Samsung Gear: a smartwatch in search of a purpose

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The new Galaxy Gear smartwatch is presented during the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) in Berlin on Sept. 4

The Galaxy Gear is here. For those who haven't been following this very closely, let me break it down: It's a smartwatch from Samsung with a bright, clear touchscreen, built-in microphones, a speaker, and a camera. It can do certain things on its own and, when connected via Bluetooth with a Samsung smartphone, it can also send and receive calls. The watch can display texts and e-mails from your phone and launch a selection of specially designed apps from Pocket, Evernote, and RunKeeper.

There is one thing the Gear doesn't seem to have: a purpose. This is true for all smartwatches, which tend to be liked more in theory than in practice. Ever since Chester Gould created Dick Tracy, our collective consciousness has longed for the day when wrist-borne communicators would appear in real life. But what if Gould was wrong? There have been plenty of attempts at hybrid watches before, combining the capabilities of phones, calculators, and televisions with the time-keeping machines we already wear on our arms. Yet none so far"”not the attempts from Sony, from startups, or even Samsung itself"”have cracked the code of making a small computer for your wrist that's actually appealing.

Samsung's latest attempt is part of a larger effort the company calls "Smart Freedom," which means very little, other than reminding people (OK, me) of Michael McDonald's Sweet Freedom. (Free advice to Samsung: Get McDonald for a commercial, pronto.) But the Gear doesn't necessarily provide a larger answer to the watch-of-the-future puzzle, either. The $299 device provides "a day's" worth of battery life, says Samsung, but dumb wristwatches already offer infinite levels of power through the cunning use of springs. This seems like a step backward. Recharging the Gear also requires a dock, so you have to take that with you if you do any traveling.

The watch has microphones and a speaker for phone calls, but the speaker is pretty quiet. In practice, conducting a conversation means holding your wrist up to your head"”and even then you're adding one more speakerphone conversation to the noisy world. And if you're going to bother raising your arm, why not have a more private call by actually holding a handset to your ear?

The Gear is by no means small. Those with avian bone syndrome may find it a bit XL for a human wrist. Then again, watches themselves have been on an elephantiasis jag for quite some time now, so perhaps the Gear is in line with chronometer fashions. But we're already tethered to pocket- or purse-size objects as it is"”do we really need another thing to make sure is with us at all times?

The Galaxy Gear is a new product category from the world's largest electronics company. When looked at that way, this release is significant. And it's clear that smartphone makers are looking for ways to juice their margins. The overall trend in handsets is for prices to go down. Adding new accessories and product lines"”particularly ones that cost more than a handset itself"”is a clear way to address that revenue erosion.

But as a product itself, the Gear underwhelms at first glance. Samsung is an immensely capable company, with expertise in semiconductors, materials, displays, and so many other categories. But the company's main obstacle has been its overwhelming desire to show all of those competencies at the same time. The Galaxy S3 and S4 smartphones were launched with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink assortment of features and capabilities. The Gear is another chapter in the "Do Everything, Show Everything" book that Samsung's writing. With the Gear's significant limitations and lack of a clear reason for existing, it remains to be seen whether customers want to read that book.

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