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Samsung smartwatch is sign of changing times

BERLIN — Like many people these days I don’t typically wear a watch because if I want to know the time, I can glance at my smartphone. But I made an exception last week because I was on an overseas trip and needed to know the time on two continents. So I spent $18 for a Casio dual time zone watch that tells me the time here in Europe and at home.

But Samsung wants me to jettison that watch for one they announced last week at the giant IFA tech show here in Berlin.

The watch, named Galaxy Gear, consists of a large metal and glass screen with a large plastic band that comes in a variety of colors, including jet black, “oatmeal beige” and my favorite, “wild orange.” It’s not a stand-alone device, but a companion to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 smartphone that they also announced at IFA. At launch, the watch will work only with that phone. It’s set to go on sale Sept. 25 for $299.

With the phone in your pocket or purse and the watch on your wrist, you can take pictures and video, check your email and text messages and talk on the phone. You can also use the watch as a pedometer and — imagine this — check the time. Samsung is working with app developers to expand the capability of the product.

I got to spend a few minutes trying the Galaxy Gear, which isn’t enough time to pass judgment on all its features. For example, I didn’t get to see how the 1.63-inch backlit Super AMOLED display works in bright sunlight. What I can say is that it’s reasonably stylish for a watch with a plastic band and that the sound quality of its speaker is better than I expected, but not quite as good as talking directly on most smartphones. The interface, which involves gestures similar to what Android and iPhone users are used to, takes some time to learn, but people will figure it out.

My biggest complaint about this and all the other smartwatches I’ve seen so far is that the battery lasts for only about a day between charges. You can’t plug a charging cable directly into the watch, but it does come with a small docking adapter that — like most smartphones — connects to a regular Micro USB cable. Still, having to charge the phone daily and carry the adapter when you travel is one more thing to deal with every day. Casio claims that the $18 watch I’m wearing has a 10-year battery life.

My other issue is more of a question. Will Samsung’s Galaxy Gear or any other smartwatch solve a big enough problem to be worth its $299 price tag? Of course early adapters and techies will buy it, but will it resonate with people who may not feel all that bothered by having to take their phone out of their pocket or purse to make a call, send a text or take a picture? I can see how it might be handy when driving, if the phone’s voice recognition software performs as advertised and you don’t have to touch the phone to make or answer a call.

If wearable computing like this watch follows in the footsteps of smartphones and tablets, the real value will come not from the hardware, but from the apps it supports. There is already a pedometer app and the usual compliment of phone and contact apps, but it remains to be seen how many third party apps are written for this and other wearable platforms.

There have been consistent rumors that Apple (AAPL) is also working on a smartwatch, but no details have been disclosed regarding what it might be or when it might be announced. If Apple is to introduce a game-changer, it has to be something different from what Samsung is offering. I’m expecting that it will work with Siri to allow voice commands, but I’m also hoping for better battery life. I’d also like to see it include a TV remote control and perhaps controls for home automation and security systems. A big question is whether Apple will follow Samsung’s lead and make its smartwatch a companion to the iPhone or come up with a stand-alone device.

Of course, a smart wristwatch is only one type of wearable computing. Google (GOOG) Glass, with its small computer screen suspended from what resembles an eyeglass frame, is another way to put the Internet, quite literally, in your face. Over time we can expect a wide range of devices, including sensors that keep track of our vital signs as well as technology built into our clothing. Nike already has shoes with built-in sensors that send time and distance information to a smartphone.

The personal computer as we know it may be on the decline, but truly personal computers — ones that we wear and may someday even embed into our bodies — may be the wave of the future.