I am testing out the Samsung Galaxy Gear (a.k.a. “the Geek Watch”) and associated Note 3.
Let’s start with the health applications. The phone has a built-in pedometer and a “walking mate” app that says that I walked 6821 steps on this sedentary day (sitting in a meeting, sitting in a car, a 1.2-mile round-trip walk to a restaurant) and covered 3.4 miles. The app is part of “S Health,” which says that a 6′ tall male like myself shouldn’t weigh more than 169 lbs. (that was about what I weighed as a 15-year-old who regularly swam laps in the MIT pool). If I want to feel good about my body and lifestyle, though, I can just look at the watch, which says that I walked 11,000 steps and 5.3 miles (about 300 of those occurred at a 45-minute business lunch at which my companions will swear that I never left my chair).
How about messaging? My main application is Gmail and it would be nice to see new messages on the watch… except that one can’t. The only email that can appear on the watch are messages that get delivered to the “Mail” app, designed for IMAP/POP accounts. Text messages show up on the phone, which would be great if I were a teenager. Even for a teenager, though, it is annoying that even if a message has been read on the watch it still shows up as new and alert-worthy on the Note 3 (i.e., reading the message on the watch does not clear the “new message” alert on the phone). If you want to respond to a text message on the watch, you can do it with voice recognition (very unreliable) or a voice call. Why not a menu of canned responses such as “yes,” “no,” “will get back to you in 15 minutes” or whatever?
My favorite feature on the watch is that it can be configured to show the current time and date as well as the next event on any of one’s Google calendars (I could never get the iPhone to sync with more than one Google calendar). Unfortunately getting the phone to show the time involves either pressing a button (like on a 1970s LED-based digital watch) or shaking one’s wrist a bunch of times. Another good feature of the phone is seeing who is calling and being able to answer or reject a call by swiping on the watch (i.e., no need to pull out the phone when in a meeting). In a quiet environment it is possible to use the phone while speaking into the watch and listening from the watch and I have done some short calls that way.
You’d think that a watch would have wireless charging so that you could plunk it down on a night table at bedtime, but in fact it needs to be wrapped in a weird little plastic case that lines up with some charging pins on the bottom of the watch. Heading out for a trip? Better remember to pack this strange custom charger because the battery life on the watch is about two days max. The Note 3 also lacks wireless charging.
As the founder of photo.net and a moderately annoying parent-with-camera (results), photography is important to me. One thing that I liked about the iPhone 4S that I used for the last two years was that the camera was very responsive. It was possible to take a bunch of portraits in succession without a lot of shutter lag. The Note 3 has a camera that is comparable in basic image quality to the 4S camera but the software imposes unpredictable shutter lag and, oftentimes, several seconds of inaccessibility after a photo while a “processing….” pop-up appears over the viewfinder. The Samsung has some clever modes, of which my favorite is one that drives front and rear cameras simultaneously so that it is possible to send a postcard from a vacation with a big outdoor scene and a small inset face of the phone owner (captured by the front camera). As a practical photo tool, though, the iPhone 4S seems much better and the 5S is surely another world altogether. (The watch can take photos and videos but I haven’t played with it too much yet.)
Despite having pretty close to the world’s largest screen, the Note 3′s screen still isn’t wide enough for all of the little notification and status icons that are ever-present at the top. Is the watch connected? There’s an icon for that. Continuously displayed despite the fact that if you have your phone in your pocket and the watch on your wrist it is in fact always connected. Verizon adds its own layer of ugliness with a “Caller Name ID” application that proudly leaves an icon at the top of the phone screen if it was ever able to determine a caller’s name. Have Bluetooth and near-field communication enabled, as you’re pretty much likely to 24/7 if you use the phone as intended? Those will be permanent status icons up at the top of the screen. Because there is so much clutter on the status line I don’t know how any phone customer would notice an important notification.
The Samsung TouchWiz interface adds apps that run on screens that would otherwise be places to hold icons for launching apps. The phone comes preloaded with some of these “widgets” that are mostly just big adds for additional apps. Where users previously had to understand two modes of interacting with a phone, i.e., “interacting with operating system” or “interacting with app” Samsung makes them understand a third (“interacting with widget”).
The speaker in the Note 3 has a lot of distortion if you try to listen to music at a normal volume level. The ringer is not loud enough for middle-aged folks who carry the phone in a pocket. If you do manage to catch a call and hold the big phone up to your ear, whether or not you can hear the caller speaking is dependent on precise phone/ear alignment.
The Note 3 is spectacularly poor at holding onto a WiFi connection in my apartment. Though not a large place, there is a brick wall splitting it down the middle, which has lead me to operate two base stations, both with the same SSID. The Google Nexus 7 and 10 devices are very good at picking the stronger base station and switching appropriately if I walk around the apartment. The iPhone was good at this but not as good as the Nexus 7. The Samsung will go on and off the WiFi network every few minutes even if one is simply sitting in the same place in a part of the house where one of the base stations should dominate. Similarly, when carried right up next to a base station it will show just two bars of WiFi signal strength, telling me that it hasn’t been smart enough to switch (disabling WiFi and reenabling then shows a connection with full strength).
Returning to Android after a couple of years away is a startling experience in creeping featurism. The Nexus tablets are reasonably clean and simple to use, though I have come to prefer the iPad. But adding telephony capabilities and the extra Samsung software results in a lot of extra complexity. This phone was shipped from Verizon to me. Why isn’t there a simple standard voicemail section as there is on the iPhone? I’m supposed to download Google Voice and engage in some configuration magic and then it will maybe sort of work like the iPhone (except it won’t because the place that you go when you’re alerted to a missing call is nowhere near the place where you’d go to launch the Google Voice app)? When I switched from Android to iPhone I sorely missed the Back button that was off the screen on Android. But on the Note 3 and maybe on any Android the function is not always consistent. Worse yet is the “menu” key that lets you configure options and settings in some apps. I was trained on the iPhone that everything that one could do with an app was somehow accessible by touching somewhere on the screen. With Android this is true of many apps, but some apps have important settings and options that are accessible only from the off-screen buttons. These are easy to forget, particularly as they are not true buttons on the Note 3 and are often simply not visible (they are backlit when touched).
To end on a positive note (so to speak), I like the Samsung touch keyboard. It takes advantage of the large screen by showing both letters and numbers at all times, which makes it much more convenient to enter passwords, street addresses, etc.