Every year is supposed to be the year of the smartwatch. Yet with each generation of products it becomes clearer that we're only just working out what a wrist computer is supposed to do. One approach to wearables has been to start from smartphone principles and work back — the strategy of Samsung and Apple. The other has been to start smaller, with an experience built around interacting with your phone more than running apps on your watch — the Android Wear approach.
As both sides have progressed, they're starting to meet in the middle. The latest versions of Android Wear put more emphasis on watch-based apps, whereas Samsung's newest Tizen watch makes it easier to bypass the clutter and view widgets and notifications.
Aside from a brief stint with an original Pebble, I've mostly been using Android Wear smartwatches over the past year or so. A little over a month ago I switched to a Samsung Gear S2, which I've been using since then on a bunch of different phones — both Samsung and non-Samsung models.
After clocking up a serious number of hours with the Gear S2 on my wrist, it's become pretty clear that Samsung has finally landed on a smartwatch concept that works. It's a watch that wants to do a lot — perhaps more than you'll want it to do. But none of that is shoved in your face. And even if you're not a smartwatch power user — if there is such a thing — there's a lot to like.
Most Android smartwatches are enormous. Having used a Moto 360 (and before it, an LG G Watch R), I'd become desensitized to just how comically oversized these things are compared to a traditional timepiece. The Gear S2 does things a bit differently. There's a 1.2-inch circular display that's less conspicuous on your wrists, especially if they're smaller. The same goes for the curved stainless steel body, which resembles an actual sports watch, and not some sort of futuristic bangle like the original Gear S.
It's relatively lightweight, but the materials give it a heft that's lacking in a lot of Android watches. And the gentle curve of the lugs into the strap makes the entire assembly feel like a cohesive whole.
The Gear S2 isn't enormous, and that's a refreshing change from most smartwatches.
I've been using the regular Gear S2 not the "Classic" model that sports a more traditional watch-like design. This model is definitely more sports watch than dress watch, however the relatively neutral design means it doesn't feel too out of place in any setting. Sure, you're not going to want to wear this to a wedding. But in day-to-day use, it's not obvious that you've got a tiny computer strapped to your body.
Although I'm not a huge fan of rubber straps on any watch, I've found the Gear's strap is comfortable and inconspicuous. I've been using a dark grey Gear S2 — perhaps not my first choice of color — but the look and feel has grown on me with time.
Most of Samsung's other smartwatches — and let's face it, a lot of smartwatches in general — look pretty goofy. Whether it's because of their bulk or their manufacturer's unfamiliarity with making what is in essence a piece of jewelry, using a smartwatch has always felt like strapping a toy watch to your wrist. The Gear S2 is one of the more recent offerings, like Huawei's excellent Watch, that finally bucks that trend.
What's more, the Gear S2 has probably weathered a month and a half on my wrist better than most smartwatches I've used in the past year or so. Its smaller size means it's less likely to ricochet off door handles, lampposts and other obstacles, but even when it does it's come away unscathed. Your mileage may vary, of course.
The functional side of things is equally interesting. The back and home keys on the right edge function as expected, with the option to configure a double-press or long-press to fire up recent apps or other tasks. But the rotating bezel is the biggest paradigm change for the Gear S2, offering up a second way to navigate through the watch's many screens. The obvious parallel here is the Apple Watch's digital crown, however Samsung's software is built more closely around navigating through menus without touching the screen. And that's a big deal when the screen in question is only 1.2 inches across.
This is a far cry from the Samsung that tried to put a camera in its first smartwatch.
Rotating through screens by turning the bezel feels precise and intuitive in a way that randomly prodding at your wrist really can't match. There's nothing stopping you from swiping left and right of course, and for certain tasks, like scrolling through a long email or zooming in on a map, it actually makes more sense. Personally, though, I'm still rotating the bezel more than I'm scrolling. It's quicker, easier, and the sharp click of the wheel provides useful feedback.
Mobile displays are a strength of Samsung in the smartphone world, and it's clear this has carried over to its latest wearable. The Gear S2 packs a 360x360 circular AMOLED panel that's sharp enough to make fonts pleasing to the eye and bright enough to see even in direct sunlight. You'll still need to manually adjust your base brightness level, however Samsung now includes a sunlight sensor under the screen, which lets it detect daylight conditions and crank the brightness up to "outdoor" levels as needed. It's not quite true "auto-brightness" as we know it on phones, but it's close.
Look at the Gear S2's screen off-angle and it's clear that the AMOLED panel itself lives a good distance below the glass surface. Compared to LCDs like those used in the Moto 360, which sit closer to the surface, this gives the Gear less of space-age feel when you're using it -- but it's not a huge deal.
There's a logic to Samsung's home screens that's lacking in many smartwatches.
Samsung's Tizen-based software has also come along in leaps and bounds since we first saw it on the Gear 2 more than a year ago. In addition to being completely redesigned around the circular screen and rotating bezel, the top-level screens are much more logically arranged in Samsung's latest wearable. The simplicity of the UI is reflected in the brevity of the tutorial you'll see upon starting it up: Swipe up, swipe down, turn the bezel and you're good to go. There's not a whole lot more to explain.
Essentially, the Gear S2's main UI consists of a bunch of home screens. Your main screen, centrally located, is your watch face. On the left you'll get additional screens for each of your notifications, and on the right there's a bunch of widget screens, which you're free to customize to your liking. The default setup includes a mix of app shortcuts, weather, calendar, health tracking and music controls.
Compared to Android Wear, there's a certain logic to this approach. Whereas Google throws everything into one haphazard vertical list, the persistence of Samsung's widgets make it easier to find stuff with less flipping and prodding. And the fact that notifications always live off to the left makes it easy to navigate to music controls or your calendar without getting caught up in emails and messages.
Samsung's doing a much better job with information density than many circular Android Wear watches
The way Samsung handles notifications is also different to Android Wear — and mostly in a good way. Each notification gets its own screen (or card, if you like), and these can be swiped away or tapped to view their contents. Notifications are actionable, of course, and you'll also get a couple more options with apps like Gmail compared to Android's own notification shade. By tapping the overflow menu on the right edge, you can quickly delete messages as well as archiving, replying or bouncing them to your phone. The rotating bezel helps here too, but it's just as easy to delete an unimportant message with a couple of taps.
Incidentally, when you're viewing a long email on a circular screen, it's apparent that Samsung's doing a much better job with information density than many circular Android Wear watches right now. Google's wearable OS continues to suffer from the "square peg, round hole" problem, where square dialogs have to be contorted onto round screens, resulting in lots of dead space. The Gear S2 is more competent at wrapping text to the circular screen, and between that and the easy scrolling afforded by the rotating bezel, skimming through a string of messages or emails is much less arduous.
But it's not all good. Direct text entry on a watch is still kind of a crapshoot. Quickly replying to an instant message in voice is easy enough, just like Android Wear or the Apple Watch. But for longer or more precise messages you'll need to use the software keyboard — a T9-based monstrosity that involves tapping at the tiny on-screen keypad in the hope of conjuring up something resembling an actual sentence. For anything more than two or three words, or a customary emoji response, just take out your phone and reply the old-fashioned way. Seriously.
Samsung has always been big on watch-based applications, and the Gear S2 continues this trend. As standard, the watch's app tray — a nifty circular arrangement not unlike LG's mothballed webOS wearable platform — is loaded with offerings from CNN, ESPN, Flipboard and others, with more staples from the likes of Uber and eBay available through Samsung's Galaxy apps portal. Some, like the HERE-based Maps application, actually work well, and take full advantage of the Gear's size and features. Others, like CNN, make pretty poor use of the available screen real estate. Just about all sit behind some sort of splash screen, which you'll need to wait through while the app loads up. Again, we return to the argument that it's probably easier to just pull out your phone to read the news, or check sports scores, or tap out a quick text reply. Smartwatch apps are at their best when they're about quick interactions and glanceable information with minimal scrolling. Unfortunately, there are many third-party Gear apps that fulfill neither criteria. (Even those that work relatively well, like Uber, require the download of an additional companion app to your phone.)
But none of this affects the primary the main home screen view, where I suspect the majority of Gear owners will live most of the time. In building such a compelling home screen experience, Samsung has made it less necessary to dive into the spiralling menu of full-screen applications. That's a good thing for users, if not app developers.
In a pinch, you can absolutely get three days out of the Gear S2's 250mAh battery.
Battery life continues to be a major pain point for many smartwatches, so it's great to see that Samsung's boast of 2 to 3 days per charge actually plays out in the real world. With my usage patterns, with messages from multiple platforms and a bunch of emails flying in throughout the day, and the brightness level set between 2 and 5, I've always been able to get at least two days out of the Gear S2. And that can be extended to a third if I watch what I do and keep brightness levels in check. The Gear S2's dark UI probably helps, but it's impressive nonetheless, especially considering it's running a mere 250mAh battery.
The other big deal about the Gear S2 is its ability to run on non-Samsung phones — any Android phone running version 4.4 or above is supported. The process of getting up and running on a non-Samsung device is a bit more complex — you'll need to download a handful of apps from the Play Store, as opposed to everything being more or less ready to go out of the box on a Galaxy phone. But once you're done, the experience on the watch is essentially identical. Samsung has done a great job of not giving users on a rival manufacturer's handset an inferior experience. Whether you've bought into the Samsung ecosystem or not, the Gear S2 is a solid, reliable smartwatch for Android phones.
And that about sums up Samsung's latest wearable. The company has finally arrived at a place where its hardware designs and software interactions combine to produce something more than their sum. Sure, there's a lot of superfluous stuff. You'll probably never use half the apps that are preloaded — a bit like a Galaxy phone. But even if you don't, the core experience is solid enough that the Gear S2 is enjoyable to use, useful to own and pleasing to the eye. And with a new generation of Galaxy phones due in just a couple of months, it'll be interesting to see where Samsung's wearable journey takes it next.