Samsung hasn’t had much success in the smartwatch market, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Its first ever iteration of the Galaxy Gear was groundbreaking (though eventually forgettable), and last year’s Gear S wasn’t that well-received, which could be attributed to its imposing size. The Gear S2, however, changes everything. Not only is it the Korean company’s first-ever circular smartwatch, it can also be paired with a non-Samsung device – something that was never possible with any of its other smartwatches.
While it’s clear that Samsung went back to the drawing board with the Gear S2, is it any good? Well, the answer is anything but simple, although one thing is certain: it’s the smartwatch to beat.
DESIGN & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The Gear S2 is a beautiful smartwatch. Throughout my time with the wearable, never have I been complimented as much as I did with the Gear S2 – it could be the white and silver colourway that instantly pops out (and I’d rather think that’s the case and not because my own regular watch is overwhelmingly boring). It almost seemed to be a general consensus that it’s one sleek-looking watch, not just by smartwatch standards.
Part of the reasons why the Gear S2 is such an appealing product is its size. Compared to other smartwatches on the market, the Gear S2 is one of the smallest and slimmest one around. It doesn’t look like a chunky piece of metal on my wrist; and that’s a step in the right direction if smartwatches were to be adopted more widely by the general public.
While there are still bits and pieces of plastic used in the overall construction of the Gear S2, it does not feel like a cheap device at all. It’s solidly built, and it is very comfortable to wear. The straps are soft to the touch, and it doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all when I wore it while working out.
However, the fact that the Gear S2 uses a proprietary band is a shame, especially in the case of our white model. While I’ve always managed to wash off some stains that gets on the band, some are harder to be cleaned. There’s also the very strong possibility of permanent sweat stains building up over time. It would’ve been nice to be able to just grab any watch band from the market and switch to it whenever I want to. This issue, however, does not apply to the RM1,599 Gear S2 classic, which uses a standard 20mm leather watch band with quick-release pins for easy swapping.
If there’s one thing that no one can fault Samsung on, it would be the company’s expertise when it comes to displays. In the case of the Gear S2, this can’t be any more true. Its 1.2-inch 360 x 360 circular Super AMOLED display is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Blacks are absolute, colours are very vibrant, the panel itself is sharp, bright, and most of all, it is placed in a recessed area underneath the Gorilla Glass. This gives it a very watch-like appearance.
All things considered, the Gear S2 is Samsung’s most impressive smartwatch by miles. It’s sleeker, smaller, and most of all, faster than its predecessor, the Gear S. In fact, both smartwatches are so different from each other that I wouldn’t even consider them to be part of the same series; that’s how much better the Gear S2 is from its predecessor.
Our review unit is the “standard” version of the Gear S2. We also had a brief moment with the Classic version of the smartwatch, which is designed for working adults and would not look out of place in an professional environment. It’s made with soft leather straps and feels a hint smaller than the standard version. In terms of aesthetics, the Gear S2 Classic (priced at RM1,599) offers so much more: it’s more refined and classy, and the use of standard watch bands mean you can pair it with any third party 20mm watch bands around.
Arguably the best feature of the Gear S2 is its rotating bezel, which functions as an alternative input method to the touchscreen. Seeing how the S2 has a pretty small 1.2-inch display, I like using the bezel to navigate around the smartwatch. That way, my finger won’t be in the way of what is being displayed on the screen.
The rotating bezel is robust and intuitive to use. Rotating clockwise would work like swiping left on the touchscreen, and vice versa. There’s also a very satisfying click with every rotation of the bezel…which is actually part of the reason why I love to use it in place of the touchscreen.
Rather than opting for a Qualcomm or MediaTek processor, Samsung decided to equip the Gear S2 with its own Exynos 3250 1.0GHz dual-core processor instead. I’m not quite sure if it’s the processor or Tizen OS itself (or a combination of both), but the Gear S2 is very, very responsive. There’s barely any stutter or lag whenever I’m operating the smartwatch, which makes for quite a pleasurable user experience. However, the same cannot be said for third-party apps, among other things (more on this in the Software section below).
I’ve spent some time with the Samsung Gear S in the past, and in comparison to that smartwatch, the Gear S2 offers a whole new user experience. It is clear that all those time spent at Tizen Developer Conferences yielded quite a spectacular fruit. The Gear S2 is much more intuitive to use, and it feels extremely polished out of the box.
First and foremost, Samsung made a wise move in opening up compatibility with non-Galaxy smartphones by offering the Samsung Gear app on the Google Play Store. This was crucial, as it immediately unlocks a huge amount of other Android smartphones that can be used with the Gear S2. Samsung even has a list of confirmed Android smartphones that will work with the Gear S2, and it has also gone on record to state that the Gear S2 is designed to work with Android smartphones running on Android 4.4 and above with at least 1.5GB of RAM.
Swiping (or rotating) to the left from the Gear S2’s watch face would show me any notification from my paired device, and on the right would be where all the widgets are placed. Through these widgets, I can quickly measure my heart rate, see how many steps I have taken, and even look at my schedule for the day and coming weeks.
As for the physical buttons, Samsung kept it plain and simple too: the top is a back button, while the bottom is the home button, which will always bring me back to the watch face. Interestingly, pressing the home button again when I’m already at the watch face will open up a list of apps installed on the S2. On top of that, I can customise what a double press of the home button does, which include opening up recent apps, the settings page, or any app that is installed on the S2.
However, not all is good about Tizen OS on the Gear S2. For one, I wish it had some form of Theatre Mode, where the display will be switched off without actually powering down the smartwatch – something that is found on Android Wear devices. That way, I wouldn’t have to switch it off whenever I enter a dark environment – like a movie theatre.
Other than that, using the Gear S2 for map directions can be a little tricky. For one, it relies solely on HERE Maps; there’s no navigating with Google Maps or Waze simply because the apps aren’t compatible on the Tizen platform. It also takes quite some time to actually launch the app, not to mention the fact that I have to install HERE Maps on my device for the navigation to work.
That being said, it does work pretty well. I just have to set my destination using my device and the Gear S2 will automatically show the directions I have to take. Of course, as the smartwatch does not have a speaker, I had to rely on my smartphone to give me verbal messages, although the S2 would also vibrate whenever I have to take a turn.
As mentioned previously, the user experience of the Gear S2 is a very pleasant one. The user interface is smooth, intuitive, and looks very polished; I can’t believe how much better the experience is over the Gear S. Although opening up third-party apps and HERE Maps take some time, core apps do not suffer from this. While it’s not lightning quick, it is fast enough to not be a nuisance. The fluid animations also hide the loading times.
Perhaps the best part of the Gear S2 is the fact that I can reply to messages with the smartwatch itself. I can either reply with preset messages, emojis, voice dictation, or better yet, a miniature keyboard that is reminiscent of pre-smartphone days. While I can definitely type with it, the 1.2-inch is a little too small to use the keyboard effectively.
Speaking of which, the voice dictation of the Gear S2 could’ve been better. For one, it’s very inconsistent; occasionally, it will understand what I’m saying without much trouble, but at certain times, it takes way too long to recognise what I’ve just said. The S2 also has trouble separating my voice from ambient sounds, which can get a little frustrating. I find myself resorting to the miniature keyboard or just taking out my phone to reply.
All in all, the Gear S2’s software is really, really good. I can definitely see how much work Samsung has put into Tizen OS for the S2. It’s not perfect, mind you, but it’s very close, if not for one thing: third-party support.
While Samsung mentioned that it was partnering with developers to get more apps onto the platform, there is still a clear lack of third-party apps for the Gear S2. There’s not as many watch faces to choose from in comparison to Android Wear, and there’s a clear lack of third-party apps. I’ve enjoyed simple games like Solitaire and 2048 when I had the LG G Watch R, and such entertainment are not available on the S2. In order for this smartwatch to be a really good alternative to Android Wear, Samsung will have to do something about third-party support.
The Gear S2 is on par with most smartwatches on the market in this department. With Always On mode enabled (the S2 will always display the current time) and the display set to its maximum brightness, I’ve always managed to get at least one day’s worth of battery life out the Gear S2’s 250mAh battery. On certain occasions, it can even last up to two days.
The wireless charging dock is also a breeze to use; I don’t have to fumble around with pins or cables to charge the S2. I simply need to place it on the dock and let it snap magnetically to the dock, where it will begin charging immediately.
As a circular smartwatch, the Gear S2 has a number of worthy competitors. One of them is the very sleek Huawei Watch. Featuring a sharp 1.4-inch 400 x 400 circular AMOLED display (protected by a highly scratch-resistant sapphire crystal), a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor paired with 512MB of RAM, 4GB of internal storage, and a bigger 300mAh battery compared to the Gear S2, the Huawei Watch is a very compelling smartwatch. Although looks are subjective, the Watch is arguably sleeker than the S2; I certainly think so. And it’s coming to Malaysia very soon as well.
Another interesting alternative to the Gear S2 is Motorola’s very own Moto 360; the second generation one, of course. Compared to its predecessor, the 2015 Moto 360 is powered by a much more capable Snapdragon 400 processor, which puts it on par with other Android Wear devices on the market. Other than that, the second generation Moto 360 also comes in two sizes: 46mm and 42mm, giving it more versatility over the Gear S2.
Of course, we cannot also leave out the Apple Watch. With a huge selection of stylish bands and classy (and fun) watch faces, the Apple Watch appears to be designed to be first and foremost a really, really good looking smartwatch. And it really is – some of my colleagues have seen the range of bands, and left the Apple Store truly impressed even if they aren’t “watch people”. Plus, the Digital Crown offers another unique way of navigating on a smartwatch, even if it may be ergonomically quite difficult to use when the watch is worn.
However, the Apple Watch’s limitations are well-known: it only pairs to iPhones, and while some parts of the software are pretty cool, there are others which are not really useful in real life.
Also, it is rumoured that Samsung engineers are working on enabling Gear S2 compatibility with iOS, allowing the Gear S2 to go head on against Apple’s first ever wearable.
While the Huawei Watch and Moto 360 have their own strengths and advantages, the Gear S2 has one clear advantage over them: its rotating bezel. Not only is it a very intuitive way to control the S2, I found myself using the bezel more than the touchscreen itself, which really speaks volumes to how good it is. Honestly, this is one of the rare moments where I was genuinely, pleasantly surprised at how good a feature turned out in real life, when it sounded rather gimmicky on paper.
And, seeing how this particular input method has been patented by Samsung, it is likely that Samsung will have sole ownership of this unique and genuinely inventive navigation method.
While the Samsung Gear S2 isn’t an affordable smartwatch, it is easily right up there as one of the best wearables on the market today. It is sleek, intuitive to use, has a polished operating system, and most of all, it’s a smartwatch that can easily pass as a stylish wristwatch – especially the Classic version. This is one smartwatch that I can see other people wear just for its look; it’s not just something that only techies will want to wear, and that really speaks volumes as to how good-looking this smartwatch is.
Of course, the lack of support from third-party developers can be an issue. In comparison to Android Wear (or even the Apple Watch), which has grown immensely since its introduction, Tizen OS on the Gear S2 is still in its infancy. This will be Samsung’s biggest challenge when it comes to making the Gear S2’s successor even better: getting more developers onto the platform.
That being said, the Gear S2 is still a wonderful smartwatch. It does what smartwatches are meant to do, which is to make it unnecessary to pull your phone out of your pocket too often. The Gear S2 is by far Samsung’s best take yet on a smartwatch, and other manufacturers should take note; this is how you make a wearable that people want to wear.