Samsung Gear S2 Review: Standout smartwatch
By Keith Liu November 26, 2015
SMARTWATCH design in 2015 took a decidedly circular trend, with the last few high-profile wearables sporting a round face, such as the second generation Moto 360, the Huawei Watch, Tag Hauer’s Connected Watch, the LG Watch Urbane second edition and the Samsung Gear S2.
Except for the Gear S2, the rest of the new smartwatches on that list run on Google’s Android Wear operating system, sporting a similar interface and user experience.
This is where Samsung’s latest Gear product stands out from the crowd.
We’ve covered the device’s global launch and previewed it here on Digital News Asia, and we’ve even spoken to Samsung’s designers on the journey they’ve taken to produce the company’s first round-faced smartwatch, after many iterations.
On Friday Nov 27, the Gear S2 will go on sale in Malaysia, after having made its way to Singapore and other markets. So it’s timely then we provide our final take and review on this relatively unique gadget.
Special connection between hardware and software
Among all the smartwatches in the market today, we can safely say that only two of them are shining examples of slick integration between hardware and software.
One of them is the Apple Watch, which according to some sources, is likely to do very well for the iPhone maker this holiday season, based on just the sheer number of people who want a wearable that works well with their iPhones.
Read also: Apple Watch: Analysts predict 10mil units to be sold in 2015
Apple designed its Watch with new technologies like ‘force touch’ and a ‘digital crown’ to enhance the way users interacted with its device, and with the recently updated watchOS 2, it’s hoping the ecosystem will help to deliver sticky apps and services on the platform.
Samsung has pretty much taken a similar approach with the round-faced Gear S2. After toying with different form factors and operating systems, including Android Wear, the South Korean electronics giant has finally created a truly special connection between the mechanical movement on the watch, and the software that powers it.
The ‘rotating bezel’ is the key reason why Samsung’s Gear S2 outshines all the rest of the smartwatches in the market today.
It’s such a simple mechanism – being able to rotate the bezel like a dial on the watch face. As you rotate the bezel, you can feel the stops between each selection, and the satisfying tactile click on each stop is truly functional.
After all, this isn’t a smartphone with a large 5-inch display. This is a tiny 1.2-inch postage stamp-sized screen, made smaller by the fact that it’s round, and each time we place our finger on the display, that would immediately impair our view of what’s on it.
Similar to the Apple’s digital crown then, the Gear S2’s rotating bezel allows the selection process (be it selecting watch screen, the app we wish to activate, or the function within the app) to be controlled without touching the screen. You only touch the screen to select the function.
The ‘back’ button is mapped to the top key on the side of the watch. The bottom key brings us back to the home page, although we can customise it to a specific function when we double click on it.
These physical buttons and movements are pretty similar to how we use our normal wristwatches today, so it’s familiar to most of us who wear non-smart watches.
The other feature of the Gear S2, which again, is kind of a throwback to how we normally operate our watches, is the way the icons are laid out.
This is where Samsung goes one up even on Apple, because rather than seeing a whole clump of tiny round icons on a screen, the designers at Samsung have laid it out in a circular fashion, in a way that reminds us of how we used to move the watch-hands – rotating them around so that they would face the right number on the watch.
By having a tiny selection dot move around the different icons on the edge of the watch face as we rotate the bezel, this feeling of ‘adjusting the time on your watch’ comes rushing back to us, and again, makes it seem completely intuitive.
Just because of this interface mechanism itself, we would say the Samsung Gear S2 wins hands down and should be your smartwatch of choice during this holiday shopping season. But only if you’re an Android smartphone user, since the Gear S2 doesn’t support iOS (at least not yet).
It’s all about the apps?
The good news at least, is that you don’t need to be a Samsung smartphone user to enjoy the benefits of the Gear S2.
This is yet another step forward for the company, since its previous models (except for the Android Wear-based Gear Live) only supported Samsung Galaxy smartphones. Not only did that limit the user base, but it also didn’t make it attractive for developers to create apps for the company’s Tizen OS platform.
And here’s where many reviewers of the Gear S2 have highlighted their disappointment, that there are far fewer apps on the Tizen platform, compared to Android Wear.
While we agree that this is absolutely correct – our experience with both Android Wear watches and the Gear S2 weren’t very different in terms of what we wanted to do with them.
That’s because unlike smartphones, we really don’t want to use all kinds of different apps on our smartwatches.
Our wearables are really for a few key things – telling the time, a quick check on our calendar, glancing at our notifications and responding only if necessary, and health-related activities to help be less sedentary and to track if we’re sticking to our fitness goals.
And of course, it has to look the part with our fashion of the day – which for many people can be the main reason why they would want to buy a smartwatch in the first place – because it looks good.
So we didn’t really mind the fact that there aren’t as many apps on Tizen OS for Gear S2, even though it numbers around a thousand – frankly, we don’t wish to install more than 50 key apps on the watch. The Gear S2 already has more than a dozen built-in and we believe that’s was a good start.
In fact, while we liked the Nike+ app (and especially the watch face), we were happier using Samsung’s S Health app to track our fitness and water intake. And we’ve only checked Bloomberg’s Market Data a couple of times, but the news items were better presented compared to CNN’s app.
Design-wise, we actually prefer the more ‘sporty’ Gear S2 model which we tested that has a rubber strap, compared to the more expensive Gear S2 classic which comes with a leather strap.
The Gear S2 comes in both silver and gray editions. All three models come with a wireless charging dock, a power adapter, 2 sets of straps with different lengths in order to accommodate different wrist sizes, and of course the watch.
Using the Samsung Gear S2
Setting up the Gear S2 was relatively simple, although if you’re using a non-Samsung smartwatch you’ll need to download the Samsung Gear app and the S Health app from Google Play. You’ll also need to create a Samsung account if you wish to track your fitness data and store that on the cloud.
You can then choose to customise the watch face, as most people do with smartwatches, and in this case, Samsung’s options do have some variety with ability to change some of the complications. However it cannot compete with the choices you can find on Android Wear, clearly.
After that, the watch would almost disappear into the background until I received WhatsApp messages, or was told that I had been inactive for too long.
The strap is comfortable to wear for long periods, and more importantly, it didn’t get in the way of my typing or any other activity.
In other words, it has a very unassuming, understated presence, and we almost forgot we were wearing it. Which was very nice for us, since we don’t like our wristwatches to get in the way of anything.
You have the choice to keep the screen always on, so that whenever you glance at it, you won’t be greeted with a black screen, but that would reduce the overall battery life. However we opted for this because otherwise we’d have to keep lifting our wrist in front of our face in order to get the screen to automatically turn on, which can be annoying.
The AMOLED display is nice, despite the size. The 360 x 360 resolution is standard among today’s smartphones but the brightness and colour saturation is solid, though we didn’t expect anything less from Samsung.
To compensate for the always-on display, we turned off Wi-Fi on the watch, since the low-powered Bluetooth is on and connected to our phone, and that’s all the connectivity we needed for it to work.
It also comes with NFC (near-field communications) so hopefully there would be practical applications that use this feature moving forward.
When docked, the Wi-Fi radio can be turned on in order to transfer songs over from your phone to the watch. Yes, the watch actually has about 3GB of usable storage space to store photos and songs, but that means you’ll need to connect it to a Bluetooth headset when you want to listen to it.
We found that too troublesome, and preferred to just play or stream our music directly from our phone. Why drain the small battery on a smartwatch when we can use our smartphone? The only reason is, if we were out running or cycling and decided not to bring along our phone with us.
When connected to the phone, you can make phone calls by dialling out from the watch or calling your favourite contacts (called Buddy) listed separately in the watch.
This means that our phone is safely tucked away in our pockets or handbag, and we’re wearing a Bluetooth headset so that when the call goes through, we don’t actually have to use the phone at all. This may come in handy when you’re driving, but we would never recommend talking on the phone when driving.
On WhatsApp, we could read our messages by using the bezel to scroll it down and also respond either through a voice note, using emojis, canned messages or type out a specific reply using an on-screen keyboard.
All the basic functions of a watch – which is now on our smartphones, like time and date, alarm clock, stopwatch, timer, etc. look and feel more natural back on the wrist. Samsung has added some nice design flourishes on all these basic functions, so I never feel like I’m buying something less than a great watch, since it gets all the fundamentals right.
There’s the ability to speak commands to the Gear S2, although in our tests the recognition engine wasn’t very good. We used the microphone on the watch to record some voice memos instead, which turned out okay but still a little soft.
Then there are the fitness-related apps, which were really quite fun, as it helped us to get into all types of physical activities so we could track our heart rate on the fly using the built-in heart rate monitor, in order to meet our daily fitness goals.
The main one here is how many steps we took in a day, and how much water we drank. Both are actually important habits to maintain, according to health experts. Drink more water, and be more active, they say.
For higher levels of sports activities, we would recommend getting the basic Gear S2 model instead, since the leather strap on the classic may not be as practical. Yes, you can actually swap the leather strap out with third-party bands, but finding the right fit and material is extra work.
The white band on the silver Gear S2 however, can get dirty over time, and we would probably invest in the gray version, or purchase additional straps from Samsung (which come with some nice designs, from what we saw at the launch event).
The other reason why we would prefer the dark version of the Gear S2 is that the stainless steel body of the watch of the silver version doesn’t look quite as premium – but in the long-term, small scratches and nicks on the watch’s silver body may not look as obvious, compared to the gray. So choose well.
In terms of battery life, we can safely say it’s better than Android Wear models, although that’s not really saying much. We managed to get about 2 to 3 days of use from one charge – but practically speaking, since charging the watch is relatively easy thanks to the magnetic wireless dock, we just placed it on the dock every time we weren’t using the watch for about half an hour, and we’ve managed to actually keep the watch going for many days this way.
As such, we didn’t wait for the battery to completely drain before we charged it – rather we charged it for short periods whenever we had the opportunity, so it never actually runs out of juice.
However, if you’re in the office for long stretches of time, we would suggest getting a separate charging dock for the time when you’re at work.
Up till now we haven’t really said anything too negative about this smartwatch, and truth be told, we didn’t really find anything that we didn’t really like about it, compared to the other smartwatches we’ve used.
Size-wise, it’s not overly large and fits our wrists well, the strap is comfortable and the buckle is well constructed, it’s pleasant to look at and doesn’t scream out that it’s a geeky tech toy, and in terms of battery life it’s not perfect, but it’s really quite easy to keep it charged up.
The only thing now is does it bring about huge amount of value to my life? And for that the answer is still a no. No smartwatch has. I can still go around my daily life without a smartwatch since I can whip out my smartphone without much fuss.
Looking at my wrist and looking at my smartphone screen in the palm of my hand is pretty much the same thing, so the watch could still be redundant.
If I wanted a fitness tracker there are a plethora of options, at lower price points if I’m just a casual fitness fan or at higher price points if I’m a fitness fanatic.
If I wanted something stylish or something to impress other people with, there are high-fashion or luxury watches which can do that. To a large degree, Apple is trying to address this market with premium versions of its Watch, but Samsung hasn’t done the same.
And despite the thousands of apps and watch faces available for smartwatches, there are currently still no real apps that compel us to get a smartwatch in order to use it.
So at the end of the day, it boils down to whether you find this attractive and useful enough to plonk down S$448 / RM1399 for the Gear S2 and S$548 / RM1599 for what is essentially a high-tech fashion accessory.
Like all good accessories, it’s not going to change your life, but it shouldn’t frustrate you either while you’re wearing it. And you’ll feel good when you have the Gear S2 on you – at least for a while, until the next best accessory comes along.
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