Of Smartphones and Dumb Watches

Or, “What the hell, Samsung?”

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This is the new Samsung Galaxy Gear, above the new Galaxy Note III. It’s one of the first Bluetooth-capable “smartwatches” by a major manufacturer. The picture above doesn’t make it look too bad, but take a gander at the gallery in Ars’ hands-on coverage which displays its many interface icons. White space, as far as the eye can see—the wasted space and potential are a disappointment. All for only $299, which can only pair with Samsung phones running Android 4.3. (That would be the Galaxy Note III, Galaxy Note 10.1, and after an update, the Galaxy Note II, Galaxy SIII, and Galaxy S4.)

There’s been a lot of bemused wonder at the purpose of a smartwatch; to be fair, aside from being an interesting gadget, there is less need for smart watches than smart phones. The technologist in me is really into the idea of a smartwatch—even though my avoidance of cell data contracts and hatred of major cellular providers means I don’t have a smartphone, I have enough potential devices to pair with it, and think it’s a cool idea for a gadget. Something everyone needs? No. Would I consider a smartwatch when my ancient Casio solar atomic watch, a Christmas gift from my parents back in 2004 or so, finally kicks the can? Hell yes. (Provided these future-smartwatches come with bands capable of encircling my gorilla-size wide wrists.)

As the 2011-model iPod Nano proved, and the Pebble e-paper Smartwatch seconded, there’s a market out there of people who want to wear their tech on their wrist. The problem with the Galaxy Gear is that the previews show it almost devoid of aesthetics, a simple black interface that happens to display weather and emails and who’s calling you. It comes with a number of features, including a pedometer, music player, and a voice recognition system (that reporters say leaves much to be desired). The Kickstarter-record-breaking Pebble is looks like a better buy: it has longer battery life (7+ days instead of “about one”), pairs with almost any device, and costs half as much as the Galaxy Gear. The difference is, Pebble uses an e-paper display (much like the basic Kindles and Nooks) as opposed to the Gear’s bright OLED, and is button-operated rather than multi-touch.

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This would be part of the problem: concept art from earlier in the year of what a Samsung Galaxy watch would look like, based on various patents and documents leaked into the tech sphere. Flexible glass, a code Samsung’s been trying to break for ages, with a beautiful design and colorful Android-style interface. That looks pretty damn hot; it’s both fashion-forward and technologically-forward. I’d consider spending $299 on that; the form factor is impressive, the design is elegant, and the display looks bright and versatile. What reality revealed was nothing as impressive, and those expectations came crashing down.

Meanwhile, Google’s been planning a smartwatch for over a year, since it purchased WIMM Labs. My assumption is that the Google watch will be like its Nexus products: capable of pairing to just about any Android device (possibly even Windows Phone/iOS if they want to expand its market share), running a stripped-down version of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, making for a colorful, stylish OS. It’s in Samsung’s best interest to only support Samsung devices; Google, father of Android, would need to pair with all of them, save for walled-in versions like Amazon’s Kindle. The possibilities are pretty cool: NFC/Android Beam to trade images, contact VCards, etc. for one; swiping your wrist/Nexus Watch to do Google Wallet purchases at point-of-sales machines for another. Samsung has many of the same standard Android features integrated into the Gear, but Google has a tendency to undersell the competition to get product out to more consumers—and, by proxy, acquire more search data.

Apple’s been rumored to have an iWatch in the works for years. My expectation there is something higher-priced (though still cheaper than the Galaxy Gear) due to its focus on “a single slab of sculpted aluminum” and all that Apple design elegance. (The iPod Nano only cost $149, but if Apple priced the iWatch at $200 they’d still sell like hotcakes.) It’d make sense to market them in the same colorful spectrum as the 2012 iPod line, something Saumsung’s trying with Galaxy Gear (though its colors are a bit more cartoony). I wouldn’t also be surprised if an iWatch had the same minimalist interface as iOS 7, and (only half joking here) if it came with it’s own proprietary wireless connection (to match what Apple’s done with physical connections, ala Thunderbolt, Lightning, 30-pin, etc.) that theoretically offers similar or superior performance, but restricts use to the Apple environment. Solving a few minor quirks of the iPod Nano watch to enhance the user experience would make for a decent (if chunky) smartwatch; I expect something thinner, more colorful, and more focused on being fashion-forward than the Samsung or Google competitors.

Outside of the press getting a hands-on at the unveiling event, Samsung’s been tight-lipped so far with its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, but some commentators remain unimpressed. I know I am. It’s not bad, but it’s not the $299 knockout that would sell consumers on smartwatches. Even if the display screens were there to keep an impressive UI secret until launch, there’s still the odd folding-clasp band and the childishly-colored, rubbery watchbands to deal with. Plus, the fact that the battery life is about the same as the iPod Nano, and daily charging was one of its failings. And nobody has mentioned the real slam-dunk yet, bundling of a Galaxy Gear with compatible Galaxy phone when you pick up a cellular data contract.

Samsung may have fired the first (er, second) shot in the smartwatch war, but they’ll face some tough competition once Google and Apple reveal the designs they’ve been holding on to. And to be honest, if smartwatches don’t look better than this, I don’t see them becoming anything more than a niche product for gadget hounds.


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