Los Angeles, CA (FOX11) - I was a huge fan of Samsung's Gear S watch. While there are quite a few Android Wear fanboys, the OS that Samsung chose to use for their S watch was superior, in my humble opinion. Tizen felt more functional and feature-rich than Android Wear when paired with a Samsung device but that would make sense given that the manufacturer of both is one in the same. Not content to rest on their laurels, this time around Samsung introduced a whole new way to interact with Tizen on their smartwatch, a rotating bezel that scrolls through the user interface. As I sit here looking at the device, unboxing it, I have to wonder if that pushes the line forward or is it an unnecessary addition? Also, the Gear S2 is a departure from the large, rectangular fashion piece that was the original iteration but is it a good departure? Are we really gaining anything in both of these areas, or is it a case of two steps forward, two steps back?
Check out our video review here:
The Gear S2 follows the latest trend of bringing the traditional round face watch designs to market. A trend which has proven successful for manufacturers trying to tap into the existing conventional watch market. So much so that even Swiss giant Tag Heuer recently got in on the action. Unlike some of the competition, Samsung chose to go with a svelte design which doesn't feel too chunky on the wrist. The S2 comes in three iterations: Gear S2, Gear S2 Classic and the Gear S2 3G. For this review, we're taking a look at the standard Gear S2 which is available in either black or white. The body of our Gear S2 is encased in 316L Stainless Steel which has great corrosion resistance. A good idea when mated to IP68 water resistance rating, which is still below what I would eventually like to see from all smartwatches in general. IP is the rating system, the number "6" means the watch is dust tight, offering complete protection against dust getting into the internals, while the "8" means that the watch is watertight up to 3 meters (10ft) for no more than 30 minutes.
The display on the Gear S2 is magnificent! It's a 1.2" full circle Super AMOLED screen with a pixel density of 302 pixels per inch and it shows. Even in gray scale, used when in power-saving mode, the display still looks great. You'll be able to see this display when in direct sunlight as well, even "Always On" mode is still quite visible when the display is showing only time-based information.
The body of the watch features a home and back button on the same side. The home button can be customized to launch a specified action when double-tapped. I have mine set to launch the timer function, which helps me quite a bit when I'm washing clothes. For the Gear S2, not the Classic, the bands are not standard and are fitted to go with the flow of the lugs. Samsung has made them quite easy to remove though. You simply push in and out (see the example in the video), then slide the band down off the body of the watch. You'll also notice a small hole between the home and back buttons, that would be the microphone. You can use that for speech-to-text and working with S Voice, though there's no speaker on this version of the S2 so you'll need your phone or Bluetooth earpiece if you want to hear responses from S Voice.
Up top, the phone features Samsung's latest innovation on a smartwatch, a rotating bezel. This bezel is one of the ways you navigate the interface of the watch. From the main screen, the watch face, if you rotate to the left (counterclockwise) you'll be taken immediately to notifications like text messages or voicemails. If you rotate the bezel to the right (clockwise), the first screen you'll be greeted with will allow you to choose from four menu options: Apps, S Voice, Settings and Buddy. You can tap either of those four options and you'll find yourself in the app for that choice or continue rotating to the right, through a list of apps you've chosen to show up on the watch and in the order you've chosen. You can pick up to 15 apps, or "widgets" as the phone calls them. As you use the rotating bezel to land on the various widgets, you can just press in the center of the screen to launch the widget. In this way, the bezel allows you to have a clear view of what you're pulling up on the screen as you cycle through options.
This is where things get interesting. Pretty much everything you can do with the rotating bezel, you can do by swiping the screen in a specific direction, including swiping down from the top of the screen which does the same thing the home button does, or swiping left to right, which does the same thing the back button does. In this regard, I don't know that the rotating bezel actually brings anything extraordinary to the experience. That, I think, is this watches only blemish. At the end of the day, the bezel feels gimmicky to me. It doesn't detract from the experience mind you, its addition to the experience is novel, except for it being a little faster than swiping.
Now, for its part, the rotating bezel works just fine. It's slick, works well and doesn't feel cheap, like it'll pop off 12 months into owning the device. You even get two different versions of it depending on whether or not you're wearing the S2 or the Classic which has a notched bezel. Also, the bezel isn't easily activated on accident. I've yet to find myself bump up against something and switched screens or launched an app without intending to.
Samsung's Gear Manager is where you'll go to set up some of the functions on the Gear S2. Unlike previous iterations, this year's Gear S2 will work with phones from manufacturers other than Samsung. You'll get an experience that is on par with regard to notifications if you're going to use any phone other than Samsung's compatible devices. Speaking of compatibility, you should be able to get any phone running Android 4.4 or better to work with Samsung's Gear Manager and the Gear S2 watch.
From the Gear manager you can change watch faces, control which apps send you notifications, change the layout of the apps on your watch, send content (music and photos) to the watch, get into the settings and track down a lost watch. You can also get to the Samsung Gear Apps store from the Gear Manager which brings me to the only downside to running Tizen. More than likely, when developers look to create apps for the Android wearable market, they're going to write their apps for Android Wear first given that it's available on more devices but I have to say that in my own use, the current apps available didn't leave me feeling like there were any holes in my use of the Gear S2. Of course, your mileage may vary based on what is important to you. The apps I tested were pretty well thought out in terms of the ability to engage with them and their notifications. Email, text messages and more were pretty easy to respond to via quick pre-set responses or via S Voice from the watch.
What is the overall watch experience like with Samsung's latest wearable? Overall, I'd have to say that this is their best watch yet, though subjectively speaking I'd place it on par with the Gear S which I really loved. It looks great, will fit great for a large number of people with small and large wrists, and I don't feel like I have to completely baby it. Of course, it doesn't have the same level of water resistance as conventional watches at this price point, or the battery life, but for the current crop of smart watches the Gear S2 does pretty well in the stamina department. My first battery test saw roughly 60 hours of use. I took the watch off the charger at 5AM on a Tuesday and it died Thursday around 6PM. That was with the "Always On" feature deactivated. Battery life diminished when I activated "Always On," giving me about 32 hours of use. One of the smartest features of the Gear S2 comes alive when that battery life begins to dip past critical. The watch pops up a power saving mode alert which allows you to turn the display to gray scale, turn off Wi-Fi, and minimize the amount of apps which send you notifications so you can squeeze out that last bit of battery life.
Disclosure: Samsung provided me with a demo unit of the Gear S2 for the purpose of this review.