Since the launch of the Apple Watch, there hasn't been much in the way of true competition. Sure, Samsung had their older (and weirder) Gear S smartwatch with its relatively large curved rectangular display and built-in 3G radio. And sure, Android Wear watches have been steadily improving in capability, performance, and design. But when it came to hardware quality, interface design, and snappy performance, the Apple Watch really had no equal. Until possibly now, with the launch of the Samsung Gear S2.
Right off the bat, these are very different watches. The Apple Watch is rectangular, the Gear S2 is round. The Apple Watch is curvy, the Gear S2 (especially the Classic pictured here) is a bit more angular and traditionally watch-like in design. The Apple Watch uses a small digital crown dial and touch display to navigate the interface, while the Gear S2 gets around with a spinning bezel and a touch display. Okay, that last bit isn't all that different, at least in concept. In execution, the larger ring on the Gear S2 offers a bit more travel before you have to pull your finger back and start spinning again than the Apple Watch's digital crown.
There are a few interface comparisons to make. Take the round icons, for example, which Apple uses extensively on their watch, though you could argue that they perhaps make more sense on a round watch like the Gear S. Sure, a lot of them are similar, but when you're making icons this small, there are only so many ways to show what the app is. The Gear S2 does have a slight advantage here in displaying the name of the app in the center, but at the same time that also means it can only display eight apps at a time, whereas the Apple Watch displays nearly four times that many icons — but you can navigate the Gear S's app launcher with that spinning bezel, while the Apple Watch's digital crown only lets you zoom in and out.
And that icon in the launcher that's a circle of smaller circles that sent the tech-watching internet into a Samsung's-copying-Apple-again tizzy when the first images were teased? That signifies the next and previous rings of apps on the Gear S, not the favorite friends feature as it does on the Apple Watch. The use of a black background simply makes sense here, with an AMOLED display the pixels light up individually (there's no single backlight), so dark pixels use less power than bright ones. It's why the Apple Watch has a black background and mostly dark watch faces, as do other AMOLED-equipped Android Wear watches like those from LG.
This is, quite possibly, the best-built and designed hardware for a non-Apple Watch smartwatch. That said, even as solid as the Gear S2 is, the Apple Watch hardware is a notch above. That's not to say that the Gear S2 feels cheap, but something about the Apple Watch made it feel a bit more 'premium' in hand and on wrist. It might just be the weight of the Apple Watch, our 42mm stainless steel version clocks in at 50 grams, while the Gear S2 Classic is a relatively lighter 42 grams. Spinning the bezel and pressing the buttons yielded satisfying clicks all around (yes, the Apple Watch's digital crown spins freely, though some 'watch guys' have argued it should do otherwise). The quality of the bands of the Gear S2 falls short, however, with both the rubber and leather straps feeling and looking cheaper than Apple's offerings.
But when it comes to software quality and performance, the Gear S2 matches the Apple Watch in our estimation. It was blazingly fast and responsive, the navigation was generally clear, discoverable, and sensible. The selection of third-party apps from the likes of CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and Uber were all quality designs that kept to just what they needed to do and nothing more (Uber lets you call a car to your location, for instance, but there's no account management). Just check out this video:
There's one more notch for the Gear S2: compatibility. Previous Samsung smartwatches have only worked with Samsung smartphones, and even then a selection of the most recent ones. And the Apple Watch obviously only works with the iPhone. But in the same week that Android Wear smartwatches picked up iPhone compatibility, Samsung's announced that the Gear S2 will work on all Android smartphones running Android 4.4 or higher with more than 1.5GB of RAM.
That's a huge change for Samsung, which while still the dominant Android manufacturer, has acknowledged here that there are more than just Samsung smartphones out there (and to serve as a lure for non-Samsung Android phone users into their ecosystem). There are some features that won't work with non-Samsung phones (like Samsung Pay, for obvious reasons), just like there are some Android Wear features that don't work on the iPhone.
All said and done, there's a new smartwatch in town that's poised to rival the Apple Watch. We won't call it an Apple Watch killer — there's no way it could be, considering that they are tied to different ecosystems. And so far we've only had a brief time with the new Samsung smartwatch, so it's hard to say whether or not it's explicitly better, or if it's even possible to make such a judgement. Regardless, it's good to see another company, even if it's Samsung, stepping up and offering a quality smartwatch.