Samsung Gear Live review: Best smartwatch ever, but still not good enough

gearlive speaknow
Jon Phillips

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The Gear Live 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 Live 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 Wear, Google’s new smartwatch OS that defines the Gear Live experience in near entirety. The Gear Live isn’t so much a smartwatch as an empty vessel for Android Wear’s voice commands, Google Now alerts, and smartphone notifications. And the more I’ve used Google’s OS, the more I’ve wished for a different empty vessel, a better empty vessel—something that would make the Android Wear experience truly shine.

Read my feature-by-feature Android Wear walkthrough here.

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Still, if you want to use Google’s wearables OS right now, today, you have only two options: the Gear Live and LG’s G Watch. And the Gear Live 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 Wear refresher...

I’ve been using the Gear Live, the G Watch, and Android Wear for more than two weeks now, holding off on my final reviews while waiting for Google’s operating system to percolate, and mature, and reveal its more subtle strengths and weaknesses. Well, perhaps the wait wasn’t necessary. Aside from a weak trickle of new apps and a navigation feature that spontaneously died on me for no obvious reason, Android Wear hasn’t morphed into anything different from what I experienced right after I picked up my Samsung and LG review units at Google I/O.

Google’s OS is lean, mean, light on features, and emphatically coy in exposing its apps. It respects the fact that no interface designer, no matter how clever and canny, will ever be able to squeeze much information onto a tiny watch display. So traditional apps are off the table, and you won’t find any extra features like camera or voice-call support, per Samsung’s earlier smartwatch efforts.

gearlivedim state Jon Phillips

All Android Wear watches feature an always-on watchface that renders in black and white until you wake the display.

Instead, you get just a simple home screen that displays the time. It’s usually in its black-and-white ambient mode to save battery life. But when you wake the watch with a screen tap, or by raising your arm and turning your wrist to look at the watchface, the display comes alive in full color. Now it’s time for some Googly action.

‘OK Google’ everything

Uttering “OK Google” summons a host of voice-command actions that will be familiar to anyone who uses Google Now on an Android phone. You can use voice commands to text a friend, to solve a math problem, to find a sports score, to dictate a quick personal memo, and to set an alarm—among numerous other tricks. And once developers start building custom Android Wear apps, an “OK Google” command 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 Wear keeps app icons hidden in the depths of a hard-to-reach menu. But that’s OK, because you should be asking for apps, and not browsing for apps, on an interface so small.

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Uttering “OK Google” is the key to all voice commands. Here we see Android Wear waiting for text message dictation.

Android Wear’s speech recognition on the Gear Live 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 Wear’s voice commands work, and 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—hands- and 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 Google” anything, Android Wear will still give you plenty to play with, thanks to what Google calls its “context stream”—a series of information cards that highlight either Google Now alerts or notifications from your smartphone. The context stream is time- and location-aware, and surfaces information that maps directly to whatever search habits you’ve established in your greater Googly life.

cards stream slide Jon Phillips

Here we see three cards from Android Wear’s “context stream.” Simply swipe down on the watchface to scroll through social media alerts, step count reports, and a Google Now travel time update.

In the two weeks since I’ve been using Android Wear I’ve received cards that share my local weather forecast, upcoming baseball game start times, and commute times back home. I’ve received alerts about friends’ birthdays. I even received an alert about when a new episode of Halt and Catch Fire will air. But these are just Google Now alerts. Add in notifications, and 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 Wear. So, beyond garden-variety phone call and text notifications, I’ve received pings from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Jawbone UP, CNN, and my ISP’s mail app.

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Jawbone hasn’t yet released a custom Android Wear app, but it’s smartphone app will send notifications to the Watch.

Frankly, I can live without the Candy Crush requests that emanate from Facebook, but in general I like the new dimension that Android Wear’s context stream adds to my mobile life. Critics will call smartwatch users lazy. They’ll ask, “Why 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 Wear 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 Wear efforts

So that’s the Android Wear story. Now it’s time to dig into Samsung’s implementation. Samsung is famous for heavy software customization tweaks on its Android phones, but Google is locking down Android Wear 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 Live from the LG G Watch, and the tweaks it’s realized really aren’t that significant.

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The Gear Live (left) has a display that beats the G Watch on pure specs, but it’s extremely difficult to see a difference in real life.

With its slightly more oblong shape and brushed metal finish, the Gear Live is more visually interesting than the G Watch, which looks like an almost perfectly square black tab. The two competitors have near identically sized displays (Samsung: 1.63-inch; LG: 1.65-inch), but Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen has a higher 320x320 resolution that’s just a tad bit sharper than LG’s 280x280 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, and leaves the door open for a winning Android Wear effort from Qualcomm, which deployed its sunlight-friendly Mirasol display to great effect in the Toq smartwatch.

Some critics have said the Gear Live is more comfortable to wear than the G Watch—that its gently curved case better fits the contours of human anatomy. Frankly, I don’t notice any comfort differences between the two watches. They both fit my wrist just fine, and neither is larger than the analog watches I wear every day.

But for the strap and charging adapter

Samsung’s wrist strap is a different matter entirely. Just 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 Live, you have to stabilize the watch against your wrist, line up the two opposing ends of the rigid silicone strap, and then squeeze a pair of metal prongs into two finicky holes. It’s a much less convenient system than LG’s simple buckle strap, but at least Samsung uses traditional strap hardware, so you can replace the Gear Live band with any 22mm strap you wish.

gearlivestrap Jon Phillips

See those two metal prongs on the end of the strap? Yeah, they’re difficult to work with.

I also prefer LG’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 LG’s simple magnetic cradle is easier to use than Samsung’s more traditional snap-on dongle. With the LG system, you can quickly lay the G Watch 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 USB cable, requiring just a bit more attention any time you want to recharge.

Both watches have 1.2GHz processors. Both have 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage. And both watches have zippy interfaces, suggesting Samsung and LG spec’d internal silicon for that perfect balance between price, performance and 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. LG doesn’t include a power button on the G Watch, 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.

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I’m not a fan of Samsung’s power adapter.

Price wins the battle for Samsung—for now

Beyond the differences noted above, very little remains to distinguish the Gear Live from the G Watch. Both watches have accelerometers that generate step counts, but Samsung also adds a simple heart rate monitor, a la the Gear Fit, Gear 2, and Galaxy S5. I found Samsung’s step count numbers to be wildly inflated relative to my Jawbone UP24, and 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 LG’s 24), but Samsung beats LG on price, selling the Gear Live for $200 while LG is charging $230 for a more pedestrian industrial design and a lower-res, lower-brilliance display. The upshot is that the Gear Live is the better purchase—for now. 

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Yes, the Gear Live has a spectroscopic heart rate monitor. I have no idea why.

Android Wear is by no means a perfect smartwatch OS. There’s barely any third-party app support, and the platform quickly needs an official Twitter app to allow for tweet dictation directly from your watch. Google also needs one or two apps that demonstrate what a truly location-aware “context stream” would look like. In early June, Google’s Android Wear developers showed us what a walking tour app might look like, but nothing like this has yet to materialize.

Even worse, Android Wear’s navigation app has stopped working for me. An “OK Google... navigate to” command use to spawn turn-by-turn driving directions directly on the Gear Live, but that feature stopped working last week, and Google still can’t explain why. It’s not a horrible loss (I never used the feature anyhow), but it does remind us that Android Wear is an immature OS with many bug fixes, revisions and improvements ahead.

navigation slide 2 Jon Phillips

Quite inexplicably, turn-by-turn directions no longer appear on the Gear Life—“OK Google” navigation commands only spawn action on the smartphone the watch is tethered to.

And the same goes for Android Wear hardware. The Gear Live is the best Wear watch available, but it’s not a slam-dunk victory, and its champion status can’t last for long. Upcoming Wear models will surely fix the illegible display performance in sunlight (come on, Qualcomm, give it a shot). We should also expect battery life to improve with generational iterations. And if manufacturers could reduce the bezel widths around displays, Android Wear 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 Live. In a two-watch race, it wins almost by default. But because Android Wear shows so much promise—and because I’m already becoming addicted to voice texting and Google Now on my wrist—I have to give the Gear Live a qualified thumbs up.

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