For the past week I have been using the Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and the Gear Fit health and fitness wearable. Both the Samsung GS5 and the Gear Fit highlight some of the ways Samsung is continuing to evolve. The biggest point to be made is how they are continuing to get better at software. But the other element of interest is how, as they ship hardware like the Galaxy Gear and now the Gear Fit, it allows them to learn and refine based on feedback they get. “Learning by shipping” seems to be something that is benefiting Samsung across the board.
With regard to the Samsung Galaxy S5, there are a few points I want to make.
Samsung has dramatically scaled back the amount of customization of Android they have done in the past. This current version, running Android 4.4, is very clean and much closer to stock Android than Samsung has released before. While the UI itself is highly refined, much of Samsung’s software customizations are subtle and feel like features of Android more than anything else. In Android 4.4, Google has adopted some new user interface themes. For example, the main application menu is available from an icon on the left in plain view. Samsung adopted this same menu UI for all of their apps allowing for a consistent feel across all the applications.
Overall the software is very clean and highlights again an observation I have been making — Samsung is getting better at software.
From a hardware standpoint not a lot has changed with the GS5 from the GS4. The screen has gone from 5 inches to 5.1 inches. The display is a super AMOLED display that is dust and water resistant up to 1 meter for 30 seconds. The 5.1″ screen confirms for me a screen somewhere in the 5″ range is the sweet spot for smartphones. It is pleasantly large, but not too large, yet also still usable with one hand in most key situations.
The camera on the GS5 has a few new features worth noting. The first is real time HDR. It allows you to preview your scene in HDR before taking the picture or video. Since not all pictures are needed or should be taken with HDR on, this was a nice feature to help gauge how to get the best photo. The other feature worth mentioning was phase detection auto-focus. This is usually found in high end DSLRs that focuses the lens extremely fast. When most consumers rely on the smartphone as their primary capture device, speed and consistency in quality photos are top priority. Most Android smartphones I try have terrible cameras yet Samsung has delivered a quality camera experience. I’ll add using a 5.1″ display as a viewfinder for photos and videos is extremely nice.
Samsung added a co-processor which is dedicated to controlling the display. This allows them to have several new power saving modes. One is a general power saving mode which puts the device into black and white to save battery. The other is ultra-power saving mode which brings up a custom UI with only a few applications available like web, email, phone, etc. and manages the radios much more intelligently. The use case for this mode is when your phone is literally about to die but you will not be able to charge it and need it to last. Samsung stated a phone 100 percent charged can last 12.5 days in this mode. This is likely to be a handy feature for the traveler or conference goer who frequently finds when they travel their phone dies much faster. Samsung also added a larger battery, going to a 2800 mAh battery compared to the GS4’s 2600 mAh battery. The key evidence for me? I have been using the GS5 for a little over a week, including a three day business trip, and the phone’s battery never went below 40%.
Lastly, I need to mention the fingerprint scanner. The iPhone 5s easily sets the bar as far as fingerprint scanners go. Other solutions I have tried barely work at best. The fingerprint scanner on the GS5 was more consistent than most phones I used if you operate it in a way most folks will not — with two hands. In trying to register a thumbprint while holding the phone in one hand, I had quite a bit of trouble. After a while I got it to register my fingerprint while trying it in one handed mode but it didn’t unlock often and was extremely inconsistent. However, if you registered a fingerprint while holding the phone in one hand and using your other hand to slide down the screen and over the home button, the consistency went up. It is much more efficient to unlock your phone with one hand so I consider this a necessity with fingerprint scanners on smartphones.
Samsung shared that their research indicated several key purchase drivers for consumers were the smartphone’s display size/resolution, camera, and battery life. Samsung met the bar with all three.
The Gear Fit
The Gear Fit is the best health and fitness wearable I have used so far. I say this for several reasons. First, it has a heart beat sensor that actually works and can track your heartbeat at a high BPM rate. Most heart rate sensors I try (that are not dedicated heart rate monitors) fail to track me over 120 bpm.
The other reason I say the Gear Fit is the best is because it also has built in notifications from the smartphone. Up to now, consumers have had to choose getting smartphone notifications via a smartwatch or a getting the benefits of a health and fitness band separately. The Gear Fit integrates the two of these nicely and I can see folks who value and desire the data of a health and fitness wearable liking the value of having notifications from there as well.
The Gear Fit also has the highest resolution screen of any health and fitness wearable on the market. I have a thing for bright, high resolution screens, so this was a nice visual addition to the health and fitness wearable solution.
When it came to the Galaxy Gear, Samsung’s smartwatch, I had always found several things interesting. The high resolution screen and the touch screen UI. By integrating both of these to the Gear Fit, I found one particularly interesting use case I had yet to experience on a health and fitness wearable. While it is convenient from time to time to be notified of something on your wrist device, it is even more valuable in many situations to have the ability to take action with that notification. For example, when an email comes in I find important enough to take action with, I can select the email and choose to show it on the device. Selecting this option brings the email up on the smartphone. By the time I pick the phone up or get it out of my pocket, the email was open and ready for me to take action. This was quite nice. I also like the ability to respond to text messages or incoming calls with quick message presets. Both those features exist on the Galaxy Gear but I found them to more valuable on a health and fitness focused device given the more common situations I was in, like exercising, where responding was useful.
Lastly, Samsung has built in some coaching techniques designed to help you meet your goals. Say you want to keep your heart rate above a certain BPM. The device will let you know if you need to speed up. Or say you want to keep a certain mile pace while running or walking. The Gear Fit offers many coaching options and is one of the more interesting features I used I had not encountered on another health and fitness wearable.
As I used the GS5 and the Gear Fit I felt a theme emerging. These two devices were better together. The tight integration between a health and fitness wearable and a smartphone was much more compelling than I previously thought. Because of this, I feel the Gear Fit is better viewed as a feature of the smartphone, which happens to exist as piece of hardware. The software working together on the phone and the wearable was very slick and I can see many who will use it will have a similarly pleasant experience.
I’ve also made a firm conclusion about wearables in general, both health and fitness ones and smartwatches. They must have a touch screen. Perhaps it is just me, but this was the single feature that increased the wearable’s usefulness overall. While I still struggle to see the killer application for both smartwatches and health and fitness wearables, I am convinced the touch element of the devices will play a role in whatever the killer application becomes.
Late tonight Samsung released some updates to the S Health app and the Gear Fit. The latest updates to the Gear Fit offer the option for it to be viewed in portrait mode, which was an issue with landscape view given how the device fits on the wrist. It also will do sleep tracking now and has some new watch faces for portrait mode. I haven’t had enough time to write about the experience but will follow up after more time with the updates.