Today's smartwatches run the functionality gamut, from devices that only show alerts to wrist pieces with thousands of custom apps. However, up until now, no major company has released a smartwatch that's capable of making calls and connecting to the Internet without pairing with a smartphone. Enter the Samsung Gear S, which comes complete with a 3G radio to go along with its attractive curved display, heart rate monitor and large app ecosystem.
Like other Gear watches, the Gear S is designed to function primarily as a smartphone companion, pairing with your late-model Galaxy phone to provide notifications, phone call ability, music playback and other key functions. However, if you need to leave your phone behind for a while, the watch's 3G radio provides the ability to make calls or pull down messages and updates on its own. The device also has a Wi-Fi radio that can provide independent connections, even without 3G.
Some may focus on its cellular connectivity, but the Gear S's curved display stood out most when we went hands-on with the device. At 360 x 480 pixels, the 2-inch display is larger and sharper than the 1.6-inch, 320 x 320 displays on the other Gear watches. The Super AMOLED panel really made colors like the blue in a watch face or the red in the Nike app pop. Looking at the UI on a curved display made everything more attractive.
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Not only is the screen better looking on the Gear S than its predecessors, but so is the entire watch. The curved metallic body looks a lot more like a real watch than a gadget for early adopters and, with one of the analog watch faces loaded, it reminded us of a high-end timepiece.
Unfortunately, Samsung continues to use the most uncomfortable, hard-to-close watch bands on any wristpiece. Available in black or white, the silicon band has an annoying metal peg we had to move to adjust the size, and it closes with a metal clasp that required a ton of force to push closed. Even at its widest setting, the watch felt tight on a thicker wrist. Worse still, the bands are a proprietary size so consumers will have to buy replacements from Samsung or wait for a third party to support the form factor. On the bright side, the watch pops out of the band easily, without the need for any removal tools.
Perhaps the biggest improvement the Gear S has over previous Samsung watches is its ability to continue showing the watch face, even while asleep. The Galaxy Gear, Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit all turn off their screens entirely when not in use and the Gear Live dims its screen so much that we couldn't view it outdoors. However, if you set the clock to remain on, the watch face will dim slightly during sleep and change design so that it uses fewer pixels and, therefore, less power. In our hands-on, the dimmed watch faces appeared bright colorful, making them easy to glance at on our wrist.
Though Samsung dipped its toe in the waters of Google's Android Wear this summer with its Gear Live watch, the Gear S runs Samsung's proprietary Tizen operating system. The company's earlier Gear 2, Gear Neo and Galaxy Gear (after an update) watches run the same OS. A Samsung rep told us that the Gear S would have over 1,000 apps at launch, an ambitious claim, considering that new apps would have to be optimized for the Gear S's 3:4 aspect ratio, as opposed to the 1:1 ratio on prior watches.
The Tizen UI on the Gear S appears to be the same as on Gear 2, requiring you to swipe left or right to switch apps and menus or swipe down to go back a step. Though the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo had their home / power button on the right side, the Gear S puts the button in the lower bezel where it now looks and feels just like the physical home button on the company's Galaxy phones. Hitting the home button wakes the watch from sleep, returns you to watch face if you're in another app or puts the watch to sleep.
Sensors and Mic
Like the Gear Neo, the Gear S has a microphone and speaker built in for calls or issuing voice commands, but no camera for taking photos. With a strong emphasis on fitness, the Gear S comes heart rate monitor on the back of the watch, which measured our pulse at 89 bpm when we used the preloaded S Health app to measure it. There's also a pedometer to measure your steps.
The watch comes preloaded not only with a watch version of Samsung's S Health app, which keeps track of your health goals and vital signs, but also a Nike+ app that helps you track your runs. Because the watch has cellular connectivity, it can also grab GPS information while you are running, even if you don't have your phone with you.
Both fitness fanatics and couch potatoes will appreciate the Gear S's IP67-rated waterproof chassis, which should survive being submerged in 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes.
Battery Life and Charging
Samsung did not provide a precise battery life estimate for the Gear S, but a rep told us that the watch has the same 300 mAh battery capacity as the Gear 2 and should provide similar endurance. The Gear 2 lasted through approximately two days of moderate use in our tests.
Like the other Gears, the Gear S attaches to a charging cradle, which has a microUSB port that attaches to an AC adapter. However, on the Gear S, the cradle also contains its own 300 mAh battery, which can supply an extra charge to the watch when you're away from a power outlet.
Samsung has not announced pricing or availability for the Gear S, and it remains unclear whether the watch will be sold in the U.S. If carriers choose to carry the device, they would likely charge additional monthly data fees, making it a pricey option for users who want to connect mainly through their smartphones. We wouldn't be surprised if the company chooses to sell a Wi-Fi only version of the Gear S so consumers can enjoy its curved display and other features without paying monthly fees.