Review: Samsung Galaxy Gear, Galaxy Note 3

The Post's Hayley Tsukayama gives a rundown of Samsung's new Galaxy Note 3 and smart watch. (Sandi Moynihan and Hayley Tsukayama/The Washington Post)
October 1, 2013

Samsung has launched itself into the wearable-technology market with the introduction of the $300 Galaxy Gear, a 1.6-inch smartwatch that acts as a second screen for its smartphone.

Well, for one smartphone, at least. Right now, the Gear only works with Samsung’s 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3, just the kind of huge device that makes a secondary display necessary. Samsung has done an impressive job of taking the bulk out of the Note 3 while pumping up the screen size, but it’s probably too big for many pockets and smaller-handed consumers.

(Samsung has hinted, heavily, that more of its phones will eventually pair with the watch.)

The Note’s size makes a smart companion to the Gear, which can’t function as a stand-alone device and requires the Note 3 to be within Bluetooth range to work. While the Note will be a go-to device for Web browsing, watching videos and other activities that require the full power of the phone’s 2.3 GHz quad-core processor, the watch is there to send texts, take quick pictures with its 1.2 MP camera, and
see notifications and incoming e-mail.

The Gear is a neat device and certainly proves that wearable technology is worth investigating, but it is decidedly first-generation. The watch is bulky, and while Samsung has made a sincere effort to make it aesthetically pleasing by offering it in a variety of colors and watch faces, it looks clunky on most wrists.

As for function, Samsung has done a fairly good job with displaying notifications to the device, though it predictably has done better with its own apps than with those from other companies. The phone’s default e-mail app, for example, will show you a small snippet of incoming e-mails before suggesting you finish reading on your phone. A notification from Gmail or Google Hangouts, on the other hand, directs you to the phone for information. Text messages are the easiest to read on the watch’s small screen and can be dictated by double-tapping the watch’s only physical button.

The voice recognition on the watch, like the phone, is fairly good, even with unusual contact names. That’s a necessity for the watch, because the Gear’s screen real estate simply doesn’t allow for an on-screen keyboard. Even the dial pad on the watch, for outgoing calls, can be difficult to hit accurately. In most cases, users are better off using their voices, even for dialing.

If you opt to take a call on the watch, which houses the speaker and microphone on the wrist clasp, the sound quality is reasonably good, though positioning your arm can be a bit difficult. Talking with the watch is best while sitting down in a quiet room, when you can prop your arm up on something like the arm of a couch for an extended period of time. In public, talking into your sleeve may be fun for playing spy, but not for long periods. In those cases, using the phone is probably the better option.

The Note’s size makes it awkward for long talks. Holding the phone up to one’s face is not comfortable, and certainly not for long periods of time — something that’s been true of the rest of the Note line. These phone-tablet hybrids have always worked better on speakerphone or with a headset for long conversations, and the latest addition is no different.

While the Note 3 may get a bit overshadowed by its smaller sibling, it is worth mentioning that Samsung has put a lot of effort into making this new “phablet” a full-fledged productivity device, thanks to new software for its signature stylus.

A new menu for the stylus brings up options for screen capture, search, easy annotation and note-taking. It also has a nifty feature that gives you quick access to tools, such as the calculator or even Google’s YouTube video site. The phone’s large screen also makes it possible to run two apps at the same time, which is useful for work or play — or both at the same time.

The Note is also a fairly good device for artists, thanks to pressure-sensitive software for its pen and a 13 MP rear-facing camera that takes stunning pictures that far outstrip the quick snaps you can get on the Gear.

Both devices are strong and demonstrate really interesting features — but they come at a hefty price. The Note 3 costs $349.99 on Sprint or $299.99 on AT&T and Verizon. T-Mobile customers only pay $199.99 upfront, but will have to pay the remainder of the retail price in 24 monthly installments of $21. The stand-alone Gear costs $299.

And that may be too much to pay for most people looking to try out a tech gadget. For true tech enthusiasts who want to be in on the first step of wearable device adoption, the Gear is a solid device. But for the average person, it’s probably worth waiting for the next generation.

Related stories:

Galaxy Gear and Galaxy Note 3 get prices, release dates on T-Mobile

Samsung unveils Galaxy Gear smartwatch; new Galaxy Note

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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