Samsung Galaxy Gear impressions: Not bad if you have a Galaxy device

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect much from Samsung’s new smartwatch. I figured we’d get another second screen that relies completely on a connected phone.

Having watched the Galaxy Gear unveiling and then getting some hands on time with an actual device, I think it’s safe to say that Samsung’s first smartwatch effort is better than I expected overall because of some additional hardware components and software features. But there’s a catch.

The device is both a second screen for your smartphone — your Samsung Galaxy smartphone, that is — and can also run standalone apps. Some of Samsung’s TouchWiz features have migrated from the phones to the watch: Think S-Voice and S-Translate.

The watch itself is still a bit bulky in my opinion but it’s not as bad as I thought. What made it worse in the demo area was that all of the watches had an extra piece on the back so they could be tethered to the tables. Remove that part (the light gray bit with the metal buckle) and you can see the watch is fairly thin for a full display running Android(s goog) on the wrist. It’s also relatively light.

Galaxy Gear side

The face isn’t too big either. Here’s a shot of the watch on my wrist next to my daily timepiece, a Mondaine quartz watch. Note that I’m 5’5″ and weigh about 130 pounds, if that helps with the watch sizing. The Galaxy Gear is about the limit for my small wrist. People larger than me can certainly wear this.

Analog vs. digital

The display is bright, vivid and crisp. And the touchscreen seems very responsive in my limited use. I don’t like the fact there’s a button on the side to wake the screen but that likely helps keep the battery life at 25 hours, per Samsung’s claim. With an 800 MHz processor inside, the screen is likely the biggest battery drain. And you can expect that battery to drain quickly if you take pictures, which will tax both the screen and the insides of the Gear.

Still, it’s very easy and fast to snap a 1.9 megapixel pic. Just get to the camera app and tap the display. You can also share those images, which beam back to your phone, but I didn’t get a chance to try that.

Galaxy Gear camera

You can speak commands to the Gear watch through S-Voice, which again, works through the software of a paired Samsung smartphone. Want to record a memo or book an appointment by speaking? No problem, although the microphone is on the opposite side of the display. I’d like to test the how well it can pick up your voice around ambient noise. In our demo, the tester had to shout, but in fairness, it was a very noisy environment.

Galaxy Gear speaker

I didn’t get to try a hands free phone call with the Galaxy Gear, which apparently you can do. Since the watch is paired to your phone via Bluetooth, it essentially acts like a Bluetooth speakerphone. Of course, you can use the watch to dial a call on the display and it will tell you if you have an incoming call, which you can answer from the watch. The standard array of notifications from phone to watch are supported as well: email, texts and such.

A number of developers are announcing apps for the Gear: RunKeeper, Zite, Pocket, and Evernote to name a few. These weren’t shown off so it’s too early to say if they add value. And that’s going to be the key: What value does one get by spending $299 for the Galaxy Gear?

I actually won’t get any.

Why? Here comes the catch: At launch the Gear will only work with the new Galaxy Note 3 and Note 10.1 (2014 edition). Later, a software update will bring compatibility to the Galaxy S4, Galaxy S 3, and Galaxy Note 2. And that’s it for now. This is definitely a companion device but only for certain Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets. I did own a Galaxy Note 2 but sold it, and some other gear, for my new Moto X, so no Galaxy Gear for me. Or for many others. That’s a shame because their first impression is also their last.

Regardless, I’m impressed with the Gear overall. It basically takes the current smartphone expectations and packages them nicely in a useful device. I think the price is high, however, which may limit the potential audience even further.

Stay tuned because I have short video demonstration of how the Galaxy Gear works with the Galaxy Note 3 that’s on its way up to the cloud so you can see the smartwatch for yourself. And be sure to check out GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October, where Samsung Design America’s Head of Studio Dennis Miloseski will discuss his company’s evolving design philosophy around wearable technology.