Is it a phone? Is it a watch? These are the questions that you’ll likely think up when you see Samsung’s latest smartphone-watch hybrid, an evolution on its original Gear smartwatch that will let you make calls from your watch when your phone isn’t even nearby.
I’m sitting in the GadgetGuy kitchen-shaped boardroom talking to my wrist, and I feel like a bit of a fool The phone sits on my wrist, disguised as a curved watch, and this writer is speaking into it, while everyone else hears my conversation.
This isn’t how phone calls generally work, and I don’t make a habit of communicating my life for everyone to hear, preferring to speak directly into the phone or with headphones on.
Four days into using the Samsung Gear S, I’m not sure if I would recommend this to all beyond the most die hard tech enthusiast that owns another Samsung smartphone, and while I can see some of the ideas Samsung is trying to get across in its convergence of timekeeper and telecommunication device, this might need a little more time before it’s ready for mass consumption.
When it comes to experiments in smartphones, few do it like Samsung. The company has been toying with wearables for longer than most other successful companies, and in its Gear S, is trying to find a bridge between phone and watch in a way no Android Wear device is trying.
This product is a first for quite a few things for Samsung, with the first nanoSIM slot in a Samsung product to reach Australia, the first easily found Tizen phone once again found in Australia, and the first time a Samsung curved screen has ever graced wrists (because it’s a watch), and if any of this sounds like jargon, hold on, because we’ll deal with it shortly.
Let’s start with the basics: Samsung’s Gear S is a smartwatch with a little more added to it, taking the form of a wearable computer for your wrist, with a bunch of sensors and computing power under a screen.
That screen is worth mentioning in detail, because Samsung has taken a 2 inch curved Super AMOLED touchscreen and made it run the resolution of 360×480, with the combination of size and resolution producing a device that shows 300 pixels per inch, a pixel clarity higher than most wearables we’ve seen, and only 25 pixels off Apple’s “Retina” grade screens.
Under this display is a dual-core 1GHz processor paired with 512MB RAM and 4GB storage, with this system running the lesser known operating system Tizen, which is connected with Samsung, but is also developed by Intel as well as the Linux Foundation.
As a result of the Gear S using this operating system, this smartwatch will not take apps from the Android store, and comes with the requirement of needing a Samsung phone to take the watch through its first setup, as well as get a lot of use out of the watch.
You’ll also find some wireless connectivity here found through 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS with support for GLONASS, and a nanoSIM slot with the watch able to operate as a phone when a SIM is inside the watch.
Ruggedisation can also be found here, with IP67 certification, meaning it is technically dust resistance and can survive a close encounter with water in up to one metre of liquid for up to 30 minutes.
Sensors are also found here, with your typical accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope joined by a heart-rate sensor and a UV light sensor.
A strap comes mounted to the Gear S smartwatch, but this can be removed if needed, unlike the battery which is not removable and is rated as 300mAh.
We’ve seen quite a few smartwatches over the past year or two, but the Samsung Gear S may well be the one of the more interesting gadgets we’ve seen the traverse this category, stepping in as both a smartwatch and a smartphone.
When you pick up the watch for the first time, it’ll be clear that Samsung hasn’t designed this like an ordinary smartwatch, and we say “ordinary” carefully since the whole smartwatch thing is new as it is.
Instead of the typical square or circular screen, the Gear S relies on a curved rectangular screen, and it’s not curved like the subtle curve the Galaxy Note Edge brings.
Rather, this is totally curved, stretching across your wrist in an arc, almost as if the watch was trying to conform to the slope of your arm.
That said, its size is very noticeable, and if you like a smaller watch, you will not be into the design or style Samsung is presenting here, with the Gear S resembling more of a gadget for your wrist rather than the holder of time.
And that’s fair, because the Gear S does so much more than tell you where the sun is positioned in the sky.
For instance, it can pick up phone calls, make phone calls, read your text messages, tell you the weather, what the ultraviolet level is like outside, control your music, tell you how many steps you’ve run, let you read the news few images, and even find your phone in a pinch if you’ve left it somewhere in the home and you only have access to your watch.
But it is large, and the size won’t suit all, so try it on before plonking down the $449 this thing costs.
At least the band is replaceable, though unlike some other smartwatches, this is a totally proprietary band, so you’ll need to buy another from Samsung, and we’re not sure how many of these will be easy to find.
For most, the included band should be fine, and all you really need to do is change the button holes on the clasp to make sure it fits.
You may find every so often the clasp doesn’t click into face, doesn’t hold position, so just make sure to feel that firm connection otherwise that watch will fall off your wrist.
Once you’re wearing the smartwatch, you need to bring it to life and talking with your smartphone, and that’s only going to happen with a recent Samsung phone.
Yes, Samsung’s smartphone requirement seen on the Galaxy Gear smartwatches from the past rears its head again, with the Gear S requiring a recent Samsung smartphone. We tested the Gear S with a Galaxy Note 4, though it would also work with the Edge, the S5, and probably a bunch of others provided they were from 2013 onwards.
Why can’t you use any old Android, you might ask?
Because the app needed to talk to the Gear S smartwatch is on Samsung’s Galaxy Apps, and only there. We’re sure there are other reasons too, likely around what the watch can and can’t talk to on other Android phones, but for now, all you need to know is that if you want to play with the Gear S, make sure you have a Samsung Galaxy phone, otherwise you won’t be getting very far.
If you do have one, however, simply grab the app, set up the watch to talk to the phone, and away you go.
You’ll quickly find you can hit the main button on the front of the Gear S to switch the screen on, with various swipes left, right, up and down to take you through the various menus of an operating system that might resemble something like Samsung’s TouchWiz Android overlay, though is something different altogether.
Rather, this is Tizen, a different operating system that we’ll see on Samsung televisions in 2015, though you don’t need to worry about that, because you won’t be thinking about an app ecosystem or whether this has the fight to beat Apple’s iOS. This is different, and is here to give Samsung something that can be controlled more tightly, since Samsung can’t really impact what Android Wear does (no manufacturer can, as that is controlled by Google).
Controlling Tizen on the smartwatch is handled by those swipes, with a swipe from left to right from the main home screen taking you to messages, a swipe from right to left taking you through various widgets you might have running (such as news, weather, and UV monitoring), a swipe from bottom to top showing you the apps you can load via an app menu, and a swipe from top to bottom dropping down a control bar like it does on Android phones.
There are a few speed issues when using the Gear S, mostly as you jump between menu screens and load apps, but provided you don’t live on the Gear S as your sole provider of information, all should be fine.
It is a companion device after all, and made to work with a smartphone or tablet, accepting and deflecting calls, and even allowing you to read and compose messages on your wrist of all places.
But, curiously, you’ll even find a SIM card slot here, with Samsung’s first nanoSIM slot that we’ve seen. When you load this up with a SIM card, you’ll find you can make phone calls separately from the phone itself.
In fact, if you find that you don’t want to bring your phone out for a night on the town, you can actually call people using that watch as a phone with the SIM card. You might look a little strange doing so, neck bent, mouth down at the watch speaking into it as if you were some modern Dick Tracy, but it’s possible and something that can happen with this phone, err, watch, err phone-watch.
But if you have dreams of using the Gear S solely as a phone, you’ll want to rethink that idea, because while it can make and take calls, and while it can send and receive messages, there’s not a lot it can do.
For instance, even though the Gear S feels like a small phone, it performs like a very limited phone when it’s strapped to your arm without an actual smartphone handset to talk to, and a Samsung handset at that.
That’s limitation number one: operating by itself, some of the things you’ll rely on go away. It technically supports email, but only by reading it from a smartphone, so you won’t get a single email on the Gear S without that phone. Seriously.
You have a calendar, but once again, it’s reading the information, so you can’t add dates or events from your wrist watch. In theory, Samsung’s “S Voice” should let you do this, talking to your wrist, but S Voice just told us in plain monotone “adding calendar updates is not supported”. Well then.
As a phone, the battery life takes a staggering fall, too. We don’t see this as a “limitation” (so it’s separate from our limitation count in this section of the review), but as a phone, we managed to eat through the entire battery in less than 12 hours, and that was with only a phone call or two, with the rest handled through awkwardly typed messages on the tiny cramped keyboard.
Not being used as a phone, you’ll see closer to two days of battery life, which will be handy for those of you keen to track footsteps and tell the time, but use it as a phone and watch that battery life drop.
Charging isn’t hard, though it does happen with a proprietary charger that clips underneath the watch and takes a regular microUSB plug into this section. If you lose this bit, however, good luck charging the watch (so don’t lose it).
Limitation number two is how few apps you have. you’ll find the read only email and calendar, some Nike running and a navigation app powered by Here maps, as well as weather, a news briefing, and even a neat “find my device” app which is useful for finding your phone when you only have your watch, but that’s mostly it.
You can find a few apps on Samsung’s Galaxy App marketplace, but once again, you’ll need a Samsung phone to get them loaded. Fortunately, most of these apps will work from the 3G data connection in the wrist phone, but some apps may only like it when you’re running the Gear S with the Samsung phone, meaning separation is not an option.
And that leads us to limitation number three, and possibly the most distracting of them all: you must have a relatively recent Samsung phone to make the Gear S work.
In theory, you can run the Gear S without a Samsung phone, making phone calls by talking into the watch face, craning your neck and wrist often and trying desperately not to look a little odd in public, but if you want your emails, your calendar information, and really anything else that would make a watch slightly smart, you need the phone.
And it has to be a Samsung phone. Samsung has made sure of that by throwing that requirement in, likely because it wants to keep you in its ecosystem, but also because the Gear S doesn’t run Android or even Android Wear, but rather Tizen, its own operating system that needs a link to Samsung’s Gear Manager to work, which itself is only available for Samsung phones.
If you’re already into your Galaxy Note 4 or Galaxy S5, great news: this will work in your ecosystem. If, however, the idea of a smidgeon of phone functionality in your watch has grabbed you and you have an LG, an Apple, a Sony, an HTC, or anything else that doesn’t have the name “Samsung” printed on the front, I hate to break this to you, but you are definitely out of luck.
If there’s one thing that is clear from the world of smartwatches, it’s that there is plenty of competition in this growing area of technology. Right now, Samsung isn’t alone, and is one of the world’s leaders in smartphones, with a few products of its own in the smartwatch category.
But the real question we have is this: is Samsung’s Gear S ready for prime time?
That’s the question we’re left wondering, asking ourselves as we stare at the curved screen sitting on our wrists. It’s a solid question, too, because this isn’t just some accessory you can buy and make work for your phone out of the blue.
You need a Samsung phone for this to work, and that’s all there is to it. And you need to want to use Samsung’s ecosystem for watch-faces and apps, which desperately needs more apps and styles because it currently has so little.
If you can survive with these caveats and you love the idea of a smartwatch, we’d look into the Gear S, but before you plonk down the cash, take a look at the rest of the competition, because if you can live without the phone calls, you’ll find quite a few choices out there.