This week at IFA in Berlin Samsung revealed its Galaxy Gear smartwatch.
It features a 1.63-inch AMOLED touchscreen, a 1.9MP camera on the strap, 4GB on-board storage, 2 microphones, Bluetooth 4.0 and LE connectivity, pedometer and runs a variety of Samsung and third-party apps with an estimated 24 hours of battery life.
The watch has to be connected to a smartphone to utilise all of the functionality and – at launch – the Galaxy Gear will only work with the new Galaxy Note 3 and is being positioned very much as a companion device to the phone for now.
Some have suggested that the Galaxy Gear is a pre-emptive strike from Samsung against Apple’s highly anticipate iWatch. I personally think the device’s main purpose is to enable Samsung to shout “First!” when Apple does release its own smartwatch device.
It could well be a rushed device based on the hype surrounding Apple’s own rumoured smartwatch. It certainly seems that way as it is a typically feature-packed Samsung release without a lot of thought going into the actual use cases. It seems kind of half-baked and I think Apple will likely blow everyone else out of the water when they do come to market with their own device (like they did with the iPad). It’s bulky, has terrible battery life and tons of features it simply doesn’t need.
Samsung Galaxy Gear vs. iWatch 2010 (AKA iPod nano)
An article by Mike Wehner of TUAW sparked my interest recently in which he argued, in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, that Apple released a better smartwatch in 2010 – the 6th generation iPod nano.
They actually have a remarkable amount in common: screen size is similar, touch controls, pedometer, clock/stopwatch, music playback, among other things (many of which require a connected Galaxy smartphone to enable on the Gear) with the nano actually containing much the Gear is without, such as 16GB storage, swappable watchbands, built-in FM radio and, mainly, the fact that a companion device is not needed.
Of course, the Gear does things the iPod nano can’t, like the camera, voice control, third-party apps and notifications and more, although the price differential ($129 iPod nano to the $299) doesn’t seem all that justified.
Steve Jobs even joked that staff at Apple wanted to wear the nano as a watch when presenting it on stage in 2010. Apple pulling this form factor for the seventh generation iPod nano made me think that they may be opening up space for their own smartwatch. Having seen the success of the sixth-gen nano as a watch made possible by third-party watch straps. I guess we’ll see if that holds true.
I think Wehner raises a good point on the whole though. At those prices, Apple’s 3 year old offering doesn’t seem such a bad effort, although it’s not actually a smartwatch at all. Add Bluetooth capability to that device and open it up to some third-party apps and you’ve got something akin to the newly released Galaxy Gear.
What should a smartwatch do?
The real question in all of this though is what should a smartwatch actually do? I don’t think anyone really has an answer to this yet.
In order to warrant me buying a smartwatch, be it the iWatch or one made by any other manufacturer, it really has to have a use case. By that I mean it has to do some things better than my other devices can.
I don’t wear a watch (although I do have an iPod nano that served as a watch for a while) as I generally have my iPhone with me all the time and it is perfectly capable of telling the time. The idea of receiving notifications, making calls and voice control on a watch interests me, but not enough to spend hundreds of pounds on a new device. Theoretically the iWatch could also incorporate Passbook, built-in GPS for Maps and third-party app support, but I’d have to be convinced as to what the use case was in each scenario, rather than throwing as much functionality into the device just to see what sticks.
The iPad, for example, warranted a purchase for me personally, and for many others, because it enabled me to browse the web, use email, look at photos, watch video in a more efficient and enjoyable way than my other devices at the time.
Where I think the iWatch could really excel is with health features. The Galaxy Gear has a pedometer but nothing else to suggest there are health benefits to wearing it (third-party apps may change this). Apple has brought in fitness expert Jay Blahnik from Nike who was heavily involved with the FuelBand (which Tim Cook is known to wear and be a fan of) and they’ve also reportedly acquired employees, resources and technologies from notable biometrics firms who create health sensors.
I’m really hoping some of this proves to be true and the iWatch, or whatever it ends up being called, is health-focused.
Battery life is another concern I have. Powering multi-touch displays and all kinds of sensors is hard. We see that every day with our iPhones that need charging so often. It’s even harder to keep a product small and thin (like an iWatch will have to be), reducing the physical space for a battery, while maintaining anything close to an acceptable amount of battery life. The Galaxy Gear’s 24 hour battery life is a real drawback for me, and I’d hope an effort from Apple would at least get a few days of battery.
Having said that, we used to have feature phones that would last weeks on one full charge and we soon adapted to daily charging with smartphones, so maybe that will be the same for smart watches.
What features do you want to see in a smartwatch and what would sell the idea to you?
Design and price
It’s hard to design one watch, something considered as a fashion accessory, that can be worn by anyone. That’s why so many different watches exist. They are accessories and accessory preference is entirely subjective so the getting the physical appearance of the iWatch right is no mean feat.
In my opinion, the Samsung Galaxy Gear isn’t particularly attractive looking. It’s not the worst product I’ve ever seen, and it’s a nice departure from Samsung’s usual plastic devices, but it looks a bit too bulky and those visible screws are enough to turn anyone off.
We all know design is a department where Apple is highly-focused and they usually succeed in creating products that look great and work well. They’ve even hired former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve for “special projects” and his fashion experience would certainly be helpful in designing a great looking watch.
There have been plenty of concepts, some better than others, and I’m yet to see one that really grabs me. I’m hoping Apple nails the design, probably by showing us a design no one has thought of in relation to a watch, and leaves us all scrambling to get one.
I’ve put in a slideshow of previous concepts. Let me know which you prefer or if you have any better ideas.
In terms of price, I believe the iWatch will have to be priced competitively as it will be a companion device of sorts. It will hopefully work on its own for the most part, unlike the Galaxy Gear which requires a new Galaxy smartphone, but it will undoubtedly work better with an iPhone linked up to it. As it’s probably a companion device, it’ll have to be priced as low as possible in order to have mass appeal. Apple is known for being at the high-end in terms of pricing and maintaining a high margin on their devices so it will be interesting to see where Apple positions the iWatch in relation to the Galaxy Gear’s $299 pricetag (and in relation to Apple’s other product prices).
What would you like to see from the iWatch’s design and how much would you be willing to pay for an Apple smartwatch?
While I don’t think we’re going to see an iWatch next week at the Apple event, maybe not even this year, as there haven’t been any physical part leaks yet, it seems like Apple is setting up a team of people who could quite easily create a device in this market some time soon.
It’s certainly an area of intense interest in the market and the race to occupy the wrist is heating up. The next 6 months could be a really fascinating time as companies try to convince us that wearable technology is the next frontier in consumer electronics.
Do get in touch with your thoughts on wearable computing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Samsung Galaxy Gear and a possible iWatch in the comments and on Twitter: @adamoram.