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Hands on: New Gear wearables take your pulse but still miss a beat on design

BARCELONA—There’s nothing wrong with using the word “glam” once in a while. But when Samsung executives used it repeatedly during their Unpacked event presentation at Mobile World Congress on Monday, it quickly became forced.

Actually, the company’s new generation of Gear-branded wearables improves noticeably upon the chunky, clunky, original Galaxy Gear smartwatch, at least in terms of raw aesthetics. Design remains a challenge, however, and we don’t yet know enough about the new Gears’ heart-rate monitors to compare them to the sensors in other fitness trackers, like the Basis B1.

samsung gear 2 corrected mwc 2014 feb

The Gear 2 smartwatch closely resembles its predecessor, but with a few notable feature additions.

The new Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo smartwatches replace the original Galaxy Gear that debuted last year (you can see that original Gear effort on my wrist in the photo at the very top of this article). Neither watch looks or feels significantly different from their predecessor—the Neo 2 just invites a new level of sportiness with its bright colors.

But based on the design of all three new Samsung wearables—the company also revealed the curved-display Gear Fit activity tracker on Monday—it’s clear Samsung has listened to customer complaints, making a few significant and positive changes.

samsung galaxy gear 2 neo mwc jan 2014 Image: Melissa Riofrio

The Gear 2 Neo is nearly identical to the regular Gear 2, just sporting brighter colors.

The small-screen interface on the Gear 2 devices can still be confusing to navigate. But Samsung has added a physical start button to the main body of the smartwatches, saving users the trouble of stabbing or swiping the small screen (often in vain) just to get into or out of something. Pressing this button will get you back to the home screen.

samsung galaxy gear 2 neo mwc jan 2014 start button Image: Melissa Riofrio

Hallelujah! A start button (as shown on the Gear Neo 2).

In the evolution from Galaxy Gear to Gear 2, Samsung also moved the camera from the wristband to the main body of the smartwatch. The cheaper Gear 2 Neo doesn’t include a camera, but on the Gear 2 the camera looks like a little hole on the side of the watch that’s opposite from the start button.

The camera repositioning solves two prior problems: It makes the camera less noticeable, and also removes essential hardware from the strap, letting you swap straps for whatever “glam” look you need (Samsung will provide a few color and design options). However, in terms of how you frame up shots, the camera works the same, and, if anything, allows for sneakier, more surreptitious image-capture because the sensor’s appearance is even more subtle.

samsung galaxy gear 2 camera mwc jan 2014 Image: Melissa Riofrio

The camera moves from the wristband to the watch’s body, allowing for customizable straps and, potentially, more creep shots.

The wristband design of all the devices remains disappointing. All have the same plasticky feel of the original Galaxy Gear’s band, and all have the same, annoying clasp that’s hard to adjust and even harder to open and close. The new Gear 2 adds a texture to the strap’s exterior, so it seems a little less ordinary than its smooth, matte-finish predecessor. The Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit both have a wavy texture on the insides of their straps, probably for greater comfort during exercise. The biggest improvement for all straps is basic adjustability: There are more holes in the new straps, and they’re spaced closer together.

samsung galaxy gear 2 neo wristband mwc jan 2014 cropped Image: Melissa Riofrio

The new wristband design (as shown on the Gear 2 Neo) has more adjustment holes and a comfortably wavy-textured interior.  

Samsung’s most clever Gear wearable, the Galaxy Gear Fit, is a pleasant surprise. Its slender wristband, and especially its curved AMOLED display, make it far more attractive than its squarish cousins. The Fit is small enough, light enough, and slender enough to make proportional sense on a woman’s wrist, but it also wouldn’t look out of line on a man. Its style is still more sporty than fashionable, but Samsung inches closer here, aesthetically, than it does with the Gear 2 models.

As for Samsung’s curved display, the Unpacked audience let out an audible gasp when Samsung presented it, and you can see (as well as feel) why. Even though the Gear Fit is still kind of chunky, the curvature of the display allows for a closer fit on your wrist. The whole design is also less boxy than the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo.

samsung galaxy gear 2 fit mwc jan 2014 Image: Melissa Riofrio

The Gear Fit is a slender and simple activity tracker that fits much better on a woman than the Gear 2 smartwatches.

The Gear Fit doesn’t include a camera, and lacks a long list of features that Samsung crammed into the Gear 2 smartwatches, but its user interface benefits from the more barebones approach. Simple side-to-side swiping through the Fit’s features was less confusing to me than the swiping required by the other Gear models.

All three Galaxy Gear devices have heart-rate monitors built into their rear chassis where the hardware touches your skin. The monitors work with a health app to track your data over time. Samsung named health tracking as one of the top five customer desires these devices address, but the company didn’t provide any information about how the monitors actually work. We’ll need more information about Samsung’s sensor tech before we can get truly excited about it.

samsung galaxy gear fit heartrate monitor mwc feb 2014 Image: Melissa Riofrio

The heart rate monitor on the Galaxy Gear Fit. We still don’t know how it works, and in a land of flaky fitness trackers, that’s a question worth answering. 

Samsung has clearly learned from the missteps of its original Galaxy Gear product. The new generation is likely better, but the devices have changed more in look than in underlying character. It’s not enough for one of these wearables to deliver smartphone notifications, or monitor your health. They have to be something you want to live with every single day. 

This article was updated at 7:24 a.m. PT to correct an image of the Galaxy Gear 2.

This story, "Hands on: New Gear wearables take your pulse but still miss a beat on design" was originally published by TechHive.

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