Samsung’s Gear S smartwatch-phone hybrid reviewed

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.

Ready to make some phone calls on your watch?

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.

It's a bright day, but the UV monitor found in the Gear S will tell you just how much ultraviolet light there is out there, and if it's a damaging level.

Conclusion

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.

Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
Reader Rating0 Votes
Great looking screen; Solid battery two day battery life when used as a watch; Can make and take phone calls, and send and receive messages; Heart-rate sensor included; GPS built into the watch;
Needs a Samsung phone (a recent one, at that) to setup; Answering phone calls on your wrist can appear very odd, and make you a little concerned about your appearance; Using the onscreen keyboard is a joke; So few watch faces, and very little for free on Samsung’s Galaxy Apps marketplace; Doesn’t have support for so many apps, and won’t work for controlling music on several services; Watch doesn’t always switch on when you move your arm; Touch can be a little slow; Another proprietary dock;
3.2