Are Smartwatches any good? The Samsung Gear 2 Neo makes its case.

When Apple recently announced its imaginatively titled Apple Watch, many commentators said that this now validated the emerging technology. Certainly the fruit giant has been successful in opening up new types of device by taking existing ideas and making them much more comfortable to use. The iPad for example was the first truly user friendly tablet, but it was by no means the originator of the idea – Microsoft had its own tablet PC back in 2002.

With the Watch though it feels more of a risk. For a start it needs an iPhone to work, and if you have an expensive device already in your pocket do you really need another overpriced remote control on your wrist? Also, how functional will it be with only a small screen to work with?

It will be a little while yet before we can see how Apple has addressed these challenges, as the device is not due to be released until next year, but if we skip over to the Android camp there are a few examples already loose in the wild.



The Samsung Gear 2 Neo is one such device, and with an RRP of £169 it should be around half the cost of the impending Apple version. In a sadly similar fashion though you’ll need a Samsung mobile device to make it work. I can understand the principle of tailoring a proprietary system so that it melds seamlessly with its siblings, but this just continues the customer lock-in that music and app stores already promote. That being said, Samsung do sell an awfully large amount of phones, so chances are if you’re considering this device you may well already be in that eco-system.

The watch comes in a rather fetching orange livery (although more sedate options are available), feeling lightweight and comfortable when worn. I don’t have especially large wrists, and never thought of the watch as cumbersome, but this is primarily a man’s watch, and as such it would look slightly ridiculous on the slim wrists of gentle ladies. The screen is bright and clear, retaining just enough contrast to be read in direct sunlight, and automatically turns itself off when you stop interacting with it. This is excellent from a battery conservation point of view, but did mean that when you quickly raised your arm to check the time there was a slight delay as the watch sensed the movement and then turned the screen back on. Not a huge problem, more an idiosyncrasy of the new platform.

Setting up the device is very simple. Download the Samsung Gear app on your phone, turn on the watch, pair the two of them together via Bluetooth, and you’re pretty much done. Then you’re free to explore the various features presented on the tiny 1.6″ screen. Navigating around is actually very easy. You swipe left and right to move through the various home screens, tap on an icon to launch an app, then swipe down from the top to go back a step. It might sound fiddly, but after a couple of minutes it makes complete sense, which is a good thing. If you do manage to get lost then there is always the physical button under the screen which takes you back to the home page.

A decent start.


Of course for a smartwatch to be smart it needs to do something other than tell the time. The Gear 2 Neo manages this via several built in apps. There is a suite of health related apps, although they really amount to multiple pedometers optimised for different activities such as running, cycling and walking. A heart rate monitor is quite a fun addition, and the ability to link the Neo Gear 2 to fitness tracking apps such as Samsung’s own S-Health, and the likes of Edomondo expand the possibilities.

Communications options are also good, with the watch able to display text messages, emails, and show you who is calling your phone. In fact, thanks to the built in speaker and microphone you can ever answer the call and hold the conversation without your handset ever emerging from your pocket. This is handy for thing like cooking or driving, but if you’re on the bus then you might want to think twice before being that guy.

One, rather huge, caveat on the communications front is that you need to use Samsung’s own apps if you want to receive and respond to text and email. This is pretty poor, as one of the best things about Android is that you can replace stock apps with ones you prefer. So the Gmail app can’t be running on your phone (unless you want two notifications for every email) and if you prefer Google Hangouts or Textra for your SMS, that will have to go too. Presumably the reason for this is that the Gear 2 Neo isn’t actually running on Android, but instead Samsung has used its own version of Tizen for the OS. No doubt there are advantages on the programming side, but certainly not on the users’.


Apps choices aside, I have to say that having notifications on your wrist, ones that you can respond to with voice commands, is actually incredibly useful. If you suffer from phantom vibrations that cause you to constantly pull your handset out to see who sent you a message, only to be faced with disappointment, then being able to quickly flick your wrist instead is a wonderfully simple solution. Calls are also harder to miss, and there is nothing quite like seeing a text come in, tapping your wrist and voicing a response, then carrying on with your day. It’s a very James Bond moment. Voice searching is also cool, albeit slightly frustrating on the Gear 2 Neo, as Samsung’s default engine seemed to struggle to return results consistently.


There are a few other issues too; functions are limited by the small screen size, so reading anything longer than a very brief email isn’t much fun, many of the options to change settings are still on the handset rather than the watch, and you do have to add something else to your daily charging routine.

But, well, it’s a lot of fun.

Wearable technology is certainly being promoted as the next big thing, and with the largest technology companies in the world all jockeying for position, this seems to be an inevitable truth. Whether they are quite ready for prime time yet is still debatable. For £170 you could buy plenty of useful things, or indeed a very nice watch. Then there’s the usual caution of never hurling yourself on the hand grenade of first generation products. With all that in mind, it’s not easy to recommend the Gear 2 Neo unless you already have a newer Samsung phone, and are willing to surrender yourself to the default Samsung apps. If you fit that criteria though, and have the money, then it must be said that you would no doubt get a lot of pleasure using a device that makes each day feel a little closer to being on Star Trek.

I was quite sceptical about the first-world nature of wearables. Now…I think I’m convinced. Better start another savings jar. Man, the future is going to be expensive.

Redshirts – It’s a book, Jim!


There is a well known trope in Star Trek that if a character is seen wearing a red shirt (usually signalling their involvement with a security team) then the chances are they will be dead by the end of the episode. The notable exception to this being Scotty, who presumably uses some kind of warp engine technology to evade the fate that his scarlet threads promise. In Redshirts, John Scalzi takes this idea and runs with it. Actually he completes a hearty jog, the Great North Run, and several marathons if truth be told.

The general premise is that officers serving onboard the starship Intrepid have a very low survival rate when going on away missions. That is, except for the senior bridge crew who always make it home in one piece, or at least once the transporters have reassembled them. The reasons for these tragic deaths are often ludicrous, with people making uncharacteristically daft decisions that then lead to their demise. All this changes though, when a set of rookie officers discover the trend and try to rebel against it, inadvertently revealing the real culprit – a TV show written hundreds of years before, of which they are the unwitting stars. Now they must travel back in time to convince the writers to cancel the show before the Intrepid crew meet their inevitable, grisly, end.

Ok, it’s a fun idea. The settings, comedy deaths, and lighthearted pace all work together to make Redshirts an easy read. But, for me, it just doesn’t really live up to the premise.

Sure, there is plenty in it for Star Trek fans to enjoy, plus several affectionate nods to other classic Sci-Fi TV shows and movies, but after the initial novelty wears off, and the big idea is revealed, it loses a bit of its charm. In many ways it feels a little like a TV episode that’s been stretched to make a feature film, with the story not quite fitting the running time.

In early chapters, where things are just a straight-up parody, it’s a good laugh. Seasoned officers manage to disappear just in time to avoid being drafted onto away teams, while our heroes have to overcome the dangers presented by a variety of creatures whose origins were decided more by budget restraints than genetics.

The idea of coincidence runs firmly through the narrative, but too many times descends into simple convenience for the author. This makes situations easy to extricate the characters from without doing any kind of hard work, and leaves the reader a little cheated. It’s a shame, as there’s much to like about the overall story, with some very tongue-in-cheek moments that I’m sure William Shatner would appreciate.

It’s hard to be too scathing though, after all, it is a book about Star Trek being real in an alternative future while being written in the past. So, it’s always going to be a bit of a stretch.

If you fancy something light, silly, and don’t think too much about how it all hangs together, then there are certainly worse ways to spend a few hours.

Finally, a Star Trek in 3D that you should care about.

The internet has many things that cause the heart to race and wallets to cower. This is why the mantra ‘don’t shop drunk online’ has such power. But today I saw something that trumped all that had gone before. It was a chance not just to be living with the future, but actually travel to it…admittedly in a plastic shell.

Cubify is a company that specialises in 3D printing, a technology that is the current flavour of the month on many blogs. While many others are offering the chance to design your own phone case (something Cubify do too) the real jewel in the crown that stands this site apart from others is the new offer of having your face printed onto the body of a 3 inch Star Fleet officer. Yes, you can now boldy go and explore the final frontier, just so long as you don’t get too near the radiators.



The idea is quite simple. Take two pictures of your face – front and profile – then upload to the site. You can even select the body type you wish to occupy your new Trek uniform, but to be honest who’s really going to opt for a tubby replica of yourself when you can be the svelte hero that strikes fear into the hearts of Gorns and Tribbles across the galaxy?

A few intrepid explorers have already beamed their visage to the planet surface of Cubify and sent back interesting reports from their Tricorders.

Tech journalist Veronica Belmont posted the following image of her new avatar on her Google + page this week.

Veronica Belmont Star TrekWhile the chaps over at Engadget also transported themselves into the service with these two effigies.

Endgadget Star trek

So what does it cost to don the Redshirt of inevitable sacrifice? Well it’s a princely $69, plus postage, and at the moment we’re unsure if they ship to the UK. It’s not cheap, but then how often can you have yourself idolised in a porous material that should be kept dry at all times?

Oh and if Star Trek isn’t quite your thing Cubify also offer a variety of other figures which include superheroes, sports stars, and various professions. I don’t know about you, but I know what I’m asking Santa for this Christmas…

What would your figure wear if you could choose anything? Let me know in the comments below. 

The Future of Computer Interfaces: Voice Control

The last couple of years have seen a huge emphasis put on voice control interfaces. From Apple’s Siri to Google Now and the upcoming Google Glass project it seems that the future is definitely going to be a louder one. There’s no doubt that as these technologies mature they will become a central part of our interaction with devices, but they still have a fair way to go in terms of accuracy. Siri can be a frustrating device to use, especially if you have a heavy accent or even a cold. The anguish that the system can induce is wonderfully highlighted in the NSFW Youtube video ‘Apple Scotland – iPhone commercial for Siri’, which features a scotsman trying in vain to ask Siri for eating advice. The main challenge for the voice deciphering code is that it has to contend with many different factors while interpreting a user’s input. One company that has been working on overcoming these challenges on the desktop are Nuance, whose Dragon Dictate software is one of the most advanced in the industry. I spoke with them recently to discover just what it takes to write a voice interface that we can actually use.

‘Speech recognition is an extraordinarily hard computational problem’ explains Nuance’s Neil Grant. ‘Effectively you’ve got an astronomical search space. An example would be if you had a seventeen word phrase – which is an average length sentence – within a fifty thousand word vocabulary. It’s the equivalent of finding the correct phrase out of seven point six times ten to the seventy nine possibility. Roughly the amount of atoms in the observable universe. Now to put that into context when Google does a search to find a webpage for you, it’s searching somewhere around one times ten to the twelve web pages, so significantly less.

‘If you’re typing something on a keyboard it’s very simple, it’s binary – you either hit the keystroke or you don’t. With speech there’s far more variability in terms of accents, tonality, environmental conditions, background noise, and microphone quality. One of the ways we tighten that with the desktop speech recognition is that a user has a profile attached to them so the computer understands the nuances of the way they speak. The software can apply this data to achieve higher levels of accuracy, and the more you use it and make corrections, the more it learns and then applies those learnings to your profile.’


This dedicated usage is a significant factor that gives Nuance software its famed levels of accuracy. It also highlights one of the challenges ahead for the mobile software that many of us currently use.

‘Something like Siri is effectively speaker independent speech recognition’ says Neil. ‘ Now that means it’s not training a profile for you, certainly not in any great depth. You might use it on your phone then another family member might use it, so it’s dealing with potentially multiple speakers from the same device. It’s a much harder process and means it can’t set itself up in advance for a particular accent.’

Advances in noise cancelling microphones and the continued refinement of voice control software is seeing rapid improvements in all areas of the technology. Nuance itself offers iPad and iPhone versions of their software now, and the continued updates to Siri and Google Voice Search will no doubt push the software even further in the years ahead. Manufacturers are also beginning to incorporate the technology into newer versions of laptops in response to the ever encroaching influence of tablets.

‘One of the key specifications set by Intel on the new ultrabooks is embedded speech recognition’ says Neil. ‘So this is something that is absolutely coming through and what we will see is speech on these devices becoming more and more ubiquitous.’

One of the eye catching elements of Siri that Apple aggressively markets is the system wide integration of commands. Rather than a stand-alone app, Siri is able to control calendar entries, send emails, tweets, update Facebook, and play specific music to you, all from the same interface. For voice control to really make an impact on the everyday computers it needs to offer a similar level of depth. 

‘We can get very very deep’ Neil continues. ‘not only dictation capabilities but real command and control of applications like MS Office. For example a chap called Stuart Mangan, a rugby player, was involved in a tackle and broke his neck leaving him paralysed from the neck down. We effectively voice enabled his entire PC, to give him not only his email and documents but, through Nokia PC Suite, he was able text messages and make phone calls. He came back to us saying that we’d given him his independence and privacy back.’

The concept of voice control has been a staple of science fiction for decades, and the representation of communicable computers such as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even Holly from Red Dwarf, has been a constant reminder of the convenience and ease with which the interface could work – so long as the computer in question will acquiesce to opening the pod bay doors when you ask. There’s no doubt that this kind of interface is now more of a possibility, but as the way we interact with our technology changes what impact will this have on the systems of the future?

Jetsons Voice

‘A mouse and a keyboard are not a natural way of interfacing with something’ states Neil. ‘They’re a solution to a problem, and they’ve been a very successful solution, but the keyboard layout was designed to slow us down. Stephen Fry came out with a very good quote a couple of years ago where he stated it took less time to get your private pilots license than it did to learn to type at sixty words per minute. So we’ve got these interfaces we’re stuck with at the moment – the keyboard and the mouse – which are fine for certain things but for others there are certainly improvements that can be made. You’re starting to see prototypes coming through, the Google Glass project for one, looking at ultra-mobility – wearable computing – and there is a necessity to change the interface. As your devices become more and more mobile you’re not going to be able to carry a keyboard around. Obviously voice is the natural step for that.’