Samsung Gear S review

Does Samsung's latest smartwatch impress? Read our full review to find out
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Samsung Gear S
By Samsung
By billing the Samsung Gear S as a standalone device – although not officially in those words – Samsung has delivered a dud. A good-looking, expensive, dud. Without the messy Samsung Galaxy smartphone reliance, the Gear S could have been a unique device that appealed to a certain audience. Instead, it’s a mishmash of impressive features combined with a fiddly user experience that won’t really appeal to anyone. Its limitations and annoyances could have been more easily forgiven if it wasn’t so bloomin’ expensive. $349?! Get real Samsung. Sure, that’s the price of a mid-range smartphone but you’d need to buy another mid-range smartphone (at least) just to get it going in the first place. At $100 less we’d give it another star; the notification features work really well and it looks amazing – but at its current RRP that’s the least you’d expect.

  • Fantastic curved Super AMOLED display
  • Battery cradle also charges
  • Notifications work well
  • Plenty of apps available on Tizen
  • It’s ridiculously expensive
  • Samsung Galaxy phone reliance
  • Samsung Health features are poor
  • Clasp is ugly and hard to use

The Samsung Gear S was the Korean giant's flagship 2104 smartwatch that, unlike the latest Sony and Asus efforts, shuns Google's Android Wear OS in favour of its own platform: Tizen.

It's a bold move from Samsung, especially given that it also has a contender in the Android Wear marketplace in the shape of the Gear Live and is a clear indication that the smartwatch genre is still very much in its infancy so manufacturers are covering the bases as they find their feet. It's also another example of Samsung throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the wall and seeing what sticks, but that's another story for another day.

Essential reading: Samsung Gear S2 review

It's also bold because the Samsung Gear S is an “advanced communicator" due to its 3G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. That's marketing talk meaning it can be used as a standalone device – it even rocks its own SIM card slot.

We've spent a couple of weeks with the Gear S strapped on to our wrist, read on to see if the Gear S is the best smartwatch money can buy. After all, at £329/$350, it should be, right?

Samsung Gear S: Design and display


Imagine the Gear 2 and the Gear Fit had a quiet night in, had a few too many glasses of wine and got over amorous with little care – the result would look a lot like the Samsung Gear S. It features a large (in smartwatch terms, at least), 2-inch Super AMOLED display - one that is curved. It's simply stunning. The 480 x 360 resolution, and 300ppi count, is the highest yet for a notable smartwatch and it shows.

Buyer's guide: What Samsung Gear should you buy?

Yes, it's big – but we're all for that. In the same way that some smartphone users like their displays larger than the rest (Samsung's Note phablet range is incredibly popular), we think there will be a market for bigger smartwatch displays. And that 2-inch display allows for a lot of information on screen without it ever looking cramped. We love it.

The brightness on the display is awesome and, for everyday use, you simply won't find yourself squinting. Typing on it is still ridiculous – you'll find yourself using S Voice if you really want to input words directly, it's a much more efficient method.

Like most smartwatches, it uses an accelerometer to detect if you turn your wrist towards your face and it works a treat. The ambient light sensor is also pretty good, so you won't be blown away by unnecessary brightness that burns your eyes if you decide to check your email in the dead of night.

The curved display blends into the rubber strap (numerous colour variations are available), which is perfectly comfortable – although Samsung continues to let everyone down when it comes to the clasp. Once again, it's the clunky, foldable metallic variety of the previous Gear models. It's the only major design fault. Sometimes it simply refuses to close without a good fight.

Samsung Gear S: Standalone device?


You remember how we said that Samsung Gear S was a standalone device? Well that's only partly true, as you'll need a compatible Samsung Galaxy smartphone to set the wearable up in the first place. Then you'll need the Gear Manager smartphone app to transfer over contacts, music and photos. And also to install apps. And also to track runs using certain popular running apps. You get the message.

It's a mess to be fair and further proof, if it were needed, that Samsung is happy to rush a half-arsed product to market – one with a couple of standout impressive features – that doesn't really live up to the billing that is given to it.

Once you've got the Gear S up and running, and loaded up a few apps – not independently, of course, but using your Samsung Galaxy smartphone – you can choose to pop in a 3G SIM card and fly solo. Yep, you can make and receive calls – with pretty good audio quality it has to be said – send texts, check emails and even surf the web – all without the need to be tethered to your smartphone.

Smartwatch showdown: Samsung Gear S v Apple Watch

However, be aware that some apps simply refuse to work sans-smartphone (including many popular run tracking ones), some require smartphone setup before they'll work alone on the Gear S and all apps, and there are some 1,000+ available on Tizen, are installed using the Gear Manager smartphone app. There's no app store on the watch itself, which is, well, pretty crap.

If you do insert a SIM, the Gear S then has its own number although, weirdly, if you are still paired to a smartphone (thus pimpin' it by running two contracts) the smartphone's number actually overrides the watch's one, and any calls you make and receive will be through your mobile.

Also, Gear S users who want to use their new smartwatch independently would have to give their pals two different numbers – their original smartphone one and their new smartwatch number. That is, if they don't decide to ditch their phone altogether and go all-out Dick Tracy. There's obviously the option of popping out your phone's SIM and sticking it in your new Gear S as well, although who's going to actually bother doing that?

Therefore, the fact that there's 3G connectivity on board won't mean a thing to most users and we'd hazard a guess that 99% of people who buy a Gear S won't use it as a standalone device at all.

We certainly didn't.

Samsung Gear S: Tizen apps


What we did use it for were the sorts of things that smartwatches are good at. So that's getting notifications, checking emails, browsing social media updates and so on. And, because of that fantastic display, along with a wealth of dedicated Tizen apps, it's about the best smartwatch we've used for these tasks.

Navigating menus and the like is also a breeze due to the larger screen real-estate, with the Tizen OS setup a lot more along the lines of a traditional smartwatch one than what you'd get on Android Wear. Homescreens are left to right, just like on TouchWiz and, similarly to Samsung's mobile OS, you can populate these screens with your choice of widgets – news, weather, contacts, photos, updates and so on – with hundreds to choose from.

Must have apps: Best apps for your Samsung smartwatch

Naturally, you can also change the wallpaper of these homescreens and you can even upload your own background images – although, again, you'd need the smartphone app for this. There are also a number of different watch faces to choose from.

The Tizen app store – which you have to use your phone for, sorry – is packed with a wealth of big name apps and, once installed, they appear on the Gear S's app screen, just as they would on a smartphone. It's a nice setup, it's just a shame you have to get your phone out of your pocket anytime you want to add something.

Samsung Gear S: Fitness and GPS


S Health is built into the Gear S and, as with Samsung smartphones, it will count your steps, calories, heart rate, sleep and, erm, outside UV rays

And like the Samsung smartphones, S Health does these all badly. The step counting is way-off, the heart rate monitoring isn't even within a ball-park and, when we took our Samsung Gear S running alongside a dedicated GPS running watch, not only was it miles out – quite literally – with the distance, it also managed to get the duration of the run wrong, recording a time that was 10 minutes less than the 55 minutes we did on one occasion. We're not sure how that's even possible.

It's probably nailing the UV index though – we didn't double check.

The GPS did come in handy for the baked-in, rehashed Here app, which provides turn-by-turn instructions. This aspect, we're pleased to reveal, worked exactly as was promised.

Samsung Gear S: Battery life

The bad news: you're only looking at a day's battery life with the Gear S. The double bad news: you're going to need to carry around yet another charging cradle with you.

However, we'll cut Samsung some slack here, as an average battery life and an extra charging accessory are certainly not faults unique to just its devices. Plus there's the good news.

The good news is the charging cradle itself is a battery; a 350mAh one that is capable of holding and giving a charge. And with the Gear S's battery pack measuring in at 300mAh, the cradle packs enough juice for a full extra charge. It's a nice feature and if manufacturers will insist on the extra accessory, the least they can do is make them useful.

How we test

Paul Lamkin


Wareable Media Group co-CEO Paul launched Wareable with James Stables in 2014, after working for a variety of the UK's biggest and best consumer tech publications including Pocket-lint, Forbes, Electric Pig, Tech Digest, What Laptop, T3 and has been a judge for the TechRadar Awards. 

Prior to founding Wareable, and subsequently The Ambient, he was the senior editor of MSN Tech and has written for a range of publications.

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