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Samsung Gear live Android Wear review

The wearables market segment is moving extremely briskly right now. I’ve read reviews from some writers that just don’t get it, while others clearly do. One of them said if you don’t need to buy a wearable (Smartwatch or fitness tracker), don’t, your better to wait. As a gadgeholic I can’t resist the temptation to play but be aware of the fact anything you buy now is likely to be obsolete in short order. Take for example the Samsung Gear 2 Neo or the Sony Smart Watch 2 I recently reviewed. By all accounts these devices are orphans, left behind by the new direction plotted out by Google, Android Wear. In the past hardware makers, and app developers had to code for a one specific watch/wearable. They are all running proprietary OS’s, and require a developer to learn their unique development environment. This means there is a learning curve, a barrier for each and every developer to get over. Google saw this as an issue and came up with a common set of APIs called Android Wear. This means that a developer can write their code and it can theoretically cover off a number of different watches making it easier for developers to jump aboard the wearables bus. Now while on paper it looks good, the reality is that the developers still need to take into account the vastly different hardware of the wearable. Round, square and even rectangular faces mean all this needs to be taken into account. Not to mention what sensors are and are not on board, heart rate monitor, GPS etc. Google Wear is the future direction for Android based wearables. That said, Android Wear (as should be obvious) is ONLY supported to pair with Android devices. So if you have an Apple iPhone, Android wear isn’t for you. And if your phone is older it may or may not be compatible. Android Wear requires Android 4.3 (according to this web site) or newer (and I think it has to support Bluetooth low energy).

One of the things you need to understand entering this space is that Android Wear is VERY new. They are really just getting started. And as much as you would hope Google learned lots from all the watches that have been on the market to date, IMHO, they have not. More to say on this in this blog post, but suffice it to say, there’s lots missing. Which hopefully is to say there’s more to come. One of the disappointing things with the Sony Smart Watch 2 and the Gear 2 Neo was the things the watches could have done that were never developed. Hopefully Android Wear will be a lot more successful with so many developers out there ready to innovate!

Ok with the lay of the land described let’s start talking about this device, the Samsung Gear Live. Comparisons with the Gear 2 Neo I own are going to be unavoidable, so I won’t even bother to try to not.
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The Neo is a lot more plastic, and all black on the face. The Live has a shiny bezzle that stands out a lot more. It’s a whole lot more noticeable on the wrist. This will appeal to some and not others. The button has been moved from the front (on the Neo) of the watch to side. If you didn’t know it’s there you could miss it. The optical sensor that is visible on the front of the Neo is invisible on the live. All in all I find the Live to be a much cleaner looking interface.

The watch band on the Neo had a safety mechanism to catch the watch if it became undone and a clasp that you did up. While the clasp was finicy on my watch it was solid once done up.
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The Live on the other hand has a two button knob that pushes into the rubber band and no safety. I found it quite difficult to get pushed in (and remember for the heart rate monitor to work it needs to be reasonably tight) and just did not have a good feel to it. I prefer the band on the Neo. Fortunately both watches use a 22 mm standard watchband so you can swap them out. Samsung also put a little nib on the pin making it easier to remove the watch band. This also means if you want to exchange the watch band you are going to need to buy some 22mm watch pins. Not a big deal but worth noting.

The proprietary charging dock for the watch is custom and then breaks into a standard micro-USB port. They did include a micro USB charger. Sadly this dock is different than the one for the Neo. An R381 for the Neo and R382 for the Live. The one for the live was more expensive than the one for the Neo but still cheap enough to have a second one on hand. Especially given the battery life on the Live. More to say on this …
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One of the limitations on the Samsung Neo is that it was only supported on a handful of Samsung phones. Android Wear is meant to work anywhere and I had no trouble pairing the Samsung Live with my Samsung S4, or my Samsung Note Tab 8. The Neo would not pair with the Note Tab 8 by the way. This is a nice step forward in compatibility. Yay!

The Android Wear interface is VERY different. It relies heavily on voice commands. Hold your wrist up, hopefully the watch wakes up, otherwise tap the watch, then say ok google, then your onto your commands. These seem to be predefined (no idea if more can be added) and include Agenda, Navigate (Google Maps), Set a timer, Set an alarm, Show alarm, Show me my heart rate (the Live has a heart rate monitor built in), Show me my steps, start stopwatch, take a note, send a text, send an email, remind me, play music (seemed to only work with Google Play music) and then to start out with the following are greyed out as in the functionality is not there: start a bike ride, start a run, start a work out, and call a car. You can add apps to handle this functionality like Strava/Runtastic, Endomondo for bike/run/workout. You can have multiple apps to control the functionality and define which app on the phone you want to handle for that command. The voice commands ONLY work when the paired phone is available. If it’s disconnected your onto the onscreen method. You can entirely use the watch with the onscreen method and ignore the voice commands if you want. Each of these commands show up on a text menu (who’s font is VERY small) that you can select. There’s also a start button for starting up apps manually that don’t fall into these canned commands. Each of the built in apps while functional lack a certain amount of pzazz. The visual neat fluff. Function over form. It feels kind of unfinished. The Neo had a icon based, smooth, easy to use interface that was slick and customizable. You could even change the background on the menus. Google has some work to do here.

In a Google now kind of way notifications, as well as information show up as cards on the bottom of the watch. Click it and it enlarges. Slide to the right and the card is dismissed. While this works ok, I find the font used in the cards to be so small as to be hard to read. And the most recent upgrade of Android wear broke text message notifications on my Samsung S4. When a text comes in a card comes up and says new message but when I click on the card for some reason (only on text messages) it does not show me the message making this notification broken/useless. And even if that part did work there is no way to reply to the text. The Neo had some canned replied you could do from the watch which I found handy.

Incoming calls display on the watch the the caller id, caller picture and an option to accept or decline the call on the watch. Accepting the call takes the call on the phone in speaker mode. So now your fumbling for your phone while your caller gets to listen to you as you rustle your phone out of your pocket, holster or whatever place it might be.

Built in functionality on the watch disconnected from the phone include time, date, count down timer, stopwatch, heart rate/pedometer (using Google Fit), and compass (yay!). Oddly you can only have one timer running at a time. And if you set a new one with one already there the first one gets deleted and replaced by the new one?

Missing from the watch include find your phone, find your watch, watch/phone disconnected, flashlight, calculator, calendar, local music (useless anyway), and local pictures etc. See below for the list of Android Wear Apps I like to see how I supplemented the built in apps.

As with every other watch to date, you can only pair with one device at a time and to move the watch between devices requires a reset of the watch. There is supposedly a third party app called Beelink that is suppose to handle this but I’ve been unable to get my hands on it.

The Live has an always on mode. In this mode the watch goes into a lower power display showing the watch hands and little else. When it detects you might want to read the time it brightens up. This of course takes more power. It can be turned off in the settings on the watch.

With the default watch face, and default settings after a little over 13 hours the Neo was at 73% battery life. The Live on the other hand was down to 35% with a projected battery life of 20 hours or 5%/hr. So battery life is less than half that of the Neo. Getting through a day is possible but not a whole lot more and if you were hoping to wear it while you sleep as a sleep monitor for example, your SOL. It took more than 2 hours to charge the watch so not a quick charge (same as the Neo by the way).
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As you can see there is an app that can display the battery on the watch from the phone. Something I felt was missing on the Neo. You can now also see the watch battery status from the Android Wear app on the phone. Including a graph.

Turning off always on mode helped. In 8.5 hours it dropped 35%, which would translate into 24 hours of battery life. A little more than 4% per hour.

Turning on Airplane mode helped a lot. In 8.5 hours it dropped 16%, which would translate into 52 hours of battery life. A little less than 2% per hour. Of course with the data connection dropped the watch looses a lot of it’s functionality.

Turning on theater mode (turns the screen off except when you push the button) drops battery consumption. In 7.25 hours it consumed 24% for a projected battery life of 30 hours. A little more than 3% per hour.

Turning Airplane mode on (disconnecting the watch from the phone) and turning Theater mode on dropped battery consumption hugely. In 8.5 hours it consumed a mere 9% or a projected battery life of 94 hours. A little over 1% per hour. Both modes are selected by dragging down from the watch face and across to the feature.

One of the modes that would be helpful would be a sleep mode. As you can see above a lot of battery power could be conserved if when put into a sleep mode theater and airplane mode were enabled.

Because the Gear live appears to have no speaker notifications are vibrate only (unlike the Gear 2 Neo). And because of this the alarm function is also limited to vibrate. If your a heavy sleeper and the watch isn’t on your wrist the alarm may or may not be enough to wake you. Making the alarm a less than perfect solution.

Google have talked about integrating the security of the smartphone with the watch. Using the watch’s presence to unlock the phone. This functionality may eventually come, but for now there’s a great app to do this called Wear unlock.

The number one limitation on this watch is Google fit which I recently reviewed. Google really have dropped the ball on this app. And sadly, Google Fit is the only way to get your pedometer data off the watch. And it seems to totally ignore the heart rate data from the watch aside from displaying it at the moment you take it. The pedometer shows number of steps which is then translated into the number of minutes you’ve been walking. No calorie count. No distance estimation nada. One can only hope Google will focus on this HUGE gap.

The pedometer as you can imagine is based on a sensor in the watch. There are lots of things that can throw this off. Put your hands in the pocket and it may or may not pickup your steps for example. Carrying something and thus your arms aren’t moving? You get the idea.

And Google Fit then is one app that interprets this data and uses it’s own algorithm to determine steps. Add another program (or watch face for example) that also display step count and this is a yet another program, and another algorithm determining steps. All this leads to widely varying numbers. For example. One day I carefully watched (pun intended) the numbers that came out of S.Health (running on the phone), Google Fit running on the watch, and Watchmaker also running on the watch. The step counts were 5132/6816/13461. Wow.

In comparison to the Neo there are a number of MAJOR functions missing. No sleep monitor. No manual activity tracker (walk/run/hike/cycle on the Neo). There are apps you can add to somewhat fill this hole but for a device that could be a more all encompassing activity monitor this is a disappointment to say the least. The fault for this lands squarely on the underwhelming Google Fit.

I looked and looked for a mode I could put the watch in for sleeping. Magically an update came the the watch and low and behold they introduced what they call theater mode. Drag down from the clock, then over and find theater mode. An odd name for it.

The font used on the watch is quite small. Even with my glasses I quint to read it, andsadly no way to change it.

There are over 250 items that come up on the play store for Android wear. So it’s off to a good start. Compared to the Sony Sw2 at 180, which has been in the market for a whole lot longer.

Fav apps:
Wear aware alerts you when you walk away from your phone, and immediately launches an app on the watch to allow you to find your phone!
Wear Battery Stats displays and graphs the battery level of the watch on the phone.
Find my Phone.
Swarm for Wear a Foursquare interface.
Calendar for Android Wear
Facer using Facer Repo for watch faces.
Mini Launcher an app launcher. No idea why Google didn’t think of this. It’s a little new so be patient with it.
Tockle a way of automating task on your phone that can then be initiated from your watch. Send common SMSs for example.
Heart rate watch face. I never found a way to do this on the Neo.
Endomondo is the best of the exercise apps that support Android live. It even interfaces with the heart rate monitor on the watch during your work out. Not quite a constant logging of your heart rate, but somewhat close.
Sports tracker also interfaces with the watches heart rate monitor and even has a sensor only mode.

So in the end the Gear Live is a good watch. Battery life is barely acceptable. And this is with it new. Is it better than the Neo? In some ways yes, some no. So at best it’s a wash. The Android Wear user interface is immature and clumsy. And Google Fit is at best a bad joke. But with the direction forged by Google it’s a good watch. And new stuff is coming out for it each and every day!

Some more reading on Smartwatches from Gizmodo.

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December 15, 2014 - Posted by | Android, Android Wear (Smartwatch)

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