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tech lab | hiawatha bray

Samsung shifts into second gear

Samsung Corp. doesn’t know how to give up. Like a sad-eyed stray puppy who keeps following you home, Samsung is determined to make us fall in love with its Gear smartwatches. And they might succeed.

I love cellphones partly because they let me stop wearing a watch. And sticking a computer inside a watch and letting it talk to the Internet still hasn’t endeared them to me. Yet the two new smartwatches from Samsung that I’ve tried are light, pretty, and useful enough to make me glad to have them around. I wouldn’t pay $200 for either of them. But the millions who love to strap things on their wrists might be impressed.

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Samsung actually sent me three new watches — the $300 Gear 2, and the Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit, each priced at $200 — but I ran out of wrists. So I homed in on the Neo and the Fit.

The original Gear, introduced last year, weighed in at 2.5 ounces. The Neo weighs half an ounce less, largely because it leaves out the Gear’s unimpressive digital camera. Smart move. Though the Neo is hardly wafer-thin, it doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a Rubik’s Cube.

While the camera is gone, the Neo is crammed with ambitious features. But with either Neo or the Fit, you’ll need a Bluetooth radio link to a full-fledged Samsung smartphone, such as the Galaxy S4 or S5. Fans of the Apple Inc. iPhone or other popular handsets should stay away.

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People with sensitive skin may also want to steer clear. The buckle of the Neo and the Fit made my wrist itch after a few days. Another popular wearable, Fitbit Inc.’s Force, caused a similar reaction in a small number of users, forcing a recall back in February.

With a snappy dual-core processor, the Gear 2 Neo should be capable of running fairly advanced apps. Too bad there are hardly any to choose from — mostly customized watch faces to give the Neo a personalized look.

Once synced with a Galaxy S5 phone, the Neo displayed notifications of upcoming appointments and incoming e-mails. It tingled with a gentle haptic buzz, making it a pleasure to get wrist-mounted reminders of upcoming interviews and deadlines.

The Neo was less helpful with e-mail messages; you must whip out the phone to read entire messages. Of course you can place and receive calls through the watch, Dick Tracy-style, but why would you? The Neo’s speakers and microphone deliver good, clear sound, well suited to conference calls but lousy for private conversations.

The Neo also accepts voice commands, though performance was hit or miss. My favorite voice feature lets you record little memos, which are instantly relayed to your smartphone. It also transcribes your words into text, with good accuracy.

Though the Fit shares Neo’s price tag, it strips away the voice-based features, which helps explain its much lighter, more compact design. It also features the first worthwhile use of those newly fashionable curved touchscreens. A bent screen is useless on a TV or a smartphone, but on the wrist, it’s a perfect fit.

Like the Neo, the Fit announces incoming e-mails and texts. Also like the Neo, it has a pedometer to measure your footsteps and a heart rate monitor to measure your pulse by shooting a light through your skin. The Fit also claims the ability to track the quality of your sleep, but I didn’t relish the idea of wearing it to bed.

Still, the Fit is far more comfortable and attractive than its big brother. And while the Neo had to be recharged every night, the Fit gave me a couple of days’ service on a single charge.

Slim, inexpensive wearables like the ones from Fitbit have proven far more popular than heavy-duty wrist computers like the Neo. The Fit is Samsung’s best bet for a breakout hit, especially if they cut the price. That is a good excuse not to buy one right away.

And here’s another. Samsung, LG Electronics, and other companies will soon launch devices running a new operating system from Google Inc. called Android Wear. The promo videos suggest that these devices may be a lot more capable than the Gears, with support for such goodies as navigation help via Google Maps. And these Android Wear devices should work with any brand of Android phone.

I wouldn’t consider buying a smartwatch until the first Android Wear devices hit later this year. I’m surprised to be considering it at all. But thanks in part to the persistent engineers at Samsung, these puppies have finally got my attention.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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