6 ways Samsung needs to update the Galaxy Gear for Mobile World Congress

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A Samsung product announcement isn’t real until something infamous or awkward happens, but reliable signs point to the South Korean giant revealing an update to its Galaxy Gear smartwatch on Monday—and it’s an update that can’t come too soon.

Earlier this week, both The Verge and USA Today referenced anonymous sources who said Samsung will announce the second generation of its smartwatch at Mobile World Congress, with USA Today reporting that the Galaxy Gear will be ditching its Android code base for the open-source Tizen OS. I don’t have super-strong feelings about a potential Tizen swap, but I do know the confusing, feature-bloated Gear desperately needs a reboot. So, without further delay, here’s what I hope to see if and when a Galaxy Gear 2 is unveiled in Barcelona.

Improved speaker quality

In its TV spots, Samsung positions the Gear as a latter-day Dick Tracy watch phone, a gadget you can use to make voice calls from your wrist. Putting aside fundamental accuracy problems with S Voice (the speech-recognition assistant you use to summon phone numbers from your contacts list), the Gear’s poor speaker quality often makes for miserable conversations once you’re in the middle of a call.

The speaker lacks volume, and even if you have the Gear set to its maximum volume setting, it’s still too quiet to cut through the din of passing car engines, wind noise, and other ambient distractions. Worse yet, the speaker distorts when pushed to the max. I can’t imagine how Samsung will be able to get a louder speaker in such a small package, but if it really wants to nail the Gear’s signature feature, it will need to find a solution.

It's hard enough to get S Voice (pictured) to work. Once you're on a call, it's usually difficult to hear what people are saying.

Better battery life

Samsung says the current Gear’s battery life is good for 25 hours, but I was getting only about 11 hours during days of moderate, intermittent use. Eleven hours of battery life would be bad enough for a smartphone, but any successful smartwatch will have to do better.

Think about it: It’s simple enough to connect your phone to your car’s cigarette lighter or notebook’s USB port to top off your charge throughout the day. But do you really want to go through that rigamarole with your watch—removing it from your wrist and then wrestling with a proprietary Samsung power cable—every time you need more juice? If nothing else, Samsung needs to adopt a wireless charging system like the one Qualcomm deployed with its Toq smartwatch.

toq wireless charging Image: Qualcomm

Qualcomm's Toq smartwatch charges off a wireless mat. Simply toss the watch on the pad—no cabling required.

Less polarizing aesthetics

I don’t expect miracles in this area, but if Samsung wants the Gear to appeal to more women—let alone men looking for less techy-nerdy wrist wear—it will need to rethink the watch’s style. I would start by ditching the burnished metal chassis, and go with something darker, more sophisticated and less Geordi LaForge.

Pebble sets a nice precedent with its new Pebble Steel smartwatch in matte black. It looks more like a wristwatch than a blatant piece of modern mobile technology—and that’s what we need if wearables are to enjoy mainstream adoption.

Samsung Galaxy Gear (11)

Our wrist model wore the Gear, but not with much enthusiasm.

Direct photo sharing

When I reviewed the original Gear last October, I was most impressed by the watch’s camera functions. To take a photo, you merely glance at your watch face to frame the shot, and then say “cheese,” “smile,” “capture,” or “shoot” to activate the shutter with S Voice. (And in these cases, S Voice was a reliable performer.) Unfortunately, though, the system breaks down when it comes time to share photos.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to share directly from the Gear itself, distributing images via SMS, email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or even Google+. But, no, the Gear's images can only be shared via your smartphone, and that’s a serious quality-of-life issue that needs to be addressed in an update.

Snapping images with Gear: It's fun and easy! Sharing those images? No so fun and easy.

Be brave. Ditch third-party apps

Apps do more harm than good when they deliver a broken user experience. Indeed, when you’re dealing with a minuscule 1.63-inch, 320x320 display, it’s difficult to surface meaningful content and an easily navigated UI.

It’s been hard enough for Samsung to mitigate problems with its own homegrown Gear software—the home screen is a challenge, and Samsung’s homegrown apps aren’t very intuitive. But Samsung has even less quality control of third-party apps, and that’s a bad thing for the entire Gear platform.

So now is the time for a dramatic about-face. Samsung should value elegance and simplicity over a short-sighted desire to propagate its apps ecosystem by any means necessary. Samsung should kill third-party apps in its Galaxy Gear update, and focus instead on executing a short list of smartwatch features really, really well.

galaxy gear open

The Gear should have Twitter built directly into the system, as the Tweet QuickView third-party app is a bit of a mess.

Open up compatibility to the entire Android ecosystem

When the Gear launched last October, it was compatible with just a single smartphone, the Galaxy Note 3 (and without connecting to some type of smartphone, it doesn’t work at all). Today, the Gear only works with a small collection of Samsung phones—five maximum, and Verizon still only offers two Gear-compatible phones.

Sure, there might be a logical business case for limiting compatibility to Samsung phones. If nothing else, the walled garden approach forces would-be Gear users to join Team Samsung for the single gadget—the smartphone—around which everything else revolves. But for anyone using an iPhone, or a competing Android phone, or even an older Galaxy phone, Samsung’s Gear policy is a flagrant flip of the middle finger.

It's time for Samsung to support compatibility far beyond the Galaxy phone universe.

But who knows. Maybe if Samsung does ditch Android for Tizen, it will accompany the OS swap with a sweeping reset from top to bottom. A new operating system would certainly require some type of philosophy shift for third-party apps, and maybe Samsung will finally see the benefit of appealing to all smartphone users, and not just the Galaxy faithful. We’ll find out next week if Samsung is ready to make significant changes in a smartwatch that simply tries to do way too much for way too few people.

This story, "6 ways Samsung needs to update the Galaxy Gear for Mobile World Congress" was originally published by TechHive.

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