When we took Samsung’s first smartwatch flagship, we pinned the thing as a smartphone that tried to be everything it could on a chunky wrist lump. It did so much, maybe too much for a watch.
The company took the reins of a fluorescent excitement around wearables a couple of years ago, promoting its own Tizen-based projects while also chipping into the Android Wear platform. Today, the chaebol promotes only three wearables: the more-than-a-year-old Gear Fit, the Gear VR and, it seems, the ever-so-popular Gear S2.
Within Samsung’s own vault, though, you can see a world of difference already. But appearances only amount to so much when you’re evaluating the whole of a device. Does the sleeker, simpler and circular Samsung Gear S2 find its place as a wearable better than its predecessor? We should probably find out.
Samsung Gear S2 review video
A typical package will contain the watch with the large elastomer band already attached. A smaller band is also included in the box and if you have that kind of circumference going on with your wrist, it’s certainly a welcome provision.
The 20mm band latching mechanism is a little peculiar. If you end up switching out bands, be careful of what angle you’re pulling out the straps you already have on. It’s described as an “upward angle,” but we nearly ripped apart a strap from trying to lift too hard up 90 degrees.
Our black stainless steel case measures 11.4mm thick and houses a 1.2-inch circle of Gorilla Glass 3. Beneath it lies a Super AMOLED display measuring in at a square 360p, packing in 302 pixels every inch. And all of this is water and dust resistant per the IP68 rating — that’s against any ingress of solid particles and water immersion tested at 1.5 meters for 30 minutes. The Gear S2 plays determinant Beauty to the Gear S’s uncomfortable Beast. But that’s only physically.
The innards fill the watch a mile wide, but an inch deep: there’s a dual-core 1.0GHz processor (a step down from the dual-core Snapdragon 400 from last year) with 512MB of RAM to assist. There’s 4GB of internal storage to store music you can play through your Bluetooth (4.1) earphones. You’ve got Wi-Fi b/g/n and NFC also on here as well as Qi-charging compatibility, but Samsung would prefer that you stick to the charging cradle it’s provided. Other sensors include a accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor and barometer.
The 3G model comes with 300mAh battery while our Bluetooth-only version only has 250mAh to work with. That’s with a Motorola-esque Qi cradle for charging. It’s two hours to plug in from none to done — a little longer than average, but it’s a difference that won’t matter for most people.
No, we’re not missing out on the buttons and the bezel. Check out our blurb on the interface in this next section.
The setup process is fairly is fairly straightforward for Samsung smartphones and less so for other Android phones. It’s the first Samsung wearable to get away from the Galaxy exclusivity, but only by a bit. In order to start the process, you need to head over to Samsung’s designated site for the Gear and download the Gear Manager app. Samsung has an official device compatibility list, though it’s not all-inclusive. The company recommends that your Android phone from another mother should sport software version 4.4 or newer and have 1.5GB or more of RAM. We tried tethering two Lollipop phones equipped with at least 2GB of RAM to the Gear S2, but found that the phones were “not compatible” with the Gear Manager app. Oddly enough, the two phones we got to work with the watch were the Galaxy S6 edge+ and the Huawei P8 lite.
The interface is all about circles as the UI animations round a circular path. Swiping down from the top, you have your essentials: battery life, connectivity mode, music control, do not disturb and brightness toggle. Left of the watchface has a peek of your notifications — you tap on any one for more details and actions. The right contains first-party widgets like S Health, heart rate monitoring, alarms and others of thetype which you can have as many or little of as you please. There’s also a hub for S Voice, a list of your “Buddies,” settings and the complete list of apps. The rotating bezel comes especially handy with the tiny icons involved, here.
In fact, the three-level interface has certainly beat out what was going on with the Gear S. The bezel plays an especially key role in scrolling through menus, setting timers and even skipping or repeating music. The “click-click-click” gives a sense of security in what you’re doing on a screen as small as this, when large fingertips can eclipse the entire screen just like that. And don’t get me started about the how many failed swipes I attempted. So, yes, I do quite like this bezel, thank you very much.
The “back” button allows for single-step regression while the “home” button gives you a clean slate. You can also enable a special trigger from double-tapping the “home” button. I use it to go into the “recent apps” screen.
And boy, do I need quick access to that screen as the Gear S2 freaking drops back to the watchface fast. When you’re in a checklist app looking at what you have to get at the supermarket and then have to drop your arm to grab some eggs, by the time you raise your arm back up to get back to said list, you’ll be dropped back at the watchface. I would reasonably expect my active app to still be on the screen after, say, 10 or 15 seconds at least. Instead, I have to navigate back to my checklist. Even with the three-tap “recent apps” solution, I’m not down with this.
The microphone on the S2 will not do calls because we don’t have the cell-enabled one. And while it theoretically may be possible to route a call from your phone to the watch and then to a headset… doesn’t that seem just a tiny bit inefficient? The mic does get pressed into service for S Voice, dictation and voice memos. It’s not impressive and the accuracy of the dictation has us questioning it sometimes. I took a minute to try and describe how it was like …
Voice memo the you know my pretty good out here forties temperature is printing house no stop cancel your nwx urou Bean is now approaching last rites I&I by-the-way I’m listening to a song on my Bluetooth headphone Sarah yeah is gonna be a little interesting there is a limited amount of a storage share cause I see a time Presley on the vessel near the battle oh it’s gonna be around time for 5 minutes Max recording come so suppose
In editing our review video, I included a voice clip from the S2 that you could listen to only because I ramped up the volume by a ton. Still, for simpler voice-assistant commands, you should get 80 to 90 percent of them done right.
Better yet, dispose of the mic and prefabricated text replies altogether, you could also type your response out! We’re not dealing with QWERTY like on the O.G. Gear S, but a bezel-based keyboard — which reminds me of typing on the iPod … yes, the iPod — and T9 — which I’m glad is there, but I have never used it ever before.
There are 15 watchfaces on-board. Of course, some of them take the fitness tack while others encourage you to “build-your-own.” There are plenty more in the Gear apps store that we’ll get to.
A couple of them are from CNN and Bloomberg are pre-installed along with their respective Gear apps. Content has never been this gripping to send to your phone. Seriously, when you check up on your top stories, some of them don’t even have text because CNN decided to push a video-only piece. And when you do get text pieces, you’re given about 100 words’ worth before deciding whether or not you want to hand it over to your phone. More fittingly, Bloomberg just goes for the headlines and numbers. For what it’s worth, you’re not snuggling up with the New York Times to enjoy a good story. You’re on the cramped metro, you have a few minutes, you want to know what’s up.
Other apps, from timers to a transit tool to Milk music player — which can control your any of your phone’s beats going down or even play the S2’s own jams in its storage — runs swimmingly. Graphically intensive apps like Maps and Lubberly Bird take their toll on the device, but that’s to be expected for the horsepower.
A few of Samsung’s own apps require you to fire up your phone and install something from the Play Store. In fact, if you open up the native Maps app (powered by HERE) and plan on getting navigated to point B, you’ll need to install HERE Navigation on your phone. You have no business for this crud if you’re in a rush and want to do something now. But unless you give the services their due installation, you can’t use the app. Samsung might want to consider move some of these processes to initial setup.
The Gear apps store is a ball of watchfaces strewn across every category. And what isn’t a lovely little watchface depends on how much you want it. Sure, note-taking apps, YouTube browsers and even a couple of games are on there. And Samsung could have enough clout to entice other developers to the ecosystem. But the ecosystem is just a messy bedroom waiting to be cleaned up. And Samsung is not getting brownie points until it does.
From your phone, you choose which apps get to send notifications to your Gear S2. Samsung did have to mangle those APIs to get its way in: full text of messages with rich-to-basic formatting translated poorly and a single action button at the bottom of it all with a tiny ellipsis button on the right you push. It’s only then you get the full breadth of actions you can take. Complete, yes. Practical, it isn’t.
We’re able to confirm Samsung’s two to three day battery cycle claim, even with the always-on display in operation. Personally, I had the in-between 2.5 day experience myself, but I didn’t have the watch on for as long as a typical person would, working at home. The more you use the watch for its apps, though, the closer to the bottom end you’ll get. But two days is attainable.
Pricing and Availability
So, will the Gear S2 be the smartwatch you turn to? By itself, there’s a whole lot of Swiss army knife on the table, but the phone compatibility issues and some overbearing cruft on the software might tempt you to compare and contrast with other platforms, other watches, for cheaper or more expensive a price tag. Still, durable, wrist-worn granularity is one of those things you think it’d be cool to have. But after using it, when you find yourself wanting it, you want it bad.
The one thing I would drop to my knees and beg for at this point, just to have this product rise out of contention are cell antennas. It was one bold Samsung wager from the Gear S that said: “Hey, you don’t need a phone if you don’t have one today. Go on.” To the completeness of what content the S2 can provide, it wouldn’t be ideal, yet it’s good as gold if you’ve left your daily driver at home. The extra $50 and change a month for a Gear S2 with 3G is definitely worth it.
In the end, though, for our $300 Bluetooth-only model, the Gear S2 provides an adequate smartwatch experience in great form. But it would not be our first choice.