With Android Wear over six months old, one might wonder how the $199 Samsung Gear Live stacks up to its newer competition. To date, we’ve seen the $249.99 Sony SmartWatch 3, $249.99 Moto 360, the ~$120 LG G Watch, the $299 LG G Watch R and now the $199.99 Asus ZenWatch. What’s surprising is that the Samsung Gear Live still holds up well to its newer competitors. It offers rock solid build quality, good performance and decent battery life (compared to other Android Wear devices). But does its stalwart performance warrant a purchase?
Hardware and Specs
- Chipset: Snapdragon 400, 1.2 GHz single-core CPU, Adreno 305 GPU
- Screen: 1.63″ AMOLED 320×320 (278 PPI)
- RAM: 512MB
- Storage: 4GB internal memory
- Battery: 300 mAh Li-ion battery
- Dimensions: 37.9 x 56.4 8.9 mm
- Wireless: Bluetooth 4.0 LE (low energy)
- Weight: 59 g
- Water resistance: IP67
The Snapdragon 400 chipset technically includes a 4-core 1.2GHz CPU and the Adreno 305 GPU. It dominates as the chipset of choice for budget smartphones and all but one Android Wear (what’s a wearable OS?) smartwatch. In wearables, manufacturers disable three of the four cores – so while these are technically four-core systems, only one core works. To complement the CPU, Qualcomm packages the 400 series with a Hexagon Digital Signal Processor, which permits power-efficient voice recognition (among many other features). The Hexagon DSP makes it difficult for Samsung to leverage a custom Exynos chipset for Android Wear, without paying licensing fees to Qualcomm.
As of the end of 2014, Android Wear device manufacturers depend on the 400 series from Qualcomm. With the energy-efficient Snapdragon 410, it’s baffling why manufacturers haven’t yet moved to a better standard. It’s equally disappointing that Google discourages more energy efficient chipsets from entering the Android Wear ecosystem. As it stands, 1-3 days of battery life will remain the norm for at least the rest of 2015.
Aesthetics and Hardware
Unlike the LG G Watch, Samsung constructed the Gear Live from both metal and plastic. On its face, a brushed aluminum bezel surrounds the 320 x 320 AMOLED screen. On its rear surface, two plastic divots allow a the charging cradle to clip onto the Live. Unfortunately, the clips on my charging cradle snapped off immediately – which Samsung does not cover under its warranty program. The replacement charger — a flimsy piece of plastic — is priced at the near-criminal cost of $29.99, on Amazon. A quick perusal of the reviews indicate the replacement charger is just as weak as the original.
I recommend using a rubber band to hold the Live in place. The winner of this giveaway will receive both a rubberband and a broken cradle charger, at no additional cost!
Making Use of the Samsung Gear Live
The Samsung Gear Live implements a gorgeous, energy-efficient wallpaper. There’s two watch faces: One is multicolored and the other shows in black-and-white. The default display uses a Spartan, black-and-white layout. When users click the home button the colored watch-face overlays color on top. To date, this remains the best-looking – and most functional – watch-face design within Android Wear.
I would have preferred a red-and-black design for the permanently lit sections of the screen. White pixels on an AMOLED screen technically fire up three different color-emitting diodes, in order to produce white: Red, Blue and Green. Blue color emanating diodes possess less durability than green and red. Red diodes last the longest – which would make it the most suitable color for a persistent image. Also, red diodes require less energy by itself. Even so, the display looks great.
A single press on the screen turns on Google Now. Alternatively, users can use the accelerometers to flick the screen on and then speak the key words “OK Google” – this enters into voice recognition mode, in which the user can vocally input commands. There’s a long list of Google Now voice-commands (which continue growing). These fall into roughly five categories:
- Scheduling: Calendar and reminder;
- Communication: Social media, texting and phone calls;
- Entertainment: Music, movies, TV, etc…;
- Navigation: Google Maps;
- Google Search;
These five categories cover the majority of on-the-go needs of the average user. I found myself relying heavily on the Gear Live while driving – Google Now nails hands-free navigation and texting. Other devices offer the same functionality – for example, the Moto X can perform the same hands-free functions as an Android Wear smartwatch, with similar battery life. So why would anyone buy a smartwatch?
Think of it this way: You can turn any Android 4.3 device – including budget phones – into a Moto X. A good example would be the Moto G or E, which retail for below $200. Dampening this realization: The user need worry about the battery life of two devices, instead of one. Even so, a budget smartphone and a smartwatch costs less than the retail value of a $550 2014 Moto X.
The user experience between Android Wear devices remain near identical. While the $130 G Watch requires more manual interaction than the $200 Samsung Gear Live, the price difference between the two might justify going with the G Watch.
The Gear Live is no Pebble. Many users report getting a full-day of battery life out of the Gear Live. I received almost two days with ambient display turned off and a full-day with ambient display turned on. This owes – in part – to Samsung’s AMOLED screen, which allows black pixels to be turned off when not in use. Some may notice the G Watch and Moto 360’s similar battery life, with LCD screens; LG crammed a 400 mAh battery into its G Watch. The Moto 360’s battery life won’t last a full day with its screen turned on all the time.
All said, a day or two of battery life means that the Gear Live puts a lot more wear-and-tear on its battery. I found that if not charged daily, the battery could completely discharge – and remained discharged for extended periods of time. In the long-run, virtually all Android Wear devices will require a replacement battery. And none of these devices are user-serviceable.
Software and Applications
The Android Wear Operating System – a closed source derivative of Android – offers some of the same apps within the Google Play Store. Many developers pushed out half-baked Android Wear versions of their Play Store app. Most of these do not offer additional functionality, compared to their tablet and smartphone cousins. Users still cannot choose to install apps direct onto their smartwatch. Instead, apps install to a paired device, which are then pushed onto the watch.
More than six months after release, the Android Wear app library boasts thousands of apps. The most popular applications simply extend the smartphone app onto a smaller screen. The rest simply show notifications or allow users to read information from their app, directly on their watch-face. You can find a complete list of Wear apps, here.
The Gear Live’s OLED screen allows “ambient screen”, or when the screen runs constantly. This owes to its OLED (organic light emitting diode) technology, which allows individual pixels to exude light, while shutting off black cells. The drain on always-on OLED (or AMOLED) is reported to be 70-80% less than LCD screens, which require a backlight to constant run. An always on LCD screen consumes the same amount of power whether it displays blacks or whites. Technically speaking, LCDs consume less power while displaying whites, but it’s a minuscule difference.
One of the most useless features on the Gear Live: Its heart-rate sensor. The sensor uses the green-light method of measuring beats-per-second. This method has proven useless for tracking heart-rate while the user is in motion. As such, users can only check resting heart-rate because the design of the Gear Live doesn’t properly isolate external light, which interferes with the sensor. Do not buy the Gear Live if you’re looking for a fitness tracker. It can only reliably count footsteps (which most wearables can do anyway, such as the Basis B1 Health Tracker or the Basis Peak).
Samsung also configured the Gear Live to disable its accelerometers whenever the ambient screen is enabled – so you can’t just swing your arm up to activate Google Now.
To my surprise, the Samsung Gear Live still offers good value compared to the other Android Wear smartwatches. Its battery life, while not amazing, does quite well for a ~300 mAh battery. It holds up well because there isn’t enough differentiation between Android Wear watches to justify anything more than trivial price differences. For example, compared to the Asus ZenWatch, the Live falls behind a bit in every respect – but there’s no tremendous difference between the two devices.
The winner will be selected at random and informed via email. View the list of winners here.
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