The newest version of the Gear series is a bit bigger, packs a little more punch, and brings a few more tools for the smartwatch enthusiast. Is there enough substance behind the style? We find out in this full review of the Samsung Gear S3.
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Before we begin, we will mention that while we are reviewing the Frontier edition, we were able to use the two different editions of it. A Wi-Fi only edition of the watch is available and is more or less the typical Gear experience, while the 4G-enabled edition through AT&T makes it easy use the watch without needing to have a phone nearby and connected.
While it might not be easy for everyone to sport this large smartwatch, there is one simple reality for those who can – this is one sleek device. The Gear S3 Frontier brings grooves to the signature rotating bezel, giving it an added tactile quality that is subtle but noticeably felt. Seconds in increments of five line the area just below the rotating bezel – a small detail that adds to any analog watch face. Two buttons are on the right side, one to go backwards in the interface and the other to either go back to the watch face or open up the app list. To differentiate the Frontier and Classic editions, the Frontier’s buttons are more recessed to the body and are covered in a patterned leather.
In adding to the sporty nature of the Gear S3 Frontier, a silicone band comes standard. This helps with the watch’s water resistance, ensuring that no leather will get ruined if one’s wrist gets splashed. However, it is easy to replace the bands through the 22mm standard connectors. A myriad of bands are available from Samsung via partnerships with plenty of fashion companies, but this silicone complemented the style of the Gear S3 nicely.
The body case is a large 46mm, definitely bigger than either of the previous Gear S2 models. This size makes it tough to recommend for anyone with small wrists, regardless of one’s gender. Even my own wrists could barely contain the large frame of the watch. While it certainly doesn’t look obnoxious on my wrists, it took a little bit of time to get used to. This size adds room for plenty of features and protection – turning the watch body over reveals the heart rate sensor and designations for the 316L stainless steel material that makes it up. And finally, a MIL-STD 810G rating adds extra shock, heat, and cold resistance to the existing IP certification.
What we really applaud the Gear S3 Frontier for, is its ability to work with plenty of different outfits. While it is most at home among a more formal ensemble, the sleek head-turning design makes it a centerpiece when wearing casual clothing. And to that end, it is hardly a loud device in terms of look – the black color blends in well with most paired clothing.
Which brings us to the marquee feature that returns from the Gear S2 – the rotating bezel. It takes just little tug or a little push in order to make it move, and every click from the bezel is as satisfying as the last. Full touchscreen capabilities are available still, but this physical method of moving around the Tizen interface is fluid, responsive, and as snappy as it should be. Movements far in the interface or just to the next element are equally easy, making this an ideal smartwatch for anyone that wants a tactile experience to, in many ways, replace touchscreen experiences.
And the display is half the story regarding the size of the Gear S3 – at 1.3 inches, the OLED display is covered in Gorilla Glass SR+ (Scratch Resistance Plus) and boasts 360 x 360 resolution. Though these specs might sound a bit run of the mill for most high-end smartwatches, credit goes to Samsung for leveraging it as effectively as possible. OLED lends to really great colors coming from the Tizen OS along with the ability to truly turn off the display’s lighting for battery savings.
And to that end, watch faces on the Gear S3 take on a different nature when the ‘Always on Display’ option is ticked. When using pretty much any watch face downloaded from the Samsung Gear application, covering the display with one’s hand or letting it time out reveals a more toned down version of the face that still keeps the essential elements in view no matter what angle you’re looking at the watch from. For any fans of the Always on Display on the Galaxy smartphones, this is about the closest that it can get strapped onto a wrist.
In all situations – even in broad daylight – the brightness of this OLED panel keeps everything properly viewable. And it is important to have an easy time glancing at the screen because the Tizen operating system tries to pack in as much as it can in the main screen. Some watch faces have hidden functionality when tapped upon. For example, the default face doubles up as a stopwatch. Even when features like these are running, small elements are strewn about the watch face to alert the user to changing circumstances like standing notifications or when the watch is not connected to a smartphone.
Make no mistake – this is the best way to read notifications on a smartwatch. Ever. The combination of the high quality screen and the rotating bezel to scroll down in even long notifications is an experience that is unparalleled by the touchscreen-centric Android Wear and the button pressing Pebble. Even when pictures load up in the preview, they’re shown in effective fashion and simply add to the idea that this watch is supposed to be more standalone than perpetually tethered to your smartphone.
So, for a watch that wants to do as much as possible, there has to be quite a bit of power under the hood. For the Gear S3, this comes in the form of an Exynos 7270, born and optimized by Samsung and for Samsung, in the case of their own smartwatch operating system Tizen. It comes at no surprise, then, that the watch simply flies through its operating system and applications. A quick spin of the rotating bezel shows how fluidly all of the widgets and screens zip past with no issues at all.
The only problems we had with applications came from third party developed downloads from the Gear Manager. This is not so much the problem of the watch and its processing power, but from the development of the apps. While this is an issue that bears mentioning, the core experience of the Gear S3 is still about as good as it can get – and that says a lot, because this watch tries to do a lot out of the box.
As mentioned earlier, we have been able to use a 4G LTE enabled version of the Gear S3 that comes with a few extras. Namely, the ability to sync up the watch without needing to be around the smartphone it pairs with. Setting up the Gear Manager properly means that as long as both the smartphone and smartwatch are connected to some sort of network, notifications will come to the Gear S3, no matter where the user is.
The added benefit is the ability to make calls and send texts in this very situation, without the smartphone around. On AT&T, this service is called NumberSync and it makes it so that the watch goes off alongside its paired phone. Calls on the watch make use of a speaker and microphone combo that is found on the left side of the body, tucked under the top half of the watch. The experience of taking calls on the S3 is akin to a small walkie talkie that is strapped to your wrist, but it isn’t effective in even semi-loud environments and thus requires either a Bluetooth headset connection or, surprise surprise, moving to the phone. It’s a great idea made into reality, it’s just not as awesome as we probably all expected it to be.
Not the mention that having this extra functionality in the Frontier LTE means paying for a smartwatch plan that encompasses data and wireless signal, which costs $10 on top of any smartphone plan you are already paying for. Is it worth that extra money each month? That’s up to you, but we think that there is already so much fun to be had on the Gear S3 without having to shout at your wrist.
Connecting a Bluetooth headset to the watch opens up a couple of possibilities. Not only will calls be easier to manage, but the on-board storage can be used for local music playback. The LTE-enabled Frontier allows for Spotify streaming, which is nice but is a battery drain. 4GB of storage is available for local files so that content is always within reach.
One final feature on the Gear S3 is Samsung Pay, enabled on the Gear S3 through an add-on that is installed in the Gear Manager. The setup takes a little bit of time, but after getting any credit cards put into the add-on and then transferred over to the NFC and MST enabled Gear S3, payments are quite easy at multiple stations across major stores. Simply hold the back button, select which card to use, and then bring the watch up to the station and voila. This is yet another fun aspect to using the Gear S3, and even this skeptic that prefers physical credit cards gets a kick out of it.
The battery of the Gear S3 is charged via a wireless charging dock that is magnetic, making the watch snap right into place easily. Though Samsung claims two days of battery life out of the 380mAh unit, that is less true when usage is constant and aggressive. This is mostly true for the Frontier LTE, in which everything from taking calls, sending texts, and even fitness tracking combined will make the watch seem more like a one day warrior. When using more applications and functions on the regular, be prepared to take the watch off and dock it at least once a day to top off the battery.
And lastly, Tizen – the smartwatch OS of choice for Samsung. Since the Gear S2, there have been some enhancements made to the operating system, and existing Gear S2 users will get this through an update. These are mostly in terms of using the rotating bezel, which can be rotated to answer or decline calls, for example.
The main noticeable changes are in the overall optimization of the Tizen software, and it shows in the smooth look and feel that the Gear S3 provides. Which is good, because there are a lot of apps that require some due diligence. Weather, calendar events, reminders, Flipboard, S Health, and so much more are available to the user, and it can get a little overwhelming. Add upon all that the different ways that users can respond to messages – voice, emoji, canned messages, and a T9 keyboard that is a bit easier to use on the larger screen but is still far from ideal.
S Health returns in Tizen as the main method of fitness tracking. Much like in the Gear S2, S Health will count steps and periodically take heart rate metrics to get a snapshot of the day’s fitness. While its step count default of 6000 is still rather absurd to us, there are a few more tools here to use when going out in the wild. GPS tracking is available when doing distanced based workouts, though it has to be enabled via the specifically selected activity, like hiking. And speaking of hiking, there are barometers and altimeters to get a better handle on one’s environment. Hikers, in particular, will probably find altitude information useful. Other functions in S Health help users track water and caffeine intake along with sleep, but these are rather simplistic in their execution.
The app ecosystem of Tizen has grown a lot since the Gear S2, and some apps that I envied Android Wear and Pebble for during my usage of Samsung’s OS have finally arrived. That said, there are issues with some third party application development, as we mentioned earlier. Sleep as Android, my sleep tracker of choice, is still a little buggy and didn’t give full reports a couple of nights. And S Voice is just not as good as Google’s voice assistance.
All in all, Tizen is an experience that is still best taken at its core, because that is where it shines best. Third party support is still lacking, but Samsung is still able to make it work where it counts – fitness tracking, though sometimes simplistic, is robust; and Samsung Pay helps add a bit of flair to the notification prowess and daily info already built into the Gear S3.
There was a feeling I couldn’t shake when using the Gear S3 – with every notification that came in, I found myself enjoying reading the entire message (usually SMS) on the screen, scrolling down with the satisfying clicks of the rotating bezel. This is an experience I had before on the Gear S2, but for some reason this was better on the even larger, more men’s fashion-oriented Gear S3. And for any faults that I came across in this smartwatch, like buggy apps or tough to hear voice calls blaring from my wrist, the simplest daily activities were made better by what Samsung continues to build upon since premiering their unique tactile user experience.
...one of the most enjoyable smartwatch experiences we’ve had in a little while...
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What do you think of the Samsung Gear S3? Would you buy one? Or is an Android Wear device or the Apple Watch more your type of smartwatch? Let us know your views in the comments below!