We discover how Samsung is continuing to tease its way towards a smartwatch
Time was that the best way in which to remember the order to make the sign of the cross was, ‘Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch’. Armed with this, you could overcome any confusion.
Today, if you stop someone in the street to ask the time, chances are he or she will pull out a smartphone rather than glance at their wrist.The sudden interest in smartwatches, or wrist phones, is a funny one. It would certainly amuse the late Douglas Adams whom, as all ‘Hitchhikers’ fans will remember, saw digital timepieces as a bête noire. It probably also prompts a chuckle from Intel’s Gordon Moore – he of Moore’s Law fame – who used to wear the result of his company’s failed 1970s attempt to make a watch as a warning about what happens on badly executed projects.
Today, products such as the Samsung Gear family and Apple’s mooted iWatch seek to bring back something that the technology within them actually made obsolete.
So before going any further, we should note that Samsung very much sees the early generations of Gear devices as pathfinders. Their size, smaller displays, component counts and the fact that they are essentially peripherals for use alongside a superphone, all mean that they are comparatively inexpensive ways of expanding a market that has reached a technological plateau.
Samsung recently brought three more Gear products to market. The Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo are more conventional smartwatches. The main difference between the two is that the simple Gear 2 has a camera and the Neo does not. The third product is the Gear Fit. It is a thinner device with a curved display and a focus on performance sensors for use during exercise. We’ll be looking mainly at the Gear 2.
A number of aspects of the design show how the market is evolving beyond the first Gear phone, which had a mixed reception.
The processor has been made beefier – the Gear 2 has a dual core 1GHz chip as opposed to one at 800MHz. This CPU is thought to be a variant from Samsung’s ARM-based Exynos family, though the company has been surprisingly coy about that.
A heart rate monitor features on all three devices in addition to the original Gear’s accelerometer and gyroscope.
The 2MP camera has been moved from a housing in the strap to the foot of the main 320x320pi AMOLED display, while the watch has IRLED now as well as Bluetooth 4.0, so it can be used as a TV remote.
Also important for this kind of device, Samsung has winnowed away at the weight. One complaint about the original Gear was that it was slightly too chunky. The Gear 2 comes in at 68g against 73.8g, and the cameraless Neo is just 55g.
Other Gear 2 specifications remain the same. For example, memory is installed in two packages of 4GB and 512MB of RAM.
Obviously, one of the big challenges here is fitting a lot into a small space. At the same time, though, the iFixit teardown team found the device quite easy to fix and explore, giving it an 8/10 repairability score. The main obstacle was a fused display assembly glued to the front of the Gear 2.
The more interesting story this time is on the software side. Samsung used Android for the original Gear but has swapped over to the Linux-based Tizen operating system for the Gear 2 and the Fit. The reason for this may have more to do with impatience than anything else.
Google has released a developer preview of its Android Wear OS, specifically aimed at smaller wearable devices. But it isn’t yet ready for primetime.
In Wear’s absence, Tizen has some footprint advantages and both OSs can run applications written in HTML5. With few app developers yet feeding smartphone products into the Android market, Samsung has instead developed its own HTML5 apps and is offering them through its own portal. It is, of course, aware that moving these to the Android market shouldn’t be a long-term issue.
So, we are still in pathfinder territory and this is further confirmed by the raft of apps that come pre-installed on the Gear 2, suggesting that Samsung is throwing a lot of options at early adopters to see what sticks.
Among other features, there are apps for picture viewing, music, voice memos, email, find-my-phone and more. Notifications come in various formats. Among the extras is the intriguing ability to send push-button potted audio responses to calls (“Talk later”) rather than raising your hand to respond Dick Tracy-style.
The early adopter has always been willing to put up with being somewhat used as a market research tool, and with its £170 price tag those are certainly the targets for the Samsung Gear 2 and its new range of sister products.
The full availability of Android Wear is therefore likely to be a critical development for the smartwatch market. These devices will inherently never be able to do that much. The screen size is the most obvious constraint – there are only so many things that you would want to do on a 1.63in display. But they will need a bigger infrastructure than is available today.
The main conclusion for the Gear 2, though, remains much as it was for the original – it’s an attempt to gather more information about a potential new business. Having said that, it also shows Samsung refining its approach so that when that infrastructure to support wide availability appears, it will be able to move as quickly as possible.