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The Galaxy Gear took a great idea and ruined it

by Stephen Schenck on

I had such high hopes for the Galaxy Gear smartwatch. Too high, really, built up on leaks naming seemingly impossible specs like an Exynos 4 Dual SoC and full gigabyte of RAM. This was Samsung, the company behind so many phones and tablet I’ve enjoyed and respected over the years, and really wanted to believe that it would finally be the company to deliver a smartwatch done right – the kind of device that would be to the market what the original iPhone was to smartphones. I wanted the Galaxy Gear to be the smartwatch everyone simply had to have.

Instead, what we got is a passable accessory, and one with some very interesting features, but the entire thing just stinks of missed opportunities. Where did Samsung go so wrong?

My biggest issue with the Galaxy Gear probably won’t surprise many of you, and frankly, it was far from an unexpected development, going into the launch: the watch’s reliance on Samsung phones and software. At once, Samsung is tempting its own user base with something that should work nicely with the devices they’re already familiar with, while killing the Gear’s chances of properly going mainstream.

And it’s not that I don’t get why Samsung did this – surely, it’s easier to build software support into its own phones than to create a universal app for Android users anywhere to download and install on their own handsets. Not to mention, if Gear is a success, this exclusivity is going to make Samsung’s brand all the more attractive. It’s a decision that probably makes a ton of financial sense to Samsung, but the real winner there is the company, not the smartwatch.

gear-bannerSure, Apple’s likely to do the same thing with its iWatch – I can’t see it making cross-platform use anything close to a priority – but that’s Apple’s MO since day one. There was at least the possibility here that Samsung would aim for the broadest possible audience with the Galaxy Gear, and I’m sad to see that it didn’t.

The hardware itself is all out of whack. Honestly, the SoC and RAM sound fine – it IS a smartwatch after all, but what about that connectivity? We’ve got Bluetooth and… that’s it. The absence of cellular data isn’t a big surprise, but considering how adept the watch is at producing media itself, filming HD video and taking still shots, I would have loved to see WiFi support for direct sharing on social sites. Though again, perhaps that was an intentional decision to even more closely tie the watch to Samsung phones.

I’m also confused by the reliance on Bluetooth 4.0 and Bluetooth low energy, without the ability to fall back to older Bluetooth standards. While that saves power, it’s not like we’re looking at a device that’s supposed to last for half a year on a charge, like BLE is perfect for, and Samsung’s insistence seems completely unnecessary. I’m going to start sounding paranoid sooner or later, but could this be a decision to even try forcing its own user base to upgrade to newer handsets?

I’ve got sympathy for the Samsung designer tasked with figuring out where to put the Galaxy Gear’s camera. Trying to squeeze a component like that into the watch’s body itself is likely to result in something that’s either unbearably bulky or just features an absolutely horrid camera. The strap-based solution probably seemed like a winning compromise – but I hate it.

Leela-wristbandFor one, it’s odd-looking, bulky in its own right, and pushes a little farther than I’m comfortable away from the idea of smartwatches that look like regular watches. I hesitate to bring up slippery slope arguments, but I don’t want a smartwatch that looks like a Fallout Pip-Boy or whatever Leela’s rocking on Futurama (OK, secretly I DO want something like that), and more importantly, I think it’s key for mainstream smartwatch acceptance that they not deviate too strongly from accepted designs.

Beyond that, I really would have liked to see a replaceable strap, Pebble-style. I’m also concerned that the camera is going to become a key point for damage; people are used to carrying themselves in a way to protect the delicate face of a watch, but we’re not accustomed to thinking twice about the band. Are Galaxy Gear users going to be inadvertently swinging their cameras straight into railings, door jams, and all manner of obstructions just itching to break their new toys?

And then there’s that price. Woooo, that price… Maybe if we were looking at a watch along the lines of what I had hoped for, one with flexible connectivity options, broad support for existing smartphones, and thinking up something more sensible to do with that camera, I’d shell out $300 without too much hesitation.

But for as many compromises as Samsung made here? Well, let’s just say I would have expected it to compromise on its profit margin, as well, because the Galaxy Gear as we saw it simply isn’t worth what Samsung’s asking.

In the end, I’m disappointed in Samsung. Maybe I don’t have a right to be, but I’d love nothing more than to see a smartwatch done right, and I was sure Samsung had the resources and motivation to make it happen. Maybe it still will, but not with the Galaxy Gear.

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