The dream of a fully standalone wrist gadget that can make phone calls, stay connected and even help you be sounds good, at least on paper. To own a smartwatch usually means having it be perma-paired to a phone in your pocket: it ends up being, largely, a phone accessory. That's starting to change. A few bold watches are trying to break away and be their own devices, with their own phone service to boot.
The Samsung Gear S is one of those. This is Samsung's sixth smartwatch in a little over a year, but it has one big difference: it gets its own cell service and data. It even has its own SIM-card slot. It's a watch that's also a phone.
Someday soon, smartwatches might be devices that work totally on their own, no phone necessary: as a connected Web browser, a music player, a fitness device. But the Samsung Gear S is not exactly that magic watch. Yes, it can do a surprising number of things. But it still needs a Samsung phone to make most features work. It runs Samsung's limited Tizen software and dedicated Gear apps, closing it off from the richer ecosystem of Google's Android Wear. And it requires a connected data plan to even use it as a cellular device.
For some of my time with the Gear S, I paired it with a Samsung phone. But for most of the time, I tried using it on its own, as a true independent smartwatch. Well, I should say "independent," because if you're going to use a Gear S, you're still best off bringing a phone along.
Editor's note: Updated November 26, 2014, with additional impressions of stand-alone apps and a correction on the Nike+ app's capabilities.
The Gear S looks like a little smartphone that's been melted around a wristband. It has a huge, curved screen, chromed edges, and even has a little home button below the display. My 6-year-old son thought I was wearing a phone. Basically, I am.
Remember the Samsung Gear Fit, that little curved-screen fitness smartwatch that instantly caught people's attention just six months ago? Imagine that in a mega-large watch form, and you have the Gear S. Is it too big? For many, the answer's yes. The massive curved display engulfed even my large, thick wrist. But many people, including my wife, thought it was one of the better-looking smartwatches I've worn recently. Chromed edges and that huge, bright OLED curved touchscreen make it stand out, and even give it a kind of spiritual similarity to the upcoming Apple Watch Sport.
The rubbery-plastic sport-type band it comes with can pop out around the Gear S central unit and be replaced with another band accessory. It snaps on like previous Gear watches: an adjustable watch band with a clip, it sizes and fits easily.
The watch is IP67-rated water-resistant, which means you can get it wet, but you're not meant to shower or swim with it. It's about the same story as Samsung's previous Gear watches.
The Gear S has its own speakers and microphone. It vibrates when you get messages or an alarm goes off. It's studded with sensors: accelerometer, gyroscope and compass, optical heart rate, ambient light for screen brightness, UV and barometer. It has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1 and 3G cellular. It's got 4GB of storage, 512MB of RAM and a dual-core processor. And it weighs 66 grams (2.3 ounces). But its display is the most impressive part...and, to some degree, the most alienating.
The phablet of watch displays
The Gear S has a 2-inch 480x360-pixel AMOLED display, a bigger screen and a larger pixel count than other Android Wear smartwatches and previous Samsung Gears. It's longer, almost feeling like a mini-phone in portrait mode.
As always, Samsung's OLED displays look eye-bleedingly vivid and colorful, and in ambient mode time and other notifications glow at just the right gentle level. But the extra screen space means that existing Samsung Gear apps, which run on the Gear S, end up with extra space that sometimes means stretched apps, and sometimes means funky letterboxing. Other apps are optimized for the whole display.
It's plenty of room. Swiping and even two-finger pinching and zooming feels weird. The big curved screen makes vertical scrolling easy, but it ends up being a lot of finger wiggling for many apps, and the Gear S interface doesn't always seem to know what to do with all that space. But it's massive enough to make reading whole articles actually feasible. My favorite app, News Briefing, shows blog headlines and brings up stories to flick and read on the Gear S. I actually used it, from time to time, instead of pulling out my phone.
It's such a cool experience that I wish more apps took advantage of the Gear S extra-large display. Unfortunately, in the Gear App Store, there are few that do.
The problem with typing on a watch
To interact with apps, like a full-fledged Opera Web browser that can run on the Gear S, you can use either a pop-up QWERTY keyboard or voice recognition. The pop-up keyboard is pretty absurd: it's hard to find and type on a tiny screen with one finger. But voice recognition works; it's not as good as Android Wear's voice-based entry, but it's better than S-Voice on previous Gears.
Holding down the center button or pressing the microphone icon on the keyboard triggers voice, and I got it to understand what I was saying, generally. But it's still a huge pain to enter text or long messages on the Gear S, and there doesn't seem to be a plan for installing third-party keyboards or other input options.
You need to pay for a phone/data package to use the Gear S standalone features, but they are fun to play with. The Gear S packs Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and multiband cellular: 3G, but not 4G LTE. You can keep the Gear S perpetually paired with your Samsung phone and use it as a connected accessory, like Android Wear, or you can completely decouple and use the Gear S with nothing else at all.
On its own, the Gear S felt like...well, a smartwatch. But without notifications. All the coolest pop-up notifications you'd expect, like Twitter, Facebook and other stuff you'd get on your phone, won't show up. Texts and phone calls, yes, but you won't get them from your other phone that's not with you unless you've set up some type of forwarding.
There are some pretty cool things the Gear S can do all on its own with no paired phone...assuming you've paid for a connected data plan. Incoming calls can be answered via a built-in speakerphone, or via a connected Bluetooth headset. I don't like using a speakerphone to make calls on a watch, but there are people that love how Samsung Gear watches can be used for hands-free calling -- something Android Wear watches don't do at all. That this Gear S can do it on its own might be a killer feature for a limited few. I successfully paired the Moto Hint, which was really weird and kind of cool. Suddenly, I was taking a call from something nearly invisible in my ear, made from a watch on my hand.
I found call quality mixed; it might have been a combination of Sprint service dropping to one bar in my Manhattan office, and the Bluetooth headset's mixed success at carrying audio from the watch. Contacts can sync automatically if you set it up in the Gear's Samsung app, or you can finger-dial from the touchscreen, which isn't easy. It made me want to reach for a regular phone.
The other problem here, the one that the Gear S suffers from most, is its Tizen-based Gear app ecosystem. Because -- guess what? -- you need those to actually make the watch do interesting things. Not only does the Gear App marketplace lack many heavy hitters, but few of those apps take advantage of cellular data in a meaningful way. There are some winners. Milk Music streams music to the Gear S, and has a decent interface, so I called up 1940s jazz on my wrist while playing with my son. The Nike+ running app works as a pretty good stand-alone fitness tracker, too, and syncs to the cloud with your Nike account, turning the Gear S into a GPS running watch. But to download and manage these apps, you still need to connect via your Samsung phone.