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In Defense Of Ridiculously Large Smartwatches

Samsung’s Gear S only seems huge because you’re looking at it the wrong way. Look again.

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.

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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.

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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.)

A news story on the Gear S

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.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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