Samsung's perfect gym companion now even better with a refined design and longer battery life
Last year Samsung introduced the first of a new line of true wireless earbuds, the Gear IconX, providing buyers with a way to fully detach themselves from a wired audio experience. The original model proved particularly useful for the sports-minded among us although there were some compromises, the most obvious of which being the battery life. A year on and Samsung is back again with an updated version in 2017, although Samsung refers to the new version as the ‘Gear IconX (2018).’ The updated version is now available to buy from various places including Samsung, Amazon, and Best Buy and will set you back $199.99.
At present Samsung has yet to disclose the audio parameters of these new earbuds, however, what is clear is that they are designed to be feature rich. In addition to featuring support for headline aspects such as Bixby and a dedicated Running Coach, the Gear IconX (2018) are equipped with various sensors including an accelerometer, IR, and touch sensors, and are capable of tracking a number of aspects including calories burned, distance, duration, and speed. Likewise, the Gear IconX (2018) also come with support for nine languages at launch including English (US), Chinese Mandarin, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Spanish (US). Inside is 4GB storage (listed as 3.4GB) which Samsung states is capable of holding up to 1,000 songs at any given time.
Each Gear IconX (2018) earbud features an 82 mAh battery and is listed to offer up to 7 hours of usage. Although that number drops down to 5 hours when streaming audio over Bluetooth. In addition, these earbuds do come with their own carry case which can provide a charge while on the go. The case itself is equipped with a 340 mAh battery capacity. In terms of their physical dimensions, each Gear IconX (2018) ear bud measures 21.8 by 18.9 by 22.8 mm and weighs in at 8 grams while the combined weight with the case comes in at 54.5 grams. Lastly, for those looking for a more customized color, the Gear IconX (2018) earbuds are available in either black, gray, or pink.
In the box
Those deciding to upgrade from last year’s model will largely be presented with what is an identical unboxing experience. As in addition to the actual earbuds, the Gear IconX (2018) package includes a carry case, additional tips and wings, a quick start guide and a health and safety guide. One difference compared to last year’s package is the introduction of USB Type-C to the new model, as this results in some changes to the accessories with the 2018 version package including a USB Type-C to USB Type-A charge cable, as well as two USB adapters in the box - one for USB Type-C and one for microUSB.
Design & Hardware
If you own last year’s Gear IconX and walked in to Best Buy tomorrow and picked up this year’s model you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. While most products adopt some design improvements from one generation to the next, on first look, the 2018 version of the Gear IconX earbuds are identical to the previous version. They really do look very much alike but that is only on initial appearances. As the closer you look the more the differences start to become clear and while they are subtle differences they do highlight how this is more of a refinement process than anything else. For example, the large black panel found on the side of the original model has been shrunk significantly and is now located on the inside right beneath the contact pins (which are also aligned slightly differently now). This greatly improves the look and the symmetry of the design. This panel was previously used for two purposes - as a sensor to recognize when it is placed in the ear and as the means to capture and measure heart-rate. However, this version no longer offers heart-rate monitoring which may be one of the reasons as to how Samsung was able to shrink the size of the panel so much.
Another change comes in the form of the wingtip which is now far more user-friendly. Taking this on and off on the previous version was quite difficult and required a good amount of force each time. In contrast, the wingtip is now lighter, more flexible, and the earbud includes a tiny little lip which better helps to lock the wing tip in place.
Again, these are subtle differences, but ones which do highlight improvements to the design. Together, these small and refined changes have resulted in the dimensions also having slightly changed. While this is not necessarily hugely noticeable, it does result in the new model being very slightly smaller overall. For comparison, the 2016 version measured 18.9 mm by 26.4 mm by 26.0 mm and the 2018 version measures 21.8 by 18.9 by 22.8 mm. You will notice that the height measurements stated means the current model is taller and this results in the ear tip now fitting further (and therefore more tightly) into the ear - another positive change.
One area that has seen more obvious design changes is the carry case. Last year’s model was a fairly large case (compared to the size of the earbuds) and it seems that in spite of upping the battery capacity of the case, Samsung has managed to fit the tech inside a much smaller body this time. While it is a thicker case, it is probably about 30 to 40-percent smaller in length. The upside of this being that it now fits in the hand better and more naturally compared to the sausage-like shape of the previous model. Another design change relating to the case is the alignment of the earbuds - in the previous model these were horizontally seated and now they sit vertically. Which is likely another reason as to how Samsung was able to reduce the length of the case.
At the more functional level, the new case also includes a dedicated Bluetooth button on the reverse. This was absent in the previous version and really does improve the product as it is especially useful when the user encounters connection issues. By default, both the current and previous Gear IconX versions automatically enter a pairing mode when they are removed from the case. If paring for the first time this results in the earbuds immediately showing up on a device's Bluetooth list. While if they are already paired to a device then once removed from the case they immediately re-establish the connection and are ready to use. However, in instances where for whatever reason they are not linking to a device (or showing up in a Bluetooth list) then the button on the back of the case is a manual override which will allow the user to force the new model into a pairing state.
Overall, the 2018 model has largely stayed very true to the original version and still adopts a one-piece molded look where the ear tip cover and wingtip are the only removable pieces. So those upgrading will feel right at home with the new model as they literally do feel as though they are the same earbud, with the exception that they are that tiny bit smaller, and fit that tiny bit better into the ear now. These changes are so small though that you do have to be comparing the two to really see and feel the differences. With the exception of some very minor design changes which look to refine the design, expect a very similar level of presentation and hardware to what is on offer with the previous version.
Sound Quality & Performance
While sound quality is always going to be something that is of importance with an audio product (and especially one priced at this level), this was less of an issue with the Gear IconX line as the original version was a very good sounding set of headphones. Like that original version, the new version acts largely the same. In fact, when it comes to the sound quality this is seemingly one of the areas that has undergone very little change with the current model adopting a very similar output quality to the original model. Which is by no means a bad thing as the sound was certainly good to begin with. So those who are keen on the sound quality on offer with the original model can expect much of the same with this new model.
For those new to the product line in general, the sound quality is worth paying attention to. While Samsung is a company that has a wide product portfolio, audio is unlikely to be one of the aspects many primarily associate with the company. At least not compared to the likes of JBL, Pioneer, Bose, and so on. However, when comparing the sound quality on offer with the Gear IconX (2016 and 2018) to that of similarly-priced alternatives, Samsung’s option hold its own very well. The sound output is well balanced with the bass, mids and tops all coming through clearly and cleanly. If anything, the bass feels a little more rounder than it was on the previous version although not necessarily to any meaningful degree. The bass on the Gear IconX is not particularly noteworthy in general, so buyers should not be expecting this to be a bass-heavy output, just one where the bass is present - and certainly enough to balance out the mids and tops. Likewise, another positive with the Gear IconX (2018) - although another aspect that has not changed from the previous model - is the volume. Compared to other competing options (which max out at a low volume level) the maximum volume on offer with the IconX (2018) is great and likely more than sufficient for most users. These are loud earphones and ones which do not compromise on sound quality as the volume increases - which is one of the most important aspects to focus on. As the sound quality (including the bass) remains stable regardless of the volume level. Resulting in the IconX (2018) being a very capable set of headphones when it comes to their core purpose - music playback.
Again, like the previous model, this is an aspect which can be extrapolated out to the performance in general. Although the previous version was a first-generation product, its level of performance was astonishingly good. While this is something that many will automatically come to expect from a company like Samsung, it is still something the company deserves credit on. The current IconX (2018) model provides a very similar experience in this respect. These just perform very well and encounter very few, if any, issues.
Apps & Software Experience
With this being a Samsung product it will probably come as no surprise that the Gear IconX (2018) are highly connected earbuds. In fact, due to their rather minimal design, most of their functionality can only be realized through the use of an additional device, beit a smartphone or a PC. On a positive note, Samsung has continued to make these open earbuds so while there are additional benefits on offer from marrying them to a Samsung smartphone (and especially a 2017 model), they are compatible with any Android device running Android 4.4 (KitKat) or higher and equipped with a minimum of 1.5GB RAM. Likewise, they are just as compatible with iOS devices. To make use of the additional features one does need to download the Samsung Gear app from the Google Play Store. This is a free to download app and the same app many will already be using with other Gear-branded wearables.
Again, those who are familiar with the previous model will hit the ground running with this version as the Android app interface is pretty much exactly the same. At the basic level, wearers can use the Gear app to adjust the volume, apply an update, and so on. One nice addition compared to last year is how the user can much more quickly jump from music played via a phone to the music available locally on the earbuds. With the first-generation product this is a more time-consuming process as the user has to click through the settings before being presented with the option of where to play from. So it is good to see aspects like this having been improved upon in later releases of the device and the app.
Likewise the settings system remains the same (after all, this is still the same app) and so the user is provided with the capability of adjusting and tweaking various aspects including the audio settings, notifications, activating/disabling Ambient Sound, and so on. Although it is worth noting that again compared to this time last year when the original product launched, the whole interface of the app has been greatly refined and just looks more neater - although the layout is identical, the fonts, colors, and everything else is just more tighter-looking.
The app is also one of the ways in which you can transfer music to the earbuds for local playback. Although as this occurs over Bluetooth it can prove to be a lengthy experience. Therefore, it is better to think of this feature as one designed for those times when you want to quickly send one or two songs from your device to the earbuds - as it does only allow you to transfer one song at a time this way. For those who are planning on bulk dropping songs there are better ways to go about doing that. The first is to make use of the adapters included in the box. Samsung provides both a USB Type-C adapter and a microUSB adapter and these connect to the USB Type-A end of the charging cable. At which point the cable with the adapter allows the carry case to be directly connected to the phone, where the two products can then be used in more of a file manager manner and allowing for significantly more songs to be transferred at the same time. The other alternative is to make use of the Gear IconX PC Manager software, which as the name suggests is software which needs to be installed on a PC. As was the case with the previous model, once set up this software allows the user to drag and drop a large selection of songs/albums in one go.
Identical to the previous model, the software is directly available from the earbuds and accessible by placing the earbuds in their case, connecting the case to a PC, and opening up the earbud files. The application will be listed as one of those file options and can be immediately installed. While primarily beneficial for song transfers, this is also another option to applying updates and just generally health-checking the earbuds. So arguably it is possible to make do without the mobile app and just rely on the PC software and the Bluetooth connection for a standard headphone experience. Although most of the added value with these earbuds does come from that mobile app-based integration. For example, if you also happen to own the Galaxy S8, Galaxy S8 Plus, or the Galaxy Note 8 then Samsung has rewarded that tighter Samsung ecosystem adoption by enabling the IconX (2018) with Bixby support. So in addition to being able to control the volume, track selection and general playback, users can activate and initiate Bixby using the Gear IconX and make use of the various voice command features on offer through Bixby - including voice controlling the listening experience. This side of the Gear IconX is fairly simply to use as once set up all the wearer has to do is long-press on the active (right by default) earbud. Although if you are thinking of picking up these earbuds and do not own a 2017 Samsung Galaxy smartphone, don't worry as the IconX (2018) also support Google Assistant. In fact, this is by default the assistant that is set up with the IconX out of the box. So there is very little to do here to activate the feature - again just long-press the right earbud in the same way and let go when the “voice command” prompt is given. Regardless of which assistant is used, this is a feature which works very well on the IconX, and due to the way it is activated results in very little room for error. It will always work as long as the earbud is long-pressed and released at the right moment.
Another feature addition is the 'Running Coach.' This feature acts as an audible feedback system designed to keep you motivated during a workout and especially when running. So expect every so often for the coach to provide you with up to date details on a run (time, distance, calorie burned, etc) as well as some occasional motivational words. On the whole this feature works well and is very accurate when it comes to run data. However, the motivational aspect can be a little strange at times due to it throwing out some very random phases which add little value to a workout. Likewise, it also has a bit of an issue with the way in which it responds to your goals. Quite often for instance, it will tell you to slow down your pace simply because it considers you to be going too fast. Resulting in what seems to be the coach trying to lead the runner too much, instead of responding to the actual individual's actions. Although of course, this is an issue with the feature which although available on the Gear IconX (2018) is different to the product and so is not a criticism of the earbuds. Either way audio guidance during workouts can be toggled off and adjusted through the settings portion of the Gear app.
Samsung Gear app aside, those looking to benefit the most from the fitness-related features on offer with the Gear IconX (2018) will also want to download the Samsung Health app. Formerly known as 'S Health' this is again likely to be an app Samsung device owners are already familiar with. When it comes to the Gear IconX (2018) this is the device's route to visual feedback on exercise data. The Samsung Gear app will actually provide users with a brief overview of the latest workout (after the workout has been completed) but those looking for greater and more granular feedback will need to have the Samsung Health app installed and synced to the device. At which point the two apps (Gear and Health) largely work together by launching each other when the user clicks on a feature that is more relevant to the other app. While it can get a little confusing having to make use of the two different apps they do intersect and interact pretty well.
Overall, while most headphones nowadays do offer some compatible with an app, Samsung does take the experience to the absolute next level and is one of the clear differences between its Bluetooth earbud solution and others. While the Gear IconX (2018) earbuds do offer some additional features like Bixby and a Running Coach, the common factor here is the use of software to improve the experience. Yes, some of these will place a greater drain on daily battery life but for those looking for a more connected and feature-rich pair of headphones, look no further than these.
Battery Life & Connectivity
One of the biggest criticisms of the original Gear IconX was the daily battery life. While these were not earphones designed to offer great battery life to begin with, it was still quite underwhelming. For example, the previous version was more aimed at runners and gym-goers and that was fortunate as it was only capable of servicing those users on a per-visit basis - the battery was literally only good for about an hour at a time. As a result, battery life is certainly one of the areas where Samsung could have really made a difference with a follow-up product. And Samsung has.
On paper Samsung suggests this latest version will offer up to five hours when paired with a smartphone and streaming music over Bluetooth. While in standalone fashion, the Gear IconX is rated to offer up to seven hours of usage. Typically speaking, these numbers should be considered the absolute maximum - under very exacting and optimal conditions. However, Samsung was not joking when it said it had improved the battery life as the quoted numbers are pretty much spot-on. Buyers of the 2018 version can expect massively longer levels of usage off the charge. Which does suddenly mean that the Gear IconX earbuds are no longer just for the runners or the gym-goers, and not just on a per-visit basis. Making them an option which now better competes with other Bluetooth options from major brands priced at the same level. In testing, while last year’s model (streaming over Bluetooth while connected to a smartphone) typically offered one hour of usage and at the very top end 90 minutes of usage, that number easily does now extend to five hours. If anything, this is likely to be an underestimation as it was very difficult to purposely drain down the batteries any quicker than five hours. Likewise, for those looking for standalone usage, then while not as convincing, the Gear IconX were still able to run uninterrupted for six hours and thirty minutes on average. Furthermore, it is worth keeping in mind that these noted times are what is considered the absolute minimum buyers can expect, as the numbers are based on continued and sustained (one-sitting) usage and with contributing factors (like the volume) set to maximum. So if you are using these earphones (in standalone or Bluetooth mode) and not running them at their highest volume, then you should expect the battery to last even longer. Likewise, if you are making less use of the add-on features (Running Coach, Assistant-integration, and so on), then you will arguable also see an increased return in battery life. In either case, what is clear is how much better this model is compared to last year’s and this is one of the key differences between the models. While they might look the same they are very far from being the same and battery life alone may on its own be enough to warrant an upgrade for current owners of the previous model. The difference is like night and day.
Then there is the case. One of the selling points with these earbuds is that they do come with a case that is able to keep the earbuds charged when away from home. On the face of it, it would be fair to assume this case is capable of providing close to two full charge cycles before the case also needs to be charged - as the capacity of the case is 340 mAh and each earbud is 82 mAh (combined total of 164 mAh per full charge). However, that is not quite what is on offer as the case itself seems to be more designed for a trickle charge type of usage. In most instances it will be unlikely for the user to fully deplete the earbud batteries in one sitting. For example, if used for one hour at the gym (or on the way to work) and then placed in the case when the gym session is over (or having reached work), the case will automatically start charging the earbuds. While this is good as it means the earbuds are always fully charged, it also does mean that a user is unlikely to ever get a full charge cycle from the case as it will just keep topping them up. More relevantly, the case is unable to retain its own charge for long periods of time and instead does have a habit of depleting its capacity fairly quickly when not in use - possibly due to the case always trying to keep the earbuds charged. If you leave the earbuds in the case (and they, as well as the case are fully charged), by the end of the day and in spite of the case not technically in a charging state, the case’s battery will have depleted somewhat. After two days for example, the case will almost certainly be out of battery. So again, you are unlikely to ever be able to use that 340 mAh capacity as two full charge cycles and it is even difficult to suggest how much charge the case does offer in between its own charge cycles. For reference though, Samsung states the case will offer one single full charge - which when considering the mAh capacity of the case compared to the earbuds further highlights the under the hood battery drain of the case. Criticisms aside, the case does do a very good job of keeping the earbuds fully charged. Just expect to have to charge the case every couple of days, if not every day. When it comes to recharging the earbuds, the case is typically able to provide a full charge in about two hours.
As for connectivity in general, there are no major issues noted with the Gear IconX (2018). Last year’s version was considered to be a reliable product in this respect and this year’s version seems to continue that trend. Which is not something that can be said for all earphones which adopt a true wireless form. As each earbud is independent (not connected to each other via a wire), this sort of product can lead to connectivity issues. For example, one earbud may connect fine while the other doesn't. Likewise you can often encounter a very spotted connection where one or both earbuds intermittently drop off. However, none of these issues were noticed with the IconX (2018) which seemed to consistently perform flawlessly when connected over Bluetooth. If a criticism was to be raised then Bluetooth distance would be it. These earbuds do come equipped with Bluetooth 4.2 which on a technical level is capable of establishing a connection up to 100 meters (300 feet). However, when it comes to headphones and earphones which adopt the technology, the distance is usually defined as about 10 meters (33 feet). This is exactly the case for most headphones from most major brands, and although Samsung has not explicitly stated the Bluetooth operating range, this is presumed to be the range on offer with the Gear IconX (2018). However, unlike some of the other higher-end earbud options, the IconX (2018) does not retain an as solid connection up to that maximum distance. They do get close in fairness, but they do start to show connection issues at around 26 feet. Usage within that distance results in an extremely reliable and solid connection and so this should not really pose an issue for most users who are using the earbuds within range. It is just worth noting however, that at the outer limits of the device's range, it suffers a little more than similar products.
The Samsung Gear IconX (2018) are a solid option for those looking for a new pair of Bluetooth headphones and especially for those looking for something in more of an earbud form and even more so, for those looking for a true wireless experience. While the look, feel and general features on offer have not changed that much compared to the previous version, what Samsung has done with this latest model is improve the areas of concern. Battery life being the prime case in point. This was so limiting on the previous model, that in itself this was likely to be enough of a reason to push consumers towards a competing product. However that is not the case with the new version and while the battery life on offer here is not actually anything special, it does suddenly cover up what was the product line's main issue. Resulting in the IconX (2018) now being a very well-rounded and good-performing set of headphones.
Should you buy the Samsung Gear IconX (2018)?
The short answer to this is Yes. If you are in the market for a new set of headphones and consider $199 a doable price to pay, then these are very good earphones. Gym and fitness-focused users will certainly get more out of them than other users but generally speaking, as a new Bluetooth headphones option, they are worth the asking price. What is more difficult to answer is whether you should upgrade to these if you already own the original model. Yes, the battery life is so much better that battery life alone is a good enough reason to upgrade. However, we are talking about a $200 product here and everything else that is on offer does not differ enough to suggest this as an automatic upgrade. If you own the original version, do not have any connectivity issues and are fine with the daily battery life you are getting, then upgrading might not necessarily be worth it for you. If however, you do want longer levels of usage off the charge, and again, are happy with paying $200 the year after paying $200 for the original model, then these will be worth upgrading to. Samsung has very clearly solved the battery issues with the previous model.