Samsung Gear S2 review

We figured out smartphones a long time ago. It’s been nearly a decade since the iPhone hit the market, and now every one of the millions of smartphones sold each year is a variation of a rectangular slab of glass, plastic, or metal. Smartwatches, on the other hand, are new and still evolving. Nobody has tried harder to figure out how to make a smartwatch than Samsung, which has released over half a dozen different watches in different shapes and sizes since 2013. Its earlier efforts were largely terrible, clunky, awkward devices that had bad software and limited utility.
The new Gear S2 promises to be different, and in many ways, it is. It’s much better looking than any prior Samsung watch (and arguably most other smartwatches), has a brand new user interface, and works with nearly any Android smartphone. It’s as different of a device from Samsung’s earlier watches as the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge were from Samsung’s earlier smartphones.

But the most interesting parts of the Gear S2, which starts at $299.99 and is available to purchase now, aren’t whether it’s a great smartwatch or not. It’s far from a perfect device, and it has numerous issues that keep me from recommending it without reservations. But it offers some interesting ​ideas​​ for how a smartwatch should look and function that make it both an intriguing device and a learning lesson for the rest of the industry. If Samsung built a reference smartwatch for others to take advantage of, this would be it.

Samsung Gear S2

The Gear S2 is the first round smartwatch from Samsung and it’s far more attractive than Samsung’s earlier, chunky rectangular models. It’s not enormous either, with good proportions and a comfortable fit on my average-sized wrist. It’s roughly comparable in size to a 42mm men’s watch or the smaller of the two new Moto 360 watches.

The standard model, which is what I’ve been testing, has a brushed metal finish and a rubber strap. It’s not the design I’d choose – I’m more into the $349.99 S2 Classic, which has a leather strap and darker finish – but it’s still a lot nicer looking and more comfortable to wear than many other smartwatches. Fit and finish are top notch, and Samsung’s use of stainless steel for every surface you see and touch makes it feel like a quality product. The S2 doesn’t look like a nerdy wrist computer, nor does it aspire to be a luxury watch clone. It’s just understated and attractive, while still feeling modern and fresh.

Samsung Gear S2 Samsung Gear S2

I’m a fan of the S2’s form, but I don’t like the proprietary strap mounts on the standard model. One of the easiest ways to personalize a watch to your tastes is to swap in a different strap, but you won’t be able to find straps that fit the S2 very easily because of its unique mounts. (The white strap that came with my review unit quickly became stained with blue from rubbing against my jeans when I put my hands in my pockets, so the ability to swap to a different strap is a valid concern.) If you opt for the S2 Classic, you get a standard, 20mm watch strap with quick-release pins for easy swapping.

The attractive, round design of the S2 isn’t just for good looks, either, it’s the central conceit for how the S2 is used. A rotating bezel surrounds the display, and acts as your main interaction point with the watch, letting you quickly and easily navigate through the S2’s menus and screens. Soft clicks give you tactile feedback as you spin the bezel, which can be used to scroll through widgets, notifications, menus, text, and the main interface itself.

Samsung Gear S2

The S2’s still has a full touchscreen, so you can swipe through things just like with an Apple Watch or Android Wear watch, but the vast majority of the time I found myself using the bezel to control it. The rotating control works so well and is so intuitive to use that I’m stunned no one else has done it before. The ring is predictable and reliable, unlike the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown, and it keeps my finger from getting in the way of what I want to see.

That’s good, because I don’t want to look at my finger, I want to look at the S2’s high-res (302PPI) and vibrant 1.2-inch Super AMOLED display. It’s sharp and colorful and easy to read both indoors and out, with excellent viewing angles. There’s no blank spot or “flat tire” here like on Motorola’s Moto 360; the Gear S2 screen fills the entirety of the face of the watch. An optional mode can always display the time when the watch is idle, but that comes at a cost of battery life: with the feature turned off, I’ve been able to go two days between charges, but half that with it on. Neither option is great – you’ll still want to pack the S2’s magnetic charging dock when you travel – but at least it doesn’t die partway through your day.

Samsung Gear S2 Samsung Gear S2

The S2’s new user interface perfectly complements the rotating bezel, as well. It’s fast and easy to understand, unlike the byzantine menus on the Apple Watch or Android Wear. Turn the ring to the right from the watchface and you access widgets of information; turn it to the left to see your notifications. Notifications can be filtered and are interactive, even with third-party apps, just like on Android Wear. You can respond to incoming messages with preset responses, voice dictation, or tap out a response on a miniature keyboard. It’s easier than it sounds. You also use the ring to scroll through the apps installed on the watch, or to zoom in and out of a map. A button on the side of the watch will always take you back one step from before, while another brings you back to your watchface. It’s all pleasantly simple and fun to use.

There are swift transitions and informative animations throughout the S2’s interface, and its app launcher is organized in a way to make the most of the round screen. For basic activities, such as checking notifications, tracking physical activity, or viewing weather conditions, the S2 is fast, responsive, and genuinely useful. It’s a different story with more complex actions, such as viewing a map or launching a third-party app. Here the S2 behaves more like the Apple Watch, with annoyingly long and frustrating load times that just make me wish I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

Samsung Gear S2

Third-party apps are also few and far between on the S2 – even the apps Samsung demoed at the launch event for the watch, such as Uber, aren’t available. While I can get apps like Citymapper, Dark Sky, and Google Maps on the Apple Watch or Android Wear, the Gear S2 sticks me with Yelp, Bloomberg, CNN, and Here Maps, none of which are particularly fast or usable on a small watch display. Likewise, while there are a number of attractive watchfaces included with the S2, third-party options left me wanting.
That situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon, either. The Gear S2 uses a different platform (Samsung’s Tizen) than the Apple Watch or Android Wear and the odds that developers are going to devote time and resources to making apps for it are slim. Here Maps is the perfect example of this: it’s a worse experience than Apple Maps or Google Maps, and requires you to install the Here Maps app on your phone in order to use it on the watch. But for Samsung, it’s the only mapping option it has available. At the S2’s announcement, Samsung said it was partnering with developers to get apps on the platform, but that hasn’t materialized into anything compelling yet.

Samsung Gear S2

Another weak point in the system is the built-in voice controls, which are slower and less capable than Apple’s Siri or Google Now. Provided that you have the patience of a saint, you can dictate text with your voice on the S2, set alarms, start timers, or perform basic web searches. Bafflingly, you can’t create a to-do or set a reminder, though, which is one of the few things I do regularly with Android Wear’s voice commands.
There are some improvements for the S2 coming down the pike. The S2 has built-in NFC and will support Samsung Pay for mobile payments at some point in the future, but that was not yet available for me to test. It unfortunately won’t support Samsung’s unique magnetic stripe emulation feature, but it should work similarly to Apple Pay on the Apple Watch.
On the bright side, the S2 works with any phone running Android 4.4 KitKat or newer and with 1.5GB or more of RAM. That covers most of the popular devices released in the past year or two. Earlier Samsung Gear watches were limited to just Galaxy phones, so it’s encouraging to see Samsung open the S2 up to a wider audience. Hopefully Samsung will figure out a way to make it work with the iPhone in the future, though it will likely only be able to do so in a limited manner, like Android Wear and Pebble.

Samsung Gear S2

So here’s where we’re at with the Gear S2: it’s a well designed, easy to use smartwatch that makes a good complement to your Android smartphone. If checking notifications, tracking the basics of your physical activity, controlling music, and getting small bits of info are all you want from a smartwatch, the S2 fills all of those needs.
But if you look at smartwatches as an entirely new medium for which developers have yet to fully exploit, the S2 should give you pause. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that Samsung ​won't get the developer support it needs to strengthen the S2’s platform. Pebble has been able to do that to a limited extent, but history tells us the odds of that happening again are arguably low.
In that respect, it’s perhaps more useful to look at the S2 as an example for the other smartwatch platforms, which could learn from its elegant interface and purposeful design. Though the best Android Wear smartwatches so far have been circular, the Wear interface is downright confusing to navigate and doesn’t work nearly as well on a round screen as Samsung’s does. Google-powered watches also lack the tactile feedback of the S2’s rotating bezel. And while Apple has set the bar for third-party developer support on a wearable platform, the Apple Watch’s complicated and unpredictable interface could learn a lot from Samsung’s simple and intuitive software. Who would have guessed that Samsung would create a more elegant interface than Apple?
We’re still in the infancy of smartwatches, where companies are attempting different ideas, trying new things, and learning lessons all along the way. It will be a long time before they are as sorted out as smartphones are in terms of design and usability. But if there’s a direction I’d like to see the industry go, it’s the path Samsung has set forth with the Gear S2: easy-to-use smartwatches that both look good and function well.
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