The Galaxy Gear was the first shot in what promises to be an interesting season of smartwatch reveals and you can bet Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) are closely watching the reaction to Samsung’s entry.
Samsung’s “Unpack” event also featured the new Galaxy Note 3 — the latest in its line of best-selling phablets — and a refreshed Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet. The Galaxy Notes sported the usual upgrades (faster processor, more RAM, better camera, more pixel-dense display and thinner body) along with a faux leather back, but the tablet and phablet were just a sideshow compared to the Galaxy Gear.
The Galaxy Gear is not exactly the smartwatch pictured in recent Samsung patent filings. The Galaxy Gear pictured in those documents appears to have a curved display that immediately suggests flexible or curved glass such as Corning’s (GLW) Willow Glass. Instead, the smartwatch Samsung unveiled has a rather chunky and flat display mounted in a stainless steel and plastic frame. Here are the key specs of the device:
- 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display at a resolution of 320 x 320 pixels
- Runs Android
- 4GB built-in storage
- 800 MHz processor
- Accelerometer and Gyroscope
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Dual microphones with noise cancellation
- Built-in speaker
- Rechargeable Li-ion battery rated for one day of “regular” use
- Selection of colored bands with built-in 1.9 MP camera
- $299 with October availability
As expected, the Galaxy Gear is designed to be an accessory for your smartphone. It runs some apps of its own (fitness apps like RunKeeper have signed on to be one of 70 available at launch) and incorporates sensors that make it an ideal fitness tracker, but it primarily acts to complement the mobile device you’re already carrying. When connected to a smartphone, the Galaxy Gear receives notifications, lets you check e-mail, make or take voice calls and play music on the device.
But one aspect of that integration might have revealed the smartwatch’s Achilles Heel. Samsung says the Galaxy Gear currently works only with the new Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition), which were also unveiled yesterday. Support for the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 2 is expected to come later this year, but users will have to be upgraded to Android 4.3 — which adds support for Bluetooth LE (the low energy version of the wireless protocol).
Other devices like the Galaxy S III seem to be candidates for an eventual Android 4.3 update as well, but the Galaxy Gear is clearly facing a problem and it’s not just the price tag.
The device’s potential market is limited by Samsung’s choice to keep it compatible with only its own devices, and further narrowed to which of those will receive an upgrade to version 4.3 of Google’s Android operating system. Considering only 6.5% of Android devices are currently running version 4.2, it could be a while before most Samsung-owning consumers could buy a Galaxy Gear and expect it to actually work with their smartphones.
Yes, Android fragmentation is raising its head again, although Samsung might be hoping the lure of the Galaxy Gear will spur people into ditching their two year-old smartphones for a new one.
Another potential buzz-kill is the battery life. Samsung is being cagey about the Galaxy Gear’s battery, only saying it should last a full day of “regular” use. Nightly recharging or a smartwatch that dies after hours of heavy use won’t win any fans, especially when Apple is reportedly targeting four to five days of battery life for its iWatch.
And incorporating a built-in camera into the Galaxy Gear’s band is a puzzling design choice. We’re already seeing privacy issues raised about camera-equipped wearable tech like Google’s Project Glass, and this smartwatch might raise similar suspicions. That camera also makes replacing the Galaxy Gear’s band an expensive proposition — traditional watch makers know how much consumers like swapping out wristbands for different colors or styles.
The $299 price doesn’t seem steep for an early adopter crowd. But if smartwatches are going to go mainstream, Samsung will need to bring that down. Consider the dilemma smartphone makers are facing now, when $199 (on contract) flagship devices are too expensive for much of the mainstream, leading to manufacturers scrambling to provide a cheaper option to keep growth on track.
While smartphones are a virtual necessity today, a smartwatch is going to be a tougher sell, especially when it costs more than an iPhone 5 or Galaxy S4.
If there was one real surprise on Wednesday, it was that Qualcomm (QCOM) also announced a smartphone. Its Toq will sell as a limited edition in the $300 range and offers what most of us are currently expecting from a smartwatch — notifications and call management via a connected smartphone. The Toq goes for five days of regular use on a charge.
According to CNET, Qualcomm took the unusual step of offering a consumer device to show off its own Mirasol display technology and chips, hoping that its power-efficient technology will be chosen by other manufacturers if smartphones happen to take off.
Maybe Samsung should look into Mirasol instead of the Super AMOLED display the Galaxy Gear uses to do something about that battery life. That would solve at least one of the Galaxy Gear’s problems.
As for Android fragmentation … well, there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.