Announced back in September, the Samsung Gear S is the South Korean electronics company’s sixth attempt at making a smartwatch. It’s got the specs of a mid-range phone from a few years back and runs Tizen, Samsung’s own operating system.
The intended appeal of the Gear S is that it can be used independently from the rest of your devices. Along with Bluetooth (standard on Android Wear devices and fitness trackers), Samsung’s newest watch also has radios for Wi-Fi, as well as 2G and 3G cellular connectivity.
If you get a SIM card through a cell carrier (and Samsung is pushing this on all major US carriers), you can pair the Gear S to a set of wireless headphones and get a playlist for your jog from Samsung’s Milk streaming music service, no phone required. You’ll also be able to navigate using the built in maps application, as well as track your steps and check your heart rate when you pause for traffic when crossing the street.
The Gear S is powered by Tizen, the operating system that would have run on the ill-fated Samsung Z and will be on Samsung’s smart TV’s next year. As is the case with most general-purpose computing devices not powered by Google’s Android or iOS, there aren’t many apps available for the Gear S at launch. Samsung gave one of these to a lot of developers at its conference this week, so hopefully that situation will change some in the months to come.
Before dropping ~$400 on the device (as with smartphones, the price will vary depending on whether you want to sign a contract or pay in installments) and committing to spending $10 a month for data, go to a carrier or Best Buy and try the Gear S on. It’s huge.
I switched from wearing a Basis Peak every day to wearing the Gear S, and the difference seemed ridiculous. The watch section of the Gear S is about twice as long as the Peak, in order to accommodate the curved 2-inch screen. It looks like a small, warped Galaxy S.
The screen is pretty, though I have to say that I do not like most the default watch face, which looks like mechanical watch with notification indicators “behind” the hands. I much prefer the ones that show the time, steps, and notifications in straight numeric format. Unfortunately, the menu for switching between faces doesn’t let you preview, so you have to dig through the menu again and again while you find the one you like.
Also odd: the inclusion of a very narrow QWERTY keyboard in the messaging app. Nobody will find this keyboard convenient. You have to try very hard to touch the right letters and often miss, with the autocorrect doing an “OK” job of preventing absolute frustration. When possible, you’re going to want to just use voice controls.
Despite having all the radios you could ask for (with reasonable expectations for battery life) and a decent amount of storage, the Gear S is still tied to your phone — which has to be a Samsung. You need the phone to activate the watch, to get more apps, and to get a more detailed view of things like your health data. I’ve been using a friend’s old Galaxy S3 with the Gear S, so I’m glad to see that Samsung didn’t exclusively tie it to its current flagship devices.
The Gear S is best for those who have a big phone like the Galaxy Note 4 and don’t want to reach into their bag or shimmy it out of their pocket all the time. If you’ve got a smaller phone, the fact that the Gear S can do things independently doesn’t provide enough of a marginal convenience improvement to feel worth the investment in my day-to-day use. That could very well be different if your job doesn’t require you to be strapped to a computer and/or phone all day anyway.