Hands-on with the Galaxy Gear: Samsung starts its sortie into smartwatches

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We’re just out of Samsung’s press conference at IFA in Germany, where the Korean firm has just announced its first foray into smartwatches, the Galaxy Gear, and the follow-up to the hugely successful Galaxy Note 2, the imaginatively titled Galaxy Note 3.

Even by Samsung standards, it was something of an extravagantic affair. A hidden orchestra opened the show at Berlin’s Tempodrom, packed out with journalists and Samsung partners, with a live satellite link to New York and British host of the Gadget Show, Jason Bradbury, compering. Over the course of an hour, we had presentations and videos about just three products: the Gear, the Note 3 and the revised Note 10.1 214 Edition slate.

The former is by far the most exciting new piece of kit. Ever since Pebble broke records for crowdfunding, it’s been fairly obvious that smartwatches would be the new battleground upon which Google, Apple and Samsung (and, to a lesser extent, Sony) would fight it out. People seem to want a multifunctional device that straps to their arm in a way that hasn’t been seen since Casio’s watch/calculator in the ’70s.

So what is the Galaxy Gear? It’s the future, according to Samsung. The firm may not be wrong.

It’s certainly not the ridiculously oversized mock-up that was doing the rounds a couple of days ago. It’s not even the weird curly thing that appeared in the IFA launch video. Instead, it’s a very sleek looking wristwatch, made from stainless steel with a spindleless rubber strap (available in six colours).

I didn’t get to try one on – the dozen or so that were on display were bolted down to tables //Update: apparently there were some to wear later, but I had to run off to fin wifi…//  but they were working and will apparently be shipping in September (probably October for South Africa, despite official stats). It’s a safe bet that the mobile carriers here will stock it, and FNB is likely to have it listed as an offer too.

Having not tried one on, I can’t say how comfortable it’ll be, but it certainly feels right – and I say that as someone who doesn’t usually wear a watch. The only oddity I found from a design perspective is the odd lump on the strap… which houses a camera. More on that later.

The screen is a 1.63inch SuperAMOLED affair, backed by a single core 800MHz processor running a customised version of Android. It has a built-in gyro, acceleromter and pedometer, and you can install apps directly into the Gear itself. It should – according to Samsung, also have a 25 hour battery life.

How do you use it, though? The Gear is very much a companion device, and syncs with the Note 3, Note 10.1 2014 Edition, S4 and – in a forthcoming update sometime in October – the Galaxy S3 and S2 as well.

The interface is all large fonts controlled by swiped gestures, some of which will be familiar from the Galaxy smartphone series, with others that are bespoke for switching apps and so on. It syncs with the Note 3, and displays SMS messages, emails and so on your wrist as they come in, along with music controls and all the other things you might need to use your phone for without taking it out of your pocket.

You can even take calls on it – it has speakers and microphones inside that activate when you raise your wrist to your ear, Dick Tracy-style. You can receive and make calls using voice commands too – S Voice is embedded in the Gear’s operating system.

The really clever feature for me, however, is Smart Relay. If you’re reading a message on your watch and pull the Note 3 from your pocket, the display automatically flips onto the bigger screen.

Perhaps the most extraordinary and unexpected part of the Galaxy Gear is the ‘Memographer’ – an outward facing camera that you can take quick snapshots with a quick swipe down. Eat your heart out Google Glass.

The expectation is that more apps will spring up around Gear, particularly augmented reality ones. There’s a fair selection of third party apps already avalable – including Pinterest for those sneaky wrist photos – but it’s an obviously limited selection for the time being.

Developers looking to build apps for the Gear, however, can point their code at a 1.63 SuperAMOLED screen, and an 800MHz single core CPU with built-in gyroscope and accelerometer, built in pedometer.

The question that remains – apart from price – is whether or not it will work with non-Samsung phones. We’ll be trying to find that out as soon as possible.

Want to know more about the Note 3? We’ve got that covered too.

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.