From the outside you'd think this was the same pair of wireless sports earbuds as last year's original – the design hasn't changed – but the focus on better battery life and the addition of voice assistant Bixby make these second gen buds an interesting move all round from Samsung.
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Samsung Gear IconX 2018: Design & features
As we said, this is an almost identical design to the original IconX. The 2018 edition weighs just 8g and comes in three colours: black, grey and bright pink. There's a charging case, good for one full charge and itself charging via USB C, that's smaller than last year's case and as before, a selection of wingtips to ensure a snug fit.
Touch sensitive controls on the outside of the buds allow you to control volume – by swiping up/down – and music playback, with one, two or three taps. There's 4GB per earbud of storage on board for music, but no offline Spotify playback here as on the new Gear Sport watch.
Also new for 2018 is holding down to activate Bixby, Samsung's voice assistant, which can link with your phone to carry out tasks. What's nice is that if you have a non-Samsung Android phone, this will work with other services like Google Assistant. Here's something that hasn't changed: the Gear IconX 2018 still only works with Android (4.4+) phones; no love for iOS yet.
The main reason to upgrade seems to be battery life. The new Gear IconX 2018 gets five hours of streaming music over Bluetooth 4.2 (versus just 1.5 hours on its predecessor); seven hours of standalone use, where music is stored on the earbuds, and up to four hours of talk time. When you consider the full charge from the case, this brings it more in line with, if not matching, rivals such as Bragi.
That's especially impressive considering the IconX 2018 still has heart rate tracking onboard. The first pair of IconX's allowed you to track your heart rate from your ear as you worked out and sync that to apps like Strava and MapMyFitness, and you get the same biometric smarts here. We don't know the battery with HR tracking on but we'll update this story when we do.
Samsung Gear IconX 2018: In use
I got to stick a Gear IconX 2018 bud into my ear for a brief demo. Sound quality for the voice assistant was clear and loud enough and it's worth noting that Mike had some issues with this when reviewing the first Gear IconX. His issue was not enough bass for tunes, though, so we'll reserve judgement till we test these out properly.
The smart earbud fit snugly and comfortably into my ear – one Samsung rep remarked I have small ears so make of that what you will. So far, so good.
Then I had a go at making a call with Bixby and it all went downhill. The new touch controls mean that if you press and hold one earbud, then wait one second then speak you can give the assistant a voice command.
You have to press it until you hear the jangly signal and as I'm used to other controls, I kept lifting my finger. Then I made a joke which Bixby picked up. Plus it also had trouble understanding both my command to "Call Michael" and the demonstrator's repeat command. (After a few tries, it worked and placed the call). That's all to be expected with quick, live demos in a noisy studio space though and I reckon it'd be super easy to get to know the controls over a day or two.
We didn't try out the new auto activity tracking or personal running coach features of the latest Samsung earbuds, but we did see them demo'd by a runner on a treadmill who got encouraging audio feedback as the music faded in and out.
Samsung told us this relates to pace – speed up, slow down – and distance – you've ran xxkm, you're nearly there – and not anything more advanced like stride length. You can also request "show me my latest running records" to get an S Health summary – including data from a Gear Fit2 Pro as above – up on your smartphone screen. The audio coach will be available in English, French, Chinese, Russian, Italian, German, Japanese and Korean to start.
Samsung Gear IconX 2018: Initial verdict
The original Gear IconX earbuds were affordable all-rounders that did a lot but didn't exactly break the mould. We don't know how much the 2018 earbuds will cost yet but we imagine it will be along the same lines – stay tuned for updates as Samsung holds its press conference.
Overall, what's on offer here seems to be what we were hoping for in the original. Samsung has corrected a bunch of, if not all, its mistakes and the big one is battery life. Now it just has to deliver when we test the IconX 2018 out for real.
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