(We first reviewed the Samsung Gear S3 in December 2016. With a host of new features added since then and having spent more time with it, we've returned back to our review to factor in all the big changes. )
The successor to the much-loved Gear S2, the Samsung Gear S3 is the company's latest and, theoretically, greatest. With the Apple Watch Series 2 introducing some serious new tech, and Android Wear 2.0 now unleashed with smartwatches like the LG Watch Sport, the smartwatch game has changed considerably a lot over the course of a few months.
For the Gear S3, Samsung has decided to offer up two designs. There's the more rugged Frontier for outdoor types, 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. You'll be able to pair it with a Samsung phone, most Android phones, and it even works with iPhones, though the experience on the latter is slightly more limiting.
Samsung's also added 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? Furthermore, now a few months since our initial testing, has much changed? Read on and find out.
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, but a few months later we still feel like it's too big. The Gear S2 feels like a better looking watch, and it's not at all surprising that Samsung is still offering the older model. In short, it's not going to be for everyone. If you like outdoor watches then you'll appreciate the more rugged looking Frontier, but while neither can be accused of looking too "techy", the Classic is definitely the more stylish of the two.
Compare it to something like the orange coloured Nixon The Mission or even the new Garmin Fenix 5 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, 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've taken the S3 in the shower plenty of times with no problem, although you'll have trouble using that touchscreen when it's we.. 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, as we'd love to be able to use the Frontier for swim tracking.
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. Since we first reviewed it, Android Wear 2.0 has brought support for rotational input, and we expect it won't be long before we see some Google watches with a similar mechanism. We couldn't blame them, it's one of the Gear S3's best and most unique features, and Tizen on the watch has been designed around it.
Like that bezel, the two physical buttons on the side of the watch also include a 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. More on that in a bit.
In sum, we still feel like it's a bit average in the looks department - particularly the Frontier - and disappointingly hefty. After the S2 we were surprised Samsung's smartwatch beefed up so heavily, and with the huge range of Android Wear smartwatches rolling out, the competition is going to only get tougher for Samsung's smartwatch, especially running its own race with Tizen.
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 the Tizen experience. This is a key differentiator with the S3, and something Samsung and Apple have over Google. For Google, it's continuing to partner with third parties to make the hardware - even for Wear 2.0's flagship watches - but Samsung and Apple have end-to-end control. It definitely shows in the Gear S3.
Read next: Samsung Gear S3 tips and tricks
Going back to what it can actually do, you can answer/reject calls or control music volume with the bezel and even play games. For calls, we continue to naturally gravitate towards using the touchscreen, and 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 use of rotational input is one of our favourite additions to Wear 2.0, but Samsung can proudly say it got there first.
And of course, this integration goes for third-party apps too. It can be used to adjust the temperature on a Nest smart thermostat or the lighting on your Philips Hue setup. We love using it to scroll through news feeds, and in Map My Run it can be used to easily scroll between heart rate, distance and pace data.
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've been pretty pleased with the way photos look on the smaller screen. But generally it's beautifully vibrant, making the watch faces pop nicely. Even after being spoiled by the latest Android Wear lookers, Samsung's Gear S3 holds its own in the display department.
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 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's Android Wear 2.0 has brought a significantly better experience and many new watches in tow. In fact, with Pebble now out of the picture, Apple and Google are the only other two big names battling it out (haven't we seen this somewhere before?). Tizen though, is an interesting third player.
We like Tizen on the Gear S3, but mostly because of how it's integrated with that rotating bezel. Twisting that will move you through a series of updates and notifications, while you'll still use the screen for selecting things. Hitting the lower physical button launches that neat circular app screen, where you can use the rotating bezel to scroll through the icons.
From the main watch screen you can also swipe down to access quick settings like screen brightness and music player controls or check in on battery status. To change your watch face, it's a matter of holding down on the screen. When we first reviewed the Gear S3 we lamented a lack of customisation, but that's thankfully improved since.
Like Apple's watchOS and now Android Wear, Tizen lets you add and alter complications to certain watch faces, adding things like the weather forecast, battery level, step count, or a second clock. Samsung has also just rolled an update to improve this, adding a calendar date and a music complication to the list for select watch faces, the latter being extra useful, we think.
Since our initial review, the number of available watch faces has increased by a lot, so there's a decent collection of free and paid options to pick through.
Overall, it's zippy, simple and easy to use. That circular app menu can also be customised on the watch itself (you can do it in the smartphone app too) by holding down on the screen when it's up. This lets you rearrange apps, but also delete some of the ones you might not use.
Notification support on the Gear S3 is solid too, and despite a dearth of available apps for Tizen (still), you'll have no problem getting messages emails and other third-party app notifications come through smoothly. Plus, again, the bezel makes messages a pleasure to scroll through.
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.
Right now the big thing Tizen is missing is a smart AI to compete with Siri or Google Assistant, as S Voice feels a bit behind - and unreliable. Samsung tells Wareable that it has plans to bring its new Bixby assistant to wearables, but we sadly suspect we might be waiting for the Gear S4 for that.
Samsung Gear S3: Using with an iPhone
It's been a long time coming but Samsung and Apple finally worked things out, and now you can pair a Samsung Gear S3 (and a Gear S2) with an iPhone. So there's now another smartwatch alternative to the Apple Watch and Android Wear.
So what is it like? In sum, limited, but not terrible. Getting things set up is straightforward once you've downloaded the Gear S app. It's a very similar process pairing it with an Android phone. After a quick rest of the watch it's a case of waiting for the matching pin codes and you're pretty much good to go.
Now that Android Wear on iOS is a better experience, expectations are higher. Tizen is certainly better at playing with the iPhone than Android Wear's first iteration. You can pull in S Health data, send music or images to the watch and activate the Find My Gear mode when the watch goes walkies. Samsung's also given this a bit of a boost since our initial review with improved stability so iOS users don't feel like third-class citizens.
You can even access the Samsung Galaxy App Store, meaning you can install apps onto the watch from the phone app or directly from the watch. That gave it an edge over Google at launch, but Android Wear now offers the same functionality for iOS users. Still, it's great that Tizen does it, even if the lineup of apps on Tizen remeains disappointingly meagre.
As far as using the watch on a daily basis, sport tracking works much the same, though the addition of Under Armour's app suite means iPhone users can now get more out of the Gear S3 as a fitness device, as the S Health experience is still much more limited on iOS. You can't, for example, link it with third-party apps as you can on Android. Also, iPhone users won't be able to use Samsung Pay.
As for first- and third-party app notifications, these appear promptly on iOS. It's still really satisfying to rotate the bezel to navigate, even more so than using the digital crown on the Apple Watch.
Where things begin to feel limited is when you need to act on a notification, as you only have the option to clear or block them. It hasn't been frustrating all the time but it would be nice to have the option to send a quick response to deal with messages or emails.
You're not getting the full Gear S3 experience, but the one you do get is still good and the features that do make the cut work well.
Samsung Gear S3: Staying in touch and using Pay
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 other Android phone over Bluetooth, it'll pull through your contacts letting you make calls from the wrist. We still feel stupid answering calls on our 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.
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. The good news is that Samsung is finally launching an LTE version of the Classic.
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.
To set up Samsung Pay you'll need to verify a bank card, which you can do either through an SMS message or by calling your bank. Note that you have to verify both the phone (if you haven't already) and the Gear S3 separately. So if you have to phone the bank, make sure you're clear that you need both to be OK'd.
Once that's done, you'll need to set up a pin number on the watch. This is slightly irksome as typing on the screen is fiddly, and we've hit the wrong digits a few times, but once you've entered it you won't have to do it again until you take the watch off your wrist. Otherwise, all you need to do is hold down the top button to activate Pay and then hold it up to the terminal.
The big difference with Samsung Pay this time is that you don't have to have a Samsung handset to use it, opening up the platform to many more Android handsets - although oddly the latest Pixel phone isn't one of them. A list of Android-compatible phones can be found here but we know the LG V20, not shown on the list, is also compatible - so don't take it as gospel. If you're in the UK however, you currently can't use the service. Sorry, but it's on its way.
Samsung Pay also has an edge over Apple Pay in that it can be used with magnetic strip readers. Don't worry, you don't have to flatten your watch to actually slide it through, it just requires some slightly different wrist gymnastics.
By making its payment service available to so many more handsets, it also spells bad news for Android Pay which still hasn't made its way to Android Wear. Come on Google, sort it out.
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. In our initial review we put it up against a Flex 2 and it fared well for steps, distance and sleep tracking. Since then we've also tried it against the Fitbit Alta HR, and found it kept pace too. In fact on one occasion of wearing them together, there was only a difference of around 100 steps after six hours, which is very good.
When it comes to motivating you to get off your butt, the inactivity prompts actually work really well too, flashing up on the big screen and giving a small vibration. All of the data is stored in S Health, but there's more than enough that can be viewed from the watch.
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.
We later put it in another test against the LG Watch Sport and Wahoo Tickr chest strap. On the run, we decided to do some extra directional changes around a park to see how the GPS fared, and in fact the Gear S3's standalone GPS picked this up more accurately than the Sport, which missed a couple of the turns and did a tad more guesswork. The overall result was negligable (there was an overall difference of 0.02 miles by the end), but it was still good to see the Gear S3 doing a good job here. Where it's less impressive on the GPS sometimes is in locking an initial signal, as sometimes it can take a little while to find its bearings.
Automatic workout detection jumps into action nicely, 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 fantastic on the Gear S3, although testing has proven mixed. 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.
We later put it up against the Wahoo Tickr, and in this instance we found the S3 ran a little higher on bpm, particularly at one point where it fluctuated quite dramatically. The overall result wasn't terrible, but the S3 does have a habit of getting readings quite far off the mark.
The better news on the fitness front is that since we first visited the S3 there have been some more fitness apps made available for the watch, notably Under Armour's suite which includes UA Record, MyFitnessPal, Endomondo and MapMyRun, the last of which we've particularly enjoyed using. S Health is a good platform, but we prefer having access to our favourites. It's just a shame that Strava still isn't on there.
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 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, and there are plenty of native apps already preloaded including reminders, calendar, music player and weather apps.
Read this: The best Samsung Gear S3 apps
There are some big names accounted for here, including CNN, ESPN, Uber, BMW and Nest, and since our first big test we've seen more added to the crop. Spotify is the big one, now letting you browse and search tracks, and with offline caching promised soon. We mentioned Under Armour's suite too - that could be a big deal to fitness fans considering the S3.
Overall our experiences with the Gear S3 apps has been good, even if it's still lacking in many of the apps we'd like to see. Android Wear 2.0 is getting a lot of the app attention right now, and we hope Tizen doesn't get left behind any further.
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 we've found averaged at 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 and Android Wear rivals 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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