It's clear that Tizen — Samsung's in-house, customized operating system — is the way of the future for its wearables.
Just like we saw with the last two Gear watches, the Gear S runs Samsung’s own “Tizen-based wearable platform” — but the naming isn’t as important as what it enables Samsung to do. This is a completely custom system and interface that Samsung has made to look and feel exactly how it wants, without the limits of someone else making the software, and for better or worse.
Trying to run phone-like software on your watch is a bad idea. Full stop.
The interface is quite a bit busier than that of Android Wear, but isn’t impossible to figure out by any stretch. Your main interface is a clock, with a swipe to the left putting you in the “widget” area where you can scroll through a handful of information-dense experiences. Swiping right from the clock shows a list of notifications, and additional swipes that direction go through full-screen readouts of each notification. A swipe up from the bottom bezel brings you into the app launcher (yes, separate from the widgets and notifications), and a swipe down on the clock gives you a quick settings panel for sound, vibration, battery state and connection information.
In terms of watch faces you can choose from 13 pre-loaded (and in many cases editable) faces or download more from the Galaxy Apps store, though the selection of third-party faces wasn’t amazing. The set of widgets to the right of the watch face are customizable, and you can choose to add any of the available ones: S Health, a full-on news reader, calendar agenda, contacts, weather, a music player and settings shortcuts.
You can reorganize the app drawer by long pressing icons, just like a phone, and even dive deep into several layers of settings to customize everything. You can change the color of the interface, sound profiles, brightness controls, connection preferences, do not disturb mode, home button shortcuts, a privacy lock, motion controls and power saving modes. All from the watch.
It takes time to wrap your head around everything happening on this watch.
Okay, maybe that is kind of complicated. The interface feels far more like it was made for a 2-inch smartphone than a watch, and in many ways is cluttered and packed with unnecessary features. Trying to navigate through several layers of interface with taps and swipes on a small display is frustrating, for sure, and the Gear S takes a good long while to “figure out.”
The Gear S takes in notifications from as few or as many apps on your phone as you want, defined in the settings, and displays them on the watch. Unlike previous watches from the company the Gear S actually shows full content of every notification, even long emails, messages or comments, but the big problem here is syncing.
It's simply inexcusable to not have two-way notification sync on your watch.
When you receive a notification on your phone, and therefore Gear S, the state of those notifications is not synced. If you read on the watch and clear it — a two tap affair, by the way — the notification is cleared on the phone. But the opposite isn't true — clearing notifications on the phone has no effect on the watch, leaving the wearable to pile up dozens of "unread" (but not really) notifications.
Being that most people are far more likely to interact with notifications on their phone it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to not have two-way sync, and it means you have to hop into the notifications on your Gear S and perform a swipe and tap to "dismiss all" on the pile of old data. It also means you often look at your wrist thinking you have unread information, when really it could be hours (or days) old.
It's such a far cry from the perfect notification sync that I've gotten accustomed to on Android Wear, and it's just a downright bad experience. There's no need to have to manage your watch like that — it's almost constantly connected to a phone and should use that power to sync notifications.
Gear Manager app
Even though it isn’t running Android, Samsung has the Gear S working flawlessly with its Android devices thanks to the Gear Manager app.
And yes, the Gear S only works with Samsung phones, which I can disagree with and completely understand at the same time. As someone who regularly uses non-Samsung phones it’s a deal killer, obviously, and I don’t like the idea that my chosen smartwatch locks me in completely to just one manufacturer. At least with Android Wear I have my choice of any Android phone, and with Pebble either Android or iOS. But from Samsung’s perspective, there’s little reason to let people use the Gear S (or any other Gear) with non-Samsung devices — manufacturer lock-in is profitable.
The Gear S may be powerful, but the Gear Manager is still a necessary crutch.
And even though the Gear S is marketed as a smartwatch that can work independently of your phone, that’s nowhere near the case. Right out of the box you’ll need to sync the Gear S with your Samsung phone just to get started, as well as use that phone for loading apps to the watch, receiving notifications from the phone and downloading any offline content.
A direct Bluetooth connection to your phone is still the primary connection option for the Gear S as well, even though it does have built-in Wifi and 3G connectivity. Wifi works just as you’d expect, even if typing in your password on a tiny on-screen keyboard is tough, and the 3G connection (via an AT&T SIM in my case) kicks in whenever Bluetooth and Wifi aren’t available so long as you've paid for the proper plan from your carrier.
The Gear Manager app will keep your watch connected to the phone via Bluetooth but can also handle a “remote connection” to the watch via Wifi or 3G when the devices are separated. With a remote connection you can still get notifications from your phone, which is neat, as well as manage call and text forwarding if you have a SIM card in the watch.
Because you’re still reliant on the Gear Manager app for passing off data to the watch even when its physically separated from the phone, it’s hard to call the Gear S a truly “independent” device in any way. Yes you can get out of Bluetooth range of your phone, and yes the Gear S will still do some things, but unless you have a Samsung phone running Gear Manager somewhere, you won’t be getting much out of your watch.
It’s very clear that you can do a whole lot on the Gear S, but in the end it’s still using very similar parts to other smartwatches out there that do far less. Whether it’s a lack of horsepower or how well the software is optimized for it, the Gear S feels a bit sluggish throughout its interface.
There's a downside to doing this much on the watch — performance suffers.
Whether it’s moving through the basic interface, checking on notifications or pulling up a more intense app, there’s a perceptible amount of slowdown and jank when using the Gear S. It isn’t something that particularly impacts getting things done on the watch, but it does make it feel like it’s not responding to your input properly. You swipe and visibly see the slowdown happening behind your finger — it feels bad, and it looks bad.
I never had full-on crashes or frozen apps, but when everything you do on the watch feels slower than it should, it doesn’t instill you with confidence that you have a high-end device that can handle anything you throw at it.