No one has really truly nailed the next great smartwatch.
While the Android Wear smartwatches have already been around for more than a year.. Some of them look really nice. But they all run the same software underneath. And even after a 2015 software update, however, it hasn't changed enough to really make any of these watches feel new and different.landed in April, Google's
Now imagine if someone reinvented the Android smartwatch. And that someone was Samsung. What would that be like?
The Samsung Gear S2 is that watch. I've been wearing it for several weeks and, yes, I really like it, both for what it does and for how it's designed. And for how it advances thinking about smartwatches. But forgive me, I have a hard time recommending that you plunk down $300 (AU$499 or £299) and scoop it up.
Why? A dearth of apps, mostly. And, from time to time, a lack of some of the deeper smartwatch hooks that lurk in Apple Watch-to-iPhone and Android Wear-to-Android phone, enabling even deeper connected functions.
But as a reference design for how watches should look next? Wow, it's cool. And it's brought sexiness back to Android-compatible watches (alas, it doesn't work with iPhones). It is the best-designed smartwatch next to the Apple Watch. And yes, it's going to have an uphill battle competing against two very aggressive platforms in Android Wear and Apple Watch.
This is a watch I really liked wearing.
Editors' note (January 5, 2016): Samsung has announced that it will be bringing iOS compatibility to the Gear S2, as well as two new colors (rose gold and platinum), later in 2016.
Reinventing round, with a spin
There are already many round Android smartwatches:, , the and so on. Here's a secret: They don't do anything differently than square-screened ones. The round look is all for show -- and it does make round Android watches look more attractive. Get closer, though, and their beauty is only skin-deep. Android Wear doesn't do anything differently with interface or hardware across all the various watches...by design. But that makes the watches start to blend together, and prevents them from being ambitious or unique.
The Gear S2 uses round for its design, down to the interface. It's built to be round. And its really impressive rotating bezel is part of that magic.
Instead of the Apple Watch's digital crown, a side-mounted button-slash-wheel, the Gear S2 lets you spin around the bezel that surrounds the watch face, rotating different interfaces into action. Suddenly the watch face slides away, and you see your fitness status. You can set the time by rotating. r dial up an app from a wheel of app icons.
The rotating bezel, in some instances, just replicates what you can already do on the touchscreen. Other times, it feels like a revelation, hearkening back to the genius clickwheel on the original iPods. It's the best watch idea in smartwatches next to Apple's digital crown, and it feels good, too. Subtle clicks give a sense of motion and the raised metal dial also protects the inset Gorilla Glass-covered display.
Samsung had a smartwatch before Android Wear or Apple Watch even existed -- and it was a mess. Then there were five more in just 14 months, during which Samsung vacillated between Google's Android Wear platform and its own Tizen operating system. But this Gear S2 is a total rewrite of the whole idea. It's a ground-up rethinking. And that's pretty rare in an industry where companies tend to dig in and perfect. Imagine if Apple Watch and Android Wear met in the middle, and that's a little how the Gear S2 feels.
And yet, amazingly, the Gear S2 manages to stand out, despite also being a round watch. And that's partly because of its looks. The white watch I tried looks clean and futuristic, like a Swatch married with a prop from "Minority Report". It catches people's eyes; and, to my surprise, people want to try it on.
They say, "Cool watch, what is that?" even when I'm wearing an Apple Watch on the other wrist. The steel body isn't too thick. The rubberized white bands hug my wrist well. It's comfy (there's another sized band in the box in case you have different wrists). And it looks really good. The watch face is about as large as the 42mm new Moto 360 (1.2 inches, 360x360 pixels), and the body is nearly the size of the 42mm Apple Watch. It's not too big at all. It's perfect for me. The problem with the S2 is that watch bands are proprietary and they clip in and out using a button release on the back.
There are a few other Gear S2 options to choose from: Samsung's step-up Gear S2 Classic uses regular watch bands and has a slightly more compact ceramic body, but costs a bit more at $350 (AU$599, £350). There's also a thicker-bodied 3G version coming in November to the US on AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, which adds standalone functions and built-in GPS using its own 3G cellular connection for around $350 (some carriers may offer different pricing).
The Gear S2 doesn't do as much as the crazy feature-rich previous Galaxy Gear and watches did on paper. There isn't a camera and you can't make phone calls via speakerphone anymore (some will regret this). It's more like Android Wear: get messages; look at apps; track your fitness; listen to music stored on internal storage (4GB) with a paired Bluetooth wireless headset; and respond to messages or trigger voice-activated actions using a built-in microphone. The watch vibrates but there's no speaker.
The Gear S2 has a lot of built-in watch faces with about 13 styles, many of which can be customized into several more versions. Soon it begins to feel like their are dozens of options. There are also specialized watch faces you can download that add extra features (I'll get to those in a bit), and they all look great on the Gear S2's vivid OLED screen (in bright daylight you'd better dial up the brightness).
To get to other functions, you rotate the bezel: fitness, weather, calendar, music remote, heart-rate tracking, and a news spin into view, ready to help. These act like mini-apps; like Glances on the Apple Watch, you can tap on them and open the app lurking underneath.
There are full apps, too, and you can reach those with a button-press. Instead of a big grid like on Apple Watch, they're laid out as a wheel.
You can get to most things you need by touching the screen and rotating the outer bezel, but there are also two buttons on the side of the watch: one brings up that wheel of app icons, the other acts as a "back" button. It seems like a button too many to keep track of, but it's not too difficult to figure out, which is a first for a Samsung smartwatch.
When notifications come in (which they will), you can tap to respond, scroll through, or swipe away. Android Wear watch owners will recognize the experience. But on the Gear S2, the notifications feel less invasive. Sometimes, too much so: messages sometimes didn't appear on-screen at all, and I had to find them by rotating the bezel to my notifications list.
Messages can be responded to the same way you as on Android Wear or Apple Watch: with emoji, quick preset text responses, or by voice dictation. You can also type via onscreen keyboard -- if you have the patience.
A clever pull-down quick settings menu from the watch face that lets you adjust brightness or enter do-not-disturb mode, too.
This watch is made to live alongside your phone, but it can use Wi-Fi to bridge across and get messages when your phone's not in range. This happens on the Apple Watch and Android Wear watches, too. The Gear S2 loads Wi-Fi network passwords automatically if you have a recent Samsung phone, but makes you enter passwords manually otherwise.