BLADE ILLUSTRATION BY WES BOOHER Enlarge
In the beginning, computers were the size of buildings. To use one, you walked into it.
Over the decades, they grew small enough to sit on a desk, then to carry in a briefcase, then to keep in your pocket.
And now we’re entering the age of computers so small we wear them like jewelry.
Just what kind of jewelry, however, has yet to be decided.
Will we wear our computers on our foreheads, as with Google Glass? Or will we wear them on our wrists, as with the new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch ($300)?
Samsung isn’t the first company to put a computer on your wrist.
There have been a bunch of crude early efforts: the Pebble, the Cookoo, the Metawatch, the Martian. But the world waits for an Apple or Google or Samsung to do a more coherent job of packing a lot of components into a minuscule space.
Apple’s iWatch is only a rumor. But Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch is here now. It’s ambitious, impressive, even amazing. But it won’t be adorning the wrists of the masses any time soon.
One big reason: It’s really only half a computer. It requires the assistance of a compatible Samsung phone or tablet; without one, the watch is pretty much worthless.
And right now, only two gadgets are compatible: the Galaxy Note 3 (an enormous phone with the footprint of a box of movie-theater Raisinets) or Samsung’s new 10.1-inch Galaxy tablet.
By Thanksgiving, Samsung says, it hopes to make its popular Galaxy S4 phone compatible, too; after that, the older Note 2 and S3.
But the Gear watch will never work with devices from rival companies; Samsung is trying to create an Apple-like ecosystem of Samsung gadgets that work smoothly — and exclusively — together.
The watch is huge, but it’s beautifully disguised to hide its hugeness.
You can buy it with a plastic wristband in different colors. You can’t exchange the bands, though, because important elements are built into it: a micro-speakerphone in the clasp and a tiny camera lens in the band.
The Gear looks and feels fine on your wrist.
You charge its battery by clamping it into a tiny USB charger — every night.
So what does the Gear do? A hodgepodge of random things. For example:
Tell the time: On your compatible Samsung phone, you install an app called Gear Manager. It’s the front end for the watch, like iTunes for an iPod. It’s how you change the watch’s settings and customize its features — and choose a watch face for its Home screen. (The watch’s sole button, on the side, always opens this Home screen.) You have a choice of various analog and digital displays.
Take pictures and videos: These aren’t what you’d call National Geographic quality. The photos are 1.9 megapixels and the watch holds only 50 of them. Videos are tiny and short (15 seconds long); you can’t shoot more than three in a row, and the watch holds only 15 of those. But let’s not quibble — it’s a watch.
But if you thought it was creepy that Google Glass lets your conversation partner film you without your knowledge, you ain’t worn nothing yet.
Find your gadgets: If you’ve misplaced the phone or tablet the watch is paired with, the watch can make it chime to help you find it. And vice versa.
Just be sure to lose them within 25 feet of each other. That’s the range of Bluetooth, which is what keeps the watch and device connected.
Auto-unlock your device: If you’re wearing the watch, you don’t have to enter your password to unlock the companion phone or tablet.
Alert you of incoming messages: The watch lets you know who’s calling, and even shows you text messages right on its 1.6-inch, 320-by-320-pixel touch screen.
Goofily, though, it can tell you only that an email message has arrived; it can’t show you the text. (It instead sends a signal to the device to display the message there, which sort of defeats the purpose.)
Take and make calls: Believe it or not, you can make phone calls on the watch, via the phone in your pocket, if it fits in your pocket.
It actually works, and it means you can be hands-free in all kinds of life situations besides the car. The sound quality is truly impressive, considering it’s a watch.
But there’s not much volume. If there’s a lot of background noise, you have to hold your wrist up to your head.
You thought Bluetooth earpieces made people looked deranged, walking down the street talking to themselves? Don’t look now. If Samsung has its way, everybody will walk around talking into their sleeves like Secret Service agents.
Control music playback: Your remote is now strapped to your wrist.
Run apps: There aren’t many, but there’s real promise here. The Vivino app lets you photograph a wine bottle’s label; the watch’s readout shows you the wine’s name and rating (usually). The Evernote app lets you take pictures and record sound snippets that get wirelessly synced to your phones and computers.
RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal (and the built-in Pedometer) track your fitness. There’s a Twitter feed reader that doesn’t work, and a crude Facebook reader app that shows you the text of each post but requires you to look at your device to see the photo. (If you have to hold your device, why bother with the watch?)
Let’s admit it: That is an absolutely unbelievable list of features for a watch. If you’d showed this to someone in 1980, they would have fallen down and worshipped you as a god.
But just throwing a bunch of trees into a pit doesn’t make it a log cabin. And Samsung, sooner or later, will learn that it can’t build a coherent device just by throwing features at it.
The Gear is a human-interface train wreck. All of it. The software design, user guide, English translations, and design consistency. (“Be careful not to damage your fingernails when you release the buckle.”)
The relationship between the device the watch is linked to and the watch is never the same twice. You wind up chasing the installation, login, and setup for each new feature all over Androidland, sometimes in endless loops of infuriating screens.
Nobody will buy this watch, and nobody should. But there’s something here under all the rubble. Sometimes the Gear can be liberating; sometimes it makes possible tasks that you can’t do while you’re holding a smartphone. We just need somebody to find the right balance of labor between the watch and its companion device — to figure out what a smartwatch should and shouldn’t be.
Once somebody nails that formula, the age of genuinely useful smartwatches will be upon us. They’ll tide us over until we start wearing our computers on our earlobes.