“Samsung’s best commercial is for its worst product.”
That’s my nomination for best (non-Pocketnow) tech headline of the year, and it comes from Vlad Savov over at The Verge. The headline leads, by way of a link, to Vlad’s largely negative review of the Galaxy Gear, Samsung’s new smart watch. And while I’ve spent only a day or so with my own Galaxy Gear review unit, I already find myself disagreeing with Vlad’s conclusion. I don’t think the Gear is Samsung’s worst product, or even a predominantly bad one.
But -and here’s the interesting part- I think my opinion is due in large part to that commercial, or at least the feelings it conjures.
Let’s backtrack a minute: we first caught sight of the Galaxy Gear at IFA 2013, where Anton D. Nagy and I had a chance to go hands-on with Samsung’s first smart watch. We would eventually move on to compare it with the Pebble, but at this announcement event, it was all I could do to contain my surprise. In frame grabs leaked before the unveiling, the thing had looked heinous, like a Galaxy S III Mini strapped to a wrist. Even on-stage at the event, it looked oversized and cumbersome. But strapping one to my smallish wrist on the demo floor, I found it to be much more manageable than I’d expected.
Now, “manageable” is hardly glowing praise. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by some of what the Gear brought to the table, but my initial enthusiasm eventually gave way to a more pragmatic view as the weeks wore on. Sure, the Gear was sort of cool in a geeky way, but it still had “Samsung disease,” an overabundance of half-baked features packed into a rushed piece of hardware. It had lackluster battery life. It would only work with a handful of Galaxy-branded smartphones and tablets. And at $299, it was hilariously overpriced. I quickly found myself dismissing the Gear even before it arrived, patting myself on the back for going the Pebble route instead.
Then those commercials landed and, like Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, my life got flipped/turned up-side down.
Vlad’s right: these commercials are absolutely Samsung’s best ever. What’s more, they were made specifically to touch the hearts of people exactly like me.
Those who know me understand that a huge part of the reason I stumbled into tech reporting is because I’m a gadget nerd who grew up watching shows that fetishized technology, like Inspector Gadget and Star Trek (I’ve even written some about how modern-day people are living in Star Trek’s future thanks to contemporary technology). On top of that, like most other Americans of my generation, I’m also a nostalgia freak. So a commercial pandering to both of those soft spots is basically my kryptonite.
Samsung’s campaign has worked exactly as designed. It’s not only reignited my interest in the Gear; it’s made me eager to overlook the product’s failings now that I have one (it’s a review unit from AT&T, and we’ll be covering it properly next week). Of course, that’s the idea. It’s a well-worn, and a pretty transparent, scheme. But rather than feeling manipulated by the experience, I’m grateful.
The awesome part about tech writing, as the intro to every installation of my Empty Nest column reiterates, is being one of the first to test-drive new gadgets. But the experience isn’t without its traps. After a while, the constant torrent of new products landing at your doorstep can start to feel less like a blessing and more like a chore. The rigorous pace of the industry can wear you down. And the obligation to maintain a degree of objectivity can lead to taking unnecessarily critical views of products that cross your review desk.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that’s what‘s happened to Vlad, nor am I disagreeing with his review score. And I’m also not advocating the Gear be given a free pass; the “cons” section of my pre-review notes for the watch is actually quite long. What I’m saying is that this is a device with a 320×320 display, a 720p camera, and an 800 MHz processor driving a custom Android OS that talks to your phone – all packed into something small enough to wear on your wrist. And it’s backed up by an ad campaign that reminds us that the Gear is, in a very concrete sense, a fantasy come alive. There’s a reaction a product like this deserves, and it’s not “Been there. Seen that. Next, please.”
Should every gadget that packs a ton of features into the form factor flavor-of-the-week automatically be given a gold medal? No – otherwise every tech site would give 10/10 reviews to every black market ripoff ever made, and consumers wouldn’t have the faintest idea which products are worth their time. I’m absolutely an advocate of honesty over charity in reviews.
But I’m also a fan of maintaining perspective. And every so often, I think it behooves us to take a step back and realize that we live in a world where pocket communicators are a real thing, augmented reality is probably about to take off, and a gadget that a generation of kids raised on Dick Tracy once only fantasized about is now something you can buy at your local shopping mall.
And when a nerdy dream comes alive like that, we should acknowledge it – even celebrate it. No, the Galaxy Gear isn’t anywhere close to being the first, but it’s one of the most ambitious attempts ever to jump-start this new category – and its builder understands the target market better than almost anyone else. If that’s not enough to get we gadget-lovers excited, I wonder what it says about the state of today’s tech media.
Itching for more on Samsung’s latest wearable? Our own Stephen Schenck has a somewhat different view of the Galaxy Gear, and Joe Levi also shares some perspective on how it differs from the current media darling of the smartwatch world. Take those in, then share your own opinion on the Gear in our shiny new forums!