Featured Review: Samsung Gear S

November 16, 2014 - Written By John Anon

The Samsung Gear S is a standalone device but is it a stand-out device…

Samsung do love making smartphones. It seems every other week they are releasing a new device. Although smartwear is a new(ish) thing, it is already starting to look like Samsung like making them too. This is Samsung’s sixth piece of wearable technology already. In fact, it is their fifth smartwatch this year. However, different to the rest of the Samsung wearables…scratch that…different to all wearables, this one is a standalone piece. The Gear S is the first smartwatch to come equipped with its own SIM and data plan. As a result, the Gears S is credited with being a phone within a watch.

As this is no longer strictly an ‘accessory’, one of the features of a standalone device is OEMs can lump on an expensive price. As you would expect from Samsung, they are not one to miss a trick. This is currently the most expensive smartwatch out there with the price ranging between $300-400 off contract. It varies quite substantially by carrier with Verizon topping out at the $400 market, bang in the middle is T-Mobile at $350, while AT&T and Sprint are aiming for the $300 marker. On top of its outright high price, the Gear S also needs its own data plan. That means you are typically looking at an extra $10 a month (on top of your bill) to get the Gear S up and running.

Ironically, in spite of its standalone nature, the Gear S does need to be connected to a smartphone to work. What’s more, it needs to be connected to a Samsung phone to work. What’s even more, it needs to be connected to a Samsung smartphone running at least Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean). So, straight off the bat, it is a standalone device which cannot really standalone.

Confused yet? Welcome to the world of the Gear S – A watch that thinks it’s a phone.

Performance

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH-65The Gear S comes with 4GB internal storage and 512MB RAM. In addition, the Gear S comes with a dual-core 1GHz Snapdragon 400 processor, as does the LG G Watch R. Although the processor in the LG G Watch R clocks at 1.2Ghz. In comparison the Moto 360 runs on a more dated  OMAP 3 processor. That’s where the comparisons end as the other two run on Android Wear while the Gear S runs on Tizen OS. For those who dislike Tizen, you will wont be happy to hear that there were no notable issues with the performance of the Gear S and it does run relatively smooth. Apps and screens were responsive and generally the Gear S is quite a fast device. On the very rare occasion, the screen would slightly glitch when something was clicked. This was rare but did occur more than once and as such you should be aware.

There were also no major issues in the performance of the screen which responds very well indeed. The size of the screen is a slight issue (discussed later) but in terms of its performance, is excellent. The curved nature of the screen gives swiping a real premium feel. Not to mention the 480 x 360 resolution (300ppi) means the screen is far sharper and superior than anything else out there at the moment. Not forgetting the Gear S has a Super AMOLED display, compared to the P-OLED on the LG G Watch R and the IPS display on the Moto 360. These combined aspects did make the Gear S feel more like a smartphone than a watch. Which cant be said for either the Moto 360 or LG G Watch R. Swiping is great, the display is excellent and the whole screen feels properly premium compared to what we have seen so far.

One of the main features of the Gear S is its standalone nature. A phone is not needed and this is quite quickly realized when you start playing with the watch. You can make calls, you can send emails/texts and you can surf the web. All without the need for a mobile. That said, none of these features are easily performed. For instance, if we start with calling. The dialer is there, your contacts are synced with your phone. So you can hit a number and hit it up. However, the speaker is not great and hearing people is a little difficult to do even in the quietest of locations. As a result, you do find yourself constantly moving your arm towards your ear to hear more clearly. This causes the next problem which is speaking into the watch. Again, there are no overwhelming issues and you can speak with the other person hearing you. But your arm needs to be positioned permanently which quickly becomes tiring for the arm. Not to mention with the swapping between speaking and listening sometimes results in swapping between ear and mouth.

Next was emailing and texts. Again, its all true. You can do it as a standalone device. But again, its function is limited. Once you hit an email or text (and like on a phone) your keyboard instantly pops up. This is the best bit. Seeing a keyboard on a watch really does illicit true excitement. But, the keyboard is so small. Obviously Samsung made a big screen to accommodate the virtual keyboard and in spite of the big size, the keyboard is still too small. You are literally poking at the keys and it all feels rather child-like and certainly not productive. Another strange element is that you cannot compose emails. You can reply when they come in, but that is it. Composing or forwarding is not possible. Lastly, the browser. This is described more in-depth later but for now in terms of performance the browser is slow loading and although is readable, is only barely so. Overall, the phone, messaging and browsing features are seriously good additions to the Gear S, but that said they are still only novel aspects. It cannot be understood that (in their present form) people would use any of them by choice. Instead, these seem more of an emergency feature. You can text, message or surf if you need to. Which is fair enough. But this is not an alternative to a phone.

Design

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH-25The design of the Gear S is quite perplexing. On one hand (excuse the pun) it is one of the better designed smartwatches. On the other hand, it is not. The Gear S is definitely pretty but in an ugly sort of way. For instance, this is a premium looking device but it is simply too techie looking. Unlike the style seen with the Moto 360 or more recently on the LG G Watch R, the Gear S is bulky. Samsung again have decided to opt for function over form. Some might say this is not a bad thing but as the function is quite low, all-round the device feels incomplete.

The screen is the biggest screen I have seen on a smartwatch. This is 2″ curved Super AMOLED display with a 360 x 480 resolution. The curvature of the screen certainly is the saving grace. If the Gear S did not have the curve then this would be too big for your arm, looking more like a mini phone slapped on your wrist. As a result, the curve does add some form to the watch and detracts away from the overall size. That said, detraction does not change the size. And the size is an issue. It is just that bit too big to be a real watch. Similar to the rest of the Gear range (except the Gear Live) the Gear S again contains a home button on the front. However, in contrast to the home buttons on the previous Gear range, the Gear S’s button is rather similar to those on smartphones. As such when you look at the Gear S from the front is does kinda look like a baby smartphone. One issue that was noted with the display is that there is some serious glare reflected. You’ll see evidence of this in some of the pictures as it was sometimes almost impossible to take a clean shot without the glare and especially outside.

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH-44From behind, the Gear S is similar to the Gear Live and contains the same strap and locking mechanism. Which brings us to the next issue. The lock. This is an extremely difficult and unnatural strap lock. Samsung has again opted for the continuous strap and clipping it on and off is a rather tedious experience The metal clasp is not great and has to be rather forcefully closed each time. Not to mention the adjuster does not cleanly fit inside its corresponding holes resulting in another tedious adjustment every time you let someone try on your watch. And believe me, this is more common then you might think. The back also contains the obligatory Samsung heart rate monitor and the pins for the docking station. Again, these do not differ in any notable way from what we saw on the Gear Live.

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH-37Software

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH-30I suppose the disclaimer does need to be made. This is Tizen. That will automatically put a number of users off. This is not Android Wear and therefore is more basic in its appearance and functionality. So how does it run? Well, there are no overwhelming issues with the software. The software is fast (enough) to handle the basic operations. The swiping feature has actually been greatly improved since previous incarnations and once you get used to it, is quite functional. You swipe up to see basic settings like screen brightness, connections and so on. Swiping left will show you all your main pending notifications while swiping right offers you three to four additional screen pages including the music player, an S Health overview, toggle switches and a news feed. Lastly swiping down brings you to your main app screen.

In terms of the apps screen. This again is a little basic in terms of its appearance. That said, its extremely user friendly and doesn’t take too long to get used to. The apps screen includes all your pre-loaded apps, a settings shortcut and also a link to download more apps. Of course pressing the link only opens the Samsung App store on your phone and not your watch. As this is Tizen and not Android Wear, the actual selection of apps available is limited. Apps designed for older Gear devices are compatible but even when including these, the app selection felt too few for a new toy that you want to play with.

One app which obviously needs to be mentioned briefly is Opera Mini. Or as I like to call it Opera Mini Mini. This is the first web browser built directly for the Gear S. As such it is the first browser to offer true independent watch browsing. The first notable issue is the Gear S does not come with Opera installed. With the lack of a generic browser this means the watch comes with no browser when first opened. That said, the browser works surprising well. Pages can be viewed and actually read (just about). Of course, this does not mean it is necessarily fast. Page loading is very slow compared to what we are now used to and this greatly affected how you are likely to use the browser. However, it is there, it does work and in extreme cases is useful.

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH-72Lastly, it’s worth mentioning as this is a Samsung device you do get some of the additional Samware chucked in. Most notable is S Health. In general, this is rather as expected and consistent with what we have seen before on Gear Devices. Although, similar to the Note 4 Samsung have chucked in the new ‘inactive notifications’ that constantly throughout the day let you know how long you have been ‘idle’ for. Great! There is also the standard S Voice feature which again is not dissimilar from past experiences. Not forgetting the Gear S includes a pedometer, hear rate sensor, maps (which is powered by Nokia Here), Samsung Milk (radio streaming) and Nike Running.

Battery Life

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH additional-45Battery life is the absolute best feature of the Gear S. This is largely due to running on Tizen. For all you Tizen haters out there. Sorry, but it is true. In spite of the Gear S only containing a 300mAh battery (remember all the problems we had with the Moto 360 on a 320mAh battery) there were no issues in terms of battery life. Making it through the day is not only easy but almost impossible to force drain. Even after extremely heavy usage and purpose battery killing, there was typically at least 25% come bedtime. For a more moderate user, the Gear S will offer 1-2 days usage comfortably. If used for only minimal actions (which at the moment is all you can do with the Gear S) then the battery will certainly last the two day test. In short, the battery is a winner.

On the downside and typical of smart watches, the Gear S does not exactly charge quickly. It roughly takes around two hours and thirty minutes to go from almost dead to 100%. If somehow you do forget to charge the Gear S over its two day discharge and need to give it a quick boost. ‘Fuhgeddaboudit.’ Its not happening. Another aspect, which was not great was the very basic looking charger. This is a dock…of sorts. It charges by clipping onto the Gear S. As such this is no Moto 360 docking station. It was also a little difficult to sometimes unclip the charge dock which was also disappointing. After spending so much cash you might want to be careful with the Gear S but the snapping action of the charger does require some effort.

At the end of the day…

Samsung Galaxy Gear S AH-58It’s best to think of the smartwatch market as split into two. There are those that want function and there are those that want more of a watch. If you fall more into the first camp, then this might be the watch for you. Its standalone feature with the ability to make calls, read and reply to emails, text and browse the internet (without a phone) certainly excel this above everything out there. These features are really basic and in their infancy but despite this, they cannot be denied. I actually found myself leaving home quite often without my phone, which was a new and exhilarating feeling. Although to be clear, only for quick trips. So the Gear S does do what it claims…to a degree. If you fall into the watch camp. Then this is not for you and you are probably better off with the LG G Watch R. The Gear S is too bulky and in some ways feels like it is going backwards rather than forwards. For the image conscious out there it really does feel far too obviously like a piece of tech on your wrist.

Overall, would I recommend it? Yes, I would. If you are in the market for a smartwatch anyway, then this does provide a unique take on what a watch can do. The standalone features (albeit limited) do have a place. It does feel good to go for a coffee without the phone and be able to text “running late” from your watch. That alone makes the Gear S worth a look. Although, in fairness, you might want to wait for the price to drop a little.