The Gear ve isn’t just Samsung’s best smartwatch ever, it’s the world’s best smartwatch ever.
It’s also the first smartwatch that I’d consider wearing every day. I’m a dedicated fan of analog wristwatches, but the Gear ve is just compelling enough to make me reconsider the mechanical intrigue of my TAG Heuer Formula 1 or the beautiful grayscale color palate of my Boccia Titanium.
For this, all the credit goes to Android ar, ’s new smartwatch OS that defines the Gear ve experience in near entirety. The Gear ve isn’t so much a smartwatch as an empty vessel for Android ar’s voice comms, Now alerts, smartphone notifications. And the more I’ve used ’s OS, the more I’ve wished for a different empty vessel, a better empty vessel—something that would make the Android ar experience truly shine.
Read my feature-by-feature Android ar walkthrough here.
Still, if you want to use ’s wearables OS right now, today, you have only two options: the Gear ve ’s G tch. And the Gear ve is the smarter choice of the two. It’s far, far from smartwatch perfection, but it’s a far better smartwatch than Samsung’s Galaxy Gear or Gear 2.
An Android ar refresher…
I’ve been using the Gear ve, the G tch, Android ar for more than two weeks now, holding off on my final reviews while waiting for ’s operating system to percolate, mature, reveal its more subtle strengths weaknesses. ll, perhaps the wait wasn’t necessary. Aside from a weak trickle of new apps a navigation feature that spontaneously died on me for no obvious reason, Android ar hasn’t morphed into anything different from what I experienced right after I picked up my Samsung review units at I/O.
’s OS is lean, mean, light on features, emphatically coy in exposing its apps. It respects the fact that no interface designer, no matter how clever canny, will ever be able to squeeze much information onto a tiny watch display. So traditional apps are off the table, you won’t find any extra features like camera or voice-call support, per Samsung’s earlier smartwatch efforts.
Instead, you get just a simple home screen that displays the time. It’s usually in its black–white ambient mode to save battery life. But when you wake the watch with a screen tap, or by raising your arm turning your wrist to look at the watchface, the display comes alive in full color. Now it’s time for some Googly action.
‘OK ’ everything
Uttering “OK ” summons a host of voice-comm actions that will be familiar to anyone who uses Now on an Android phone. You can use voice comms to text a friend, to solve a math problem, to find a sports score, to dictate a quick personal memo, to set an alarm—among numerous other tricks. And once developers start building custom Android ar apps, an “OK ” comm should also be able to call an Uber car, compose a tweet, or start a Field Trip walking tour. And so on.
Now, you’ll never see Uber, Twitter or Field Trip in anything approaching a traditional app drawer, because Android ar keeps app icons hidden in the depths of a hard-to-reach menu. But that’s OK, because you should be asking for apps, not browsing for apps, on an interface so small.
Android ar’s speech recognition on the Gear ve seems to outperform the accuracy of Android itself on my HTC One M7 (of course, this may be idiosyncratic of my specific hardware). The bottom line is that Android ar’s voice comms work, are often quite awesome. I can’t count the number of times I’ve checked baseball scores directly on Samsung’s watch, or texted friends—hs- phone-free—while making dinner. It’s this kind of utility that compels me to give up my analog timepieces.
Context streams: info on your wrist
Even if you never “OK ” anything, Android ar will still give you plenty to play with, thanks to what calls its “context stream”—a series of information cards that highlight either Now alerts or notifications from your smartphone. The context stream is time- location-aware, surfaces information that maps directly to whatever search habits you’ve established in your greater Googly life.
In the two weeks since I’ve been using Android ar I’ve received cards that share my local weather forecast, upcoming baseball game start times, commute times back home. I’ve received alerts about friends’ birthdays. I even received an alert about when a new episode of Halt Catch Fire will air. But these are just Now alerts. Add in notifications, the context stream grows exponentially.
Any notification that appears on your Android phone can appear on your watch, even if your watch isn’t running an app specifically customized for Android ar. So, beyond garden-variety phone call text notifications, I’ve received pings from Twitter, Facebook, +, nkedIn, wbone U CNN, my ISs mail app.
ly, I can live without the Cy Crush requests that emanate from Facebook, but in general I like the new dimension that Android ar’s context stream adds to my mobile life. Critics will call smartwatch users lazy. They’ll ask, “y don’t you just pull out your phone?” But this contempt ignores the fact that sometimes our phones are inaccessible, either physically or socially. Android ar is a convenience, not a necessity, but the more I use it, the more I don’t want to give it up.
The better of two Android ar efforts
So that’s the Android ar story. Now it’s time to dig into Samsung’s implementation. Samsung is famous for heavy software customization tweaks on its Android phones, but is locking down Android ar to ensure a consistent user experience among all the watches that use the OS. The upshot is that Samsung must rely almost entirely on industrial design tweaks to differentiate the Gear ve from the G tch, the tweaks it’s realized really aren’t that significant.
th its slightly more oblong shape brushed metal finish, the Gear ve is more visually interesting than the G tch, which looks like an almost perfectly square black tab. The two competitors have near identically sized displays (Samsung: 1.63-inch; : 1.65-inch), but Samsung’s Super AMOD screen has a higher 320×320 resolution that’s just a tad bit sharper than ’s 280×280 display. Samsung’s colors are bit more brilliant, too.
Unfortunately, both watches are all but impossible to read in sunlight. It’s a serious problem, leaves the door open for a winning Android ar effort from Qualcomm, which deployed its sunlight-friendly Mirasol display to great effect in the Toq smartwatch.
Some critics have said the Gear ve is more comfortable to wear than the G tch—that its gently curved case better fits the contours of human anatomy. ly, I don’t notice any comfort differences between the two watches. They both fit my wrist just fine, neither is larger than the analog watches I wear every day.
But for the strap charging adapter
Samsung’s wrist strap is a different matter entirely. st like in its previous smartwatch efforts, Samsung has used a strap that’s a pain in the ass to attach. To put on the Gear ve, you have to stabilize the watch against your wrist, line up the two opposing ends of the rigid silicone strap, then squeeze a pair of metal prongs into two finicky holes. It’s a much less convenient system than ’s simple buckle strap, but at least Samsung uses traditional strap hardware, so you can replace the Gear ve b with any 22mm strap you wish.
I also prefer ’s charging system to Samsung’s. Both watches are good for at least one full day of use before their batteries poop out. Sure, you might be able to squeeze the better part of a second day from Samsung’s 300 mAh battery, but why take the chance? Both watches use proprietary charging adapters, but ’s simple magnetic cradle is easier to use than Samsung’s more traditional snap-on dongle. th the system, you can quickly lay the G tch on its no-drama cradle. But Samsung’s dongle doesn’t have any weight to it. It just flops around on the end of a B cable, requiring just a bit more attention any time you want to recharge.
Both watches have 1.2GHz processors. Both have 512MB of RAM 4GB of storage. And both watches have zippy interfaces, suggesting Samsung spec’d internal silicon for that perfect balance between price, performance power draw. Yet here’s an interesting innovation from Samsung: It had the wisdom to include a power button! It’s a rather useful addition when you want to turn on the watch after, say, you’ve previously turned it off. doesn’t include a power button on the G tch, so to turn it on, you must place it in its charging cradle or poke a miniscule hard reset button on the back of its chassis.
ice wins the battle for Samsung—for now
Beyond the differences noted above, very little remains to distinguish the Gear ve from the G tch. Both watches have accelerometers that generate step counts, but Samsung also adds a simple heart rate monitor, a la the Gear Fit, Gear 2, Galaxy S5. I found Samsung’s step count numbers to be wildly inflated relative to my wbone U4, I found no use for the heart rate monitor whatsoever, as you can’t use it for continuous, real-time reporting in the middle of a cardio workout.
Samsung has considerably fewer digital watchfaces to choose from (13 to ’s 24), but Samsung beats on price, selling the Gear ve for $200 while is charging $230 for a more pedestrian industrial design a lower-res, lower-brilliance display. The upshot is that the Gear ve is the better purchase—for now.
Android ar is by no means a perfect smartwatch OS. There’s barely any third-party app support, the platform quickly needs an official Twitter app to allow for tweet dictation directly from your watch. also needs one or two apps that demonstrate what a truly location-aware “context stream” would look like. In early ne, ’s Android ar developers showed us what a walking tour app might look like, but nothing like this has yet to materialize.
Even worse, Android ar’s navigation app has stopped working for me. An “OK … navigate to” comm use to spawn turn-by-turn driving directions directly on the Gear ve, but that feature stopped working last week, still can’t explain why. It’s not a horrible loss (I never used the feature anyhow), but it does remind us that Android ar is an immature OS with many bug fixes, revisions improvements ahead.
And the same goes for Android ar hardware. The Gear ve is the best ar watch available, but it’s not a slam-dunk victory, its champion status can’t last for long. Upcoming ar models will surely fix the illegible display performance in sunlight (come on, Qualcomm, give it a shot). should also expect battery life to improve with generational iterations. And if manufacturers could reduce the bezel widths around displays, Android ar watches can get smaller too.
But one of the biggest leap forwards should emerge later this summer when Motorola releases the Moto 360 with its breathtaking circular display. I doubt it will read much easier under sunlight, but there’s no disputing Motorola’s sophisticated industrial design.
For now, we have the Samsung Gear ve. In a two-watch race, it wins almost by default. But because Android ar shows so much promise— because I’m already becoming addicted to voice texting Now on my wrist—I have to give the Gear ve a qualified thumbs up.