Samsung Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo hands-on

Samsung couldn't wait until Unpacked 5 to reveal the new Tizen-powered Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo smartwatches, updating the wearables will heart-rate monitors and more compact designs. The original Galaxy Gear caught our eye at its IFA 2013 launch but failed to set the smartwatch world alight, but Samsung is hoping more refined versions will. We spent some time with both models here at MWC 2014; read on for some first-impressions.

The old Galaxy Gear was well constructed but chunky, and Samsung's decision to integrate the camera and speaker in the strap meant you were stuck with the rubber band it came with. That's changed – for the most part – with the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, more streamlined and less distracting on the wrist, and now supporting regular 22mm straps.

Samsung will have a range of color options to pick between, and showed us several designer options, but the big deal is that you'll be able to fit your own third-party choice. That'll go a long way to making the Gear 2 more discrete, not to mention matching your outfit: whether that be a suit for the office or something more casual. Casual could even include your swimsuit, given the Gear 2 is now IP67 compliant for splashes.

Up front is the same 1.63-inch 320 x 320 AMOLED touchscreen, but inside the processor steps up to a 1GHz dualcore rather than the 800MHz single core of before. It keeps the Tizen handset moving swiftly, with the touchscreen still responding to taps and swipes; there's now a physical home button on the front, too, which can be used to jump into a preset app for easier access, such as the new onboard music player or your favorite fitness tracker.

The music player works with both the internal speaker and Bluetooth headphones, and the interface is as straightforward as you might expect for a display so small. Still, with only 4GB of onboard storage – and no way to add to it – you probably won't be carrying more music than needed for a run. There's also the ability to control TVs and other home entertainment systems with the WatchOn remote app, with the key features like volume, channel, and mute shown.

Samsung's decision to shift the location of the camera from the strap to the body of the smartwatch changes the way you frame shots a little, but it's still recording 720p HD at 30fps. It's the primary difference between the Gear 2 and the Gear 2 Neo, too, with the latter not including a camera at all. Ergonomically speaking, it's not the first way to record video we'd reach for, but it'll do in a pinch.

Gear 2 vs Galaxy Gear:

Maybe the most significant improvement over the first-gen model is the addition of a heart rate sensor. That, built into the underside of the wearable, allows the Gear 2 to deliver personal fitness coaching; it takes a reading every 90 seconds. Standalone, the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo can track heart activity, steps, running, and walking, but if you want anything more complicated – like cycling or hiking performance – you'll need to use a companion app on the Bluetooth-connected smartphone.

Strangely, though the switch from Android to Tizen was maybe the element most discussed about the Gear 2, in practice you don't really notice it. Samsung has ported the UI over, and the apps look for the most part the same, though side-by-side comparison shows some refinement of layout and interface.

The new OS means it'll be easier for Samsung to control the experience overall, however, and the company tells us that an open SDK will be offered to developers looking to add their wares to the 100+ titles already on offer.

As with the Galaxy Gear, we can't escape the feeling that the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo's success will hinge in no small part on their price. The original Android version was simply too expensive for many, especially given it demanded a Samsung Android phone to pair with.

The latter requirement is still there (though at least the updated versions will work with more than just one device out of the gate) but we still don't know how much either the Gear 2 or Gear 2 Neo will cost when they go on sale in April.