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Is a Smartwatch for You?

Samsung's Galaxy Gear is here. Read our review

Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy Gear wearable devices, Is a Smartwatch for you? (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Smartwatch? Find out if this new "wearable smartphone experience" is for you.

En español | Samsung doesn't call its Galaxy Gear a smartwatch — the company prefers "wearable smartphone experience." But trust me: It's a watch, and a pretty snappy-looking one at that. This isn't some clunky, geeky piece of technology. It's sleek and even fashionable, available in six colors. The review device I tested sported a crisp off-white (oatmeal beige) wristband, and I was immediately impressed by its look and feel. With all that tech embedded in its band and body, it's still remarkably light and wearable, weighing in at just 2.6 ounces.

A key caveat to the Galaxy Gear — which retails for $299, double the Pebble's $150 price tag — is that it functions only in conjunction with Samsung smartphones, and just a few of them at that. The company says it will soon expand compatibility options, but for now it works with a handful, including the newly released Galaxy Note 3. Pairing is simple: Just tap the watch's charging buckle to the back of the phone and the two devices connect and exchange data via Bluetooth. From then on, you're good to go.

The 1.63-inch screen sleeps when not in use to conserve the battery; when the wrist is rotated toward the user, it automatically shows the time and local weather via a lively, bright AMOLED display. A swipe to the right reveals more functions: notifications, voice control, photo gallery, a pedometer, apps and a camera, among others. Swipe up and a tiny keypad is revealed: Touch in the phone number you want to dial and you can chat using the watch's built-in speaker. The built-in microphone is sensitive enough to pick up a normal speaking voice and the speaker transmits clearly even with an arm at your side — no Tracy-style, wrist-to-mouth motion necessary.

Of course, it's a lot more fun to control the watch with your voice, in true Star Trek/Dick Tracy style conjured up in those ads you've seen on TV lately. This is one of its cooler functions — the Gear understood and executed my instructions most of the time. You can make phone calls, add calendar dates, write notes, check the weather and open apps all by just talking to the watch. The only hiccups came while composing text messages via voice control. There's no easy way to make corrections without starting over again.

Notifications work well, though the frequent vibrations can be a bit annoying if you're receiving a lot of emails and texts. You can turn the vibrating off in favor of an audible alert, but that gets bothersome too. And you can turn off alerts entirely, but then you're defeating one of the main purposes of wearing the thing, aren't you? This is a hurdle facing smartwatch manufacturers: How do you make it useful yet unobtrusive?

The Galaxy Gear lets you read a snippet of an email on its small screen. Font size is an issue — you can increase the text size, but even at the largest size some users may struggle. You can scroll down to read more, or touch the screen to transfer the email to your phone, where you can read the full message and reply. Same goes for text messages, though you also have the option to text back via voice control.

Right now, app selection is limited. Some, such as Gmail and Twitter, work fine but are so-so in usefulness — for those apps you receive only a notice on the Gear; you still have to pull out your phone to read its content. Evernote, a note-taking app, meshed seamlessly with my other devices. One app, myfitnesspal, a calories and workout tracker, was more troublesome. I never successfully synced it up with the Note 3. Overall, the app integration needs work, and the app store could use more inventory. Samsung says that's coming.

The watch has a camera, and it's easy to use. The lens sits on the front of the wristband, so you simply point it toward an object, swipe and touch to snap a photo. Another touch sends the image to your phone. At just 1.9 megapixels, these are lower-resolution images than you'd capture on just about any current smartphone. By comparison, the Note 3 sports a 13-megapixel camera. The Gear's camera will do in a pinch if you're not carrying your phone, but these aren't likely photos you'll want to preserve. You can also take videos, limited to 15 seconds.

Battery life has been a complaint, but for me it wasn't an issue. I charged it overnight and never had a problem. My favorite Galaxy Gear feature is also one of its most basic: the pedometer, which automatically resets each day and tracks your steps. There's nothing revolutionary about it — activity smartbands like the Fitbit and Nike's FuelBand are cheaper — but it's pretty handy.

The Galaxy Gear is a step forward for wearable tech, but may not do enough to justify its price tag. For curious Samsung users, it might be worth a splurge. Others may want to wait for the onslaught of smartwatches headed our way.

Austin O'Connor is a staff writer with AARP Media.