A few months ago, Samsung released the highly anticipated smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear (Gear). The Gear wasn't the first smartwatch to be released, but this was to be the one to break the flood gates on a market that is being set up as the hottest area in tech right now, aside from perhaps additive (3D) printing. After the first wave of fanfare, the reviews came in, and they were not kind.
Too expensive, limited to too few phones, and what on earth would anyone do with one of these anyway? That one sentence captures the sentiment of a large number of such reviews. Conclusion: Samsung created a flop.
Or did they?
These reviews turned me off from considering buying the Gear, and until recently, I didn't have a compatible phone anyway. Then, one day, I saw a person actually wearing the gear. And you know what? She really likes it. We talked about it for a while, I went back to many of those reviews and read the details, and despite rumors of a second version coming in a few months, I went ahead and bought one on a discount.
As it turns out, it's useful and I like it too.
What is so special about the Gear?
When I decided to make the plunge, I wanted it to do 5 things for me:
1. Control my music. I listen to music in my car and didn't want to use the phone to skip tracks or change the volume. The watch allows me to do that. And when the daylight lasts into the evening, I'll be taking walks around the neighborhood and using the Gear to control my music as I walk about. I have to keep the phone with me, as I walk, but I don't have to pull it out.
2. Use the stopwatch. I read to my son and I need to record how much time I read to him. This watch does that really well.
3. Get notifications from my phone. Now when someone calls or sends a text, I can see it on my watch. I can determine if I need to pick up the line or ignore it with a flick from my wrist. I can answer calls, and that works well with my Bluetooth headset.
4. Have a nicely designed watch that I would enjoy wearing. There are other watches that does what I described just above, from Sony and Pebble among others. But the Gear has the nicest design and the best screen of them all.
5. Make calls and texts from the watch. The Gear can handle this, and shines when paired with a Bluetooth headset or car stereo.
The Gear does all these things, and it can do more. Granted, the other things it can do are more of a nice little bonus than something you would want to use regularly, but it doesn't hurt that these functions are there. There's a camera that takes decent shots and can be taken quickly (you can have it up and running and take a shot in under 5 seconds), there are specialty apps for the device, and you can even make calls from the watch itself without having to use a Bluetooth device.
Regarding these latter features, many reviews focused on these and had a basis for deriding them. The camera isn't that great and would have reduced the price of the device had it not been there. Using the watch as a phone is actually quite stupid for many reasons, among them you look like a dork and everyone can hear your entire conversation. The apps for the device are limited and not that useful.
So there are legitimate reasons for not liking the device. But the things that the Gear does not do well do not get in the way of the things it does great, and all those negative reviews were too heavy handed in my opinion.
The Gear has its flaws, and it is a far from perfect device. The speaker is a bit weak, the music controller only works when I launch the app I want on the phone first, sometimes it can be hard to trigger the watch to light up (the screen is normally off to conserve power) even though most of the time it works with just a slight tweak of the wrist. There are other detractions that show this is a first serious stab at this type of thing, and not a mature product from a line of prior attempts.
Despite all that, I am happy to have bought my watch. Really, when it comes down to it, the only issue is the price for the value you get out of it. For me, it was worth it. For others, they just won't get the value they need. That's a fine conclusion, in my mind, even if I don't agree with it. But if you like gadgets, then I see no reason not to take the plunge. It's not that expensive and you can grab one now for $250 or even less.
I give the Galaxy Gear a 7 out of 10. It's a solid piece of equipment that sometimes is great. It's functionally useful, and it might even get better as Samsung opens up app development to outsiders. It's a little quirky to get used to at first, but it doesn't take much time to start enjoying the benefits. Unlike 3D televisions, this is a product line that will take off, and the Gear is a great start.
Note 10.1 2014 vs. iPad Air: Who Reigns Supreme?
Tablets have come a long way since 2010. For a few years, the joke was that there wasn't a tablet market, but rather an iPad market. While that was certainly true before, Android and Windows tablets have eaten into Apple's dominance, particularly on the backs of smaller tablets such as the Nexus 7. Now that we are on the eve of the holiday shopping season, the major players in the industry are releasing their latest tablets. After having cleared out my old tablets, I purchased Samsung's Note 10.1 2014, and then the iPad Air. Has the competition caught up with Apple? I put the two devices side-by-side to find out.
I am not going to go into tech specs, because they do not mean anything. As a numbers guy that's hard for me to come to terms with. Shouldn't a quad-core 1.9 GHz processor perform better than a dual-core 1.5GHz processor? By itself, yes. But it is the combination of many factors that determine tablet performance, so looking at the numbers is an exercise in futility. And the same goes for benchmarks tests. What matters are how the tablets handle the things we want them to do. This review, therefore, is all about the experience of using the tablets the way I use them.
What these tablets do equally well
Actually, almost everything. Both have great screens that make text easy to read and allows for more than acceptable definition on images and video. They share strong Bluetooth and wifi capabilities, and generally feature the same top of the line apps that most people use. For basic tablet use, you can't go wrong with either device. But are they close enough to call equal? Not quite.
What does the Note 10.1 2014 bring to the table that the iPad Air can't match?
Besides the snazzy title, the discerning feature of the new Note is its smart stylus. More precise and useful than any third-party stylus for tablets, you can draw and take notes on this device much better than what Apple can offer. For details about what the stylus can do, go to any professional review of the device; suffice to say, the stylus helps to differentiate the Note from the rest of the tablet market.
The Note also features an I/R blaster and apps to control the TV and cable box with useful guides and search features which are better than on-screen guides. The Note's speakers are farther apart, lending themselves to a better stereo experience than the iPad Air which has speakers along one side only.
What does the Apple Air bring to the table that the Note 10.1 2014 can't match?
The most notable feature of the new iPad is how light it is. I like holding my tablet in portrait mode which lends itself to being held by one hand. Both devices are light enough to do this, but the Note makes you more aware of its weight, while the iPad draws no attention to itself in that regard. The iPad also has a better design quality, with no lose parts. The Note has speaker grills and the I/R cover which both move slightly when touched. Although the Note's design flaws do not have any impact on the actual performance of the tablet, it can still be unsettling to know loose pieces are there.
The iPad also has a generally smoother experience on some apps. I noticed this especially when swiping pages on the Guardian Eyewitness or the Economist apps. For the most part this is not an issue on either system, but the Air is just a bit better. The most striking performance I saw between the two was around the Chrome browser. Loading up a live score from Soccernet.com, the iPad Air loaded so quickly I had to realize that it had loaded at all. The Note staggered behind, and actually brought up slightly older data. Ouch. This proved the biggest difference I could find between the two competitors.
Moreover, let us not forget about the smart cover, the least obtrusive way to protect the iPad's screen and provide a stand at the same time. I love the smart cover.
Things that are just different
So much of the gap between these two devices comes down to one's preference. I like the back of the Note because it leaves virtually no fingerprints. I tend to favor the Google Play store over iTunes for various reasons, but both are good at what they do. The same goes for the operating systems. Android stands out for me because it is more customizable and has live wallpapers, but really, they both have their charms.
I noticed that the fonts in many Apple apps tended to be larger than their Android counterparts were, but were equally legible. I surveyed 16 of my favorite apps between the two systems, and found 11 to be effectively the same on either device, 2 to be slightly better on Apple, 1 to be slightly better on Android, and 2 more that I like on Apple but which can't be found on Android.
It all comes down to this
As you have figured out by now, I have to call the iPad Air the winner here. While I can argue that the iPhone is just one of a handful of top-of-the-line phones out there, the iPad continues to stand above the competition in its product class. The gap is not large though. In the end, the iPad experience is just a bit smoother and more reliable. Nevertheless, since the Note has features the Air does not, I am happy to own both. I am expecting to hold onto these tablets for at least two years, eschewing the year-after-year tablet purchases I have made until now. That tells you what I think about these two tablets, that I have invested myself in them for the long haul (relatively speaking).