Whether you believe that smartwatches are the inevitable future or that they're the Devil's own handcuffs, almost everyone can agree that they've been pretty weak so far. Android Wear is here to fix that. And it just might! Eventually. Samsung's Gear Live is the first attempt, and while it's got some issues, it's a great first shot.
[NOTE: While we were told by Google reps that the software on the smartwatches we tested would be the exact same as the software that will roll out on July 7th (when the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch both start shipping), there's definitely some stuff missing. We'll be updating and revising as things progress.]
What Is It?
The Gear Live is one of the first two Android Wear smartwatches to hit the market (alongside the LG G Watch, reviewed here). It basically acts as a second, more easily accessible screen for your Android phone. Notifications that your phone gets pop up on the watch as well. If the apps are set up for Android Wear integration (which many of Google's own already are), then you'll be able to interact with the app that sent the notification right from the watch.
The Gear Live is the latest in a string of Samsung smartwatches. The original Galaxy Gear was buggy and incapable of much. The Gear Fit wasn't much better, and neither was the Galaxy Gear's Tizen-powered successor. The Android Wear Gear Live, though, is the smartwatch that might just save Samsung from itself.
Why Does It Matter?
It matters because it's a smartwatch platform that actually has a very good chance of integrating with your favorite apps; it already works really well with Google services. And rather than simply being an expensive gimmick, it might actually add a layer of convenience to your life, which will save you a little bit of time and distraction. Plus, y'know, The Jetsons/Dick Tracy/Star Trek/etc.
It's actually a very good-looking watch, although though the LG G watch won the aesthetics battle in a Gizmodo staff straw poll. Up front is Samsung's gorgeous 1.63-inch Super AMOLED 320 x 320 pixel display, which gives you those super inky blacks and really poppy colors, plus very solid pixel density (278 PPI). It is unquestionably better-looking than the G Watch's display.
Surrounding it is a brushed-metal frame that feels very solid and tapers down nicely into the band, making the watch feel less bulky than it might. It's also waterproof to roughly nine feet for up to half an hour (but don't take it swimming). On the right side of the watch is a single physical button which allows for some interaction, like toggling the screen on and off or long-pressing for settings. On the under side of the watch is a heart rate sensor which can take your pulse without needing an additional accessory (like a chest-strap). The G Watch does not have a heart rate sensor.
Both watches have built in Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy radios (natively compatible with Android 4.3 and up), accelerometers, gyroscopes, and digital compasses. Unfortunately, they don't have ambient light sensors, which means you have to manually adjust the screen's brightness. As far as guts, both run on a 1.2GHz processor, half a gig of RAM, and 4GB of storage. The Gear Live only has a 300 mAh battery, while the G Watch has a 400 mAh.
It has a very small, proprietary charging-dock (which connects to a standard micro USB cable), but it's tricky to get it lined up just right with the watch. At launch there are only two bands available—Black and Wine Red—but thankfully Samsung went with a standard 22mm watch band, which means you have countless thousands of options to choose from, though the way the watch is tapered might make it tricky to find one that looks right. The band that comes with it clasps by pushing to little pins through two holes in the band. It's just not nearly as secure as a traditional watch band, and it's not super comfortable either.
The Gear Live is by far easier and more enjoyable to use than any other smartwatch I've tried, and that's thanks to Android Wear. Before you get too excited, though, remember that a trench had to be dug to accommodate the lowness of the current bar. There's still a lot of work to be done.
Setup is very easy. You just download the Android Wear app for your phone, pair it via Bluetooth, and you're off to the races. A little tutorial takes you through how it works, and while you're messing with that, the watch syncs with your Google account. Strategic bits of this info will then be displayed in Google Now-ish cards on the watch.
Navigation is mostly straightforward. You swipe up and down to scroll between different cards. If you want to dive in deeper, you swipe to the left. Wanna go back or remove a card? Swipe to the right.
At rest the watch defaults to a dimmer, black and white mode which still displays the time. If you want the screen to go all the way off when you're not using it, you can switch that in the settings. Either way, when you want to fully wake up the watch you can either tap the screen, push the button on the side, or bring up your wrist in the standard "What time is it? I'll look at my watch," gesture, and all three really work pretty consistently. If you want to go back to the screen powered-down, you just cover the watch face with your hand for a moment.
Samsung gives you 13 different watch faces to choose from, some analog style and some digital. I preferred the brightly color "Wallpaper" watch face, as it really showcased the watch's screen. Samsung and LG have different faces pre-installed, but we assume you'll be able to download more once things start popping off in the Play Store. When the screen is fully awake your most recent (or highest priority) notification card is partly visible at the bottom of the screen.
With the screen awake, that's also your cue to say, "Okay Google" and begin voice commands (though if saying "Okay Google" makes you feel like too much of a dweeb you can just tap the clock to start the mic). From there you can ask it to do a whole host of things. For example:
- Send text to Mario Aguilar
- What's the score of the A's game?
- Remind me to pre-heat the oven when I get home
- How many steps have I taken today?
- How far am I from Coit Tower?
- Show my boarding pass
- How many teaspoons in a cup?
- Who is Nick Denton?
- Email Brian Barrett
- Start stopwatch
- Show my heart rate
- Play Marvin Gaye
It's a lot already, and that's just using Google services. The version of the software we've been testing ahead of launch does not yet support third-party apps. Google announced a bunch of early partners at I/O this year (such as AlltheCooks, Lyft, Eater24, and others), and the switch on that integration should be flipped on July 7th (the date this watch first starts shipping to consumers). Because Android app developers don't have to build an entirely separate app, we have a feeling we'll be seeing many more in the days to come, and from the user side, all you have to do is update the app on your phone as normal. Easy-peasy.
Aside from pulling in most cards from Google Now (including boarding passes, commute info, package tracking, favorite places, etc) Android Wear also integrates with Google Maps, Hangouts, and Gmail. Hangouts and Gmail allow you to read full messages (up to a certain length) and reply directly through the watch.
Non-Google apps are by no means completely shut out right now, though. If the app can produce a notification, it will show up on your watch. The only options may be to dismiss or open on your phone, but at least you'll see them. Unfortunately, Google Voice falls into this category, which is pretty infuriating.
We've seen some people complain that their wrists never stopped vibrating and it drove them crazy. I think I've figured out why. On my phone I've set my email (the Gmail client) so it doesn't ring or vibrate. It just pops up with the visual notification, which I find much less annoying. It looks like Android Wear sees that and mimics that behavior on the watch. So it'll pop up when I check my watch, but it isn't going to buzz like crazy. I love that it inferred that behavior. Really smart. I also have Facebook notifications turned off, because I'm in my 30s for crying out loud.
Some third-party apps already have some built-in integration just because of the way they integrate with Google Play Services. For example, GroupMe hasn't been updated for Android wear, yet the full text of incoming message and even photos come through just fine, and I can "like" a message (though I can't yet reply to it). You can also already use the watch to play/pause and track forward/back in virtually any music program (Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, etc). You can even use the watch as a remote control to play and pause whatever you have playing on your Chromecast, which is absolutely fantastic (though more functionality would be welcome).
There doesn't seem to be much to Google Fit in its current incarnation. Currently it basically just counts your steps, and gives you a place to see the most recent results from your heart rate tests. That's it. And it exists entirely on the watch. You can't dive deeper into the stats on the phone or on a website. We know that Fit is going to be a big platfrom for Google, but we've still yet to see much in the way of detail.
Overall, Android Wear does lots of things right and looks good doing it. There's virtually no lag when you're flipping around screens, which already separates it from other smartwatches, while also doing more out of the box. That said, there are some significant flaws.
For starters there's just a fair amount general bugginess. Sometimes the Gear Live understood my voice command right away, then five seconds later just completely hang there, spinning its wheels while I stared at my wrist like a dumb idiot. The watch fully froze on me once when trying to exit out of an app, but it seemed to self-heal (without the need for a reset) after about 30 seconds.
The larger problem, though, are a bunch of UI problems that are small on their own but together add up to kind of a headache. For example, because you swipe left to go deeper into a card, when you're trying to come back out of it, it's way too easy to accidentally swipe it away, and when it's gone, it's gone, at least until it decides it wants to come back. Google Now solved this on the phone by having a simple Undo option pop up, and it's even more necessary—and missing—here.
This brings up another point: It's harder to customize which cards you do/don't want to see. Google does a pretty good job of predicting what will be useful, but it misses the mark much of the time. My watch was often cluttered up with travel times to places I'm pretty sure I've never looked up. Clutter, on a device this small, is a shortcut to frustration.
When it gets it right, though, it nails it. The cards pull content from the app to create a customized background. For example, if you're using the music controls, the album art will be displayed in the background. If you're emailing, texting, or even Facebooking (which isn't really integrated yet), the contact's profile photo will be visible behind the card. It's subtle, but it's a really lovely touch, which makes the whole environment feel more cohesive.
A little tweak that would make the Android Wear experience a lot better: When you get to the microphone screen, you can't simply swipe to go back to the last screen you were on. You have to cover the screen to turn it off, and then wake it up again, which drops you back at the main (clock) screen. Integrating that same right-swipe back gesture would make a big difference.
There isn't really a lock screen to protect from accidental presses or from waking it up inadvertently (blasting you with light at an inopportune moment). When I took a shower with the watch to test its waterproofiness, the display started freaking out. It was vibrating, and scrolling through screens like crazy. I thought it was funny until I realized that it had archived several emails I hadn't read and swiped away a bunch of cards I still wanted. Very annoying.
There's also just some inconsistency in the UI. Some cards you need to flick to the left to see more, but some you need to tap, instead, but there's no visual cue to distinguish which is which. Google's voice actions are generally pretty good, and it can usually get your message across if there isn't too much ambient sound, but it seems to swing wildly between allowing for natural language and needing you to be ultra, hyper specific about how you phrase your queries.
Those complaints aside—which are focused more on Android Wear than on this watch specifically—this is something that I'm looking forward to continue using, which isn't something I've said before about a smartwatch.
As far as this specific hardware goes: Battery life is pretty decent. Even with fairly heavy use I generally made it until bedtime with the screen always-on mode (which I preferred, though not by a ton). With the screen defaulting to off I was able to make it until bedtime on the second day before the battery hit 10-percent. Certainly it's pulling down a lot of data, and they were trying to keep it slim-ish, but compare that one to two day figure with five to seven days for the Pebble Steel, and there is a ton of room for improvement. (The G Watch has a 33-percent bigger battery, and seems to last longer, but it's not a night and day difference.) It'd be great if you could use it as a sleep monitor (a la Fitbit and co), but if you have to charge it every day...
The screen was generally pretty visible during sunlight, though that visibility is severely diminished when your greasy fingerprints. I typically left it at a level four brightness out of five. I wouldn't recommend sleeping with it powered on because any time you roll over you'll be blasted in the eyeballs with this little TV, which I'm pretty sure is bad for your circadian rhythm.
The Gear Live—or more specifically, Android Wear—is already capable of doing more (and looking good doing it) than any other smartwatch out there. The software has tremendous potential, and it's actually useful, rather than just a novelty. Being able to quickly glance at my email and dismiss it without having to pull out my phone to check it actually does save time.
When I was going through airport security, I used the QR code on the watch for my boarding pass, and everybody in the near vicinity lost their minds. The TSA guys were saying, "WHOA that's awesome!" Everybody in line wanted to know how I'd just done that. It really felt like I was on the cusp of some crazy future-tech, and that felt sweet.
At launch the heart rate monitor will only work as a standalone app for checking your pulse (which works pretty well). We were hoping to see it integrated into an app like Runtastic or Runkeeper, but that would be up to those developers, and time will tell if they decide it's worth the effort.
The screen is fantastic, the UI is (generally) fast and easy to understand. Controlling music players, remotely pausing Chromecast, reading and quickly replying to email and text messages are all genuinely convenient, and it's actually resulted in me having to spend less time with my phone in my hand and my eyes down. That is, ultimately, what we came to this smartwatch party for, and it's the first time that promise has started to manifest. As more apps become compatible, it's only going to get better.
It feels like a beta. Some of the flaws we've already mentioned just seem so obvious that it makes you feel like the product was rushed out the door, which it probably was. Android Wear needs more consistency and speed in voice recognition, and an Undo popup very badly. It doesn't always work that well with Google's own apps, which makes me anxious about third-party integration. For example, despite the fact that I can see the address for my dentist appointment tomorrow morning, I can't just click on it to navigate. Also, it's really hard to get it to understand that you want to walk (or take a bus) somewhere, and not drive.
Google is generally better at understanding natural language than Apple's Siri, but I just spent some time playing with Microsoft's Cortana, and it really does a great job with natural, colloquial language. Improvements here (and this may be on the Search team) will be critical here, because if you're going to be using a smartwatch, you had better be able to just talk to it as efficiently as possible, because efficiency is the entire point here.
Oh and also, no Google Voice integration is not surprising, but it still feels like a giant slap in the face to those who are among Google's most loyal users. This needs to be fixed, now.
As for the hardware, I wish battery life were better. No ambient light sensor is annoying. The band that comes with the Gear Live tends to dig into your inner wrist (especially when typing), and it's not particularly secure. Brush against something at the wrong angle and it's just going to pop off. As long as you've got a hardware button, might as well use it to be able to lock the screen, no?
Should You Buy It?
Every smartwatch I've tested I've removed from my wrist the instant I finished writing it up, and I've never looked back. The Gear Live will be the first time that I continue wearing it, and pretty enthusiastically. It's very exciting, and $200 is really pretty reasonable.
But! You should wait. For starters, my colleague and brother-in-wrists Mario Aguilar—who has been using both the Gear Live and the G Watch—gives the edge to the LG G Watch ($230). The screen isn't as nice as the Gear Live's, but he likes the design a lot more and battery life is important to him. Personally, I really dig the screen on the Gear Live, and I like having the option of the built-in heart rate monitor. Mostly, though, the two watches are extremely similar.
But the real reasons you should wait are that Motorola's Moto 360 is coming sometime this summer—it looks great—and, more importantly, Google still has a lot of bugs to work out. Most of them are pretty minor, really, but they add up and they make this watch feel more like a beta product than it should. We also want to see what developers decide they want to do with it.
So, long story short, hold off for a bit. We are really excited about Android Wear, and its potential is clear. Now the execution just needs to be cleaned up a little. [Samsung]
Samsung Gear Live Specs
• Network: Bluetooth
• OS: Android Wear
• CPU: 1.2GHz processor
• Screen: 1.63-inch 320x320 pixel Super AMOLED (278 PPI)
• RAM: 512MB
• Storage: 4GB
• Camera: None
• Battery: 300 mAh
• Weight: 2.08 ounces
• Price: $200