Update (12/10/2014): I’ve tried several more Android Wear devices, and both the hardware and the software is getting better. Android Wear has fixed some of the issues I complain about below, and the LG G Watch R and Sony Smartwatch 3 are actually pretty decent devices. (Most people like the Moto 360, but I think a round display should really be round.) All smart watches are still a very long way from being actual watches (as opposed to devices strapped to your wrist), but I’m glad to see how quickly the industry is iterating.
Most of the reviews I’ve seen of the new Android Wear smartwatches have been from device early adopters as opposed to true watch enthusiasts, so I figured I’d provide the perspective of someone who is decidedly both. I’ve always been a gadget fanatic (I keep the latest iPhone and best Android devices on me at all times—as of today, that’s the 5s and the HTC One M8), and as the founder of Watch Report (which I started in 2005, and finally sold last year), I’ve owned and/or reviewed hundreds of watches from Casio to Rolex. Additionally, over the years, I’ve kept a very close eye on the category of smartwatches from MSN Spot watches like the Tissot Hight-T (the best of its long-extinct class), to the Abacus Wrist PDA (never remotely practical, but undeniably fun), to more modern interpretations like the Pebble.
I also want to preface this review by saying that I’m not interested in bashing either the Samsung Gear Live smartwatch, or Android Wear. Although what you’re about to read (spoiler alert) isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of either one, my only intention is to provide feedback that I hope might help to make future iterations of both products better. This latest attempt at the smartwatch is just getting started, and I’m positive that we will see rapid progress in the months and years to come. Hopefully both the hardware and software can be improved quickly enough this time that consumers won’t abandon them.
Now that I’ve gotten credentials and disclaimers out of the way, I’ll just come right out and say that the Gear Live isn’t very good, and the responsibility lies with both Samsung and Google. Here’s a breakdown:
The strap on the Gear Live is, to be polite, substandard. People who are true watch nerds know that straps, bands, and bracelets should not be afterthoughts. Rather, they should be designed and engineered as carefully as the watch itself. Look at any watch from a Seiko on up, and you will usually see that the manner in which it is fastened to your body was given a great deal of consideration. While the strap on the Gear Live is fine in terms of comfort, it’s extremely difficult and frustrating to fasten. It uses the same general principle as my Garmin Vivofit (basically a couple of redundant snaps), but the difference is that I never have to take my Vivofit off, so although it’s also a pain, I seldom have to deal with it. The Gear Live needs to be recharged nightly which means you get to start off each and every morning performing an operation about as fun and rewarding as tying your shoes one-handed.
Wearing a bright screen on your wrist is distracting. This one’s not going to be easy to fix, but I don’t like the use of SuperAMOLED or backlit LCD screens on watches in general. When they’re dimmed, they’re not too bad, but the Gear Live auto-illuminates way too often (see additional complaint below), and even when dimmed, in the dark, your wrist still glows pretty prominently. You know how in movie theaters, you’re not only asked to silence your phone, but you’re also not even supposed to turn it on at all? That’s because bright screens in dim environments are extremely distracting. Unless front-lit screen are eventually used on smartwatches (which would be fantastic both for battery life and outdoor use), I think we’re going to need to see something similar to airplane mode, but for movies, driving at night, and romantic dinners.
The water-resistance is entirely inadequate. To a device fanatic, “water and dust resistant” may seem impressive; to a watch enthusiast, IP67 isn’t even table stakes. The fact that the case is “dust tight” is noteworthy, but the “7” in IP67 indicates that the device can be safely submerged in up to one meter of water for up to thirty minutes. Of course, that’s not literally one meter of water, but rather water under one meter’s worth of pressure. In other words, you can wash your hands and safely get caught in the rain, but that’s about it. Again, for a device, that’s not nothing, but when something claims to be a watch, it needs to be held to a higher standard. I won’t get into details here, but the world of horology has a very long history of extreme pressure resistance. Even if the Gear Live can’t survive at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, my Vivofit is good to up to fifty meters (which means I never have to take it off); the ProTrek I sometimes wear is good to 100 meters; any G-Shock is good to 200 meters; and hardcore dive watches go way up from there. I know nobody needs to wear a connected smartwatch while saturation diving, but the current lineup of Android smartwatches are all far too delicate for my taste. I want to strap a watch on and, until I need it, forget about it.
The clip-on charger is clunky. I was really surprised that something so seemingly sophisticated would come with such an inelegant charging solution. Not only is the charger difficult to clip onto the watch, but it’s also difficult to tell which way to attach it. After a couple of charges, you more or less get used to it, but the goal of industrial design shouldn’t be that people eventually get used to it. The goal should be to surprise and delight your customers the very first time, and the very first time you go to charge your Gear Live, you will be neither pleasantly surprised nor delighted. Having reviewed the Abacus Wrist Net over nine years ago now (a watch that used inductive charging and came with a cradle), I was really expecting more. I’m not claiming that inductive charging is a requirement for all smartwatches, but relatively easy and hassle-free charging absolutely is.
I’m not sure I’m sold on the level to which Android Wear devices rely on Google Now. I really appreciate that Android Wear respects the wrist-top form-factor—and more importantly, the limitations around data input—but I feel like the Gear Live under delivers. I want to be able to check things like my steps and the weather without pulling out my phone, and without talking to my wrist. Voice commands for devices are nice options, but I don’t want to have to talk to them all the time. When I’m at home or alone, I don’t mind, but when I’m at the office, or out to dinner, or on a train, etc. I feel much less comfortable asking my watch to do something for me. I believe that voice input should always be an option rather than a requirement. (This is one of the reasons I wasn’t able to stick with Google Glass.) In my opinion, Google is betting a little too big on voice in the same way Microsoft bet too big on touch and tablets with Windows 8. I feel like these types of paradigm shifts usually need to be eased into use rather than thrust.
There’s no option to delete email. Google must have metrics indicating that people prefer to archive rather than delete, but I reside firmly in another data set. Most of the email I get is not worthy of archiving, no matter how infinite the cloud proves to be. I waited for Google to add a convenient delete button to Gmail, and now email purgers will have to wait for an option to delete email from their Android Wear devices. This decision truly confounds me since being able to get rid of unwanted email from your wrist really seems like a tangible benefit of a smartwatch. And conversely, not being able to get rid of it—having to see it first on your wrist, and then later, again on your phone—is extremely annoying. Even if the delete option is the very last one, please let those of us who equate archiving everything with digital hoarding satisfy our compulsions to cleanse.
The interface on the Android Wear phone app isn’t very good. Since this is a review focused on the Samsung Gear Live and Google Wear, I won’t get into details except to say that good design is different from good software in a very fundamental way. Typically, once a software problem has been solved—once an algorithm has been written, optimized, and tested—it’s usually nicely encapsulated and seldom revisited. But as those of us who are early adopters know only too well, solving a design problem does not mean that the same mistake won’t be repeated over and over again, especially early on in a product’s release. To me, the Android Wear phone app feels like so many other 1.0 products: a prototype that managed to stick around long enough to make the final release date.
Both Hardware and Software
I really don’t like the auto-illumination function. In order to save battery, the watch’s display will time out and dim, and then try to anticipate when you want to look at it again based on the movement of your arm. The problem is that false positives abound. Therefore, the watch constantly comes out of standby while you perform everyday activities like driving, opening the refrigerator, lifting your fork, etc. Casio has had an auto-illumination function on their G-Shocks and ProTrek watches for many years, and I always make certain it’s turned off. Even though Casio’s works far better than Samsung’s, trying to anticipate when I want to look at my watch just does not work and is almost always more distracting than useful.
The fitness tracking capability is extremely limited. In addition to a watch, I also wear a fitness tracker. I tried a few devices and settled on the excellent Garmin Vivofit because it does exactly what I need it to. It counts and displays my steps, dynamically updates my goal, the battery lasts for a year, and it’s actually water-resistant (50 meters, or 160 feet). Although I understand that the Google Fit initiative and SDK are brand new, and that integration isn’t totally there yet, it’s hard to imagine Android Wear devices becoming competent fitness trackers without some serious changes. I’m not going to get deep into fitness trackers here, but I think it’s sufficient to say that if you’re a serious fitness tracker user, the Gear Live will not, in its current form, replace your dedicated device. In all the time that I wore the Gear Live, I never once felt like I could leave my Vivofit behind.
The voice recognition isn’t as good as it could be. I’m putting this in the “Hardware and Software” section, but it might primarily be hardware since voice recognition on my other Android devices is very good. And I should also mention that other reviews report that voice recognition works pretty well, so my experience may be unusual. But that said, the few times I spoke into my wrist, the command “show me my steps” was almost always interpreted as “show me my stocks.” Of course, when a device misunderstands, one’s inclination is to repeat the command louder and with exaggerated clarity which can make an already-sensitive situation (talking to your wrist like a Secret Service agent) even worse. The only thing more embarrassing than people starting at you as you talk to your wrist is people staring at you when you appear to be reprimanding your wrist.
The Samsung Gear Live is clearly not designed to appeal to watch enthusiasts. There’s no way anyone who obsesses over things like the action of pushers, the precision of screw-down crowns, the ratcheting of bezels, and the engineering of clasps and dive extensions could possibly be satisfied with the quality of the Gear Live. To be clear, I’m not asking for Rolex, Omega, or Breitling quality, but I think Seiko, Citizen, or Casio represent reasonable standards.
But perhaps the far bigger problem is that I don’t think the Gear Live quite works as a device, either. And although I will probably keep buying and testing smartwatches purely out of curiosity, I think we have a long way to go before I’m willing to put away my watches, put away my fitness trackers, and wear one full-time.
Now let’s see what Apple and Microsoft come up with.