Samsung is a familiar name when it comes to smartwatches. They weren't the first to the table with such a device but they were the first big name to jump in the pool, and their presence was immediately felt throughout the niche but important market. Since then we've seen plenty of competition in the space, including Google's own Android Wear ecosystem launched about 9 months after the original Galaxy Gear came to market, and of course the Apple Watch earlier this year as the most recent big competition. Apple has been eating into everyone's marketshare here though, and because of that Samsung needed a big splash to change the tide. How does Samsung's first round smartwatch, the Gear S2, fare in this climate? Let's take a look.
Samsung has always offered some solid specs on its Gear smartwatches, and this version is no different. The screen is a 1.2-inch 360 x 360 pixel circular Super AMOLED display and is powered by a 1.0GHz Exynos 3250 dual-core processor and a Mali-400 GPU. You'll also find 512MB of RAM inside, 4GB of internal storage, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.1 and even NFC capabilities inside. The suite of sensors packed onto the Gear S2 include accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate, ambient light and barometer, while a 250mAh battery is packed inside. Don't forget about TizenOS which makes an appearance here running the whole show, and we're looking at a pretty svelte 42.3mm wide x 49.8mm high x 11.4mm thick and a super light 47g weight.
In The Box
Hardware and Display
Samsung's Gear lineup has come a very long way from the square designs of the past. While square watches are certainly stylish right now, Samsung's Gear lineup can hardly be called stylish by any means, especially the original gargantuan Gear S. This time around Samsung opted for a more traditional circular design watch which looks great at every single angle. It's made completely of stainless steel and feels high quality all the way around its body. This one is thinner than a lot of other smartwatches out there and the face itself is smaller too, making this one a perfect unisex device. The band included with our model fits well with the overall design, which is a little more sporty than anything, and is made out of a rubberized material that will feel familiar to anyone used to sporty watch bands. Samsung is using a proprietary band clip here that functions well but will require you to purchase Samsung-made ones. This ensures perfect compatibility with the size and style of the watch but obviously limits what can be used.
On the right side of the device you'll find a microphone nestled between two physical buttons, the top which acts as a home button and the bottom is a dedicated apps button. Besides being circular Samsung has opted for a rotating ring for navigation of the device, a ring which sits in a place that's familiar to anyone who's ever used a diver's watch. Our version is a smooth, flat ring while other models of the Gear S2 can have teeth and other fancier markings for added style. Using this ring feels great thanks to its tactile feedback which clicks each time you rotate it, letting you know it's not only not going to spin out of control at any given time, but also helping with precise navigation. My biggest complaint on this particular model was that the ring had almost too much tension on it and was slightly difficult to turn when my hands were dry, something that could be rectified with some other material. Using it with cloth gloves, especially in the colder months, might prove to be quite difficult indeed.
The display is an incredible looking next-generation circular Super AMOLED display. Holding this one up next to an LG Watch Urbane or a Huawei Watch shows the immediate difference in display quality. There's no changes in color, no rainbow shimmering and no dimming of any kind even at absolute extreme angles. Thanks to the fact that it's an AMOLED display and can turn off individual pixels an always-on display is possible here with barely any change to battery life and displays just a simple minute and second hand for quick glances at the time in day or night settings. The display is incredibly crisp and offers a beautiful range of colors that AMOLED screens are so well known for. It's also plenty bright in sunlight, something that's obviously incredibly important for a watch, and I never found myself struggling to see the time.
Performance and Battery Life
Samsung's Exynos lineup of processors have shown their muscle in the latest Samsung devices, and that muscle is displayed here as well in the dual-core 1.0GHz Exynos 3250. Samsung's TizenOS is precisely crafted for their devices too, and the Gear S2's build of Tizen really shines through in its performance and fluidity. Everything in the UI is a buttery smooth 60FPS, never once dropping a frame or appearing that it's loading information while using it. The user experience really was second to none when it came to fluidity and grace, and all the animations and transitions Samsung has created here look and feel perfect for the circular display.
Battery life was excellent as well, easily eclipsing that of many other smartwatches we've reviewed. Getting a full day out of the watch even with heavy fitness tracking and voice interaction wasn't even remotely a problem, and often times even after using it heavily and being off the charger for 18 hours I found the battery didn't slip below 30%. Those that want to carry this into the two-day battery life arena might struggle a bit, especially if always-on display is on, but turning that off could be enough to get you through both days.
Samsung also packs this one with a wireless charging dock that it sits in, very much like the Moto 360, and magnetically fastens into place when dropped on top. The charger beautifully displays the watch and has a color changing LED to let you know when charging is done, not to mention the display lights up and shows the circular battery percentage when charging too. We tried other Qi compatible chargers, including the one that ships with the Moto 360, and they all charged the watch without problem. This means that you can tap into the wide variety of chargers available out there, but just be aware that it might not sit perfectly on a charger meant for a phone because of the size and shape.
Samsung has continually refined its software over the years for all its platforms, but this time around it's completely wiped the slate clean and started fresh from the drawing board. Based on the round design of the watch the new user interface that's powered by Samsung's in-house TizenOS is a thing of beauty and ease. Navigation is completely either by rotating the physical ring or by touching and swiping, whichever you prefer, but selecting an action is always done by touch. Menus and other UI elements are all done in full circle or partial circle configurations, and touch elements are generally available right in the middle of the screen. This makes it easy to select elements without having to be precise, a design that's incredibly well done given that it's difficult to be precise with your finger in a 1.2-inch screen in the first place. Swiping down from the top of the display always goes back and works very well. When on the home screen swiping down brings up the quick information bar where you can quickly toggle brightness of the display, music playback functionality and do not disturb modes, in addition to seeing the Bluetooth connection status and battery percentage.
Accessing the two dozen or so built-in apps is done most quickly by pressing the lower button, which brings up the carousel of app icons. By default there are two full pages of apps, and scrolling via the ring automatically changes between pages when the end of one is reached. Quickly scrolling between pages is a fluid motion with tactile buzzing and a nice transition animation to aide you on your journey. Apps are all handled through Samsung's app store, which is available on all Android phones now, not just ones made by Samsung. This brings me to another point about the Gear S2 that's radically different from past Samsung smartwatches: it officially works with all Android phones powered by Android 4.4 KitKat and up. This is a massive change that's more than welcome for those that like some of Samsung's devices but don't want to be wrapped completely in the Samsung ecosystem. Right now there seems to be some game stopping bugs related to connecting the watch to a phone running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and I found that the watch would randomly disconnect at any point in time. The only remedy was to factory reset the watch and re-pair it to the phone, something that makes it useless with Marshmallow-powered phones until Samsung fixes this issue.
S-Voice and Gear App
S-Voice has been a staple on Samsung phones for years now and clearly isn't going away as a Samsung mainstay. Just like the rest of the watch S-Voice is fully usable on any Android-powered phone connected to the watch and works just as you would expect. The latest version of Samsung's personal assistant software is better than ever, and critics of its past versions (including myself) will likely find this version to be quite agreeable. It doesn't do as much as Google Now does but it does do quite a bit including sending and reading messages, telling the weather, sports scores and more. Samsung's list of commands hasn't really changed so much as it has just gotten more accurate over time both in reading info and listening to commands. There's even a wake-up command that can be spoken to the watch to start S-Voice, and the command can be completely customized on the watch. This is something Google Now doesn't do and could be a big deal depending on who's using it.
The Gear companion app works to not only connect your watch to your phone but also to act as an intermediary between various Samsung services like S-Health and the Samsung Apps store. It's also an easy way to change and customize watch faces on the fly without having to go through the menus on your watch, or even add additional watch faces from the Samsung Apps store. On top of this there's a notification management section so you can select which apps send notifications to your watch and you can even use the Find My Gear feature to help look for your watch if you misplaced it.
Watch Faces and Customization
There's 13 watch faces included with the watch, 7 of which can be fully customized to your liking. Some of these vary from changing just a few elements, such as the hands or turning the date stamp on or off, while others look like completely different watch faces by the time you've chosen your particular look and style. Colors and styles are completely different on all the faces too and range from simple white or black backgrounds to fancy colors, patterns and pictures. Watch hands are pretty random and other styles are all face-dependent, which is nice and a bit annoying at the same time. Plenty of times I wished I could grab some elements from one watch face and put it on another, but alas this isn't possible. At least it is possible to save each of your configurations as separate watch faces, so if you have a specific look that you like to switch between but they all use the same base face, you can save each of those as their own faces.
The importance of customizing the face can't be understated, and it's refreshing to see this trend really taking root well here. Samsung's Gear Apps store has plenty of custom watch faces but nowhere near the selection you'll find on an Android Wear device. Not only this but there don't seem to be quite as many high-quality ones here as are available on Android Wear. This watch did just debut on the market and is still just starting to ship to plenty of countries around the world though, so it's not entirely fair to compare the available faces to a platform that's been around for over a year and a half now. Give it time and this community will surely continue to grow and mature, and the ease of adding watch faces only helps make this a possibility.
S-Health is an integral part of the Gear S2's experience, as most smartwatches are designed to track fitness statistics as a main function. S-Health has consistently been one of the better secondary Samsung apps since it came out and that experience has improved quite a bit with this newest iteration as well. Heart rate and step sections are separately placed on the home screen, but all of the rest of the S-Health functions can be accessed in one convenient location when needed. All the functions included in the suite are fully viewable on the watch and include step tracking, activity time tracking, heart rate, water consumption and caffeine consumption.
Step and activity tracking is one of the more impressive sections, and it's all down to how Samsung lays out the information presented. Instead of just a simple step counter or telling you how long you've been sitting, the dial changes to a 24-hour one and breaks down sections of heavy, light and no activity via color-coded pie cuts, each of these capable of being clicked and expanded. There's also a daily summary here to easily track what you've been doing (or not doing), and it all ties into the S-Health app on your phone. There's also a number of partner app tie-ins like Nike+ Running and others to keep you motivated and connected to what works best for you. There's even sleep tracking here if you want to wear the watch to bed, the only problem being that you may not have time to charge it before the next day of course.
Messaging, Communication, and Notifications
When a notification comes through to your phone the Gear S2 will buzz but not display the notification until you raise the watch to look at it. This is a brilliant default setting because it gives more privacy than Android Wear watches allow, for instance, as those will just light up whenever a notification appears regardless of how you're holding it. This can be turned off but I found it to be refreshing and a welcome way to keep my information private so it's literally not worn on my wrist for all to see. Messages that come through all have a prominent reply button on the bottom of the screen for quick replies instead of having to swipe over and click a button. Once you click you're presented with four ways to communicate: voice, emoticons, keyboard and quick responses.
Now before you laugh too hard yes, there is a keyboard on the Gear S2 for typing, but the design and text prediction are impressive to say the least. Keys are laid out in T-9 style, so texting is similar to a feature phone of yore. Numbers, symbols and letters are switched between via the rotating ring bezel on the watch, and I really never found myself having to try hard at all to type. If this is too burdensome S-Voice will provide easy voice responses so you can just talk to your wrist, or if that's too embarrassing you can reply with simple emoticons or pre-fabbed text. It's a phenomenal layout that works with SMS, Hangouts and plenty of other popular chat apps too. You can make phone calls from your wrist too, a hallmark of the Gear series that's not going anywhere anytime soon. There's a built-in speaker and microphone of course, so treating it like Dick Tracy's watch isn't without question.
Samsung's Gear line has always been a pretty good lineup of smartwatches, but nothing really stellar. That changes with the Gear S2 where Samsung clearly went back to the drawing board in every way and looked to not just provide what they thought was the next big thing, but provide something truly useful that the consumer can get behind and be excited about. Taking the artificial limitation of having to own a Samsung phone or tablet just to use the smartwatch fully really helps things too and shows that Samsung is more dedicated to the Android ecosystem than just its own products. Excellent design and lots of styles and customization really make it feel like your own watch, although having to use Samsung's official bands could prove to be expensive if you like to have a lot to change out. Incredible new UI design that's fast, fluid and intuitive makes it feel like it really was designed just for this product and not something that was just slapped on as an afterthought.
Overall this is an incredibly compelling product and I have absolutely no qualms about recommending this over any other smartwatch on the market. If you desire the use of things like Google Now support, or a larger availability of apps and watch faces then you may also want to consider Android Wear as an option, but you can't go wrong if you pick the Gear S2. Don't forget that there's a 3G version of the watch too, so if you'd rather just use the watch instead of your phone you should probably just get that version.