The successor to last year's Gear S2, the Samsung Gear S3 is the smartwatch for the new generation. With the Apple Watch Series 2 heralding serious new tech, the rest of the smartwatch crowd has had to up its game.
For the Gear S3, Samsung has decided to offer up two designs. There's the more rugged Frontier for outdoor types that we've been testing out, and the Classic, which aims to be the more luxurious option of the two. Both still run on Samsung's own Tizen operating system and that rotating bezel makes a welcome return.
That's joined by features like built-in GPS for sports tracking and sending out SOS alerts, a speaker to make calls, Samsung Pay to, well, pay for stuff from your wrist, and a bigger battery.
Samsung has gone big on design and features, but has it built on what it achieved with the Gear S2? We've been living with the Gear S3 for the past couple of weeks to find out if Apple, Google and company should be casting an envious eye at Samsung's two new smartwatches.
Samsung Gear S3: Design
Skinny wrists beware: the Gear S3 is a big smartwatch and that's immediately going to put off anyone that was hoping for something similar in stature to the Gear S2. Its hulking 46mm frame makes it undeniably a more manly watch. It's also noticeably heavier and thicker as well, no doubt to accommodate the additional sensors and a larger battery.
Does it look nice on the wrist? It's something that has divided the Wareable team. I'm firmly in the camp that the Gear S2 is a better looking watch, and it's not at all surprising that Samsung is still offering last year's smartwatch alongside the two Gear S3 models. In short, it's not going to be for everyone. If you like outdoor watches then you'll appreciate the more rugged looking stainless steel body. But even then, something still feel a little bit ordinary about the Frontier.
Compare it to something like the orange coloured Nixon The Mission or the Garmin Fenix 3 and the Frontier just feels like it lacks some character. There's something far more attractive and alluring about the Gear S3 Classic in comparison.
On the subject of durability, Samsung says the Frontier is IP68 certified water resistant, which means you can submerge it in water of up to 1.5 metres for up to 30 minutes. You can't use it for swimming or diving though. We jumped in the shower with it and the S3 survived, although we had some problems trying to work that touchscreen. Samsung has talked up the military level durability testing it puts its watches through to withstand high and low temperatures. That all sounds very impressive, but it's disappointing that it didn't seize the opportunity as Apple did to make the Gear S3 fully waterproof.
Samsung Gear S3 rivals
If you want to add some personality this can be done in the strap department, with a simple pin mechanism behind each strap letting you swap in other 22mm watch bands from Samsung and accessory makers like Incipio. The textured silicone band that comes with the Frontier is pretty bland, but it does feel well suited for outdoor pursuits and built to withstand some rough and tumble.
One of the big differences between the Frontier and the Classic is the finish on the bezel and the buttons. That rotating bezel is elevated from the watch face making it easier to interact with. It also has a nice matte finish that doesn't affect how slick it is to scroll through Tizen OS. The two physical buttons on the side of the watch also include that more textured finish and are larger than the buttons on the Classic, which makes them easier to get to grips when you're wearing gloves or getting a little sweaty.
Tucked away on the side is the speaker, allowing you to make calls and listen to music, while around the back of the watch is where you'll find an optical heart rate sensor similar to the one on the Gear S2. This delivers continuous tracking and heart rate readings during exercise.
Samsung Gear S3: Rotating bezel returns
The rotating bezel was Samsung's solution to making smartwatch interactions more fluid, saving you from continually swiping through screens and trying to find what you were looking for. We were big fans when we first tested the Gear S2, and we're grateful it's back on the Gear S3. There's now also a more satisfying click when you transition between screens and the bezel is further integrated into what the Gear S3 can do.
Nowyou can answer/reject calls or control music volume with the bezel and even play games. For calls, we did still naturally gravitate towards using the touchscreen. It's a smartphone habit that's hard to get out of. As the bezel is not clickable, you still need to complete actions using the touchscreen, so it's not entirely giving you full control, but it feel like a more natural way to navigate than the digital crown on the Series 2.
The really interesting bezel integration is with third party apps. It can be used to adjust the temperature on a Nest smart thermostat or the lighting on your Philips Hue setup. We want to see more of this please.
Samsung Gear S3: Screen
If there's one thing we have few complaints about it's the Gear S3's glorious screen. Like its phone displays, the one on the Gear S3 is a real beaut. For starters it's a bigger 1.3-inch, 360 x 360 AMOLED touchscreen display, so there's more screen estate for that Tizen OS to shine.
It's bright and vibrant and colours are rich, making it undoubtedly one of the best smartwatch screens out there. While some smartwatches can struggle to retain the same kind of sharpness of images, we were pretty pleased with the way photos pulled through from our phone looked on the smaller Gear S3 screen.
It's slick and responsive too, when you're not twisting that bezel, and you'll have no problems viewing it at night or in bright sunlight. To add to the Gear S3's ruggedness, Samsung has also used Corning's new Gorilla Glass SR+ display tech that provides improved scratch and damage resistance as well as reduced surface reflection.
Samsung Gear S3: Tizen
Operating systems are where smartwatch battles are won and lost. Apple continues to refine its watchOS, Google is currently holding back its major Android Wear 2.0 update and Pebble is also tweaking its own OS. So what for Tizen? Well, we're now up to version 2.3.1 of Samsung's own operating system.
Essentially it's the same setup. From the main watch screen you can swipe down to access quick settings like screen brightness and music player controls or check in on battery status. Swipe right and you can see latest activity and app notification updates. Swipe left and you can check in on things like calendar appointments and yet more fitness tracking metrics. You can press down on the screen to stylise watch faces. It doesn't quite have the same level of customisation you get on an Apple Watch, but there's a decent collection of faces to get you started.Hitting the lower physical button once again launches that neat circular UI where you can use the rotating bezel to scroll through the app icons.
Overall, it's zippy, simple and easy to use. There are a couple of extras to highlight, like the ability to view recent apps, while pressing down on the screen lets you rearrange apps or uninstall the third party apps you don't want to use anymore. You can also add widgets including app shortcuts for multiple or individual apps and for S Health data.
Notification support is solid too. The Gear S3 still appears to have some issues pulling in images, but otherwise whether it's third party apps, texts or emails, they're easy to digest. Plus there are plenty of ways to deal with the notifications, bringing the bezel into good use to scroll through your options.
Samsung has packed in a lot here, so it's worth spending some time exploring to find out which features and modes are the most useful. You won't need to be aware of all of them and that's a good thing because it doesn't take away from what is, on the whole, a very straightforward operating system to get to grips with. While it lacks Android Wear's contextual goodness and some elements we love on the Series 2, there's a lot to like about what Samsung has done here.
Samsung Gear S3: Staying in touch and getting connected
When it comes to transferring smartphone features to a smartwatch, Samsung does not cut corners. There's a built-in speaker, which is hidden away on the side of the watch. Once you've successfully paired the S3 with a Samsung or Android phone over Bluetooth, it'll pull through your contacts letting you make calls from the wrist. Let's be clear, you will still look stupid answering a call from a watch, but if it is something you really think you'll do, the call quality is pretty decent. Just make sure you crank up the volume to the max.
That addition of a speaker does also mean you can now create voice memos and leave voice messages. This is done through Samsung's S Voice software, however our experience creating memos was often quite frustrating as it didn't always pick up what we were saying.
It's a similarly awkward and frustrating experience with the other methods on offer to reply to messages and emails. Unsurprisingly, using the keyboard to type out messages is cramped while the handwriting recognition experience is in no way as slick as it is on the Apple Watch Series 2. You do also get some default responses to choose from (which you can customise) to make the job of responding quicker, and there are emojis as well.
As we've already mentioned, Bluetooth is your means to pair the Gear S3 with your smartphone via the Gear Manager app, but it also means you can pair the smartwatch with Bluetooth headphones. That's useful when you factor in that there's 4GB of onboard storage and the ability to transfer music from your phone to your watch. The only downside is that you have to do it all through Samsung's own Music app. It is, at least, a very straightforward process.
Samsung is working to do its best to help the Gear S3 be a standalone device, including Wi-Fi and an LTE version of the Frontier, which uses an e-Sim card. At the moment, that LTE flavoured model currently only works with certain networks and requires a separate data plan.
There's NFC on board too and while that gives you an alternative way to pair your Gear IconX headphones, it also enables Samsung Pay, letting you pay for things from your watch. It will work with Samsung and most Android phones, but the service still hasn't rolled out worldwide. We'll update our thoughts on this once we've had some time to try it out in the US.
Samsung Gear S3: Health and fitness
Like Apple and Pebble, Samsung is making a big play with fitness. There's built-in GPS to track activities like running and cycling, plus a host of sensors including a heart rate monitor, barometer and speedometer. Automatic exercise recognition works with multiple activities and rep counting (recently introduced to the Gear Fit2) helps you keep a check on sets of lunges, crunches, squats and burpees.
There's also fitness tracking features giving you a breakdown of steps, elevation and calorie burn plus it'll give you a vibrating nudge when you've been sitting down too long and not been active. Everything is powered by the steadily improving S Health platform.
As far as being a Fitbit rival is concerned, Samsung does a pretty decent job. To test it for accuracy we put it up against the Flex 2 and it fared well for steps, distance and sleep tracking. When it comes to motivating you to get off your butt, the inactivity prompts actually work really well, flashing up on the big screen. All of the data is stored in S Health, but there's more than enough that can be viewed from the watch as well.
For sports tracking, it's a bit of a mixed bag. We put the GPS to the test in a 10k race against the TomTom Spark 3 and we were reasonably happy with the results. The mapping looked accurate, however a closer inspection of the run breakdown showed that elements like average pace appeared suspiciously faster in comparison to the Spark 3. The maximum heart rate reading was 9-10bpm higher than the TomTom running watch as well.
Automatic workout detection jumps into action as promised, picking up walking sessions, runs and even rowing machine sessions. The rep counting however is a little hit and miss. We compared the Gear S3 with the Jabra Sport Coach Special Edition and the Atlas Wristband and found that it had problems registering reps consistently and required exaggerating our movement at times.
Samsung Gear S3 (left) and Polar H7 (centre and right)
Unfortunately the heart rate monitor isn't up to scratch either, joining a long list of unreliable optical based sensors we've tried. Aside from our experience running with it in a race, we also used it for several interval running sessions on a treadmill and cycling sessions on an exercise bike. We'd expected more dips in the graphs due to the interval training, but it remained very steady. The Samsung watch tended to record some abnormally high readings when compared to the reliable heart rate sensor on the TomTom Spark 3 and the Polar H7 heart rate monitor chest strap.
Samsung Gear S3: Apps
Apps were one of our biggest gripes with the Gear S2 and since then things have improved. Whether that's a big enough improvement for you depends on how much emphasis you place on good app support. It's better, but not much better.
Samsung says there are now more than 10,000 apps available in the Samsung App Store, which you can access from the Gear companion phone app. You can also browse a selection of apps from the watch. There are plenty of native apps already preloaded including reminders, calendar, music player and weather apps.
There are some big names accounted for here, including Nike, CNN, ESPN, Uber, BMW and Nest, but there's one notable absentee that we were promised and that's Spotify. We've been assured that it's still coming, but it's a little disappointing it's not ready yet.
Overall our experiences with the Gear S3 apps were good. The likes of Workout Trainer and Uber work well, though they still have some reliance on using your phone. We also tried out a couple of games, including Vampire Monster which uses the rotating bezel, and it was fun and entertaining if only for short bursts. Ultimately though, the support is still nowhere near as comprehensive as it is from Apple or Google. What's more surprising is that paid for apps massively outweigh free ones, something that can be said about watch faces as well.
The challenge once again is convincing developers to back the platform. With features like GPS and the rotating bezel and a clear strategy from Samsung to continue making Tizen watches (for now), it feels like there's more reason for devs to tap into what Tizen and the Gear S3 can offer. We just need to see the results sooner rather than later.
Samsung Gear S3: Battery life and charging
Thanks to the bigger body, Samsung now has room to squeeze in a larger 380mAh battery, which should give you 3-4 days of battery life. In our time with the watch that averaged out to about three days, keeping the screen brightness relatively high and using the GPS tracking regularly. Turning off the always-on display mode definitely helps to push that closer to the four day mark. We also found an hour-long run with GPS tracking tended to knock the battery life down to just below 90%.
There's a pretty good power saving mode on board, so when you are low, it will help you reach that four day mark. Bottom line: the Gear S3 battery life is a noticeable improvement on the Gear S2 and wipes the floor with Apple for staying power. It's some accomplishment to get the battery life it does with a screen of that size and quality.
When you hit 0%, Samsung bundles in a larger version of the wireless charging cradle included with the Gear S2. The small LED light will let you know when it's fully charged and actually looks quite nice sitting out on a desk. The Gear S3 does seem to take at least a couple of hours to get from 0-100%, which is disappointing when Samsung has made such big strides with quick charging tech on its phones.
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