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Samsung Gear Live: It's the world's best smartwatch, but probably not for long

Samsung Gear Live: It's the world's best smartwatch, but probably not for long

The Gear Live is the best hardware expression of the world's best smartwatch OS. But Samsung's reign will be short unless it innovates.

Samsung finally landed on a simple, wrist-friendly interface that does away with messy nested menus and convoluted features like voice calling.

Samsung finally landed on a simple, wrist-friendly interface that does away with messy nested menus and convoluted features like voice calling.

The Gear Live is the best smartwatch I've ever used--but that's not a remarkable achievement considering all the crappy-to-middling efforts we've seen from Samsung, Sony and Qualcomm. If I were being generous, I'd say Samsung finally landed on a simple, wrist-friendly interface that does away with messy nested menus and convoluted features like voice calling.

But let's be serious--all the credit goes to Android Wear. Google's new smartwatch OS defines the Gear Live experience from top to bottom, and it's a great step forward for Samsung's meandering smartwatch efforts

I've been using Android Wear ever since Google distributed the Gear Live and G Watch review units at Google I/O in late June, and I've become a fan of the system's voice commands, Google Now alerts, and smartphone notifications. If you need an Android Wear refresher course, you'll find it in a longer version of this review on Greenbot. You can also read my feature-by-feature Android Wear walkthrough.

But for now, let's just focus on the Gear Live hardware, and what makes it a better empty vessel for Google's OS than LG's G Watch, the only other Android Wear watch available today.

Slightly more interesting industrial design

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.

The Gear Live is more visually interesting, with a slightly more oblong shape and brushed metal finish. The G Watch, meanwhile, looks like an almost perfectly square black tab. The two competitors have near identically sized displays--1.63-inch for Samsung; 1.65-inch for LG--but Samsung's Super AMOLED screen has a higher 320x320 resolution, and produces slightly more saturated colors. The difference in display quality is almost imperceptible.

Unfortunately, both watches are all but impossible to read in sunlight. It's a serious problem, and makes me think that the first manufacturer to deploy Android Wear on an E Ink or Mirasol display will have a winner.

But for the strap and charging adapter

Just like in its previous smartwatch efforts, Samsung has used a strap that's a pain in the ass to attach. 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. I prefer LG's strap buckle, but at least you can replace the Gear Live band with any 22 mm strap you wish.

A 300 mAh battery powers the Gear Live, and I found the watch lasted for at least a day on a single charge. That's better than my HTC One M7 in terms of longevity, but it's still pretty horrible for a "lifestyle" accessory like a watch.

Even worse, Samsung uses an annoying proprietary charging adapter. It's basically a flimsy dongle that attaches to the watch with a worrying snap. Also, Samsung's dongle doesn't have any weight to it. It just flops around on the end of a USB cable, requiring a bit of extra attention any time you want to recharge. I much prefer LG's magnetic charging cradle.

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! 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 minuscule hard reset button on the back of its chassis.

Price wins the battle for Samsung--for now

Beyond the differences above, there's not much 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. 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.

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.

But, hey, the new OS is only two weeks old. There are surely many bug fixes, revisions and improvements ahead.

The same goes for Android Wear hardware: We've only seen two devices, and both the Gear Live and G Watch exude "early first effort." Upcoming Wear models could address illegible display performance in sunlight, and we should also expect battery life to improve with generational iterations.

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 in 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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Tags gadgetsconsumer electronicsSamsung ElectronicsAndroid Wearsmartwatch

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