A watch that sinks under its features

Written by New York Times | Updated: Oct 7 2013, 07:49am hrs
In the beginning, computers were the size of buildings. To use one, you walked into it. Over the decades, they grew small enough to sit on a desk, then to carry in a briefcase, then to keep in your pocket. And now were entering the age of computers so small we wear them like jewellery.

Just what kind of jewellery, however, has yet to be decided. Will we wear our computers on our foreheads, as with Google Glass Or will we wear them on our wrists, as with the new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch ($300)

Samsung isnt the first company to put a computer on your wrist. There have been a bunch of crude early efforts: the Pebble, the Cookoo, the Metawatch, the Martian. But the world waits for an Apple or Google or Samsung to do a more coherent job of packing a lot of components into a minuscule space.

Apples iWatch is only a rumour. But Samsungs Galaxy Gear watch is here now. Its ambitious, impressive, even amazing. But it wont be adorning the wrists of the masses any time soon. One big reason: Its really only half a computer. It requires the assistance of a compatible Samsung phone or tablet; without one, the watch is worthless. And right now, only two gadgets are compatible: the Galaxy Note 3 (an enormous phone with the footprint of a box of movie-theatre Raisinets) or Samsungs new 10.1-inch Galaxy tablet.

By Thanksgiving, Samsung says, it hopes to make its popular Galaxy S4 phone compatible, too; after that, the older Note 2 and S3. But the Gear watch will never work with devices from rival companies; Samsung is trying to create an Apple-like ecosystem of Samsung gadgets that work smoothlyandtogether.

The watch is huge, but its beautifully disguised to hide its hugeness. You can buy it with a plastic wristband in different colours. You cant exchange the bands, though, because important elements are built into it: a micro-speakerphone in the clasp and a tiny camera lens in the band.

The Gear feels fine on your wrist. Its not waterproof, but it can withstand little splashes. You charge its battery by clamping it into a tiny USB chargerevery night. So what does the Gear do A hodgepodge of random things. Some work well, and some not. For example:

Tell the time: On your compatible Samsung phone, you install an app called Gear Manager. Its the front end for the watch, like iTunes for an iPod. Its how you change the watchs settings and customise its features and choose a watch face for its Home screen.

Take pictures and videos: These arent what youd call National Geographic quality. The photos are 1.9 megapixels and the watch holds only 50 of them. Videos are tiny; you cant shoot more than three in a row, and the watch holds only 15 of those. But lets not quibbleits a watch.

Find your gadgets: If youve misplaced the phone or tablet the watch is paired with, the watch can make it chime to help you find it. And vice versa. Just be sure to lose them within 25 feet of each other. Thats the range of Bluetooth, which is what keeps the watch and device connected.

Auto-unlock your device: If youre wearing the watch, you dont have to enter your password to unlock the companion phone or tablet.

Alert you on incoming messages: The watch lets you know whos calling, and even shows you text messages right on its 1.6-inch, 320 x 320-pixel touch screen. Goofily, though, it can tell you only that an e-mail message has arrived; it cant show you the text.

Take and make calls: You can make phone calls on the watch, via the phone in your pocket. It actually works, and it means you can be hands-free in all kinds of life situations besides the car.

Run apps: There arent many, but theres real promise here. The Vivino app lets you photograph a wine bottles label; the watchs readout shows you the wines name and rating (usually). The Evernote app lets you take pictures and record sound snippets .

Lets admit it: that is an absolutely unbelievable list of features for a watch. And Samsung, sooner or later, will learn that it cant build a coherent device just by throwing features at it.

The Gear is a human-interface train wreck. All of it. The software design, user guide, English translations and design consistency.

Heres how you navigate this watch: Swipe sideways from the Home screen to view the 13 screens of the watch: Logs, Contacts, Camera, Clock, Dialer, Notifications, S Voice (voice command), Voice Memo, Gallery, Media Controller, Pedometer, Settings and Apps.

Going on: You swipe down to open the camera, but only at the Home screen. Swipe down to go back one screen if youre not at the Home screen. Tap and hold with two fingers to see the list of recent apps. Double tap with one finger to zoom in.

Nobody will buy this watch, and nobody should. But theres something here under all the rubble. Sometimes the Gear can be liberating; sometimes it makes possible tasks that you cant do while youre holding a smartphone. We just need somebody to find the right balance of labour between the watch and its companion device to figure out what a smartwatch should and shouldnt be.

Once somebody nails that formula, the age of genuinely useful smartwatches will be upon us. They will tide us over until we start wearing our computers on our earlobes.

David Pogue