Samsung Gear S review: an ambitious and painfully flawed smartwatch

Samsung's wearables strategy seems to be: "Throw everything at a wall and see what sticks." In a little over 12 months, the electronics giant has launched six -- yes, six -- different smartwatches, each with its own unique personality. The latest is the Samsung Gear S, and its particular claim to fame might be the most ambitious yet: It's the first Gear watch that lets you make and receive calls from your wrist, no phone required. Yep, the Gear S actually has a 3G modem inside it, along with WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS radios. It's basically a watch that's also a phone. You can even respond to emails using a tiny onscreen keyboard. But, at $350 a pop, can it replace your phone? And more importantly, would you want it to?



When I say that the Samsung Gear S is like a phone for your wrist, I don't mean just functionally -- it looks like it too. Sure, most smartwatches tend to be bulky anyway, but the Gear S takes it to another level. With a 2-inch curved AMOLED screen framed by metal sides, the Gear S looks like someone took a shrink ray to a Galaxy S5, bent it and wedged it into a plastic strap.

The result is a monstrosity of glass and steel that looks, frankly, pretty ridiculous when strapped to my dainty wrist. The thick housing, chunky metal clasp and rubbery strap material do nothing to elevate the watch's style quotient either -- the design here is decidedly more geek than chic. It does fit under long sleeves comfortably though, so you can hide it if you find it embarrassing. There are also noticeably thick bezels above and below the display that make the screen seem much bigger than it actually is.

Still, that's not to say the watch isn't comfortable to wear. It's certainly on the hefty side thanks to that bulky screen, but its curved shape transitions seamlessly to that plastic strap so it wraps smoothly around the wrist. Though it doesn't exactly exude the premium feel of a luxury watch, it does feel surprisingly comfortable for such a chunky device. Still, it's unfortunate the wristband is proprietary and if you want to swap out straps, you'll need to use Samsung's own offerings. Right now you can choose among blue, black, red and white options.

Additionally, though I've been moaning about the size of the display, that extra screen real estate does have its merits. We've complained in previous smartwatch reviews about how tough it is to navigate menus on such a tiny screen. That's not as much of an issue with the Gear S. Tapping on selections and swiping through the different widgets and apps felt smooth and intuitive, and I liked being able to see so many menu options at a glance.


Of course, that big display really comes in handy when you're dealing with visually dense apps like the Opera Mini browser, where an on-screen keyboard made even a 2-inch screen feel restrictive (more on this in a moment). The display's 480 x 360 resolution (300 ppi) is also pretty easy on the eyes -- text was easy to read and images generally looked bright and colorful. It's slightly less saturated than the S5, but that doesn't matter too much on such a small screen. The blacks look really black, and the dark background looks almost indistinguishable from the surrounding bezel. It does look pretty washed out in direct sunlight, but not so much that it's unreadable.

When it's simply sitting there on your wrist, the display remains dark most of the time. The only time it lights up is when there's a notification like an incoming call. Also, thanks to the internal accelerometer, the watch face automatically comes on when you lift your wrist up to read the time -- a common feature for most smartwatches. There's also an ambient light sensor, so the screen will adjust its brightness automatically depending on the available light. If you leave it alone for a few minutes, the watch does go back to a dimmer mode before going dark again.

Beneath the display is a physical home button along with the ambient light sensor and a UV detector, while the heart rate monitor and charging pins are on the watch's rear. Our particular Gear S runs on Sprint, so it doesn't have a nano-SIM card slot, but in GSM models, you'll find one located above the heart rate sensor. By default, a double-tap on the home button brings up S Voice, Samsung's voice-dictation service, while a long-press will bring up quick options like powering it off, restart, mute, WiFi and airplane mode.

Bundled along with the Gear S is a portable charging cradle -- the only way you'll be able to charge it, thanks to the watch's proprietary pins. The cradle itself charges via a micro-USB cable. Having to carry this extra bit of gadgetry around annoyed me, but thankfully the dock also houses a 350mAh battery, which means it can be used as a backup charger (the watch itself only has a 300mAh battery built in). Other internal specs include an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a dual-core 1GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS and, of course, that 3G modem.



Just like the Gear, Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, the Gear S runs on Tizen, Samsung's own Linux-based operating system. If you've used any of those watches, you'll likely feel right at home with the Gear S. The navigation language is the same -- from the watch face, you swipe right for notifications, left for widgets (you get up to five), down to access quick settings like volume and brightness and up to access the full app drawer. If you're in an app, you can back out by swiping down.

Much like those other watches, the Gear S comes preinstalled with a few apps, including Samsung's S Health, a music player, one that shows the latest news headlines, another for the weather and so forth. The Gear S's main claim to fame, however, is that it also comes with a phone dialer and an app for text messaging. The dialer app is as you would expect, consisting of a number keypad and access to recent call logs. For text messaging, you can use S Voice to dictate your messages. I found it to be pretty accurate -- it even recognized commands like punctuation marks and "all caps" for when I felt like yelling.

But if you feel a little daring, you can also use an actual on-screen keyboard, which is also used in email and other apps that require text entry. The keyboard takes up a huge chunk of the watch's screen real estate, leaving only a sliver of space at the top to see what you've typed. You can enter in text via the usual hunt-and-peck method or via dragging lines through letters à la Swype. Surprisingly, I found this to be mostly accurate, especially with the Swype technique. Pecking is a little bit more hit-or-miss, with the autocorrect not always guessing my words correctly. In practice, however, I found typing on a watch far too tedious for anything longer than just a quick reply. You can't see all of what you've typed at a glance, and constantly having to backtrack and correct words is a pain. I'd choose S Voice over typing any day.

As for loading new apps, well, you'll have to pair the watch to a compatible Samsung smartphone and download the Gear Manager app in order to do that. The Gear Manager app is largely unchanged from when we last reviewed the previous Gear watches. Once connected, you can not only use it to add and remove apps, but also customize the watch's wallpaper and watch face. You'll also have to use Gear Manager in order to transfer media files like images or audio, and sync up your fitness data to the phone's S Health app.

In use


Hold on, you're saying. Isn't the Gear S also a standalone phone with its own phone number? Why do I need to pair it with a phone in order to get apps onto it? Isn't the whole point of having a phone built into a watch so that you don't need to connect it to a phone?

Well, if you asked these questions, then you've stumbled onto exactly the main problem I have with the Gear S. Not only do you need to pair it with a compatible Samsung phone in order to load apps onto it, but you also need to do so in order to start using the Gear S at all. That's right: When you initially start up the Gear S, the first thing it'll ask you to do is connect it to a Samsung phone with the Gear Manager app installed. The most you can do with the watch before then is make an emergency call. That, to me, defeats the purpose of the Gear S almost entirely. I might as well have spent a little less and bought a regular ol' smartwatch -- or perhaps another phone -- instead.

That said, after you've taken the effort to pair the Gear S, you would have then "unlocked" the watch's phone properties. At last, you're able to completely divorce it from the phone if you so choose. As I mentioned above, the watch has its own phone number. When connected via Bluetooth to a phone, the Gear S will automatically make and receive calls using the phone's number instead. It's admittedly a little odd to have devices with two different phone numbers like this, but you can enable call forwarding so that all calls made to your phone's number will redirect to the watch with or without that Bluetooth connection.


So, what's it like to make calls? This might sound like a cliché, but I liken it to those Dick Tracy shows of yore -- I simply held my watch up to my face and talked into it. It feels a little goofy holding my wrist to my mouth like that and I can't see myself doing it too often, but it does work. Callers had no problems hearing me, and the audio quality from the watch itself is pretty good. I didn't have to hold the watch too close to my mouth when indoors for them to hear me loud and clear -- about chest-level height was fine -- but I did have to bring it closer to my lips when I was outside on a busy city sidewalk. The speaker is certainly loud enough to hear in a quiet room, but it's also got enough volume for me to hear callers when I'm outside. If you want, you can also pair the watch with a Bluetooth headset and use that instead.

I should also note here that if you do want to use the Gear S as a phone, you'll have to pay an additional monthly fee on top of your regular phone bill. Both Verizon and T-Mobile charge $5 per month while AT&T and Sprint wants $10 a month. If you're getting your Gear S through Sprint and your plan has 20GB data or more, then the carrier will waive that fee through December 2015.

As for the Gear S' fitness features, well, they're sadly rather unreliable. The S Health app comes packed with five different features: a pedometer, an exercise feature that tracks your heart rate and location when you go for a run (or a walk, a bike ride, or a hike), a standalone heart rate monitor, a sleep tracker and a tool that tells you what the UV index is when you're in the great outdoors. When it works, it works well enough -- the pedometer counted my steps just fine and the heart rate monitor showed me beats-per-minute numbers that seemed on par with other fitness gadgets (I compared it with a Withings scale and the S Health app on the phone). However, there were times when the app just failed to respond. The heart rate sensor in particular sometimes doesn't work at all, stating that it's unable to find any measurement, even after I sat perfectly "still and quiet" as per instructions. I often had to restart the Gear S to have it all working smoothly again.


There still isn't much in the way of apps from Samsung's own Gear Store either. There's no dedicated Gmail application, for example, and no Facebook or Twitter either. Of course, when you're connected to the phone, you're able to get notifications from those apps on the watch. But if you want to use the Gear S on its own, you're out of luck. I did find a few decent apps that I liked -- the calculator is a must-have and lets me pretend the Gear S is a retro calculator watch. The preinstalled Navigator app (which is essentially Nokia's Here maps rejiggered for the watch) is really handy for turn-by-turn walking directions, and though surfing the web on the tiny Opera Mini browser is a little ridiculous, the watch's screen does work well for reading short news stories while on the go.

Last, but certainly not least: Let's address the question of battery life. From my two weeks using the device, the Gear S seems to last a little less than two days with light to moderate use. That means using it mostly as a watch, with notifications turned on. When I taxed it a little more by making constant phone calls and using the navigation app a couple of times, it lasted about a day and a half before needing a charge. Under really heavy use -- accessing email, browsing the web, testing the exercise app and using the navigation app to walk around town -- the Gear S lasted about a day before needing a charge. To extend it even longer between charges, you can choose to toggle a power-saving mode, which only leaves the basic time-telling and phone functions.

The competition


Even though the smartwatch field is relatively young, the Gear S already has plenty of competition. There are Android Wear watches like the Moto 360, the LG G Watch R and Samsung's own Gear Live. All of the Android Wear devices on the market today are cheaper than the Gear S, and some, like the Moto 360 and the G Watch R, are more stylish too. There's also something to be said for the Android Wear ecosystem and its support for a wider variety of apps than Samsung's own Galaxy. Still, the Gear S does let you leave your phone at home when going out on a jog, and its battery life compares favorably to other smartwatches. Most Android Wear watches, for example, last about a day between charges, though the recent LG G Watch R broke the mold by stretching it out to two.

As for watches that are also phones, well, there aren't that many to choose from, but the Gear S does face some competition from upstarts like the Neptune Pine. Unlike the Gear S, the Pine really is like an Android smartphone shrunk down into watch form. It has a hefty 1.2GHz Snapdragon S4 processor in it; plus the internal storage starts at 16GB for only $349 (you can get it for around $300 from Amazon). That's definitely a lot more palatable than the Gear S' paltry 4GB and $350 price tag. And, of course, the Pine doesn't actually need a smartphone to get started making calls at all. All that power does come at a cost though, as the Pine only has enough battery life to last through a single day.


The Samsung Gear S is a device that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Sure, it's great that it can act as a standalone smartwatch and doesn't need a phone to make or receive calls. Except, well, it does. Not only does the Gear S need to be paired with a phone to be activated, but that's also the only way to install or remove apps and the only way to get notifications from services like Gmail and Twitter. Certainly, the Gear S works well enough if you don't mind its chunky size, small app selection and occasionally buggy software, but $350 is just too much to pay for a smartwatch with this many shortcomings.