$300, $200 on-contract
To be clear from the get go, this will not be a full review of the Samsung Gear S. The company’s 4G-ready, Wi-Fi-enabled smartwatch is the best looking Gear device made yet and it’s filled with handy features. But despite the Gear S’s cellular connection, many of them need a Bluetooth connection to a Samsung device in order to fully benefit.
I don’t have one of those. I have an iPhone 6, which means I wasn’t able to even set up the watch without first tracking down a Samsung device that could access the Gear Manager app. But once that simple set-up was complete, I switched off Bluetooth, the cellular network kicked in, and I was out there with an independent watchphone.
New Watch Phone, Old Phone Tricks
First and foremost, the Gear S is comfortable and it looks good. The rubber band sizes easily and keeps the watch in place on your wrist without needing to be too tight. The 2-inch curved AMOLED display is aesthetically pleasing and lends to the watch’s comfort while the resolution (360 x 480) is enough to make everything look crisp. Nothing much jumps out on the surface besides a silver bezel and a home button. Underneath, the Gear S hides an accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, heart rate monitor, ambient light and UV sensors, and a barometer. It’s also IP67-rated, meaning it’s water- and dust-resistant.
Beyond looking nice, the Gear S handles the basics well. Yes, it tells time. It also displays weather and various health and fitness tracking information through the S Health application. The Gear S measures steps, pulse, and sunlight exposure—which I’ve gone on record as saying is a killer feature in a smartwatch. The fitness information—including sleep and workout tracking—can be viewed on the device in tidy little charts and logs.
But a lot of the other features require a Galaxy device to be set up and synced. That means using the Gear S as a standalone essentially renders applications like the calendar, music player, directions, news and the device finder of little use. Also, without the Gear Manager that’s only available on Samsung devices, you can’t add applications, music, or photos.
Even without that functionality, you’re still left with a cool looking watch with fitness tracking and, oh, by the way, its own cellular radio so it can make calls. This is far from Samsung’s first attempt at a watchphone—the company worked up the 2G-enabled S9110 in 2009—but it’s likely the slickest. The native dialer is easy to work and the calls sound better than expected. Skip the Dick Tracy comparisons because you don’t have to hold the Gear S up to your face in order to have a normal phone conversation. But if the noise around you gets too high, a Bluetooth headset may be the best way to go.
Text messages on the Gear S, though, are somewhat more problematic. Samsung squeezed a full QWERTY keyboard on the Gear S’ relatively tiny screen and even built in Swype. But the individual keys are the size of grains of rice so even with predictive text I’ve tried to type ‘the’ and ended up with ‘read.’ The native text app does have S Voice built in but that has to run your yammering through Nuance’s cloud service so, if your Gear S falls back to 2G like it does in my house sometimes, this can be a lengthy process.
Running the Gear S as a pure standalone and stand-in for your iPhone means you won’t have to worry about fun games and surfing the web, tasks that will likely burn through the Galaxy S’ small 300 mAh battery. But voice calls also do a number on the device’s power, definitely lowering any hope of making it through the day on a single charge. Odds are though that the Gear S won’t serve as a full-day replacement for your smartphone and in that case, the watch has more than enough juice to get through up to half a day.
Charging smartwatches still seems like a work in progress though. In order to omit a USB port from the device’s sleek design, Samsung is forced to make a little charging clip-on, which can be frustrating to attach and detach. Hopefully someday wireless charging will be standard in smartwatches but until then the goal is to perfect the current clunky process.
A True Replacement?
I think I knew going in that the Gear S was not going to rise up to the challenge and take on every little task I expect out of my iPhone. Without a Galaxy smartphone companion, any Samsung smartwatch, even one with its own SIM, is still left behind a little.
But the Gear S is an amazing device. The utility and novelty of a watch that works like a phone is still bewildering. This is the future. The Gear S is connected and it can stand up to some elements. Take it to the gym, take it for a run, take it to the golf course, take it to the job site, take it to the pool; just don’t take it to the store and trade in your smartphone. Not yet.