Lavish Samsung unveils Galaxy Gear smartwatch and Note 3 in Berlin

Berlin, Germany

The music of Swedish pop stars Icona Pop and a symphony orchestra played as media and guests of Samsung filed in to the Tempodrom in Berlin for Samsung’s second Unpacked event of 2013.

The first in New York heralded the unveiling of the phenomenally successful Galaxy S4 and, although there had been flagship product launches by Panasonic and Sony during the media day at the IFA conference, the anticipation for this launch completely overshadowed those and other announcements in the build-up to this terrifically decadent event.

Samsung’s opening gambit was to show a video detailing how a book is bound; the craft involved in creating a media that is slowly being made obsolete by the precise products Samsung was about to reveal.

Master of ceremonies Jason Bradbury bounded on stage in an open-necked black shirt, stone grey leisure suit and enormous bright white spectacles.

While Apple has perfected the art of understated over-exuberance for its gadget launches, there was no such restraint here, as Bradbury crossed to a large crowd in Times Square, who screamed maddeningly for the new handsets like a football crowd cheering for a last minute goal.

“Back in 2012 we created a whole new category by launching the Samsung Galaxy Note,” a Samsung spokesperson said, behind a backdrop reading: Slimmer, Lighter, Larger, Faster, Longer.

This collection of positive adjectives was reminiscent of Apple’s marketing for the iPad 2: ‘Thinner, Lighter Faster, FaceTime, Smart Covers”. Samsung obviously doesn’t care for FaceTime but they do care for taking market share from Apple – both in tablets and smartphones, and in B2C and B2B markets – and the phablet for that is the Note 3, Samsung says.

To demonstrate the supposed power of the phablet and stylus combination, Samsung showed a video of artists doing arty thing with pens and pencils, and then showed those same practices, drawing pictures and writing music, using the S-Pen stylus on the Note 3.

It has a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED screen with a textured, stitched rear (Bradbury called it “leather” but that is not confirmed), and it is available in white, black and pink. The width of the handset is unchanged, and these attributes combine for quite a sleek device with curved corners and sturdy metallic elements.

Samsung’s answer to the Smart Cover is its flip case accessory for the Note 3, which will come in a large variety of colours, including some with a distinctive ‘metal glint’, and even some designer styles.

The new S-Pen is being promoted as a more precise, ergonomic and versatile device, claimed David Park from Samsung marketing.

Park demonstrated a new feature called ‘Air Command’, which is a new menu launch mode that can be brought up on the screen by hovering the S-Pen and then pressing the button on the stylus. Park then drew a box on the screen and that brings up a frame offering other apps that can used in overlay.

You could be reading you emails, and then want to look up a contact: you hover the S-Pen until a dot appears, press the button to launch Air Command and then draw a box to raise an app menu without exiting the email.

And then a beep interrupts the presentation and the new Samsung Galaxy Gear is raised to some considerable cheers. The Gear is a companion device for an existing Android smartphone that can, among many other things, tell the time.

The Galaxy Gear will come under a Samsung product stream called ‘Wearables’. Samsung says the design was to mix the fashion of traditional watches with science fiction. The watch’s fascia is made of stainless steel while the band appears more rubbery.

It has a 1.63-inch Super AMOLED screen, an accelerometer, gyroscope and pedometer. It has been designed to last 25 hours on a single charge and is immediately compatible with the Galaxy Note 3 and the new Note 10.1. Other leading Samsung devices, such as the the S3 and S4 smartphones, will require firmware update to be compatible — this is due soon, sources say.

There will be no cross-brand or cross-OS compatibility for the Gear. That limitation could prove a major draw for new consumers to the Galaxy smartphone range or a barrier to entry for those that want to stick with their non-Samsung brand Android phone or alternate operating system.

There are six band colours to choose from, mostly muted in design to complement the luxury of the brushed metal elements of the watch’s bezel.

Keep your Galaxy Smartphone in your pocket at the Gear will provide email and message alerts, make and receive calls, control media playback, and use Smart Relay, a Samsung feature to automatically synchronise your smartphone, for when you receive an email, say, that you want to explore further on the handset proper.

S Voice means wearers can ask their watch what the weather will be like, how their calendar looks and to start applications.

The feature Samsung appeared most excited about was the integrated 1.9 megapixel camera in the Gear, which does make it incredibly easy to take a quick photo on a very small lens.

The Gear has an 800 megahertz single-core processor, 512 megabytes of RAM and 4GB of storage. It is being promoted as dust and water resistant.

Gear will launch with access to the Gear App Store, which includes a range of well-known apps that have been specifically tailored to suit the much smaller screen.

All new Galaxy devices will be released on 25 September 2013 in 149 countries, it is safe-ish assumption that Australian will be one of those, and then worldwide in October.

“Following the success of the Samsung Galaxy Note range in Australia, we are excited to confirm that Samsung Galaxy Note 3 as well as the innovative new Galaxy Gear and the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) will all be launching in Australia soon,” said a Samsung Electronics Australia spokesperson. “Pricing and availability information will be made available closer to the launch date.”

One question not answered at the launch was how the Galaxy Gear would be sold: through the retail channel, the carrier channel or both. One Samsung insider said these details were still being worked out. At launch, the Gear will only be compatible with the new Note products — the existing smartphones require a firmware update — meaning it might be ideal to launch through the carriers as an upsell accessory and then later through retail.

Here is what the major Australian carriers had to say:

“Telstra is excited to announce it will range the new Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Gear when it comes to Australia. Pricing and availability will be confirmed at a later date,” said a Telstra spokesperson.

“Virgin Mobile Australia is pleased to announce it will be an official mobile provider of the highly anticipated Samsung Galaxy Note 3 when it arrives in Australia. Actually, we’re a bit excited about this one. More details will follow in the coming weeks around pre-orders and pricing,” said a Virgin Mobile spokesperson — notice there is no reference to the Gear?

“Optus today confirms it will be ranging the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 when it launches in Australia soon,” said an Optus spokesperson. “Customers can register their interest [at this website] to get the latest updates on pricing and availability for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.”

“Vodafone is committed to delivering its customers innovative new products to play with on their lightning-fast 4G network and is delighted to announce it will be offering the new Samsung Galaxy Note 3! Following on from Vodafone’s partnership with Samsung to be the first network in Australia to offer customers the water-resistant Samsung Galaxy S4 Active, we are all set to delight Vodafone customers all over again with this must-have device,” said a Vodafone spokesperson.

The scene in the theatre before the launch.

The Galaxy Gear is launched to some whoops from the audience.

Samsung shows off the S Voice feature for vocal commands to the Gear.

The new Galaxy Note 3 is revealed.

 

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