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Originally published October 13, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified October 14, 2013 at 12:41 PM

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Gear watch no match for Dick Tracy model - yet

The wearable computing device does plenty of tricks but feels like a gadget Samsung released early to beat rival Apple to the punch.


Seattle Times technology columnist

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It took decades to figure out, but we finally know how Dick Tracy and Star Trek’s Captain Kirk were able to place calls with their amazing wristwatch-communicator devices.

Apparently our fictional heroes also had enormous smartphones in their pockets.

Their watches connected to the phone via Bluetooth radios, and calls went out on a wireless-phone network that costs perhaps $70 per month to access.

At least, that’s how the new Samsung Galaxy Gear “smart” watch works.

The Gear is an exciting new gadget that will help popularize wearable-computing devices, a category that’s expected to soar over the next five years.

It works better than I expected and does plenty of tricks to impress your friends and co-workers, like placing calls, displaying email and taking pictures and videos with a camera in the wristband.

But the Gear also feels a bit like a prototype — a work in progress that Samsung released early to build interest among app developers and beat its nemesis, Apple, to the punch.

The Gear also fails to live up to the promise of Samsung’s terrific TV ads, which show Dick Tracy, Captain Kirk and other characters using their super-duper watches. The ads suggest that we can finally buy something similar for everyday use.

The Gear is close, but not quite there yet.

It looks the part. Its case is about the size of a matchbook, with a 1.6-inch touch screen, and overall the watch weighs just under 3 ounces.

This is pretty big but reasonably sized for a watch packing the computing power of a circa-2010 smartphone or the PC your children may be using in school.

I’ve been testing one loaned by AT&T, which began selling the Gear last week for $299.

The price is a little misleading because you’ll probably need to buy a new, high-end phone to make it work. Samsung plans to make the Gear work with multiple Android-based devices, but for now it only works with Samsung’s new Note 3 phone.

The Note 3, with a 5.7-inch display and a stylus that slips into its leatherette case, is a nice option if you’re looking for a jumbo phone. But it also starts at $299, plus a service plan.

Once you’ve paired the Gear and the Note 3, they connect automatically when they’re within about 5 feet of each other.

Then you can receive calender and message notifications on the watch, though emails and even tweets are difficult to read because you have to scroll through them on the tiny screen.

You can also use the Gear as a remote control for the phone’s music player and record voice memos.

Photos and videos taken with a 1.9-megapixel camera in the wristband can be saved in the Gear’s 4 gigabytes of memory, stored on the phone and shared wirelessly over the phone network.

Battery life is better than a smartphone but far worse than a normal watch. My Gear ran for several days without needing a charge. To maximize battery life, the display goes to sleep frequently, at which point you can’t see the watch face.

Wireless charging or a simple USB plug would have been nice ways to juice up the Gear. Instead you clamp a plastic charging case around the watch and plug the contraption into a power source to recharge. This make the Gear less appealing to road warriors who don’t want to carry extra bits and pieces.

The watch has a single button, for power, but the button can be programmed to also launch apps with a double press. You can control the Gear with voice commands such as saying “cheese” to take a picture, though I couldn’t get them to work.

Mostly the Gear is controlled with screen taps or gestures, such as a downward swipe to close apps and a sideways swipe to scroll through its menu. This takes two hands — one holding steady, the other tapping the watch — for things that often take a single hand on a phone.

Gear apps can be loaded through a control panel on the phone. For now there’s a limited selection of mostly social apps — including the location-notification service from Seattle-based Glympse — and exercise programs that take advantage of the Gear’s pedometer capabilities.

You can access contact lists and dial calls from the Gear, then use it like a speakerphone. The call is placed by the phone, which remains in your purse or pocket.

Having this sort of auxiliary display starts to make sense if you’re carrying a jumbo phone and just want to place a quick call or check something, without having to extract and wake the beast.

Perhaps our phones will eventually become servers that store and stream data to and from our watches, glasses and other gizmos we’re carrying around.

Wearable-computing devices now entering the mainstream range from health and activity tracking bracelets such as Nike’s FuelBand and FitBit devices to watches that sync with phones or even connect directly to wireless networks.

Streaming digital information onto watches isn’t new. Microsoft dabbled in the category a decade ago.

But recent advances are igniting the category, including the latest version of Bluetooth radio technology that dramatically reduces energy usage and miniaturized sensors and mechanical components.

Curved and flexible displays are next, but perhaps even more remarkable are the shrinking processors.

The actual processor used in a wearable device may be smaller than the eye of President Lincoln on a penny, according to Charlene Marini, vice president of marketing for ARM, which designs and licenses the tiny microprocessors widely used in mobile devices.

These processors sit in a package that may be as small as a third of an inch by a quarter of an inch. Which explains why we’re starting to see computing in watches, glasses and other accessories for the fashionable geek.

What makes them “smart”? Basically the term applies to devices with a processor that can run applications and a full operating system, according to Marini.

Smart-watch sales are likely to be slow at first but climb rapidly, according to research firm IHS. It’s expecting fewer than 300,000 to sell this year, but millions to be sold next year. By 2018 annual sales should reach nearly 39 million units.

Over that same time period we’re likely to see other wearable devices emerge. Marini envisions computerized bandages or patches that monitor and transmit EKG and blood-pressure information, and perhaps industrial outfits embedded with sensors that monitor environmental conditions such as heat and gases.

Researchers at the University of Washington and elsewhere are looking into devices embedded into the body such as “smart” contact lenses and prosthetic devices.

Meanwhile, early adopters who can’t wait for the category and devices to mature will be surreptitiously checking their email and taking your picture by tapping on their wrist. Almost like on TV.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com



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