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Calling all fitness freaks: Samsung's new wearables want you

The Korean company, which has launched more than a dozen wearables over the past three years, is making a shift from style to sports.

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Samsung's new Gear Sport smartwatch includes fitness apps, like a swim tracker from Speedo.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Samsung's long appealed to the fashionistas with its smartwatches. It now wants to go after the jocks too.

When Samsung first jumped into wearables three years, it took pains to emphasize the look of its Gear smartwatch. It partnered with a fashion designer to make special accessories to go with the watch, and it sought to show its wearables were something people could fit seamlessly into their personal styles. Apple did the same when it introduced its first Apple Watch, even offering a now-discontinued fancy 18-karat gold version that started at $10,000.

While Apple and Samsung still talk up the fashion aspects of their devices, they've now shifted to emphasize something else even more: health and fitness. People may want their smartwatches to look good, but they want their wearables to help them get in shape too.

"The wearables landscape is evolving to a place where health and fitness is now the No. 1 purchase driver," David Ng, senior manager of product marketing at Samsung North America, said during a briefing with reporters ahead of the company's event at the IFA electronics show in Berlin. He cited a report from Parks Associates that said 92 percent of smartwatch owners use their devices for fitness tracking.

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Samsung's latest answer to that trend, unveiled Wednesday, is the new Gear Sport smartwatch and Gear Fit 2 Pro fitness band. Both pack in capabilities and apps from big names like Speedo, Under Armour and Spotify that let you track your fitness more easily.

It's the latest shift as tech companies attempt to navigate the finicky wearables market. The first devices from Apple, Samsung and others generated a lot of buzz, but sales growth has been "lackluster," according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech analyst Dominic Sunnebo. Activity trackers like those from Fitbit have tended to sell better, but people are seeking wearables that do more. Still, companies face hurdles in getting people to take a serious look at smartwatches.

"Unlike the rapid growth seen in demand for smartphones, there does not appear to be a significant group of potential buyers for wearables waiting in the wings," Sunnebo said. For people who don't own a wearable, only 4.6 percent "probably" or "definitely" will purchase one in the next 12 months, he said.

The key, for Samsung, will be wooing people who bought a Fitbit or other fitness tracker in the past and now want a device with more functionality. And it's got to do it soon. Apple is expected to introduce its third-generation Apple Watch, with even more fitness capabilities, during an event in September.

"The smartwatch winners in the healthcare space will be the companies who can best marry accurate health or fitness apps with fashionable design," Strategy Analytics analyst Neil Mawston said. "Consumers and businesses want good-looking devices that manage or improve their wellness and make daily life more fun or productive."

Fitness push

Samsung had few rivals when it introduced its first wearable, and it quickly controlled the smartwatch market -- until Apple started selling the Apple Watch about 18 months later. Samsung, which once sold three out of every four smartwatches in the world, shipped only 18 percent of smartwatches in the second quarter, according to Canalys. A whopping 57 percent were made by Apple.

Samsung faces further competition from the Fitbit Ionic, a $300 smartwatch geared towards athletes. This broader fitness push comes as Google's Android Wear attempts to zig where everyone else is zagging and bet even bigger on fashion brands like Michael Kors and Tag Heuer as smartwatch partners.

"With Apple dominating the smartwatch market, and with the recent unveiling of the Fitbit Ionic, Samsung has to outdo the competition with a unique smartwatch that can deliver noticeable benefits to users," Canalys analyst Jason Low said. There's "still plenty of room for improvement in fitness features," he added.

Samsung, with the Gear Sport and Gear Fit 2 Pro, has tried to do just that. Both devices are water resistant enough that you can swim with them in the ocean and track your progress with the new Speedo On app. Both also have GPS and can automatically detect and track what fitness activities you're doing through various Under Armour apps. You can even download Spotify playlists to listen to music when away from your phone. And with the Gear Sport, you can stream workout videos to your Samsung TV and even see your heart rate on the big screen as you're working out.

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The Gear Fit 2 Pro features new swim tracking capabilities.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"Our wearables are designed to help consumers of varying fitness levels meet their goals and aspirations," DJ Koh, the head of Samsung's mobile business, said in a press release.  

Samsung's fitness push doesn't mean it's given up on fashion. It plans to continue selling its Gear S3 smartwatch as its high-end wearable. But it's telling that Samsung, at least this time, opted not to make a follow-up to the Gear S3, which boasted many stylish touches like a rotating dial and a look that mimicked regular watches.

Samsung hasn't yet detailed what the Gear Sport will cost, but Ng said it will be less expensive than the $350 Gear S3. The Gear Fit 2 Pro will retail for $200 when preorders start Thursday. All of the new wearables from Samsung will work with other Android phones and the iPhone at launch, Ng said.

Consumers "want their wrist wearable devices to do more for them," Ng said. "Samsung's really focused on delivering what matters."

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