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Gear S2 propels Samsung into sleeker design, focus on apps

Samsung's newest smartwatches work with the most recent Android phones and support Samsung Pay, among other features.

Samsung's newest smartwatch, the Gear S2, comes in two models and features a round screen. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

BERLIN -- Samsung on Thursday showed the world its newest smartwatch, one that the company hopes will help it regain lost ground in the hot wearables market.

The Gear S2, Samsung's seventh smartwatch but its first featuring a circular screen , will be available in the US starting in early October. It comes in two models that feature rotating bezels that let users quickly navigate through apps and features on the device. The main model, called simply the Gear S2, has a modern, minimalist bent, while the more traditional Gear S2 Classic boasts a black body and leather band. The (non-Classic) Gear S2 will also be available in a version that includes built-in 3G cellular capability.

Samsung said both devices will last two to three days on a single charge with "typical usage," and users can customize the watch faces and easily switch bands. One, the Classic, works with traditional watch bands, not just the proprietary straps common on many smartwatches.

"We found our inspiration in a simple, perfect shape, a circle, the symbol of wholeness, focus, revolution and completion," Young-Hee Lee, head of marketing for Samsung's mobile business, said during an event Thursday in Berlin's Tempodrome. "The circle is intuitive. As your body knows instinctively, a circle is functional. With every turn, your life gets better."

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Importantly, Samsung's new smartwatches also work with non-Samsung phones for the first time. All previous generations required a Samsung smartphone to operate, but the Gear S2 will work with any Android phone that runs at least version 4.4 of Google's mobile operating software and has at least 1.56 gigabytes of RAM memory. One feature that won't work for non-Samsung phone users is Samsung Pay, the company's contactless mobile-payments service. Otherwise, Gear S2 users can purchase items by holding their wrists near a retail terminal and then entering a password on the watch.

What Samsung didn't reveal, however, is how much the Gear S2 will cost. Its previous devices have retailed for about $300.

The company is counting on the Gear S2 to help it tempt customers away from the Apple Watch. So far, many analysts and reviewers -- including CNET -- have noted that it's a huge jump from Samsung's earlier smartwatch attempts.

"The Gear S2 is a breath of fresh air compared to Samsung's previous smartwatches," CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood said.

Samsung introduced its first smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, in late 2013 and followed that up with five more wearables in the next year -- including the Gear 2, running its Tizen operating system; the Android Wear-based Gear Live; and the Gear Fit fitness band. The company a year ago introduced the Gear S smartwatch with its own 3G cellular connectivity and the Gear Circle, wireless Bluetooth headphones that fasten around the neck and vibrate when receiving a call.

While the devices initially looked promising, most haven't sold well, and the frequency of Samsung's releases caused some confusion with would-be buyers. Still, the Gear devices made Samsung the world's biggest smartwatch vendor last year. In the second quarter of 2014, nearly three out of every four smartwatches came from Samsung, according to Strategy Analytics.

Before the Gear S2, Samsung hadn't released a new smartwatch in over a year. The company's position in the market dramatically changed when Apple introduced the Apple Watch, a device that costs $349 to $17,000. With only three months in the wearables market, Apple surpassed Samsung to become the king of the smartwatch market. In the second quarter of this year, 76 percent of smartwatches came from Apple, while Samsung's share tumbled to 7.5 percent, Strategy Analytics said.

Samsung in April hinted that its next smartwatch would feature a round face, a break from its previous wearables that have all sported rectangular screens. The company didn't give many details but said the device -- its seventh in the past two years -- would be another "wrist watch type." Gear is the name for Samsung's line of wearables that includes its Gear S curved smartwatch, its Gear Circle wireless headphones and its Gear VR virtual-reality headset.

The company has been working to build app support for its devices, something that's key to attract buyers. Samsung gave developers months of lead time by making its software available to them in April. The Gear S2 will launch with about 1,000 apps available. Some of those are specific to particular regions, but big-name Gear S2 apps include CNN, eBay, ESPN, Groupon, Nike Running, Twitter and Uber.