Samsung is learning. After a string of smartwatches that failed to became bestsellers, the Korean company decided to reshape its vision of wearables — and I mean literally reshape. Its latest, the Gear S2, is a Tizen-powered watch that finally has a round screen and finally works with phones that Samsung didn’t make. More importantly, the company dreamed up a circular interface with a neat rotating bezel that doesn’t rely as heavily on taps and swipes as its competitors. What we ultimately get in the Gear S2 isn’t a perfect smartwatch — far from it — but a collection of good ideas that can’t quite make up for the shortcomings of its software platform.
- Spinning bezel interface is brilliant
- Solid battery life
- Sleek, minimal looks
- Works with non-Samsung phones
- Limited app selection
- S Voice is hit-or-miss
- Vibrations feel a little weak
Samsung’s latest smartwatch packs a thoughtful, elegant interface made possible by a rotating bezel, with respectable battery life and a great screen rounding out the feature list. Alas, the sort of end-to-end control over hardware and software that made the Gear S2 possible also means users have to be okay with the alternative Tizen OS and its small ecosystem of apps.
Samsung has multiple S2 models in the offing, but I’ve been using the standard stainless steel version with a white elastomer band ($300). It’s a shockingly understated affair compared to Samsung’s earlier work and indeed, a quick tour doesn’t reveal a whole lot. There are Home and Back buttons (that occasionally do the same things) at 2 and 4 o’clock on the dial, along with a teensy microphone hole etched in between. The S2 has the muted charm of a Swatch, and its sleek lines and sturdy construction make it one of the nicer smartwatches I’ve fiddled with in a long while. (Style mavens might prefer the $350 Gear S2 Classic, which is slightly smaller and comes with a leather band).
On the back you’ll find a heart rate sensor and easy access to the two quick-release latches for the watchband. Swapping those bits is a bit trickier than I expected — most smartwatches I’ve used with swappable bands snap into the sides with fairly standard spring bars, but the bands for the Gear S2 slide and lock into grooves built into the watch’s lugs. Total acclimation time: about three minutes. The mechanism keeps the S2’s curvy lines looking good, but it’s tougher to find cheap third-party straps as a result; you’ll need to turn to Samsung’s own line of watchbands instead. And of course, you won’t notice any of these things before the 1.2-inch, 360 x 360 screen — it’s a beautiful, pixel-dense display with bright, poppy colors and lots of contrast, which helps when you venture outside. There are 15 pre-loaded watch faces, including seven you can customize with complications.
The S2’s innards will sound familiar to smartwatch fans — a dual-core 1GHz processor with 512MB of RAM run the show (with surprising oomph, but more on that later). Better connectivity in watches is getting to be de rigueur, too, so the S2 packs a WiFi radio to keep the notifications flowing in even when the watch isn’t connected to a phone via Bluetooth. While we’re talking about Bluetooth, you can sync music over to the watch and listen to those tracks on the move with a pair of wireless headphones. Just be judicious about it; users can only access about 2.5GB of the 4GB of onboard storage. There’s even an NFC radio in there, though you can’t use it for much just yet. However, Samsung says the watch will eventually support Samsung Pay transactions thanks to a software update coming in a month or two.
Taking it for a spin
I’m told I have a tendency to go overboard with the adjectives, so I’ll keep it short: The Gear S2’s bezel is the best smartwatch interaction method I’ve ever used. Full stop. You’ll still be tapping on that circular screen pretty frequently, but just spinning the bezel around takes you further than you’d think. Say you’re staring at your watch face. Spin the bezel a few clicks to the left and you’ve got a running tally of notifications from difference sources; in my case, I usually had different notification screens for Outlook emails, calendar entries and Hangouts messages.
Crank the bezel to the right and you’ll be sifting through widgets for installed apps — by default, you can quickly glance at your app shortcuts, steps taken, calendar events, weather, music controls, heart rate and daily health rundown. Meanwhile, each turn of the bezel is punctuated by a few highly satisfying clicks; they’re so satisfying, in fact, that spinning the bezel quickly became my go-to tic when just standing around. More importantly, the motion just makes sense. There’s something natural about spinning a dial to sift through messages or cycle through app menus, making Android Wear’s endless menus and even the Apple Watch’s mostly great Force Touch feel a little cumbersome by comparison. I wouldn’t mind if everyone used this interface (although Samsung’s lawyers might feel otherwise).
So, yes, the hardware is surprisingly great — what else does this thing do? Being able to display notifications is obviously table stakes for smartwatches. Given Samsung’s fitness push with S Health in recent years, the S2 obviously also doubles as a more-than-decent activity tracker — heart rate readings seemed accurate compared to other wearables and my own finger-to-neck counts, as did the number of steps it thought I took each day. Browsing through music is easy and you can control whatever player you’re using, be it Spotify, Audible or Samsung’s own Milk music service.
With a post-setup install courtesy of Here, the Gear S2 can also be used as a tiny map that pinpoints your location, which is neat as a parlor trick and not much else. Sure, it’s pretty quick to find you and spinning the bezel to zoom in and out is neat, but it’s sluggish at updating the map view when you move it around and doesn’t display anything but the most major nearby street names. Save yourself a headache and just whip your phone out.
You can even respond to messages right from the watch by firing off a canned response, pecking out a reply on the tiny, phone-style keyboard (which isn’t as awful as it sounds) or letting the watch transcribe what you’re saying. That last bit manages to be the trickiest of the three — S Voice isn’t always great at figuring out what I’m trying to say, so using my voice to respond to messages sometimes turned out to be exercises in extreme patience. Other times, though, S Voice worked like a charm. It once rendered my side of a convoluted, spoken conversation without a single typo, except for missed punctuation that I didn’t feel like speaking aloud.
To my surprise, the Gear S had a few big-name preloaded apps too, like Nike Running,Bloomberg and CNN. A quick tour of the Gear S2’s nascent app store reveals a few other notable additions like Yelp, ESPN, Flipboard and Line, most of which smartly take advantage of the spinning bezel. To be clear, though, the polished fruits of these partnerships stick out compared to the rest of the S2’s available apps.
As we’ve established, the Gear S2 runs Samsung’s Tizen mobile OS, which is both good and bad news. On the one hand, Samsung achieved a level of integration, elegance and control that wouldn’t have been possible if it built a watch for a competing platform like Android Wear. On the other hand, there aren’t many good apps available. Note that I’m not saying there aren’t a whole lot of apps period; Samsung has said that there are about 1,000 for the Gear S2, which isn’t too shabby considering the watch looks and runs unlike all of the company’s previous wearables. Normally I might take a device like the Gear S2 to task for that limited developer support, but I’m strangely satisfied with the functionality the watch brings to the table. This version of the watch doesn’t try to be a replacement for your smartphone — that’s for the pricier 3G version coming soon. Getting news updates and the occasional down-low on a nearby restaurant in addition to the notifications and health tracking I find most valuable is plenty for me (and certainly others too). Still, those of you looking for a higher volume of quality apps had best look elsewhere.
Beyond the Galaxy
Unlike every other non-Galaxy Gear watch Samsung has made, the S2 was built to play nice with Android phones from other manufacturers. The company suggested that I test the S2 with a Samsung phone (for obvious reasons) so I spent about four days with it paired to a Galaxy Note 5. But where’s the fun in just doing that? About a week in, I ditched the Note and hooked the S2 up to a Moto X Pure Edition instead and didn’t notice any changes in the experience. The only catch is that your phone has to run Android 4.4 or higher and have at least 1.5GB of RAM — most decent phones released in the last two years should be able to meet those requirements.
Samsung was clear that some features wouldn’t work as intended on third-party phones because the folks who made them hadn’t built their software to interface with the S2, but this really hasn’t been an issue during day-to-day use. Every time I thought I caught some sort of platform hiccup — say, not being able to call my friend Anthony using voice commands — I was actually just missing something. In this case, you can only send transcribed messages and initiate phone calls to one of the 11 people you’ve designated as “buddies.” I’ll keep throwing random devices at the Gear S2 to see if it falters, but it looks like it runs just as well with third-party phones as with Samsung-made devices.
Performance and battery life
Putting the app-availability issue aside, the Gear S2 as a whole works really nicely. Spinning through apps feels as fast as it does intuitive, and I never noticed a slowdown while clicking through widgets and long emails. That, of course, doesn’t mean the S2 is a perfect package. I was ready to call the Gear S2 one of the least hiccup-y gadgets I’ve played with in a long time… until one day it suddenly stopped responding to taps or bezel spins. The situation fixed itself after leaving the Watch alone for a minute or two until the screen went dark as it normally did, but the event was slightly shocking since the watch has otherwise been rock-solid.
The vibration motor is also surprisingly weak, especially if you like using smartwatches for pulsating wake-up calls. It doesn’t have a speaker so it can’t emit any sound, and the vibrations — while perfectly adequate for notifications while I’m awake — are so slight they never once woke me on time. Naturally, things may work out differently for you and your sleep patterns, but heavy dozers will want to keep their 50 phone alarms on just in case.
At the very least, you can sleep with the Gear S2 on your wrist and not worry about it running out of juice before morning. I like to think I’ve put it through a pretty strenuous week of testing: In addition to taking it out on runs, I’ve also been pulling in notifications from Slack, Outlook, Instagram and Google Hangouts, as well as performing the occasional S Voice command. Even with all that going on, the Gear S2 routinely hung in for around three full working days — we’re talking about 40 hours on my wrists between charges, while all those notifications were flowing in and with the screen brightness set to a comfortable 70 percent. Bear in mind, that’s with the S2’s default settings in place so the face shuts off completely when it’s not being used. With the screen set to stay on all the time, the S2 eked out over two working days, or about a day and a half of use before requiring a trip to the wireless charging dock. And don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of notice before the battery situation grows dire — reminders to turn on Power Saver mode start popping up at 10 percent, and again at 5 percent.
Since the Gear S2 is an Android-only device, it’s no shock that Android Wear devices like the new Moto 360 are its biggest rivals. Although the base model 42mm Moto 360 costs the same as the Gear S2, Android Wear’s broad developer support and the watch’s classically handsome design make it a serious alternative to Samsung’s latest, even if its interface is nowhere near as elegant. Of course, if the mere idea of notifications on your wrist is what gets you going, there’s no shortage of cheaper-but-still-stylish options. The original ASUS ZenWatch was a respectable Android Wear watch that just got a cheap, functional sequel ($150) and the Pebble Time Steel ($250) might do you well if the Gear S2’s battery life spoke to you — the color e-paper watch can run for up to 10 days before giving up the ghost.
I never hated Samsung’s earlier wearables; in fact, I even got caught up in the post-announcement rush once or twice. That feeling is fleeting, though, and usually evaporates a few days after cracking open the box. The Gear S2 is different. I’ve been using it for nearly two weeks and it’s the first Samsung watch that hasn’t made me count down the days until I was done writing the review. A lot of that is because of the smart, intuitive interface and the joy of using something that makes sense. Still, at the risk of sounding clichéd, the Gear S2 isn’t for everyone. The currently weak selection of Tizen apps means you might be hard-pressed to find things worth downloading, and that’s going to be a non-starter for some people. The hit-or-miss nature of voice commands stings too, especially when other platforms are just so good at it. And don’t even get me started on the whole vibration thing again. In the end, the Gear S2 is an above-average smartwatch that occasionally shimmers with brilliance — here’s hoping the sequel gets the developer love to make it a serious heavyweight.