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Tech Lab

Time’s up for Samsung smartwatch

They say the best technology fades into the background, working so quietly and simply that you stop noticing it. By that standard, the new Galaxy Gear smartwatch by Samsung Corp. counts as a solid success.
I stopped noticing it almost as soon as I put it on; rarely have I tested a more forgettable piece of hardware.

That’s bad news for Samsung, which spent millions to develop the Galaxy Gear and is splashing out millions more on excellent TV ads aimed at persuading us that its smartwatch is the next big thing. Well, the chunky 2.6-ounce device is fairly hefty, as watches go. And at $299, the Gear’s price is flat-out monstrous. But the Gear will never play a major role in anybody’s life; it’s just not very useful.

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Samsung is making an early bid to dominate the market for “wearable computers” — smart devices that will be bound to our bodies, feeding us an endless flow of useful data. But the Gear won’t even work unless you own one of Samsung’s most powerful and expensive smartphones. And if you have an excellent computer in your shirt pocket, why strap a mediocre one to your wrist?

The Gear is relatively sleek, with a readable and responsive 1.6-inch color touchscreen. Inside, there’s an 800-megahertz processor, half a gigabyte of memory for running programs, and 4 gigs for storing files.

Still, to use the Gear, you’ll have to buy Samsung’s giant “phablet” phone, the Galaxy Note 3, priced at $299 with a two-year service contract. For now, the Note 3 is the only Gear-
compatible phone on the market. Later software updates will connect the Gear to other Samsung products, such as the popular Galaxy S III and S4 phones. But there’s no telling whether it will ever be compatible with other phones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system, much less with Apple Inc.’s iPhones.

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It’s easy to like the Gear’s most famous feature: an excellent speakerphone that’s straight out of “Dick Tracy.”

I could dial calls on the touchscreen then chatter away through the Gear’s microphone and speakers without touching the phone. Sound quality was outstanding.

But what if someone is in the room? The Gear is useless for callers who value privacy. Calls placed through the watch are blasted over its speakers, even if you have a headset connected to the phone.

The watch’s other features also disappoint. Voice recognition, for instance. Like most late-model Android phones, the Note 3 does a fine job of this. You can orally set an appointment on your calendar or send a text message to a friend. The Gear can do the same, using an app called S Voice. But the Gear’s speech recognition takes much longer.

There’s a 1.9-megapixel camera embedded in the Gear’s watchband that shoots high-resolution videos and stills, transferring them wirelessly to the phone. The images are pretty darn good. Alas, there’s a time limit of 15 seconds per video. And using it is kind of awkward: You have to hold your arm in front of your chest, as if fending off a blow.

The Galaxy Gear also features an app that will record your voice in five-minute chunks, a pedometer for measuring how far you’ve walked that day, and a remote control for playing your phone’s music files.

But that’s about it. Samsung promises more apps to come, and a few more are available already. For instance, you can access the eBay online retail site or the cloud-based memo service Evernote. But where’s the app for reading news headlines or stock market quotes? That’s the least I’d have expected from a $300 smartwatch.

And what about Facebook and Twitter?

To be sure, the Gear offers more features than its best-known rival, the $150 Pebble smartwatch. Pebble uses a monochrome display and push buttons instead of a touchscreen. And it does little more than tell time and alert you to incoming messages.

Then again, the Pebble is waterproof; I nearly ruined the Gear while washing dishes. And the Pebble works with nearly any Android or Apple iOS smartphone. And it’s half the price of the Gear.

There have been many complaints about the Gear’s relatively short battery life — 24 hours, at best, for heavy users — and about the need to plug it into an odd little receptacle in order to recharge it. I can’t complain, though. While I tested every feature, I didn’t use them often enough to run into battery problems.

Whether placing a call, playing music, or shooting photos, it’s easier to do it directly on the Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone, instead of fussing with your wrist like George Jetson.

The Gear might make sense if it were a full-bore substitute for today’s smartphones, with all the processing power and access to thousands of apps. Instead, it’s a low-powered, high-priced accessory that solves a problem nobody’s got. The Gear isn’t a bad product; it’s merely irrelevant.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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