not use it? Is that considered laziness? Convenience? I don’t know what it is, but it certainly isn’t very rewarding.

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During my time with Android Wear on the Gear Live, I found navigation to be a bit confusing, never knowing when I could scroll up, right, down or left. It was mostly trial and error, meaning I spent a lot of time just swiping every which way before I found the right screen. Navigation through Android Wear became easy enough after a while, but not to the point where it was muscle memory. It’s intuitive-ish, but not enough to where you can just pick it up and immediately feel like it’s an extension of you. The average consumer, who probably uses his or her smartphone to take pictures and text, will find Android Wear to be like a maze.

Using the Gear Live solely as a watch is good enough. The watch is dimmed when not in use, though enough to where you can see the time. The screen, meanwhile, can be turned all the way off through some settings adjustments. It would save you some battery, but then you wouldn’t be able to glance at the time which, is that the point of a watch? To wake it, you simply tap the screen or press the button on the side. You can even just bring your wrist up in the “What time is it?” pose, which will then display the time. Cover the watch face for a moment with your hand and the screen will power back down.

As for app integration, we’re still in the early days. You can hail a car through Lyft, navigate with Google Maps, communicate through Hangouts, and even order a pizza with Eat24. The implementation is great, if a little gimmicky. I never dreamt of ordering pizza with my watch, but that functionality exists. Other compatible apps include Tinder, Runtastic Running, Fancy, Pinterest, American Airlines and more.

There’s a lot there already, and app integration is perhaps what’s most exciting about Android Wear at the moment. Google Now integration is helpful, and the ability to reply with nothing more than your voice is great. But I found myself just preferring to use my phone. When texting, conversations aren’t threaded, meaning it’s easy to forget what you’re talking about in the first place; same goes with e-mail. Your smartphone is right there, in your pocket. You don’t need something on your wrist to tell you to use it. In fact, I personally found the constant buzzing on my wrist more annoying than helpful. (I might be weird, though, because I turned off a lot of my app notifications on my phone, and I put everything to silent.)

Design

The Gear Live is a very attractive watch with a metal construction and a 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display; it looks much nicer than the blocky G Watch, that’s for sure. The device is also IP67 certified for dust and water resistance, comes with Bluetooth 4.0 and an array of sensors, including a heart rate sensor, and sports a 300mAh battery, which is rather for one-day of use. You can hardly tell it apart from something like the Gear 2, but that’s not such a bad thing, as the Gear Live looks slick on your wrist, and feels comfortable, too.

The stock band, though, is kind of a pain, and feels a bit too tough, like it’ll never quite contour to your wrist. It’s like trying to break in a belt that just won’t quite break in. There are little prongs on the band that you press into the little fitting holes, and it’s really difficult get on the first, second or even fifth try. You also can’t put the watch flush against its back onto a table, which is a small quibble. Because of how the Gear Live is designed, the band is always bent — it’s a minor annoyance that we couldn’t shake. You can, however, use different bands, which is a pretty nice touch if you don’t like the stock one.

The Gear Live has a physical button on the side, which allows for some limited interaction, such as toggling the screen on or off, or even for quickly jumping into settings. More often than not you probably won’t even use it, or even really notice it’s there. Like Samsung’s other smartwatches, the Gear Live sports a heart rate sensor on the underside—it’ll take your pulse if that’s important to you. (The watch already tracks your steps by default, though we find it to be wildly inaccurate.)

The screen on the Gear Live looks pretty terrific—mostly. In an office, or in a classroom, notifications, wallpapers and more all look really nice; text just looks great on the 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display (278 ppi). But, even at max brightness (there’s no ambient light sensors, so you have to adjust the brightness yourself). It’s really difficult to see the screen outside, to the point where most of what’s being displayed is unreadable. A lot of time I found myself angling my body to block the sun, like I was doing some funny dance, just so I could see notifications. That’s a big hardware hurdle companies will need to overcome in the future. If you’re the outdoorsy type, the Gear Live probably isn’t for you.

In terms of battery life, the Gear Live will get you about a full work-day of use, but nothing beyond that. The fact that you have to charge something like this every 24-hours is annoying, especially when you consider something like the Pebble is capable of lasting much longer. Say you forgot to charge your Gear Live overnight: now you have a dead smartwatch, which will probably happen more often than not. Like the Galaxy Gear and Gear 2, you need to attach a little dongle to the back of the Gear Live, and then plug it in to charge. That’s not so bad, but it’s worth noting that you do need to keep track of a lot of small pieces, so be aware. There are reports that the charger can be damaged beyond repair after a few uses, too, though we didn’t experience this with our unit.

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DON’T BUY

The Gear Live is a pleasant showcase of what Android Wear can do. Sadly, Google’s new wearable platform isn’t enough to take smartwatches mainstream—yet.

Android Wear can do a lot right now, and is mostly looks pretty nice, too. At the moment, the software is showing great upside, but as it stands, there’s not too much to get excited about just yet. Smartwatches have been novelties so far, and while Google does a lot of push Android Wear in new directions, it doesn’t seem like enough to make the Gear Live (or G Watch) a must-have item.

The debate over whether consumers need a smartwatch is still hot. Yes, glancing down at your wrist, seeing a text, and then replying with your voice does save time; there’s no denying Android Wear’s (and Gear Live’s) convenience in that respect. But is that worth spending a couple hundred bucks on? Especially since it relies on your smartphone, wouldn’t you just rather use the iPhone, Galaxy S5 or HTC One (M8) that’s in your pocket?

Beyond that, the screen on the Gear Live is pleasant, it’s great that you can easily control music and other stuff right from your watch, and quickly replying to email and text is simple enough. But with Android Wear still not yet near its potential, is it worth jumping into the smart watch market right now? If you want Google Now on your wrist at all times, maybe. But if you already own something from Pebble, or aren’t still sold on the smart watch craze, the Gear Live isn’t going to change the game. Not yet, anyway.

Android Wear still feels like it’s in beta—we’re actually surprised Google didn’t approach this the same way it did Google Glass. With so much anticipation surrounding the smart watch market, Android Wear kind of feels like a rush job, like Google just wanted to get something out as fast as possible. What’s there is promising. But it doesn’t yet feel fully realized. Battery life needs to improve. An ambient light sensor would be nice. The Gear Live band is tough and a bit uncomfortable. And the screen is tough to see out in broad daylight.

Still, the Gear Live is probably the better of the two Android Wear devices you can get right now, though that’ll probably change once the Moto 360 is available later this summer. If you’re waiting for your smart watch to be more powerful than just a simple notification machine, than the Gear Live hasn’t yet hit that point. But the better Android Wear gets, the more app integration we see, the smarter and more adept Google gets at creating experiences for your wrist, maybe then something like the Gear Live will be a must-have.

As for now, you should definitely hold off. Don’t just get it because it sounds cool. The novelty will be gone before you know it, and your bank account $200 lighter. Wait. See how it all shapes up later this year. Your smartphone will do just fine all by its lonesome for now.

Jon used the Gear Live for five days before filming his review. Brandon wrote the review based on Jon’s notes, and some limited experience with the Gear Live over a three-day period.


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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