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posted: 10/12/2013 7:51 AM

Review: Samsung smartwatch isn't ready for prime time

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  • The so-called smartwatch is what some technology analysts believe could become this year's must-have holiday gift.

      The so-called smartwatch is what some technology analysts believe could become this year's must-have holiday gift.
    Associated Press

 
By Rich Jaroslovsky, Bloomberg

SAN FRANCISCO -- In an earlier time, you might have advertised your tech credentials with a pocket protector and a slide rule. For late 2013, there's Samsung's new Galaxy Gear smartwatch and Galaxy Note 3 phone.

How nerdy are they? On a scale of one-to-Google-Glass, about a seven.

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The Gear is obvious enough to attract attention, but, unlike Google's eyewear, not so obtrusive as to demand it. You'll look silly holding the Note 3's gigantic 5.7-inch screen up to your ear, but it's not as bad as Samsung's 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega.

The $300 Galaxy Gear isn't the first attempt at a smartwatch. There's the Pebble, a hit at last January's Consumer Electronics Show. It's now on sale for $150 through Best Buy stores and provides geeky fun without taking itself too seriously. Sony is already on the second version of its watch, and Qualcomm is testing the waters too.

With its massive marketing budget and huge portfolio of Galaxy devices, though, Samsung is positioned to truly inaugurate the era of wrist-based computing.

Too bad the Galaxy Gear isn't more usable and useful.

Sporting a 1.63-inch color touch screen, the Gear functions mostly as a companion to a smartphone rather than as a stand-alone device. The only phone it works with right now is the Android-based Note 3, which costs $300 on a two-year contract from AT&T and Verizon, $250 at Sprint and $708 contract-free from T-Mobile.

I've liked previous versions of the stylus-equipped Note, and, compared with last year's model, the new one manages to make the screen bigger without increasing the body size. But either the novelty is wearing off or Samsung's made too many questionable choices, like that faux-leather plastic back.

The Gear is also compatible with the newest, $550 Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet; the company says it's working to introduce support for its flagship Galaxy S4 phone and other devices.

Setting up the Gear and Note 3 wasn't as seamless as promised. Tapping the Note 3 to the back of the Gear charging cradle was supposed to trigger the phone to download and install an app to manage the watch.

Didn't happen, so I finally gave up and connected them manually.

Once paired, the Gear can place and take calls, shoot photos and videos, read text messages, control multimedia playing on the phone and run about 70 apps, of which the best- known is probably Evernote.

Flashing back to childhood memories of Dick Tracy and his nifty two-way wrist radio, I made calls directly from the watch's touch screen. According to people on the receiving end, the side-mounted microphone was surprisingly clear.

The issue was listening: Because the speaker is embedded in the buckle of the watchband, I sometimes had to hold it to my ear to hear clearly. "You look like you're having a muscle spasm," observed a colleague.

The watchband also holds the 1.9-megapixel camera, which takes photos and 15-second video clips. It's easy to use and the images -- despite their low resolution -- still looked pretty good when wirelessly transferred for viewing on the Note 3's bigger display.

I also used Samsung's S Voice speech-recognition feature to perform simple tasks like placing a call and setting calendar reminders.

What I couldn't do was easily get the time. To conserve battery life, the Gear screen goes dark when not in use. It's supposed to awaken when you lift your arm, but sometimes I had to shake my wrist vigorously to rouse it.

The included watch-face choices are all minimalist, with lots of black backgrounds to conserve the battery. If you download more elaborate ones, they'll suck up power even faster, and as it was the Gear could only make it through a day of use before requiring a recharge.

For all its manufacturing and marketing prowess, Samsung isn't often considered an innovator like Apple, Sony and Google. Galaxy Gear gave the company a chance to seize leadership in wearable computing, but it falls short.

Meanwhile, Apple is reported to be working on its own watch. The company has a track record of observing others flounder in a new market -- remember the original Windows smartphones? -- before swooping in with something elegant and imaginative.

We'll see if history repeats itself.

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