Gear S2 Review: Samsung finally understands a smartwatch should be round
After almost a year of development, Samsung announced the Gear S2, a smartwatch the company says it has tried to make as perfect as possible. The Gear S2 is the first round smartwatch from Samsung, replacing all those square watches that we’ve seen until now. But can this round smartwatch differentiate itself from other smartwatches? Did Samsung create a winner on the wrist, or do other smartwatch vendors still remain stronger (at least when it comes to design)?
In this review we will take a closer look at the Gear S2, which isn’t just round, but comes with a cool new way of navigation through the rotary bezel and is compatible with any smartphone running Android 4.4 and above and with 1.5 GB of RAM.
We also advise you to have a look at our video review.
Finally! That’s the only word that comes to our mind right now. Finally, Samsung developed a smartwatch with a round display. Not just any smartwatch, but a smartwatch that looks extremely good. The Gear S2 Classic is the better looking version; we unfortunately got the normal Gear S2 from Samsung, but we do have pictures of the Classic version as well.
Samsung uses a stainless steel case for both the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic. The biggest difference between the two is the finish. Where the Gear S2 looks sporty and even a little futuristic, the Classic version looks more like a traditional watch. The bezel of the Gear S2 is flat, while on the Classic version the bezel looks more like a big sprocket.
Both versions have two buttons on the right side; in a Samsung-like move, the buttons are not equally sized, which is strange and somewhat takes away from the overall design. Between these buttons is a microphone, which we found worked extremely well during our test period. On the back we find a heart rate sensor and the watch’s IMEI number.
Samsung has used wireless charging on its smartwatches for the first time, so you will not find any connectors on the Gear S2, with everything built right into the watch. It’s very easy to charge the Gear S2. Within the box you get a charging dock similar to the one Motorola uses for the Moto 360; the difference is that Samsung’s charger is magnetic so using the dock is not a hassle. Just put the watch on the dock and it sticks to it, with no worry about whether you’ve put the watch on the charger the right way.
What we do miss is a loudspeaker. It was present on all previous Samsung smartwatches, but with the Gear S2 you are restricted to using a Bluetooth headset to make calls.
Now let’s talk about the watch’s bands. The Gear S2 uses rubbery bands, while the Classic version uses leather. The rubber bands complement the build of the watch; it feels nice and soft and we never felt any skin irritation because of the band. As Samsung had announced, in the future, there will be a plethora of watch bands to choose from. The bands are usually easy to change, though we did face issues with changing one of the two bands that we received with the review unit.
The biggest negative of the Gear S2 is its size. If you have big wrists or are used to big watches, it will be hard to get used to the size of the Gear S2. To us it doesn’t seem like an easy task to do, and we hope Samsung will take notice when it is designing the Gear S3.
Overall, the Gear S2’s design is the best we have seen from Samsung, and the company deserves all the credit it can get for making a smartwatch that looks so understated yet so beautiful.
For the Gear S2, Samsung uses a 1.3-inch circular Super AMOLED display. Its resolution is 360×360 pixels and a pixel density of 302 PPI (pixels per inch), which is higher than any other smartwatch on the market today.
The display’s brightness has 10 presets; it goes from very bright to very dim, and when you walk outside the door the watch automatically switches to outdoor mode. The display is easy to read outside, and it is very vivid thanks to the Super AMOLED technology. The blacks are extremely black, and since the entire software interface uses a black background, the display looks really good.
The black interface background also helps in battery life. Since AMOLED displays light every pixel individually, the pixels get turned off when displaying black, which in turn helps the battery last longer. Also, we noticed the Gear S2 display has the same pixel layout as the display on the Galaxy Note II. It’s not exactly not PenTile but it isn’t RGB either; it’s not an important parameter on a display with a high pixel density, but we thought this is something worth mentioning.
The Gear S2 uses a 250 mAh battery and Bluetooth 4.1 LE (Low Energy) for connecting to a smartphone. One might think 250 mAh isn’t enough for a smartwatch but the opposite is true on the Gear S2. On pre-final software we got about a day and a half of usage time. This is with the watch set to be always on (which means you can always read the time on the screen), screen brightness set to full, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled, and the watch turned on overnight.
The Gear S2 also comes with the Power Saving Mode preset so you can get even more usage on a single charge. We are familiar with this mode from Samsung’s smartphones, and it works in a similar way on the watch. Everything except calls and notifications are turned off, and the screen is limited to displaying only black and white colors.
Samsung says the Gear S2 can last about 2 to 3 days, but we weren’t able to reach those figures on the test software on our review unit. It’s possible Samsung turns off the watch at night during long periods of inactivity to achieve that kind of battery life, but we will need to check a retail unit to be sure.
Since the Gear 2, Samsung has opted for its own operating system, Tizen, for its watches. For the Gear S2, it isn’t anything different. While all other manufacturers are using Android Wear, Samsung is staying with Tizen. The big question remains: is this a smart thing to do? When we have a look at the interface of the Gear S2, we must conclude it was certainly a very smart thing to do. In fact, Samsung had to use Tizen since Android Wear is limited by Google and can’t be customized in any meaningful way by manufacturers. Take the rotary bezel that Samsung users; we’re not sure Android Wear would support that.
With this bezel you can control most parts of menus, as it replaces a swiping and touch action with a turn of the bezel. The only part where you usually touch the screen on the Gear S2 is when you want to confirm an action, and the big advantage of that is that your fingers aren’t always blocking the screen. When we have a look at the competition, we see that Android Wear is based on swiping and Apple’s watchOS is based on a digital crown. The rotary bezel is somewhat similar to the crown on the Apple Watch, but is easier to operate.
The entire interface looks cool and awesome. The Tizen effects from the former Tizen watches are still present, but Samsung has also introduced new animations which make the Gear S2 more enjoyable to use. What everyone wonders is how does the Gear S2 work when it comes to support for different apps? That’s different for each user and based on their needs; we mainly used the watch for notifications, S Health, and of course, reading time.
With the Gear S2 Samsung supports Facebook apps like the main app itself and Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. What this means is that responding to someone on these apps is better implemented than on other apps. For instance, Hangouts only lets you open the app on the connected phone and doesn’t let you send any emoticon or respond via voice actions. It’s a shame, really, as a lot of Samsung smartphone users are used to Android and, as a result, many of them use Hangouts as well.
With the Facebook and WhatsApp apps, you can do all of that – the options in these apps include reply, show on phone, block app, and clear all notifications. What about Gmail, one of the most used apps on Android phones? Well, Gmail frankly works quite well. It lets you read the whole email, archive or delete it, in addition to offering the options of opening the app on the phone, blocking the app, and clearing all notifications, which are offered on every app on the watch.
For replying to messages, there are three options: voice, emoticon, or keyboard. Typing on a 1.3-inch screen on a T9 keyboard isn’t the easiest thing to do even if you have really small hands. You can also respond with presets, which you can predefine yourself in the Gear Manager app on your phone.
Now, it’s time to discuss some apps that we did not use too much during our review period.
- Phone: When you open the phone app, you will see two icons and a list of your recently contacted contacts. You can use the Gear S2 to initiate a phone call. Scrolling through the phonebook is done by the bezel; when you scroll slowly you scroll by name, and when you do it fast you jump through the list by letter.
- S Health: In our opinion the coolest and most beautiful app on the Gear S2 is S Health. It makes you want to run, it creates a nice overview of your exercise, and it lets you know exactly when you achieved your target. Once you open S Health, you are presented with a clock face. This clock face shows the number of hours you have walked, sat down, and laid in bed. Basic functions are also included, like adding your coffee and water intake, check the number of steps you have walked, and measure your heart rate.
- Settings: The settings menu is divided in 9 groups, namely display, vibration, device, call, connections, screen lock, input, power saving and Gear info. For more info about the settings menu, take a look at our video review.
- Agenda: When you open the calendar, you get the monthly bill first. If you tap on one of the days you only see an overview of the next 15 days, and unfortunately you can’t add an agenda item yourself.
- S Voice: We all know S Voice from Samsung’s smartphones, and here it works exactly the same.
- Weather: For years Samsung has partnered with Accuweather for their phones to provide weather information, and the same goes for the Gear S2. It is very easy to add your own cities, and when you have entered a desired city, you can click on its name to get detailed hourly and daily weather information.
- Alarm: You can set an alarm on the watch (of course), and the entire process is pretty straightforward.
- Timer: To set a timer for a few hours, minutes or seconds, the Gear S2 handles that pretty nicely as well.
- Stopwatch: Did you always want to clock your workouts? Well, the Gear S2 can do that for you and look pretty cool at the same time.
- Music player: Playing music is something a lot of users will do. Every music player that has a notification can be be used to play music on the watch, but Samsung’s own music player is more deeply integrated and lets you browse albums, playlists and more. The Gear S2 doesn’t have a speaker so you will need a Bluetooth headset. You can store music on the watch, so there is no need to take your phone along when you’re going for a run.
- Gallery: The most useless app on the Gear S2 is the gallery, if you ask us. We just don’t think anyone would want to look at their pictures cropped in a circle. But how does it work? It’s easy: you open the gallery, then use the bezel to browse through the images. Double tapping a picture enlarges it.
- Buddy: Buddy is an app that lets you store 10 of your favorite contacts, which can be set through the Gear Manager app on the phone.
- Email: As the name suggests, this app lets you add an email account to your watch, nothing more, nothing less.
- Find my phone: This app lets you find your phone by making it ring, which comes in handy when you’ve left your phone somewhere in the house and can’t find it. Of course, the phone will need to be near enough to be still connected to the watch through Bluetooth.
- Maps: Samsung uses Nokia’s Here Maps for navigation on its smartwatches, and the app comes preloaded on the Gear S2 as well. It shows navigation data for both driving and walking, and also presents you with a few points of interests, such as hotels and restaurants nearby.
- Voice memo: It does what the name says it does: record spoken memos. It’s as simple as it gets: just press the red button and it starts recording. It’s possible to pause, resume and cancel each recording, and every recording is pushed to your phone after you hit the stop button.
- More apps: When you press this icon, you go to the Gear app store on the phone, where you can find every app that has been developed for the watch. Popular names include Nike Running, Bloomberg, CNN, and WSJ.
All in all, in the apps department Samsung’s new smartwatch is more than successful. The amount of apps is still somewhat disappointing, but we are hopeful more developers will show interest in the watch and the platform in the future to expand the ecosystem.
A watchface is a personal preference, and we know that watchfaces can be an important factor for someone is on the market for a smartwatch. With the Gear S2 Samsung has included a lot of watchfaces, and some of these faces can be “stylized”. That is Samsung’s way of saying you can edit things, like the watchface’s dials, backplates, and their overall functionality (think displaying a pedometer, phone battery level, or watch battery percentage.) Out of the default options, you can stylize the classic, modern utility, neon, basic and world clock watchfaces.
If you want add more watchfaces, that is possible through the Gear apps store within Gear Manager. Unfortunately there aren’t many choices available at this moment, but this could be because the Gear S2 hasn’t been released yet.
The Gear S2 uses Samsung’s Exynos 3250 processor, which is a dual-core chip, 512MB of RAM, and 4GB of internal storage, out of which 1.5GB is reserved for the system. In our test period, the screen and the rotary bezel responded very well. We found the Gear S2 to be extremely fast and fluid to use, and the performance can be seen in our video review.
(Our sample Gear S2 was running firmware version R720XXU2AOIE.)
Samsung Gear (app)
In Samsung’s Gear Manager app, you can do quite a few things. You can set the watchface, look at and manager installed apps, set up preset responses, check for software updates, add notifications, and ensure your Gear S2 can be found with the Find my Gear app.
Samsung is finally heading in the right direction with the Gear S2. For us this is the first real smartwatch from the Korean giant. It took a while, but if it’s good it’s okay to wait a little longer, right?
Thanks to the rotary bezel and the smooth interface, the Gear S2 is a rock solid smartwatch. The only downside is that Samsung’s Tizen app ecosystem is lacking. Many popular apps are missing, but again, we are hopeful this will be fixed in the future. Oh, and we would also like to see a bigger round smartwatch. Samsung, if you’re reading this, maybe take it into consideration when you’re making your next smartwatch?
|Unique design||Google Hangouts doesn’t do much|
|Battery life||Lack of third-party apps, watchfaces|
|S Health app|
|Non-Galaxy phone support|