No offense to Apple, but Samsung’s Gear S3 is the sexiest smartwatch yet. Samsung worked with a Swiss designer to create a device that looks less like a shrunken phone and more like an elegant timepiece I’d want to wear when I’m out and about. And thanks to a larger battery, you won’t have to recharge this puppy every night.
I got a chance to play around with the the Gear S3, which will be available in the fourth quarter (price TBD) and work with most modern Android phones. And while I’m still not completely sold on Tizen as a platform versus Android Wear or watchOS, Samsung’s wearable looks like a real contender. Here’s what you need to know about Samsung’s new smartwatch.
It’s kinda big, and that’s OK
Collaborating with Swiss designer Yvan Arpa, Samsung forged two versions of the Gear S3, the Gear S3 Classic and the Gear S3 Frontier. Both have a 46mm stainless steel casing, which is larger than the 42mm body on the Gear S2 (and 42mm Apple Watch). But I prefer the chunkier look and larger display over the more plasticky predecessor — even on my small wrist.
Another plus, the always-on OLED display now boasts 16 million colors, up from just 8 on the Gear S2.
Frontier looks better than the Classic, both water-resistant
You still get Samsung’s rotating bezel for navigating the menu on both S3s, but the darker metal on the Frontier’s front looks more badass and rugged than the polished and businessy silver on the Classic.
Both models are IP68 rated for water resistance, which means 5 feet for 30 minutes, and they’re also rated to survive extreme temperatures and shock.
Speaker for calling and optional 4G
Unlike the Gear S2, the standard Bluetooth and Wi-Fi version of the Gear S3 Classic and Frontier will let you make and receive calls with a built-in speaker. However, only the Frontier will offer optional 4G LTE connectivity from major carriers, which means you’ll be able to leave your phone behind. Samsung says you'll be able to make and receive calls in HD, send messages and use connected apps. However, you’ll have to add the Frontier to your carrier’s data plan, though.
3 to 4 days of (promised) battery life
The Gear S3 packs a 380 mAh battery, up from 250 mAh on the Gear S2 and 300 mAh on the 3G version of that watch. Samsung says that means between 3 and 4 days of juice, which would be a big step up from the 1 to 2 days we got before and mere 18 hours on the current Apple Watch. Plus, there’s a new watch-only mode for when the S3 starts to run low on power, so you’ll still get the time.
It works with Samsung Pay, and you don’t even need your phone
You can use the Gear S3 to make mobile payments at both terminals that accept NFC payments and ones that only use magnetic stripe technology, which covers about 90 percent of retailers. (The Apple Watch works only with NFC terminals) In a clever move, the Gear S3 stores up to five payment tokens on the watch, allowing you to pick up that Gatorade after your run without having to bring your Galaxy phone. (Yes, even on the Gear S3 without cellular.) The watch will replenish those tokens the next time you sync up.
GPS and other fitness goodies on board
Like the Gear Fit 2, the Gear S3 will have built-in GPS for tracking your distance and pace while you run. With the updated S Health app, you’ll also be able to share your progress with others and check out where you stand on leaderboards.
Better ways to use rotating bezel, handwriting recognition
In our review of the Gear S2, we noted that the rotating bezel didn't necessarily add a lot of value, as you can just as easily touch the screen to perform various actions. But Samsung is finding ways to make better use of its unique UI. For example, you can answer or reject calls by rotating the bezel. You can also write letters on the display that get converted to text, just like an old-school Palm Pilot, which is handy for messaging.
More than 10,000 apps by launch, including Spotify streaming and Nest
Yes, most of those apps are watchfaces, but Samsung continues to build out its ecosystem of Tizen OS apps. In addition to a new Uber widget, there’s Spotify for streaming tunes directly over a Wi-Fi connection and Nest for controlling your smart thermostat. There’s even an ADT SOS app that could save your life. A triple tap of a button will send out your location and call for help; just keep in mind that this app requires a separate fee.
While I’m concerned about the app gap between Tizen and Android Wear and Apple’s watchOS — apps are about quality, not quantity —Samsung has a bigger problem when it comes to voice assistance.
Samsung’s S Voice comes in handy for opening apps, sending texts and other tasks, but it simply doesn’t have the artificial or predictive intelligence of Apple’s Siri or Google Now. Voice assistants will only take on more prominence as smartwatches come of age and as they integrate with other devices inside and outside of the home, and Samsung has a lot of catching up to do.
In order for smartwatches to be embraced by the masses, at the very least they need to look less geeky and last longer. The Gear S3 looks like it will succeed on those two fronts, while adding some welcome features like GPS, Samsung Pay, a speaker and water resistance. I’m particularly intrigued by the 4G-enabled Frontier and whether it could really wean me off my phone.
The Gear S3 will face serious competition from the Apple Watch 2, which is expected to add GPS in addition to water resistance and a much improved watchOS 3 when it debuts in September, but Samsung’s smartwatch should be a standout come this holiday.