Samsung Gear S2 Review: Clever Design, Needs More Apps

While everyone else seems to be making me-too Android Wear watches, Samsung is taking a different smartwatch tack with the Gear S2. This wearable runs the company's Tizen software and offers a swiveling bezel to help you navigate around its unique UI. Unlike its predecessors, the round-shaped watch works with any phone running Android 4.4 or higher, not just Samsung handsets, but it omits the built-in speaker and its ability to make calls or issue audio responses from S Voice, without lowering the price. The Gear S2 has strong build quality, solid fitness features and excellent message handling, but its $299 price tag seems rather steep given the limited number of apps.

Design

Available in silver or dark gray, the Gear S2 has a sleek circular, matte stainless-steel body that's attractive but not as impressive as the shiny chassis of premium Android Wear watches such as the Moto 360 (gen 2) and the LG Urbane. The elastomer band, which comes in white with the silver version or black with the gray version, doesn't look fancy enough for a $300 watch but feels very comfortable on the wrist.

Unlike many smartwatch bands, which have clasps that require a ton of force, the S2's comes with simple buckles that are easy to adjust and close. Samsung also bundles the watch with a second band that's the same color but a little bit shorter for narrower wrists. The company said it plans to sell replacement bands in the same black and white colors, but did not disclose a price.

At 1.67 x 1.96 x 0.45 inches and 1.66 ounces, the Gear S2 doesn't feel bulky at all. The 42mm Apple Watch Sport (1.65 x 1.41 x 0.41 inches, 1.06 ounces without band) is lighter, the Pebble Time Steel (1.6 x 1.5 x 0.37, 2.2 ounces) is heavier and the LG Urbane (2.0 x 1.7 x 0.43, 2.3 ounces) is much larger overall.

The watch is IP68 rated for resistance to water, which means it should withstand up to 30 minutes being submerged in up to 1 meter of water. However, a Samsung rep warned me not to take a shower with it on.

Samsung also sells the Gear S2 Classic, which is functionally identical to the standard S2 but costs $350 because it has a leather band and grooved edges on its bezel. The Classic uses a standard 20mm watch band.

All versions of the Gear S2 come with a wireless charging dock. Attaching the watch to this dock is really easy because a built-in magnet helps it snap in place. I particularly appreciated the status light, which turns red or green depending on the charge status of your watch.

Rotating Bezel

The Gear S2 has a fairly simple interface that makes it easy to get to your alerts and your apps drawer either by swiping or by rotating the bezel. This bezel is a key selling point, because it allows you to navigate between screens in the UI, and scroll down emails, messages, settings menus or articles without covering the screen with your finger. However, we wish there was a select button or a way to push down on the bezel to "click."

Like most smartwatches, the device's home screen is its watch face, which shows the time and, depending on which of the scores of available faces you choose, may also contain the date or some other data such as news headlines.

Turning the bezel or swiping to the left brings up the list of notifications. Swiping / turning one screen to the right shows a list of icons for Apps, Settings, S Voice assistant and a list of Buddies or favorite contacts. Swiping farther to the right brings up screens with your step count, upcoming appointments, heart-rate monitor, music playback control and other apps you choose.

Swiping down from the top on any screen shows the status of the battery, wireless connectivity and brightness. The device has two buttons on its right side, with the upper button serving as back and the lower button taking you directly to the watch face.

You're presented with a richer set of composing options than I've seen on any other smartwatch.

Tapping the Apps icon from the second screen brings up the apps drawer, which shows a circular group of eight shortcut icons representing the first eight programs you have installed. As you rotate the bezel, you page through different sets of eight apps just like you swipe through different screens in an Android phone's app drawer. Rotating the bezel also lets you select the app you want, but you still have to tap the screen to launch the app. You can just tap the icon without hitting the bezel and get the same effect.

Display

The Gear S2's 1.2-inch, 360 x 360 display provided vibrant colors and bright output in our tests. When I viewed some photos in the gallery, the red and blue in a baby's Spider-Man T-shirt really popped, and the particles of dirt on a street sign were clearly visible. Better still, even at the default 50 percent brightness setting, I was able to easily see and navigate through the UI in direct sunlight.

Like most smartwatches, the S2 goes to sleep after a short period of inactivity, which, by my measurements, is usually around 15 seconds; there's no option in the software to lengthen this period of inactivity. However, a couple of times during my testing the screen did not timeout, even after a several-minute walk or subway ride. In those cases, covering the display with my hand put it to sleep.

When reading emails or news articles, I often had to tap the screen to avoid having it go dark before I'd finished. Moving your arm up to your face will wake the watch, but I found that you have to be very deliberate in your movements; simply twisting my wrist to discreetly peer at the watch usually did not wake it. So forget about using the S2 to check your email during a meeting without the boss noticing.

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Though the screen turns off entirely by default, you can turn on the S2's always-on mode, which shows a dim and limited version of the face when the device is asleep. This version of the face usually lacks color or any alert features. For example, the Bloomberg watch face, which shows stock quotes on a blue, analog face, only appears as two slim white hands in Always-On Mode. Even with this mode enabled, the screen still turned black when I took off the watch and put it down for a few minutes.

Notifications

Using the Gear app, you can decide which apps are allowed to alert the watch, and whether the screen will light up when a notification appears and enable Smart relay, which shows the content of a notification on your phone's screen as soon as you lift the handset. In general, notifications appeared quickly, with only a second or two passing between the time I received an email on the phone and my wrist buzzing. However, they also disappeared a few minutes after I'd viewed them and did not provide an archive of old notifications like you get on the Pebble watches, though you can see recent emails in the email app.

Email and Message Handling

Depending on the type of notification, the Gear S2 provides a different set of choices for acting upon it. For example, when I received a Facebook instant message, I had the option to reply to the message from the watch, open it on my phone or dismiss it.

When I received email messages via regular email client on my Galaxy Note, I had the option to reply, reply to all or delete. With Gmail messages, I had the option to archive, delete, reply, view on phone, block notifications or clear all alerts. I also had the option to reply to SMS messages or compose new ones.

No matter what type of message you choose to reply to, you're presented with a richer set of composing options than I've seen on any other smartwatch. You can compose a response via voice to text, send an emoticon, choose one of several canned responses or type with an on-screen keyboard.

Perhaps because the screen is so small, Samsung chose a telephone-dialer-style keyboard with buttons for numbers 0 through 9 and three letters underneath each. So, for example, if you want to type the letter C, you'll have to hit number one three times, because it will first cycle through letters A and B. Swiping in from the left lets you change the buttons to pure numbers or a list of punctuation marks. You can also enable a word prediction feature, which, in my tests, worked quite well.

When my wife Facebook-messaged me that our son had done well in school, I typed back "I am so proud of him" and the keyboard accurately offered me words like "proud" and "him" as options after I had typed just one or two letters. (Android Wear doesn't come with a built-in keyboard, but you can download the Minuum Keyboard app, which offers that functionality.)

Call Handling

Previous Gear watches had built-in speakers and microphones so that they could make hands-free phone calls. However, the Gear S2 only allows you to send call commands to your phone rather than speaking on the watch directly. There's a phone app that allows you to dial your contacts, and you can ask S Voice to call a person by name or you can enter a phone number manually, but no matter how you do it, the call will occur on your handset, unless you have a separate Bluetooth headset paired. If you receive a call, you can choose to answer or dismiss it from your wrist, but it also takes place on the phone or headset.

S Voice Commands

Where the Apple Watch has Siri and Android Wear watches have Google Now, the Gear S2 has Samsung's S-Voice assistant. In my tests, S-Voice worked really well, recognizing my words and allowing me to perform a number of important actions, including initiating calls, composing and send SMS messages, getting the weather and performing Web searches. Unlike the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, the Gear S2 lacks a speaker so it doesn't play audio replies from the voice assistant like those watches do.

S-Voice worked really well, allowing me to initiate calls, compose text messages, get the weather and perform Web searches.

You can access S Voice either by tapping its shortcut icon on the first screen to the right of the watch face, or by speaking a custom-activation command when the watch is already awake. I configured the S2 to launch S Voice with the phrase "Wake up, Gear," and when I spoke those words, the voice assistant appeared.

Telling S Voice to "Call mom" successfully dialed my mother's phone number. When I told it to "message Liz," it picked her from my contacts list and then prompted me to speak the text of the message and then confirm it was correct, either by tapping OK or saying "OK." I was particularly impressed with S Voice's search feature, which pulled up results on-screen from Yahoo, including breaking news and photos. For example, when I searched for "Yankees," I got a photo of the team, along with some vital stats from Wikipedia and a summary of one news article with a link to open that article on the phone.

Fitness Features

The Gear S2 comes with Samsung's S Health software built in, along with a pedometer and heart-rate monitor. By default, the watch records your steps and holds you to modest daily goal of 6,000. By swiping to the right a couple of screens from the face, I could see my current count and how I'd met goals over time. When I was walking from work to the subway station, a 0.5-mile trip, the watch alerted me that I was walking at a steady pace and told me to "keep it up."

I also got an alert when I had reached my goal and an annoying reminder to "get up" when I had been sitting at my desk for an hour. If you don't want your watch to nag you, you can turn off these alerts.

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The heart-rate monitor was set to periodically measure my heart rate over time and it grabbed readings on its own about five times during the day. You can change the setting to check the rate more frequently or only do it manually. You can also track the amount of water and coffee you've drunk and sync the numbers with the S Health account on your phone.

Wi-Fi Connectivity

If your phone is too far away to maintain a Bluetooth connection, you can still get your notifications using the watch's Wi-Fi radio. Interestingly, the watch and the phone don't need to be on the same network. As long as they are both connected to the Internet, the phone will send notifications to the Gear S2.

When I purposefully disabled the Bluetooth on my Galaxy Note 3, the watch automatically signed into my Wi-Fi network, both at home and at work, without even asking me for a password. All alerts, including emails, arrived on time and I was even able to send replies to emails and compose SMS messages. The Gear app did allow me to change settings or install new watch apps from my phone, however.

Third-Party Apps and Faces

Because the Gear S2 runs Samsung's Tizen operating system, Samsung has its own app store, which lists all the programs available for the platform and divides them into categories such as health/fitness, finance and utilities. The company could not provide a count of available apps, but I counted a few hundred entries, many of which were different styles of watch face. Most of these faces are purely decorative, but a handful show useful data such as news headlines, stock quotes or your step count.

A few useful content apps from such media companies as CNN, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and News Republic let you read abbreviated news stories on your phone. I particularly liked CNN's app, which also showed headlines on the watch face, though it only offered the first few graphs from each story. I also appreciated Yelp's watch app, which gave me a list of nearby restaurants and reviews for each and the ability to call them. However, I wish there were apps for Facebook, Twitter and other major social networks. 

I particularly liked CNN's app, which also showed headlines on the watch face.

The company claims that Twitter, eBay and Groupon apps are all coming, but none was available at review time. Since Samsung watches are the only ones that run these Tizen apps, developers may be more attracted to larger watch platforms, such as Android Wear, Pebble and Apple's watchOS 2.

Battery Life

Samsung claims that the Gear S2 will last two to three days on a charge and, based on my tests, it seems like 1 to 2 days is more likely. That's in line with most smartwatches that have color LCD screens. Only the Pebble watches, with their e-Paper displays, can last several days between charges.

MORE: Pebble vs. Sony SmartWatch 2 vs. Galaxy Gear

When I charged the watch to 100 percent at noon, it was down to about 30 percent by 11 p.m. the same day, though I had the display in Always-On Mode, which I recommend so you can see the time at all times. When I used the watch with the screen set to turn off, the battery drained more slowly, dropping about 40 percent in 20 hours of use, 10 of which it was connected but off my wrist. If your battery is really running low, you can enable Power-Saving Mode, which turns the screen black and white and limits background activity.

Bottom Line

The Samsung Gear S2 has a few strong capabilities, from replying to email and SMS to tracking your steps and answering Web search queries with S Voice. The rotating bezel provides a quick and intuitive way to scroll through menus and read content without touching the display, and the design is very thin and light. However, other major watch platforms provide similar functionality with much larger app ecosystems and additional features such as phone calling (Apple Watch) or extraordinary battery life (Pebble).

If you're looking for a better value, consider an Android Wear watch such as the $129 ASUS ZenWatch 2. Other smartwatches have more style and more customization options, such as the $299 Moto 360. Android Wear has more apps and Google Now integration, but its swipe-happy interface is more of a chore to navigate then the Gear S2's.  Overall, the colorful display, strong messaging capabilities and unique rotating bezel make the Gear S2 a solid choice. But we'd wait for more Tizen apps to show up before you buy.

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  • Inerjon
    Thank you Avram for the excellent review although I bought the watch 2 days before I read your article. Lol! You are correct on all points. I have the Samsung Gear Fit & I recently just gave my Gear S away because it never worked as advertised & flimsy little plastic tabs on the charger base broke 4 times. Too many problems to discuss here about that bad product although I did like what Samsung was attempting to accomplish. I thought this newest version would have a sim card & be a separate cellphone but I was disappointed once again. Only thing I do appreciate with the S2 is the magnetic charging base which they should have used on the Gear S & Gear Fit. That would have eliminated 60% of my problems with theach Gear S right there.

    Thanx once again for your expert advice, I greatly appreciated it.