Samsung vs Apple: The war turns to wearables

Samsung Gear Fit2 wearable band
Harriet Taylor | CNBC

With smartphone sales slumping, archrivals Samsung and Apple are fighting for leadership when it comes to wearables.

Samsung on Thursday stepped up its offerings with two new products: an updated fitness band called the Samsung Gear Fit2 for $179 and a set of wireless earbuds dubbed the Samsung Gear IconX, priced at $199.

Worldwide smartphone sales flatlined in the first quarter of the year, dipping to the smallest year-over-year growth on record, but sales of wearables jumped 67 percent, according to IDC. Though still a much bigger chunk of the overall market, smartphone sales are expected to grow just 3.1 percent this year, far slower than sales of wearables, expected to grow 38 percent, IDC says.

Samsung's Fit2 tracker aims to help consumers further untether from their smartphones and incorporates some smartwatch features — an area where many existing offerings fall short — stepping up competition with both Apple and market leader Fitbit.

The most significant update to Samsung's wearable band is its standalone GPS capability, which allows users to do things like map workouts and check pacing while out for a run. With 4G of on-board storage and a Spotify app, users can listen to songs without having to carry another device. The Fit2 has three to four days of battery life on average.

Like most fitness bands, the Fit2 tracks activity and automatically logs things like steps, sleep and heart rate. The device provides instant on-screen feedback, letting users know if they are within a target heart rate while working out and providing workout activity logs afterward, for example. Samsung has doubled the width of the screen and brightened the display to make it easier to see in sunlight.

Rounded edges are designed to make it more comfortable to wear, so users hardly take it off (it is water resistant). Samsung likely hopes this will help address a specific challenge: over time fitness trackers on average see an 18 percent decrease in daily use, according to a recent PwC study.

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The top reason people purchase a wearable is health, PwC found. Device makers are well aware of this and — as with Samsung's previous Gear products — the Fit2 and IconX work with the S Health app on mobile devices running Android 4.4 or higher, with at least 1.5 GB RAM. (They cannot be paired with Apple's iOS products.)

When paired with a smartphone, the band can receive text messages and send preset responses like, "Hey, I am for a run, will call you in 10!" It also syncs with a number of Android apps, such as Runkeeper or Strava, for fitness features, and Google Play Music or Pandora for streaming music.

Seventy-five percent of consumers like to listen to music while working out, according to Samsung. As with the Fit2 band, the cordless IconX earbuds feature 4G of on-board storage for music. They pair with each other and smartphones using Bluetooth technology.

"We have engineered these so the devices stay in sync," said David Ng, a Samsung Electronics America product manager in the wearables category. "There's no drop out" (something other wireless earbud makers have struggled with, according to The Verge).

Samsung Gear IconX ear buds
Harriet Taylor | CNBC

The IconX buds can be controlled by tapping and sliding to skip songs and adjust audio. There are two modes for different situations — an ambient sound mode that enables people outside cycling, for example, to hear environmental noise, and a noise-canceling mode for safe locations, such as at the gym.

The buds are light and fit a variety of ear shapes with three different sizes and colors. They are sweat resistant and, on average, have 3.6 hours of battery. A wireless charging case delivers two additional charges. When paired via Bluetooth with a smartphone, users can also answer calls, and as with the Fit2, sync with a number of Android music and fitness apps.

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The Gear Fit2 will be available for preorder on Samsung's website and at local retailers starting Friday and is expected to ship on June 10. The Gear IconX will be available by September.