Apple would have you believe that no smartwatches existed before Apple Watch, at least none worth owning anyway. Yet wearables have been evolving for the last several years, and in the current push between Android Wear and Apple, it might be easy to overlook that Samsung is now well into their third generation of watch with the Gear S. (Read through this review, or see the Gear S in action with the linked video above!)
Samsung’s approach to consumer tech in general is an “everything and the kitchen sink”, “more is more” style, which is well represented in the Gear S. This is technology showcase, an impressive array of software and services, which attempts to strap smartphone computing power onto your wrist. It’s “killer app” of course, a cell phone radio allowing for calls, texts, and data when the watch is not connected to your phone, allowing you to take small excursions away from your smartphone and stay connected to what’s happening.
The display is impressive. A two inch curved AMOLED screen, with beautiful colors, fantastic contrast, and a higher resolution than the original iPhone. Like many other smartwatches however, using a phone screen technology means your watch will have the same pros and cons as your phone. Namely the Gear S looks great indoors but it’s easily washed out in direct sunlight. It does have an ambient light sensor which can scale the brightness depending on your surroundings, but it still wont overcome sunlight champs like the Pebble or Qualcomm Toq.
With its ability to function untethered from a phone, Samsung is targeting a slightly sportier consumer, and the build reflects that. The watch is made out of a combination of plastics. It feels solid. It feels durable, but thanks to the large screen and rubbery band, it wears a bit more like a sporty bracelet than a fine timepiece. Fancy looking watch screens can help “class it up”, but to save battery life the watch screen stays off most of the time.
The watchband is removable, though it doesn’t use standard watch bands, instead using a stretchy loop which fully encircles the Gear S Screen. You can find different colors of the same style band, but early concepts for leather bracelets and a watchband studded with Swarovski Crystals haven’t made it to market. It’s unfortunate, as a attention to those details might have made the Gear S more desirable as a fashion statement, especially for women who like bold accents.
The underside of the watch features a set of pogo pins for charging, and the heart rate monitor. Having used several smartwatches and fitness bands, Samsung’s solution which pairs with S Health, has become one of the more well features fitness tracking solutions. It’s a solid value add for folks shopping Galaxy kit. The AT&T variant of the watch also gives you access to the SIM card, as this watch uses a 3G GSM Radio. Sprint and Verizon Gear S use CDMA which wont have access to any kind of card door.
There is 4GB of storage available for photos (the Gear S does not have its own camera) and music, which are easily synced from your phone’s companion app. The Gear S can be paired with a set of Bluetooth headphones for listening to music. The entire process of setting it up is VERY similar to how you might set up music and BT on a phone, and much easier than Android Wear’s music listening feature.
The software experience is very well refined. Swiping from each corner brings different features and function. Swipe from the top to get volume and notification muting. Swipe from left to right to get a list of notifications and continue swiping for each individual notification. Swipe from right to left for quick applets like the music player or a news reader. Swipe from the bottom up to get a full list of apps installed on the watch, and while in an app, a quick swipe down from the top edge acts as a back button. It’s a clean and simple interface, easily recognizable by Samsung phone users, and should be simple enough to learn.
The collection of apps written for the Gear platform is surprisingly formidable. While there are plenty of little quick services like compass, stopwatch, timer, and calculator, apps like Yelp are very well featured and easy to navigate. Looking for a restaurant, the Gear S was about as fast as using my phone to conduct the same search. No small feat considering the difference in screen real estate. 3rd part apps for Instagram and Youtube are interesting, and there are a bevvy of compatible fitness trackers. That the Gear only works with Samsung phones, doesn’t seem to have overly cramped developer interest in the platform.
Of particular note is the fantastic HERE maps app from Nokia software, which runs a full mapping and navigation suite right from your arm. It’s a clean mapping interface, which again, blurs that line between what’s faster from your phone, and what you can accomplish from a smaller screen.
Leave Your Phone at Home?
The built in cell radio is terrifically handy. When the Bluetooth connection is lost, the watch activates the cell radio, and automatically connects to your carrier network, in this case AT&T, which handles back end call forwarding. The user doesn’t have to futz with any settings, just walk far enough away from your phone, and after about a minute your watch will take over. I’m not a huge fan of taking calls over wrist mounted speaker phones, but a BT headset worked just fine, and while a few callers complained about tinny audio, it was still fantastically convenient functionality. I don’t think it’s evolved to the point where I would feel comfortable leaving my phone at home for a full day, but it was an excellent addition for a companion accessory. Liberating after using watches which only connect over Bluetooth.
Battery life is good on Bluetooth thanks to the screen turning off. You can routinely expect a little more than two days under moderate use, while mostly tracking notifications. Adding in extended periods of cell phone use or music listening will likely cut that in half. Not terrible at all considering you’re using a product more powerful than a smartphone from four years ago with a battery one quarter the size.
As battery life is still a concern for smartwatches, many still incapable of lasting a full day, let alone multiple days of use, Samsung’s charger for the Gear S offers a novel solution. Built into the cradle is a 350mAh battery which can charge the Gear even when it’s not plugged into an outlet. When used primarily over Bluetooth, this can extend the run time of the Gear to almost four days, plenty to make it through a long weekend trip for example, without having to worry about packing an additional charger.
If I have a complaint with the Gear S, it’s not very discreet. My favorite aspect of wearing a smartwatch is getting notifications and alerts more organically, and in a way which minimizes any potential interruption while in social situations. The vibration motor on the Gear S is the loudest one I’ve ever used, even when set to its weakest setting, and is very noticeable to other people when sitting at cafe table distances. Combined with the large display, it can be distracting to other folks, especially when fielding a number of notifications, the buzzes and the bright screen.
The Wrap Up
The Gear S is a tech marvel. For folks looking for fitness tracking capabilities, but want a more full featured watch experience instead of a simple pedometer, the Gear S is the gold standard. Wearing one, the idea of going back to a smartphone arm band case feels horrifically antiquated, that I would ever sweat on my phone feels backwards and old fashioned. In terms of functionality, it’s a formidable gadget.
The Gear has a more difficult road to walk however with folks looking for a fashion statement. It’s a little harder to shake the feeling you’re wearing a gadget on your wrist, even if it is a really REALLY powerful gadget. It lacks a little style, the “form” component of Form vs Function.
It’s exciting hardware, and Samsung has pushed consumer wearables farther than any other competitor. That you can pick up a mini wrist-wearable smartphone on AT&T for $50 less than the cheapest first generation Apple Watch will be attractive to many tech fans.