When you think back, in this age of Android Wear and Apple Watches, Samsung actually was one of the first to enter the smartwatch game. And maybe it was a little too ambitious at the time. The watches tended to be pretty big — and as nerdy as you'd expect — and tried to do too much while not doing anything particularly well. And what's more is that they were constrained to Samsung devices only. While that's a big ecosystem, to be sure, it's still limiting.
But do not ignore this, the new Gear S2. This is the beginning of the new generation of wearables from Samsung. A watch you wouldn't hesitate to wear on the street. Or in the gym. Or maybe even (and we'll have to give this a little more thought) dressed up and out on the town.
And perhaps more important is that the walled garden has been opened, with Samsung setting things up so the Gear S2 will work with phones that don't have the Samsung logo on their front.
Intrigued yet? We are. Let's take a look at the new Samsung Gear S2 smartwatch.
Looks good, feels great
The Gear S2 hardware
At some point in the past year manufacturers (thankfully) came the conclusion that perhaps these smartwatches need to look like watches first, and wrist computers second. That particularly rings true for the Gear S2. Gone is the rigidity of Samsung's previous watches, and what's left is something that's more akin to a high-end fitness-type watch in the Gear S2 proper, and something a little more fashion-friendly in the Gear S2 Classic.
Yep, we've got two models — OK, three if you could the upcoming 3G-capable model of the Gear S2 — of what for all intents and purposes are the same smartwatch. All versions of the Gear S2 sport a 1.2-inch AMOLED display — properly round — with a 360x360 resolution for 302 pixels per inch. And it looks gorgeous, as you'd expect, topping even the excellent P-AMOLED displays that LG's been using. The display is ringed by a bezel that also serves as a way to navigate through the Gear S2's extensive-but-simple menu system. Turn left to go left/up, right to go right/down. The Classic has more traditional lugs where the strap connects. The Gear S2 proper sees the bands meeting the body itself, but they're still removable. If you're a fan of metal or leather straps or a more traditional look, you're going to want to go Classic. If you want a watch gear more towards an active lifestyle, you'll want to go Gear 2 proper.
It's hard to say too much about the overall thinness and weight of the Gear S2. I'm coming from the LG Watch Urbane, which actually is just a smidge thinner, but I've also been wearing a metal band with it. But the Gear S2 knocks off 9 grams of weight (for a total of 47 grams), and the even-lighter (and just a tiny bit smaller) Classic takes things down 16 grams from the Urbane to a total of 42 grams. Point is, it's noticeable in any event.
Other tech specs of note: The Gear S2 is powered by a unnamed dual-core processor running at 1GHz. It's got 4GB of internal storage (don't read too much into any of our pictures showing only 1GB free — Samsung had loaded up every app they could think of for our demo) and 512MB of RAM. It's IP68 certified for dust- and water-resistance. It's got 802.11 b/g/n Wifi, Bluetooth 4.1 and is NFC-capable for Samsung Pay. It's got an accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate sensor, ambient light sensor and a barometer.
The Gear S2 charges "wirelessly" with a compact dock that looks very much like the Moto 360 charger. It's magnetic and uses the Qi charging standard — we were even able to drop a Moto 360 onto the charger and it immediately started taking in power. The battery has a capacity of 250 mAh, which Samsung says should last for two to three days.
Take it for a spin
The Gear S2 software
You can sort of split the Gear S2 software into a three categories — notifications, watch faces, and apps. And you can get to them simply by twisting the Gear S2's bezel left (for notifications) or right (for apps), with whatever watch face you've chosen living in the center. The notifications are large and vibrant. No worrying about having to figure out what's on the screen.
The apps, of course, are where this watch will really start to shine. (And apps also are where we'd argue Android Wear is still lacking.)
As we mentioned above, Samsung pre-loaded every app it knew worked well with the watch onto the Gear S2 for us to check out. As such it was damned near overwhelming. There was a lot going on there. In reality, though, you'll be able to pick and choose apps at will. (And differing from Android Wear is that you don't have to have an app on your watch just because it's on your phone.)
But that also means that developers are making good use of the Tizen SDK.
Apps live on a sort-of traditional app launcher — traditional in the fact that it's a space for app icons to live, we suppose. You flip through the pages of apps (either by swiping or turning the bezel) and then tap the app to launch it. There's also a task manager for closing things should you need so.
Samsung's built in plenty of apps that you'd expect to see on a smartwatch — phone dialer, calculator, music, phone finder, etc. And the upcoming Samsung Pay service will work through the watch as well. (You'll have to have it connected to a Samsung phone, of course.) But the number of third-party apps ready to go is impressive in its own right and definitely overshadows Android Wear and puts the Gear S2 more in the same conversation as the Apple Watch. The Uber app was one standout example — call a car without pulling your phone out of your pocket. ESPN and Bloomberg had excellent apps as well. Here Maps. CNN. The list goes on.
Samsung's also gone all-in on watch faces. Several were loaded up on the Gear S2 watches that we used, with the standard press-and-hold (or diving into the settings menu) to change between them. There were a few "traditional" watch faces with hands and number ticks and several modernist watch hand and digital numerals faces. But what got really interesting were the interactive watch faces — the heart rate watch face, for example, instantly starts taking your pulse with a single tap.
Most impressive, though, was the performance of the software. It was smooth and unflinching no matter how fast we turned that bezel or swiped our finger on the display. While lag was an issue with previous incarnations of Samsung's Tizen watches, we saw none of that in our demo environment, which hopefully bodes well for real-world use.
And it's worth reiterating that the Gear S2 will work with non-Samsung phones running Android 4.4 and up, and that also have at least 1.5GB of RAM on board. It won't exactly be a 1:1 experience — Samsung Pay is out for the obvious reasons, and we're told there are other features that might be a little wonky if a phone manufacturer is using non-standard APIs. We'll have to see once we've got one available for proper use. But we have a feeling there probably will be more functionality than we're seeing with using, say, an Android Wear watch on iOS. Either way, it's still a pretty big deal.
A promising start
The bottom line, so far ...
There's a lot to be excited about here. The Gear S2 looks better than its predecessors. It certainly performs better, even in our limited use. It's more stylish and fashion-conscious. It's got a plethora of apps — proper apps — available at launch.
There's still a lot we don't know, though. We're not sure how well it'll work with various non-Samsung phones. While we know it's coming in early October, we don't yet have a price.
And most important is that we don't yet know how it'll really work out on our wrists once we're out and about. So stay tuned. But so far, we're very impressed.
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