Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Battle of the big smartwatches

We've lived with both to help you decide which one deserves a place on your wrist

Google's Android Wear army continues to grow, Fitbit has its own smartwatch, there's the Samsung Gear Sport and Apple Watch Series 3 is now official.Until they are available, Apple and Samsung's current smartwatches are still two of the most high profile connected timepieces vying for your attention.

After the lukewarm arrival of the original Apple Watch, the Series 2 arrived with more fitness-focused features and improvements in the software department. Samsung, meanwhile, went bigger and crammed plenty of features into the Gear S3 as well.

Wareable verdict: Apple Watch Series 2 review | Samsung Gear S3 review

The big question: which one should you be spending your money on? We've drilled all of the details in our dedicated reviews, but if you want to know how they compare where it really matters, here's our verdict on whether you go Gear S3 or Watch Series 2.

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Design and models

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Battle of the big smartwatches

Watch design will always be a very subjective thing. What one person finds attractive, another would simply not have anywhere near their wrists. In the case of the Series 2 and the Gear S3 smartwatches, you couldn't get two more contrasting styles.

The first thing to address is the whole rectangular/circular debate. Apple has opted to go with something more akin to having a phone on your wrist, while Samsung has opted to stick with a design that most watch wearers will be familiar with. As far as day-to-day experience goes, these are two of the best-looking smartwatches with class leading touchscreen displays. Apple has done a better job than any smartwatch maker of delivering a good-looking rectangular smartwatch. The Gear S3 is a decent looker as well, but is certainly the bigger of the two watches. Its frame has more in common with an outdoor watch, while the Series 2 maintains more sleek, discreet styling. Basically, if you don't like wearing big watches, go for the Series 2.

One thing you can't question with either smartwatch is build quality. The Series 2 comes in stainless steel or even with a ceramic finish, while the Gear S3 similarly relies on luxury materials to give things a more traditional watch feel. If you care about straps, the good news is that both watches offer the ability to swap in different bands, with a whole host of first party and third party options supported.

Essential reading: Best Apple Watch straps to try out

As far as durability is concerned, Samsung has carried out military standard testing to help it withstand high and low temperatures and a good amount of rough and tumble. While Apple doesn't talk up its durability credentials as much as Samsung, it does offer one thing the Gear S3 doesn't - proper waterproofing so you can take it for a swim.

We should, of course, talk about models here, too. Samsung offers up the Gear S3 in two flavours: the Classic and the Frontier. The Classic follows in the footsteps of the Samsung Gear S2 Classic in terms of design, while the Frontier offers a more rugged option. It's also the only Gear S3 model that's available in a LTE version. The Series 2 doesn't have an LTE option, but that's reportedly changing with the Series 3. There's a little more variety on the Apple front, with the Series 2 available in either 38mm or 42mm sizes with a host of different finishes and models. There's also the Apple Watch Edition that features a ceramic casing, along with an Apple Watch Hermès and the running-friendly Apple Watch Series 2 Nike+ edition.

Both offer interchangeable straps convincing a host of designers to make more stylish bands for the two watches. If you want more band customisation and personalisation, the Apple Watch straps are the one you want.

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Digital Crown vs Rotating bezel

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Battle of the big smartwatches

One of the biggest challenges faced by all smartwatch makers is trying to find ways to make interacting with a smaller wrist worn device with a touchscreen display more intuitive. Apple's answer was to take the traditional watch crown and put a modern twist on it, letting you do things like scroll through notifications or even select apps. Samsung took a different approach, with its rotating bezel around the watch face allowing you to scroll through the Gear S3's menu screens or to turn the volume down on your music.

As far as improving those smartwatch interactions goes, the rotating bezel still does a fine job and Samsung continues to add more functionality to make it even more useful. Apple has by no means done a bad job with trying to reinvent the watch crown, but it still feels a bit fiddly to operate the many features it has been assigned to control. We applaud both for taking two very different approaches, but we'd be inclined to say that Samsung has done a better job on this front so far, with Samsung focusing on refining the experience in the future.

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: OS and apps

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Battle of the big smartwatches

Tizen or watchOS? Apple and Samsung have both decided to rely on their own operating systems optimised specifically for smartwatches. The Gear S3 watches run on version 2.3.1 of Tizen, sticking largely to the OS that impressed on the Gear S2. Overall it's really simple to use, and it's really about refining elements of the OS, including better integration of the rotating bezel and offering better customisation.

Compatibility will be a big factor for many as well. The Apple Watch will of course only work with iPhones while the Gear S3 plays nice with Samsung phones, other Android phones and iPhones as well. When paired to an Apple smartphone it's not completely the same experience as it is when connected to a Galaxy S8 or a Google Pixel for instance, but we've lived with the S3 on iOS and it's still a great smartwatch to use.

Read this: Best Apple Watch apps | Best Samsung Gear S3 apps

Notification support impresses as well here, whether that's first or third party applications. What continues to let things down is the app support, especially in comparison to Apple. There's some interesting stuff happening with companies like Nest, but ultimately the developer support still appears lacking.

The Series 2 runs on watchOS 3, which will soon be upgraded to watchOS 4. While it's far from the finished article it's starting to get a lot of things right. There's been a host of new features and improvements added and new apps like the Emergency SOS app (Samsung has an equivalent) and the slightly gimmicky Breathe app. While it still lacks the user friendliness of an iPhone or an iPad, it's done a better job than the first Watch. Largely by ditching features in favour of new additions like the app dock, which feel like a better fit on a smartwatch.

Notification support is one of its strengths, while responding to calls and notifications is a more reliable experience than it is on the Gear S3. One thing you don't have to worry about is app support, and companies are beginning to take advantage of core features like the built-in GPS and swim tracking to come up with new ways to put the Series 2's features to good use.

And since our cash and cards are slowly being worked into the ground by more efficient pay systems, it's also worth noting which device is more useful in this regard. While Apple Pay integration on the Watch makes use of NFC (near-field communications), Samsung Pay and the Gear S3 manages to one-up this by also being compatible with MST (magnetic secure transmission).

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Health and fitness

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Battle of the big smartwatches

Both Apple and Samsung have made a concerted effort to make fitness and sports tracking a big part of their respective smartwatches – especially in the case of Apple. The Series 2 includes built-in GPS and a waterproof design to take advantage of new pool and open swimming tracking modes. There's also a heart rate sensor on board and it doubles as a fitness tracker to count your steps and give you a motivational push to keep you active during the day. Neither does VO2 Max, but that could tilt to Apple's favor with the Series 3.

Essential reading: Swimming with Apple Watch Series 2 and Fitbit Flex 2

Samsung matches Apple by adding GPS as well so you can leave your smartphone behind. There's also a heart rate monitor, barometer and speedometer to track your outdoor activity. It can automatically recognise a series of activities and can even count reps, plus it will also double as a Fitbit replacement.

As far is accuracy is concerned, we were generally happy with how both performed on the GPS front, but slightly favoured Apple for its speedy ability to lock onto a signal. Unfortunately, neither really deliver on the heart rate tracking front, particularly for high intensity training. The Series 2 of course does offer swim tracking and it does a fantastic job on that front.

As fitness trackers, both do an admirable job, but it's the software that underpins all of these features that's really the interesting point here. Apple's Workout and Activity apps are certainly well designed but feel a little limited. Samsung's S Health is steadily improving and it definitely offers a better experience from the wrist.

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Battery life

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Battle of the big smartwatches

Hands down, Samsung is the winner on this front. If you want more battery life you go for the Gear S3. The bigger body means there's room for a battery that is capable of delivering up to four days of power. That's impressive when you consider the size of the screen on board and the raft of sensors included.

In our experience, you could get up to three days, but restricting some features can push things further. The Series 2, whether you go for the 38mm or 42mm model, should give you a day's more use than the original, but putting features like GPS to use will hamper that performance.

Both do offer decent power saving modes, restricting features and giving you more of a watch than a smartwatch experience. You will also have to rely on proprietary charging setups to power them up, so make sure you keep it nearby or in your bag.

Samsung Gear S3 v Apple Watch Series 2: Let's talk about prices

If you compare the cheapest Watch Series 2 to either the Gear S3 Classic or Frontier then you'll be paying $20 to $30 more for Apple's smartwatch. That difference in price grows if you opt for the ceramic Watch Edition, which will set you back a whopping $1,249. Whichever away you look at it, the Series 2 and Gear S3 are going to cost you the same as it would be to buy a traditional Nixon or Tissot watch.


Verdict

If we had to recommend one of these smartwatches right now, the Apple Watch Series 2 would be our pick. We're willing to overlook its shortcomings, particularly in the battery department, to say that Apple's second generation Watch offers a better overall experience. We like the design and watchOS continues to improve, while sports tracking features are a major plus.

That's not to say that there's not plenty to like about the Gear S3, as well as reasons why people might opt for it over the Series 2. That rotating bezel offers more than Apple's digital crown, fitness tracking features supported by S Health impress and while we continue to bemoan the Tizen app support, the operating system on the whole works very well. If you really care about battery life and you're happy to live with that big watch body, then the Gear S3 will probably be the better fit.


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1 comment

  • DracheMitch·

    This review completely leaves out the fact that the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier and Classic come with stainless steel cases as standard, and the Apple Watch that competes in the same price range is made from soda cans, oh I meant aluminium.

    I bought an original Apple Watch Sport shortly after it came out, but once I saw the Gear S3 Frontier, I had to have it.  My Apple Watch has been in a drawer ever since.