Hands-on: Is Samsung's bold Gear S ahead of the smartwatch curve?
September 3, 2014
Last week we told you about Samsung's latest smartwatch, the Gear S. With a curved display and built-in 3G wireless, it's certainly a bold step forward. But what's it like to actually use? Read on, as Gizmag goes wrists-on with the Samsung Gear S.
Update: The Gear S is now in the wild, and we've published our full review.
The Gear S is unmistakably bold, but it's also walking a fine line. On one hand, it has a gorgeous and spacious 2-in curved screen. The Super AMOLED display looks terrific and the curved aesthetic is a pleasure to swipe and tap. It gives you much more real estate than any mainstream smartwatch to date – and that alone could open some interesting doors.
On the other hand, this sucker takes the tech producty look that has been so common in smartwatches, and pushes it to a new extreme. Wear this thing in public, and you're sure to get some looks. I personally think it looks pretty cool, but it's also a huge departure from classic timekeeping watches. Dick Tracy? More like George Jetson.
It's quite possible that most customers aren't ready for a watch that looks like this. Or, on the other hand, maybe customers just need to know that it packs in enough cool features to justify its sci-fi appearance. That's where the Gear S has more potential than previous smartwatches.
Though it runs a newer version of the same Tizen software, using the Gear S is very different from using any of the older Samsung watches. And it all goes back to that display. It's going to raise the bar for what's possible on a smartwatch.
From where I stand now, I'd say the Gear S' killer feature is its virtual keyboard. It's a bit strange rapping out texts or emails on a curved 2-in screen, but Samsung's auto-correct seems to be quite good. In my testing during the hands-on session, it almost always corrected my gibberish into exactly what I was trying to type.
A Samsung rep also tells me that the watch will support third-party keyboards. So, though the stock Samsung one doesn't have a Swype-like trace feature, we'll surely see alternatives that will (perhaps from companies like SwiftKey or Swype itself).
Back to that curved screen. Yes, it's huge for a watch. And yes, this design is going to be way too radical for some people. But it's also a joy to use. It's a lot like the Gear Fit's screen, only much bigger, more curved and attached to a more powerful device.
We'll need to spend more time with the Gear S before jumping to conclusions. But, from where I stand now, I think Samsung has hit a pretty nice balance of packing in smartphone-like space and power – but without going too ridiculously crazy with the design (though opinions will undoubtedly vary on that point).
The Tizen UI is similar to what we've seen on older Gear watches, but it's more mature on the Gear S. From the main clock face, you'll find widgets lined up to your right. Notifications live permanently on the left. Below the main screen is an app drawer. This latest version of the Tizen software is inching closer to being like a smartphone OS.
So what about the 3G wireless and that SIM card slot that you see above? Well, I couldn't get a cut-and-dry answer from Samsung about what features will be available without a paired smartphone, and which will require the phone. The impression I get is that, right now, there is no answer. Apparently the point hasn't yet been decided (I suspect carrier demands and politics are at play). But we do know that at least some key features will work without having your phone around.
The gist that I got from Samsung's reps is that, despite its 3G radio, the Gear S isn't designed to replace your phone. It's still a companion device. But, in a pinch, it can work without one ... at least partially.
A lot is still fuzzy there, so we should consider the standalone wireless factor a question mark at this point. We'll be keeping an eye on this when the watch launches.
In poking through the watch's settings, I noticed that there were options for calling or sending texts from either your paired phone's number or from the Gear's own number (above). There were also options for forwarding calls from your phone to the Gear. When I asked a Samsung rep about this, I was told that the software isn't final, so these options may or may not be in the final shipping version. Perhaps it will also vary from carrier to carrier.
Samsung also hasn't revealed anything about pricing, but a company rep hinted to me that it may cost more than previous Gear watches. With 3G, built-in GPS and that large curved screen, I guess that shouldn't be too surprising. My guess is that the Gear S will land in the US$350-550 range. In the US, maybe we'll even see carriers sell it subsidized with a contract or installment plan (that's completely speculation on my part, by the way).
As for that built-in GPS, we could only test it so much in an indoor hands-on area. But it looks like exactly what you'd expect out of any navigation app. It's Nokia's Here, it's on the Gear and it's designed for pedestrian travel. Until we get our hands on a review unit, that's the long and short of it.
Of the four products Samsung revealed today, the Gear S was the one I gravitated towards the most. It's going to make a very interesting alternative to Android Wear (and perhaps the iWatch). And while I still think most people will prefer watches that look a bit less ... futuristic, I've always appreciated Samsung's full-throttle approach to this space. Once we get a review unit in house, this is going to be, at the very least, one hell of a fun device to play with.
For more on today's announcements, you can hit up our hands-ons with the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge. And for more on the Gear S, you can see how it compares to Samsung's five previous smartwatches.