I don’t plan on buying the Gear S, the newest of what is turning out to be an ongoing avalanche of Samsung smartwatches. The S’s differentiating factor is that it’s got built-in 3G: It can connect to a cellular network to download stuff like news headlines and email without requiring a mobile phone as a middleman.
It also lets you make phone calls–which means, essentially, that it’s a smartphone that happens to strap to your wrist. With it’s Jumbotronian screen (okay, two inches), it even looks like a wearable phone.
My pal Jared Newman has done a good job of detailing the downsides of the whole concept over at TechHive. Unless you’re Dick Tracy, you may not be comfortable holding a phone call by shouting at your wrist. Battery life is likely to be an issue. And if wireless carriers don’t tweak their shared-plan policies to acknowledge the Gear S’s existence, the monthly cost to use it may be imposing.
But when I grabbed some hands-on time with a Gear S at a Samsung event this week, the thing I liked most about it was the thing which many people may like least about it: the sheer enormity.
Smartwatches tend to be large. The Gear S is large even by smartwatch standards. It’s downright gargantuan in comparison to whatever old-school watch you might be wearing right now.
Comparing smartwatches to the conventional watches people have worn for over a century, and finding them comically oversized, is a logical gut reaction. But that’s a mistake. Smartwatches aren’t watches. They’re something new, and should be judged as such.
The Gear S has an onscreen QWERTY keyboard–an idea which seemed risible until I tried it and then concluded that it might be possible to tap out very brief snippets of text–such as responses to text messages–in a way that’s adequately speedy and accurate.
Things that involve images and blocks of text–like a feed of news stories–also make sense on the Gear S in a way they can’t on its svelter competitors. (There are multiple things I like about my Pebble, but anything that involves more than about eight words at a time is impractical.)
Now, I’m not arguing that there will someday be lots of popular smartwatches the size of the Gear S–though I wouldn’t rule out that scenario, as many skeptics would. The most popular device in the history of wearable devices is likely to be whatever Apple unveils–probably in less than a week. It wouldn’t be very Apple-y to ship anything bulky, and many companies will mimic whatever it does.
But the problem with all the smartwatches of this pre-Apple era isn’t that they’re too big. It’s that they don’t do enough things that are valuable enough to a critical mass of consumers. The moment some company comes up with a clearly utilitarian smartwatch, size will cease to be a conversation point–whether it’s surprisingly large, surprisingly small, or somewhere in between.