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Samsung's new smart earbuds track your steps and heart rate

Engadget Engadget 2/06/2016 Chris Velazco

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‚ÄčThe newly announced Gear Fit 2 is probably the fitness band Samsung should have made in the first place, but does the world even need another wrist-worn gewgaw? In case your answer to that is "no," Samsung is unveiling a second exercise-friendly wearable today: a $199 pair of smart earbuds called the Gear IconX. (And no, the name doesn't make any sense to us either.)

Samsung says the IconX is meant for people who have a more casual relationship with exercise (the Gear Fit 2, meanwhile, is meant for the truly dedicated). Still, that doesn't mean Samsung skimped on the fitness tech here. Each bud weighs 6.3 grams -- a hair or two heavier than a US quarter. The device tells you how far you've run, how fast you're going and how fast your heart is beating. Yes, there's a heart rate sensor built into these things. More importantly, there's a voice coach feature (which I didn't get to test), which is meant to help runners trim their lap times and surge into higher intensity zones.

I spent about 20 minutes pacing around a room while wearing the earbuds, and they delivered bright (if slightly spacious-sounding) audio throughout. The IconX has 4GB of internal storage, like the Gear Fit 2, though it seems immune to the sort of sound syncing issues I've experienced with other tiny Bluetooth buds. Usually, only one earbud is connected directly to the phone; the other connects to the first bud to keep audio playing at the same time. The thing is, that bud-to-bud connection can be weak, leading to audio dropouts while moving. Samsung's approach cleverly puts a copy of each song onto both earbuds. From there, it just takes a little software to make sure they're playing at the same time.

My ear canals are a little oddly configured, so testing in-ears can be a little tricky. It took a few moments to figure out just how the IconX buds were supposed to fit me. At the very least, they're not barrel-shaped like the Earin, so they won't roll away if you ever drop them. Once they're in, though, they didn't feel like they were going anywhere. As it turns out, that's pretty damn important since you'll frequently be tapping and swiping to control them.

Each bud has a sort of capacitive touch patch on it, and the gestures needed to use it are easy to learn. Need to change tracks? Double-tap to skip to the next one or triple-tap to go back. Changing volume can be a little trickier since you have to swipe up and down on such a tiny space, but the most important gesture is arguably the long press. That fires up the ambient sound mode, which is crucial for urban runners: It lets you hear what's going on around you in hopes that you'll cross Broadway without violently intersecting with an ambulance.

So yeah, the IconX is arguably more interesting than the Gear Fit 2, and we're really looking forward to its launch in Q3, later this year. The thing you have to remember is that battery life can vary dramatically based on your usage. Let's say you're just listening to music saved on the buds: The IconX will last for 3.6 hours on a charge. That estimate dips to 3.4 hours if you throw in some workout tracking, and plummets to 1.5 hours if you're streaming music from a phone with activity tracking on. Fortunately, the IconX's case doubles as a battery pack that will charge the buds from bone-dry to full twice. The potentially short battery life won't be a deal-breaker for some, but it's a reminder of the limitations of fully wireless buds. Still, I'm already sold on the concept. Now we just need to see if the IconX lives up to its promise.

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