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Review: Galaxy Gear is fun, cool but not worth buying just yet [Video]

If you see someone speaking into their watch, they're not crazy or pretending to be a spy. They probably own a Samsung Galaxy Gear.

The South Korean tech giant released its $299 smartwatch in the U.S. earlier this month and has been spending some big bucks marketing the device, running dozens of full-page ads in numerous newspapers and multiple TV commercials, including one with soccer super star Lionel Messi.

You might have seen these ads, and if you have, you're likely asking yourself if this is another must-have gadget. Well, the answer is: not yet.

The Galaxy Gear is a nifty device and an awesome preview of what's to come with wearable technology. But as is often the case with first-generation gadgets, there's a lot of limitations with what the Galaxy Gear can do.

Let's start with how the device works.

The Galaxy Gear features a 1.63-inch touch screen. To navigate, users do a lot of swiping and give voice commands. To wake the watch up and show its main screen, users can tap its power button or simply raise their arm.

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The main screen shows a pre-selected clock. This can be a simple interface that looks like a traditional clock with hour and minute hands or something more modern like what I chose, which showed me the time in digits and had shortcuts to the camera, voice assistant and the settings menu.

Users can swipe left and right to see their "favorite apps," which include their photo gallery, pedometer, notifications and a few others apps. More apps can be added to the favorite apps menu using a companion app called Gear Manager, which users install on the smartphone that they sync with their Galaxy Gear.

One of the favorite apps is simply called Apps, and it takes users to a screen where they can find all of the apps on their smartwatch.

From the main menu, users can swipe downward from the top of the screen to quickly open the camera app. The downward swipe is also the motion used to go back when users are inside apps.

Another way to quickly get around the Galaxy Gear is using S Voice, which is Samsung's version of Siri. S Voice is one of the favorite apps on the Galaxy Gear. You can use the Gear Manager to set up the device so that you can simply tap the power button twice and launch S Voice immediately.

With S Voice, I could tell the Galaxy Gear to call a contact, text one of my friends or simply launch one of my apps. But I only used S Voice when I wasn't near too many people. For one, I didn't want to seem like the crazy guy talking to his wrist. And more importantly, S Voice didn't always understand correctly what I said in noisy environments.

Learning to navigate the Galaxy Gear and give it voice commands was easy enough, but there was a slight learning curve because the Galaxy Gear is designed differently -- for obvious reasons -- than a smartphone or a tablet.

The Galaxy Gear uses a rubbery band that is available in multiple colors and is similar to a regular wristwatch. The big difference is in the part of the band that faces away from the user. That's where its 1.9-megapixel camera is located. Another is on the latch of the bands. It doubles as the Galaxy Gear's speaker.

The frame of the watch face is metallic and features four noticeably big screws. The power button is located to the right of the screen, and to the left of the screen is a tiny hole where the mic is. On the underside of the watch face are five gold pins. These connect to the Galaxy Gear's charging cradle, which then connects to a USB cord. 

I personally liked the design of the Galaxy Gear. I think it looks cool, and looks like a slick wristwatch, not a geeky tiny computer. No one ever noticed that I had anything other than a regular wristwatch unless I started using it to take pictures.

I also liked the design because it seems to be durable. I dropped the watch at least twice, bumped it a few times just going about my business and I also washed my hands with it on, and it kept on ticking -- so to speak.

When it came to actually using the gadget, however, I really only focused on three main things: taking photos, making calls and sending text messages.

The whole point of wearable devices is to make tech even more accessible than before. Rather than pulling out your phone to do something, you can simply raise your wrist. That was certainly true with taking pictures.

Whenever I saw something interesting or simply wanted to surprise a friend, I just raised my arm, launched the camera app and tapped the screen to take a quick picture. Super simple.

The photos aren't going to get you any sort of award and they aren't better quality than what your phone can capture, but they're perfectly acceptable for Instagram. In fact, they're already cropped to be in the square shape used on the popular social network.

The Galaxy Gear also records 15-second snippets of 720p HD video, which is how long Instagram videos can be. These clips were also perfectly fine for quickly capturing moments and sharing them online.

To upload the images onto Instagram or other social networks, users simply find the photo or video they want, tap an icon on the top right of the Galaxy Gear screen and then hit "transfer" to send the file to their smartphone. The transfer time only took a few seconds.

I also used the Galaxy Gear for making phone calls.

The Galaxy Gear did this perfectly, and it was cool feeling like a spy for a little while -- but I prefer making calls on my smartphone. This is just because it can get tiring having to hold up your wrist and talk into the Galaxy Gear. The audio quality on the speaker is also very tinny, so it can be hard to understand what the other person on the line is saying.

I found the voice call feature useful while driving, but I could have just as easily put my phone on speakerphone or used a Bluetooth headset instead.

As for text messaging, the Galaxy Gear was great for quickly seeing what my friends sent me. If I wasn't in too loud of a place, I could also use S Voice to send a response. If not, I could tell the Galaxy Gear to open up the text on my smartphone and respond from there.

Other apps that I didn't use too much but others people will probably appreciate include the Galaxy Gear's pedometer, its stopwatch, timer, a voice recorder and the weather app.

But for me,  I couldn't find too much else to do with it. That might be because there are only a small selection of third-party apps, and there aren't too many good ones. That limits what you can do.

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For example, you can't receive email on the Galaxy Gear, nor can you quickly see tweets, Facebook notifications or use many other popular services that we have on our smartphones. Evernote and Path are two of the few that do have apps for the Galaxy Gear. In the future, many more apps may be available, but for now, I found the available apps to be of little value.

So the problem is what the Galaxy Gear can't do. Everything that it could do, it did admirably, and I had very few issues with it.

Even the battery life impressed me. Samsung said the device could get 25 hours of battery on one charge, which many users doubted, but I was able to go more than a day and a half. Granted, I used my Galaxy Gear lightly. But I was still able to raise it up dozens of times a day to check the time, as well as take pictures throughout the day, and it showed no signs of dying soon.

The Galaxy Gear would be a very good product, even with its lack of apps, if not for two major flaws: the number of devices it works with and its price tag.

For now, the Galaxy Gear will only function with the Galaxy Note 3.

Samsung has said more devices will be updated to work with the Galaxy Gear and future products will likely be compatible with it, but for now, users who want the smartwatch will also need a Galaxy Note 3 -- and buying both isn't cheap. If you get the pair from T-Mobile, for example, it will cost you more than $1,000.

Even if you buy the Galaxy Gear individually and wait for the Galaxy S 4 to become compatible with it, the smartwatch is still $299. That's a lot for a companion device. This isn't like buying a smartphone or buying an iPod Touch, which will work on their own. The Galaxy Gear only works if it can connect via Bluetooth with select Samsung products. It's essentially a $300 accessory for your phone.

That's why for now, I would only recommend the Galaxy Gear to techies, early-adopters and people who love gadgets. The Galaxy Gear is a nifty toy that's awesome to play with, but if you're a typical consumer and don't want to throw around your money, hold off. Wait until other devices become compatible with the Galaxy Gear or wait until the second generation of the smartwatch comes out.

Hopefully by then, the Galaxy Gear can do more than make you look like a spy.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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