Los Angeles, Calif. (FOX11) - Samsung leapt into the wearable fray with their rushed-to-market first offering, the Galaxy Gear. It wasn't very good, but since then, they've been on a march to make each iteration better than the last, releasing not just two watches, but 5 more since that first Gear for a total of six watches. The latest, the Samsung Gear S, is much more than just a second screen for all of your notifications like so many “smartwatches” tend to be. It's also a stand alone phone and the closest thing on the market today to what I envision a truly “smart” watch to be.
Gear S: Hardware Bling (Is Bling Still A Thing?)
The first thing you'll notice when you remove the Gear S from its box is that it is huge compared to other offerings. It features a large 2” curved super AMOLED screen at 360x480 pixels that is big and it is absolutely stunning! Thanks to the AMOLED screen, it's going to be more readable than some of its competition outdoors, but its still only on par with your smartphone's screen in direct sunlight. With some of the included watch faces, this device feels more like smart jewelry than a utilitarian smartwatch and that is not at all a bad thing. There are times when you're going to need something understated that you can wear under that corporate suit, or to a job interview and then there are times when you may want something that makes more of a fashion statement and the Gear S does just that. The large, vibrant display, the textured home button, the chrome wrapping around the case, its all very modern-looking and I can see it fitting in just fine with a high fashion wardrobe, club attire, or on the wrist of the fashion forward user. Especially the version with the white band. This does not fall squarely into the realm of something only a geek would wear, and ultimately, that's what manufacturers must be in the game to do if they're going to see mass adoption of wearables. They're going to have to create products which have mainstream appeal, or at the very least, appeal outside the hallowed halls of tech pundits and gadget acolytes. In addition to the delightful screen, the phone comes equipped with 802.11 b/g/n, A-GPS, Bluetooth 4.1 and a 300mAh battery. You'll get 512mb of RAM on board, as well as 4GB of storage for apps and media, a speakerphone and a heart rate monitor. On the GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile) models, there is also a SIM slot on the backside of the case.
The Gear S also comes with a proprietary charging cradle that doubles as a battery charger on the go with its 350mAh built-in battery. This is good and bad because if your phone runs out of juice when you're away from a wall, you're good to go. Just pop the charger onto the watch and it'll fill you back up with a bit to spare. The downside is that if you lose the charger, you're out of luck unless you've purchased a back up, or until the back up you've ordered- after your loss - gets to you. The band on the Gear S is fairly wide and if you've used any of the other Gear devices, you'll be familiar with how it sizes, using the sliding clasp.
The face of the watch has an ambient light sensor and UV sensor, as well as Sammy's home button. Unlike some of their competitors who also use the rectangular design, the Gear S does have a healthy amount of bezel at the top and bottom ends of the screen but the display's curvature helps to visually minimize that as I looked at it on my own arm. On users with smaller arms, this doesn't help much but with those who have smaller arms, this watch is going to look pretty massive no matter what. And because of its size, you will either love or hate this watch. I've seen some accuse it of looking like a mini mini curved S5 on them, and again, with petite arms, I can see why but for the looks and for its feature-set, this may be my favorite smartwatch to date.
Gear S: The Software
Unlike Google's Android Wear platform, Samsung's Tizen operating system in the Gear S only works with Samsung phones. I used the Gear S mated to a Galaxy Note 4 for this review. When you first set up the Gear S, you're going to need your smartphone even though one of the selling points of the watch is that it is a stand alone device with its own phone number. Some people have counted this against Samsung but I think its smart from an end user perspective. Though large, the display is still smaller than the one on my phablet and I'd much rather go through the menus and set up on a bigger screen, than on the watch itself. Once you've set up the watch from Samsung's Gear Manager, you're set! You can do everything else from the watch itself, including sending and receiving phone calls if you've activated one of the carrier's plans for it. More on that later.
Though I would love to see this watch open up to working with smartphones outside of Samsung's line, I can't hate on them for this choice. It worked flawlessly with my Note, in a way that the Bluetooth earpiece I've been using doesn't. Because Samsung makes both products, and controls the watch's OS, they control the overall experience. Using voice dialing with a pattern or fingerprint locked Note 4 via Bluetooth earpiece is hit or miss, but using S Voice on the Gear S to interact with the phone while it was locked was a joy. I was able to initiate calls using a "hot word" which activated S Voice so it wasn't necessary for me to actually touch the watch while I was driving. There are those who rail on S Voice but, as voice-dialers go, I find that I'm able to make calls and send text messages just fine. As much as I wanted to use Google Now for this, there's one aspect of using Now for voice dialing that I find wholly unintuitive and that is if you have more than one phone number for a contact, it asks you if you want to dial "number 1," "number 2," etc. S Voice asks by type. That, coupled with the fact it actually works well, keeps me returning to S Voice for hands free dialing and messaging. You may also use the on-screen keyboard for text messaging (when you're not driving, of course) but it will take up a large portion of the screen, leaving little area to see what you're actually typing. That's the downside. On the upside, Swype works surprisingly well on this small keyboard, making very quick text and email responses serviceable.
Beyond S Voice, the Gear S comes with S Health, contacts, calendar, a music player for on-board music, a music controller for when you're streaming music through your phone, a weather app, a news reader, the requisite alarm/stopwatch, multiple watchfaces and a few other apps. You navigate through them by swiping. From the current watchface, swiping left lets you swipe through 5 widgets, swiping right takes you through your notifications, swiping up takes you to all of your apps and swiping down brings up quick settings like screen brightness. My favorite stock watchface (pictured above in the photo gallery) is more than just a pretty face, it's functional. Not only does it give you the time of day, but the day of the month, your pedometer reading, the weather and missed notifications. Just tap on any of those quadrants of the screen and you're taken to a more information rich screen. For example, tapping the current weather conditions will take you to a screen that shows you the weather for the next several days and more. There is also a phone dialer and text messaging app, which are the standout features of the Gear S. The Gear S works as some users may be familiar with, via Bluetooth connection to your phone, and as a stand alone “phone.” When connected via Bluetooth, you get rich notifications from the apps on your phone that you've elected to get information from. The information received on the watch is robust and I found myself rarely needing to look at my phone when wearing the Gear S. But the real power of the watch was unleashed when I activated the auto-forwarding feature that allowed the watch to automatically turn on call forwarding when it noticed that it was disconnected from my smartphone for 60 seconds. Once disconnected from your phone, the watch becomes its own standalone messaging device, capable of sending and receiving calls, texts, email and more. The is perfect for those who want to go running or hit the gym and leave their phone at home. The watch also supports bluetooth connections to headphones via Bluetooth so you can listen to music or take calls. I will admit that I didn't get the extensive amount of time I would have liked in order to test this functionality thoroughly but my brief time (several days) didn't produce any glaring shortcomings. Calls forward to the watch just fine, and outgoing calls from your wrist appear to come from your phone when forwarding is activated, despite the fact that the watch has its own number.
How Well Does It All Work?
I really enjoyed my time with the smartwatch. This definitely won't be a piece for everyone as it is on the large side of the watch spectrum. If you like “big faces” then you'll be fine with the Gear S and if you don't, you'll be looking elsewhere for your smartwatch needs to be met. Getting started with the watch and adding software to the watch both required the use of a Samsung phone which might seem counterintuitive for a watch that is a standalone device but I wouldn't buy it specifically for that purpose and I haven't really seen Samsung branding it as a standalone device specifically, as much as I've seen it positioned as an accessory or companion to a smartphone. With that in mind, I didn't find that to be a big deal. Once the watch is set up, you're good to go and it works just fine on its own- again, unless you want to add more software to it. Speaking of software, though there are quite a few apps for the watch, it is running Tizen so you should know that there may not be the level of brisk development that you see on other platforms. If you're buying today, buy accepting the watch as is and with the software options available to it today (though I will hold out hope that a Starbucks app will join the list at some point).
I found the heart rate monitor to work well in practical use but one issue that could be a nuisance for some is the screen on time. When running and wanting to check your progress, you'll find that the screen doesn't have an option to stay on indefinitely. What Samsung does offer is a gesture based screen on activation, so if you're running, you just raise your arm and the screen will turn on. I think this gives you the best of both worlds because if you're already running and using GPS and streaming music over Bluetooth you're going to be hitting that battery pretty hard. Keeping the screen off as much as possible will help you extend the battery life. Speaking of battery life, I found that when I used the watch heavily I saw a solid 24 hours. Lighter use would have it on the charger toward the end of day two.
If I were running out to buy a watch today, this is feeling like the one I'd be putting my own money towards. I'm a Samsung Note user and the integration really works for me. Not only that, but I'm not a small guy so wearing the watch doesn't feel unnatural or uncomfortable; I actually like chunky watches. As with all of these watches, if there was one thing I would fix, above all else it would be battery life. I still want at least 5 days out of my watch. For me, that's when a smartwatch will blur the lines between smart and watch more than anything else. That said, of those currently on the market the Gear S comes closest to ticking all the boxes for me right now. The biggest barrier to entry for many people will probably be the out-the-door price at $350 but many carriers are offering subsidized pricing on the watch. In some cases you'll be able to pick one up for $0 down with monthly payments.
Full disclosure: AT&T provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.