The idea of a smartwatch has been around for quite some time now, but didn’t really take off as a success until Samsung launched its first variant in 2013. While other manufacturers, in the form of Apple, Motorola and Huawei, have since released versions of their own, with great improvements in functionality and looks, Samsung were the early front runners. And with the advantage of going to the market first, their iterations have been noteworthy, most impressive in their latest offering, the Gear S2.
While the unit was announced in August 2015, with an international release in October, it wasn’t available in South Africa until November, and only really become a talking point and something worth considering in early 2016. It’s safe to say, the Samsung smartwatch of old has shed some weight during the winter months just in time of its summer availability.
The unit is actually available in two design variants (the standard and the classic), with two versions each, one with 3G capabilities (which allows for calling, unfortunately), and one without. We received the standard Gear S2 for review. The 3G version won’t be available in South Africa due to its use of an e-SIM, currently not offered by any of our local networks.
Build and Design
It’s fairly safe to say that the first few iterations of the smartwatch were clunky and annoying technology to have, especially to those who did not own one, and had to endure those awkward moments when someone in your midst attempted to answer their calls on their smartwatch, just to prove its usefulness. In fact, that feature has been removed from the standard version at least. And the world is a better place for it. What’s left is nothing but a sleek, premium looking watch that fits perfectly on any occasion.
Having previously reviewed some of the older generation smartwatches (see below), which immediately drew attention because of their size and obvious strange build, not many noticed that what I was wearing was a smartwatch, until the moment I turn the face toward me to reveal the time, only for it to switch off again as I lowered my hand. A useful feature to have, mind you.
Both the standard and classic variants have a metal body at its core, with two physical buttons on the right side, one used as a back button, the other as a home button. The rotating bezel is also fitted on both versions to navigate through the Tizen UI, although the standard has a smooth finish, compared to the classic design includes ridges. Of course both also have touchscreen interfaces, allowing to easily
swipe between screens, menus and apps, which can also be performed by the rotating bezels if you’re keen on keeping your screen smudge free.
The straps are removable on both versions, although not swappable across the two versions themselves, there are numerous straps to choose from as accessories. Samsung has taken the liberty of adding a set of smaller straps within the contents of the box, which proved useful for my skinny wrists. There is a heart-rate monitor on the back of the main body, which you can set to read your pulse through different intervals across the day. Thus, your strap has to be firmly strapped down in order to easily collect this data, which does, at some point during the day, cause some irritation.
Choosing between the standard and the classic is a no brainer, with the classic looking far more the part of a premium watch, but it will set you back anywhere between R500 and R1000 more in the end. Bare in mind, though, that if you’re planning on undertaking a lot more physical activities, it may not be the best idea to be sweating in your leather strap. In the end, Samsung has hit the mark on a classically designed smartwatch, that doesn’t seem out of place on your wrist. And even with the, still, slightly chunky frame at 11.4mm, it doesn’t seem that much thicker than any of my other sports watches over the years. Before I forget, the unit does have an IP68 certification, with dust proof and water resistance over 1.5 meter and 30 minutes.
It seems a bit strange to be discussing the screen of what is, ultimately, a watch, but it plays an important role the performance and usefulness of the Gear S2. Samsung has fitted a 1.2″ Super AMOLED screen with a 360x360px resolution, which makes it quite sharp in view. There are no obvious signs of pixelation, and I doubt there would be. With the numerous watch faces to choose from, some with fairly intricate detailing, the display is put through its paces. The screen is covered with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3 for additional safety, if you’re concerned about cracking or scratching your beauty. The touchscreen is as accurate as you’d have expected, with swipe and touch gestures performed with ease.
Most of the backgrounds and faces are on black backgrounds, which bring the Super AMOLED to life, showcasing the colour reproduction and contrast. This may be worrisome when viewing the time in broad daylight, there were not such issues in reality. One of the talking points inevitably is the use of the full face, especially when compared against the Moto 360. Many an article was written in regards to the “flat tyre” look on the face of the Moto 360, which used the bottom of the screen to house sensors to adjust light and other settings. In all fairness to Motorola, the use of light sensors was a good choice, and while their positioning may have been called into question, it worked. If there’s one thing missing on the Gear S2, in regards to the screen, is the lack of auto-brightness adjustment. It’s not the best situation to be woken in the middle of the night simply by rotating your wrist, as if to suggest you want to see the time, with a bright light shining in your eyes.
Performance and Apps
The Gear S2 is powered by a Dual-core 1.0 GHz Cortex-A7 CPU, and even has a Mali-400MP2 GPU for good measure, for which we’ll discuss its usefulness a bit further down. The Dual-core CPU may seem
something of an overkill on a watch, but given the amount of background processing, it makes a lot of sense, and pays off in the long run. With 512MB RAM to boot, not once did I have any issues related to sluggishness, lack of response, or the device software crashing. Such power, however, doesn’t come without a drawback or two, most obviously observed with its toll on the battery life. The non-removable, Li-Ion 250mAh battery isn’t able to last more than three days, and even less with performing regularly activity. Regular morning jogs and the occasional football match meant that I had to recharge the unit every other night, often the morning before heading off to work just to be safe it doesn’t run out of juice. That said, charging takes less than an hour to complete.
On the apps front, there were great concerns at the start that the Tizen OS didn’t offer enough apps to be taken seriously, especially when you’re a contender to Google’s Android Wear devices. While many countries noticed this with early October releases, most South Africans were blissfully ignorant of the outcry from many other early adopters. Exclusively available on Samsung Apps, you’ll find a host of options to customise your Gear S2, from the hundreds of watch faces, which now even includes a tribute to Prince, to the many strange and wonderful apps. Customisation isn’t just limited to the watch faces or installed apps, but the layout, menus and orders, amongst many others, can also be changed to suit your immediate needs. I spoke earlier of the inclusion of the GPU, which has proven itself useful with a few app developers, having released a few games in store, such as a variant of Space Invaders, although that did have a R17 purchase fee. Many of the apps that require data connectivity and other network related tasks, sync from your device. Although I didn’t expect to be reading some of my morning news stories on the unit, I did spend one or two moments catching up on a few headlines, all the while reading emails, and even responding to WhatsApp messages, although I will admit, more as a test than actually doing it out of convenience. The smartwatch does have the option of being able to pick up voice commands, but I would suggest avoiding that altogether.
But on that note, replying to messages is quite an easy trick. There are two options, one using the older predictive texting of old, typing using the numbers where tapping the numbers 3826 would spell my name. The alternative option was to use the speech to text feature, which worked reasonably well, I will add. Minus a few strange words that aren’t very common, it seems like something useful. Receiving notifications of any kind (you can customise the list of apps for which to receive notifications for), is sent by means of a small vibration on the wrist. Turning your wrist toward you, as you would do to tell the time, will reveal the latest message received. And while this is quite useful in general, it does take some practice on restraint to keep checking those notification vibrations while you’re driving.
Points of Discussion
The Gear S2 can be used as a standalone device, without ever being synced with your smartphone. If you do wish to fully realise the device’s potential, it is best paired with the smartphone, which also isn’t limited to just Samsung devices, although you will have to download an app for integration. Samsung also had the audacity to go a step further, announcing its plans to release an iOS-friendly version of the Gear app for your iPhone.
Using the device as a fitness tracker is great, with many apps available that offer training and tracking for your daily activities. One area that does lack much interest, it would seem, is sleep tracking. Almost all other fitness bands I’ve tested over the years include some form of tracking your sleep. While the unit does ask you to update your S Health app by asking if you were asleep between a specific time, it doesn’t offer much more than you manually adding it to your daily achievements. And this I find strange. If it’s able to almost accurately able to guess my time of sleep, and with a heart-rate monitor for good measure, surely it can better track my sleep patterns, and even more so track my level of sleep during the course of the evening given my movements and pulse.
There’s no GPS. Yes, it’s able to track your run by means of the pedometer, and it does it reasonably while, it isn’t able to track the route you’ve taken. There is a suggestion of that being capable when running with your smartphone in tow, but that defeats the purpose slightly of having a smartwatch in this case.
I am fond of the reminder notifications to be more active, as well as highlighting your trends throughout the day, and whether you’re on course to meet your daily active time and steps. The vibrations that notify you of this is further emphasized by the achievement of getting up and taking a few steps, after which the device congratulates you on no longer being idle.
There is a overall lack of sporting codes to choose from when performing activities. While one of the selling points of the Gear S2 is it’s ability to auto-recognise your activity, without needing to start one, it doesn’t do well for most sports, outside of running, walking, cycling, hiking, elliptical trainer, exercise bike, step machine or treadmill. These are you standard cardio equipment found at the gym, and expecting much more won’t reap many rewards.
Despite all the talking points and misses, there are a lot more hits with the Gear S2. I loved using the device in the two-week period, and I loved showing it off as well, to those that enquired. While many still feel such trackers to be pervasive, always telling you to be more active (which is a good thing mind you), I find them more helpful than annoying. Using the Gear S2 was a breeze, and finding what I wanted was just as easy. There were a few obvious exclusions from the tracking capabilities list, although most of these can be resolved by means of updated software. There weren’t many hardware related concerns, apart from the lack of GPS and light sensors.
Another great talking point is the cost, and value for money. Despite the many offerings on the unit, I feel that the R4,000+ price tag a bit too high for my liking. The classic crosses the R5,000 mark, putting it further out of reach for most. Although it’s unfair to compare the unit to other fitness trackers, whose sole purpose is to do just that, the S2 offers a lot more than just tracking your health. Minus this obvious hiccup, I would easily suggest buying the Gear S2 for anyone that asks, a point which I will always allude to. Still, the unit is one of the best performing, and best looking devices out there. If Samsung could match the level of integration and app availability as with Google Android Wear devices, it would easily sit atop of the smartwatch pile.