Samsung’s Galaxy Gear marks official start to smartwatch war

Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch
Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch will come in a variety of color band options.

At a press event Wednesday in Berlin, Samsung revealed three products — the new Galaxy Note 3, the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the anticipated Galaxy Gear smartwatch. There are many smartwatches out there, including the Pebble and a handful of others. But Apple and Samsung currently dominate the smartphone market, and are expected to be the dominant players in the smartwatch business as well. Samsung is first to lay down the gauntlet.

message on a Galaxy Gear watch
A message on a Galaxy Gear watch, shown Wednesday on a screen at Samsung's launch event in Berlin.

Why a watch? For starters, because your phone is in your pocket or purse, right? So all that fumbling you do to see who's calling, all of the missed calls because you didn't hear your phone or feel it vibrate, all of the times you got momentarily lost because you didn't want to be the person staring at a phone as you wandered around a city, those small but common problems can be solved — technically — with a smartwatch.

Notifications and updates are also easier to spot on the 1.63-in. screen. "Get the news you've been waiting for faster," says Samsung's Think Tank director Pranav Mistry, who called the watch "wearable, comfortable and a little bit sci-fi." And the connection to the Galaxy phones make it easy to jump back and forth: Click on an email on your watch, and your Galaxy phone will be displaying the same email when you pull it out.

But the smartwatch is also equipped with a 1.9-megapixel camera. The "Memographer" software lets you "point your wrist and shoot," but also translates foreign language signs, and performs other augmented reality functions.

Galaxy Gear has a built-in 1.9-megapixel camera.
Galaxy Gear, demonstrated here by Samsung Think Tank director Pranav Mistry, has a built-in 1.9-megapixel camera.

It's got built-in microphones so that you can talk to your wrist instead of into thin air (like with a Bluetooth earpiece). Using voice commands, you can draft messages, create new calendar entries, set alarms and even check the weather.

There's a gyroscope and accelerometer so it can respond to your movements and track your exercise. It can go over 25 hours on a single battery charge.

There will be a Gear app store with lots of social, workout and location services already available, such as Path, Life360, RunKeeper and Phigolf. As of now, we haven't seen any mapping demonstrations, but that's surely a possibility going forward.

The catch, though, is that people have, little by little, been ditching their wristwatches. Is this the pivot point needed to make watches relevant again? Mobile industry analyst Jeff Kagan is bullish: "Samsung is pushing the innovation envelope," he wrote in a note to press. "This smartwatch will be as popular and successful as their smartphone and tablet. And it will all work together."

Galaxy Gear has a microphone
Galaxy Gear has a microphone tucked into the buckle.

The Galaxy Gear models will start at $299 and be available in October in the U.S. Band color options include "Jet Black," "Mocha Gray," "Wild Orange," "Oatmeal Beige," "Rose Gold," and "Lime Green." (Oatmeal? Seriously, Samsung? Also, since when is a mocha gray?)

At launch, Galaxy Gear is only compatible with the new Galaxy Note 3 "phablet," but Samsung says it soon will be compatible with other Galaxy smartphones.

Apple's rumored iWatch may have a curved glass screen, and Google — which has been focusing on Google Glass wearable computers — is also apparently working on a watch, to pair like Glass with its Android phones. 

Will Apple introduce its own smartwatch next week, at its press event in Cupertino, Calif.? It's not likely, given the lack of solid rumors, but you never know.

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Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.