Forty-four videos and untold news stories later, MWC 2014 is finally on the cusp of winding down – but there’s still more to “unpack” from Monday’s Samsung event. After yesterday’s editorials on the ups and downs of the company’s recent moves with its flagship smartphone, today’s agenda starts with something much smaller: the Gear Fit, and how it might save Samsung from smart watch mediocrity.
First some background: I was standing outside the entrance to Samsung’s Galaxy Studio in New York City on Monday, waiting to be let in for the Unpacked press event, when a familiar person sighted me on his way into the building. He was a representative from Samsung’s marketing firm, and he said “there’s something in there you’re really gonna like.”
“Just one?” I asked.
“Well, one thing in particular,” he replied before disappearing, leaving me to ponder the possibilities as I waited for the doors to open.
After the announcement concluded and most of our video was in the can, I found my contact in the crowd and asked him if he’d meant the Gear Fit, which of course he had. And it turns out he was right on the money.
In the meantime let me paint you an imaginary video with the power of words: The Gear Fit is the most interesting thing I saw today.
— Michael Fisher (@Captain2Phones) February 24, 2014
That change wasn’t immediately evident from the other wearables on display. Samsung seemed to introduce as many negatives as positives in the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, the supposed successors to the under-appreciated Galaxy Gear. While the switchable bands and slimmed dimensions of the new watches are nice, the new screw-less casings are surprisingly devoid of personality, and the addition of a clunky home button hasn’t brought much added utility. The heart-rate monitor is a neat trick, but like its counterpart on the S 5, it will only be appreciated by the health-conscious. Overall, these watches seem to be mild iterations on a device that wasn’t well-received in the first place, which makes us wonder why Samsung was in such a hurry to announce them.
Contrast that with the Gear Fit. The room at the Galaxy Studio visibly perked up when Samsung’s JK Shin held his Fit aloft for the world to see for the first time, and the excitement only grew when he ran down the specs:
- 27g mass
- IP67 dust and water resistant
- curved 1.84″ S-AMOLED screen
- detachable band
- accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate sensor
- typical battery life of 3-4 days
Holding the Fit in my own hand only amplified my excitement. The curved display is beautiful, its tiny size masking whatever compromises were involved in its manufacture. The curve is not just ornamental; it’s also functional, letting the device fit the wrist much more snugly than a flat-faced watch. The device is impossibly light. The software seems more responsive than on the new Gears, and it fits surprisingly well to the stretched aspect ratio of the display. For a company not often celebrated for its beautiful devices, the Gear Fit is just that: beautiful.
Yes, on some level this is a fitness band – and if you look at it that way it’s far less exciting. Nike has done one. Huawei is doing one. Fitbit basically invented the category (and no doubt served as a jumping-off point for the folks who conjured up the Gear Fit’s horribly awkward name). Viewed through that lens, the Samsung contender might appear like something of a me-too product – fancy heart rate sensor or no.
The key to understanding the excitement behind the Gear Fit lies in seeing it as a smart watch – one with a very different form factor, yes, but a watch all the same. After all, the Fit still displays the time, still runs apps, and still delivers notifications via a Bluetooth 4.0 link to a compatible Galaxy-branded smartphone. On paper, its battery life is comparable, as is its imperviousness to the elements. Going from the Gear 2 to the Gear Fit, about the only things you’re sacrificing are the voice calling capability and the camera – hardly insurmountable losses for all but the most diehard of smart watch wearers.
The Gear Fit isn’t without its shortcomings. I have real concerns about its display orientation (wearing its screen on the inside wrist would seem to be key); I worry about how well its 210mAh battery will fare in the real world; and I continue to chafe at Samsung’s sensible but frustrating policy to limit the Fit’s compatibility to Galaxy devices. As I keep saying with regard to Samsung’s new hardware, we won’t know how good it really is or isn’t until we’ve put it through the full review process.
But the Gear Fit is an important confirmation that Samsung is capable of -and willing to- step outside its comfort zone when it comes to new categories. Even as the company devotes resources to iterating on an unpopular design with the Gear 2 series, it shows it’s willing to keep experimenting with this little gem. And judging from the early reactions, that experiment is paying off: taking a quick look around, it’s tough to find initial impressions of the Gear Fit that aren’t glowing.
For Samsung, the key lies not just in seizing upon this opportunity to demonstrate that it’s capable of the “surprise and delight” it so often attempts, but also to position the Gear Fit as more than a fitness device. It’s products like this which must become the core of Samsung’s smart watch strategy. Only then can the company fully leave behind the echoes of its embarrassing opening-salvo misfire just six months ago.