If you use your smartphone for work, you know what it's like to miss an important phone call or email. Without question, Samsung's Gear Live smartwatch solved that problem for me, making it virtually impossible to miss an alert. Plus, the watch sports a sharp screen and a solid, relatively attractive design. It's also one of just two watches currently on the market running Google's new Android Wear operating system. But the Gear Live is far from perfect, and better options are on the horizon.
Should you commit to Samsung's watch as your new business companion? Do you even need a smartwatch in the first place? Read on for a full, hands-on review of the Samsung Gear Live.
The Gear Live is a smartphone companion, not a standalone Android device. Without a phone from which to pull notifications, alerts and other information, you can't even activate this watch. And if your phone is dead or too far away, the Gear Live's functionality is limited to telling the time and running simple apps like a calculator or stopwatch. Assuming you do have a compatible smartphone (just about any phone running at least Android version 4.3 will do), setting up the Gear Live is quick and painless. Just install an app on your smartphone, then wirelessly pair it with your smartwatch. I did this without hitch, in under a minute.
The Gear Live doesn't try to replicate the functionality of your smartphone. It runs on Android Wear, Google's new mobile operating system designed specifically for smartwatches. You can launch apps in Android Wear, but you'll have to dig through an out-of-the-way menu to do so — and that's by design. Google understands that apps just don't work that well on a teeny, tiny smartwatch display. Instead, Android Wear puts the focus on three main areas: Google Now integration, messaging and voice commands.
Google Now integration
Google Now is a personal assistant app that you might already use on your Android smartphone. It's designed to monitor your activity in the Google ecosystem, then push notifications and alerts to you before you even ask for them. For example, if you have a regular commute schedule, Google Now might alert you to bad traffic conditions on your normal route. Or if you're expecting a package, Google Now can find delivery notifications in your Gmail account and send them to your smartwatch.
Google Now notifications appear on the Gear Live in the form of "cards." Just swipe up on the display to navigate through each card, then swipe left to reveal additional information and other options such as "Send to phone."
Having the Google Now on my wrist made the service feel relevant for the first time; I almost never look at Google Now on my smartphone, but I enjoyed swiping through cards when they appeared on the Gear Live. Sometimes I even found myself wishing that Google Now cards would appear more frequently. But serious business users will appreciate that the service is unobtrusive, and, more often than not, the information it delivers is relevant and useful.
Voice commands are the second major way you'll interact with the Gear Live. You can activate Google voice search by tapping the screen once, or simply by raising the watch up to your face; it uses a nifty accelerometer function to activate the screen when you tilt it upward, which works flawlessly. With the screen on, say "OK, Google" to activate the voice command prompt.
The Gear Live supports a long list of voice commands. For example, say "Take a note," then dictate your note; the note will automatically save to the default note-taking application on your Android phone (you can change default applications using the Android Wear app on your phone). You can set a reminder by saying "Remind me to check my email when I get home," and you will then receive an alert when you arrive home. Other options include the ability to quickly check your calendar for appointments (say "Agenda for today") or even activate turn-by-turn navigation (say "Navigate to the nearest gas station," for example, or use a specific location). Voice recognition on the Gear Live is mostly reliable, and it's easy to quickly reset the command prompt if the device misunderstands you.
The third major pillar of the Gear Live's functionality comes in the form of messaging. Android Wear provides a worthy platform for receiving and sending messages, if you can deal with voice dictation, and you don't mind if a few words in your message are occasionally lost in translation.
There's no way to pull up old emails or SMS messages on the watch; the Gear Live is all about acting on new alerts, not checking old ones, and that's a good thing. My smartphone is already enough of a distraction; I don't need another one on my wrist.
You can also send emails and text messages on the Gear Live, but only via voice dictation; there's currently no way to tap out a message, and who wants to do that on such a tiny screen anyway? You can reply to a new email or text message by speaking your response. If you work in a quiet office, or you're just shy about talking to your electronics, you might not use this feature much. I also wished I got a few more seconds to read over my messages before the Gear Live fired them off. Though I loved reading messages on the Gear Live, I didn't love sending them. Instead, I pulled out my smartphone to reply.
The Gear Live will last through your workday and not much longer. With average use, the watch's battery was usually down to about 20 percent by bedtime. That means forgetting to charge it for even a single night reduces the Gear Live to a pricey bracelet. Speaking of chargers, the watch's charging cradle is actually just a cheap piece of plastic that snaps onto the back of the device. It's surprisingly difficult to attach, and so flimsy that I thought I was going to break it when removing it.
Of the two Android Wear smartwatches currently available, the Gear Live is easily the more attractive option. It sports a metal bezel that curves down into the wristband and lends a sci-fi aesthetic; the other option, LG's G Watch, has a chunky plastic face. Still, the Gear Live isn't exactly high fashion. Thankfully, the cheap plastic wristband can be swapped out for a new band. And good luck strapping the original band on in the morning; the awkward peg-and-hole design will leave you cursing, even with practice. If you're not keen on the space-age design of the Gear Live, consider holding out for the Moto 360, a more attractive smartwatch from Motorola that features a round face. It's due out later this summer.
If you're like me, you probably pull your smartphone out of your pocket dozens of times each day to check on incoming alerts. Having the option to swipe away notifications on your wrist is freeing, and the assurance that you'll never miss another important alert is worth the price of admission by itself. The Gear Live is a handy business tool, and probably the best smartwatch you can buy for now, if you can deal with its short battery life and cumbersome wristband.