This morning, hours before the world’s biggest mobile phone trade show, Mobile World Congress, opens in Barcelona, Samsung shot the latest salvo in the wearable gadget war.
Last autumn, Samsung had launched its first smart watch, designed to work as the ultimate companion device to a mobile phone: like Dick Tracy, you could use it to make and answer phone calls, read texts and emails on the watch screen, snap photos and videos and more.
Of course, you need your Samsung smartphone in your pocket for this to work – hence the term companion device. So not full Dick Tracy, then.
The Galaxy Gear, as the watch was called, was something genuinely new, though sales may not have been what Samsung wanted. Undaunted, the company has launched two more today, the Gear 2 and the Gear 2 Neo which is a cut-down version without a stills camera that makes it slimmer and lighter.
Both models have improved designs, including a slightly less industrial edge than before thanks to the removal of the chunky screw-fastening effects that dominated the first model. And the camera is now on the screen rather than halfway round the strap as it was last time. This made it good for taking photos without being noticed but still required nimble wrists to do so.
Of course, all this is really about Samsung showing again that it can lead the field with this kind of gadget. Sony has also released two smart watches and both companies are painfully aware that this year may, just may, be the year of the mythical Apple iWatch.
The iWatch is rumoured to be big on fitness, so Samsung has announced that the new Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo will both have a heart rate sensor and pedometer, though it may take the right companion phone to make these work. Since fitness gadgets like the Jawbone Up and Nike FuelBand SE have been big news in the last few months, this could be a neat alternative.
Will the Gear 2 succeed where last year’s model didn’t? It certainly needs improved battery life – Samsung’s announced specifications suggest it will. The minimum useful battery time is 20 hours so you can plug it in overnight. Let’s hope this new model beats that. Samsung says typical usage should give two to three days’ use.
More than that, though, the Gear 2 needs to catch the imagination, to prove that it’s an essential gadget that does things you really need. You can use it to control your TV, for instance, but most people will be happy to make do with their regular remote. Similarly, to read the time required pressing a button on the watch, or artfully moving your wrist so the gadget’s motion sensor turned the screen on, which wasn’t ideal if you wanted to discreetly see how long that interminable meeting was due to last.
Still, a slicker, faster watch with more functions, better battery life and above all a classy design could turn heads. The new watches are due on sale in April, with prices to be announced.