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Wearable Tech

Samsung's new Gear S2 smartwatch: Our first impressions now that we have one

Samsung's latest smartwatch has a rotating bezel and a completely new design. What does it feel like? Here are our first thoughts out of the box.

Samsung's newest smartwatch has arrived suddenly, and now it's in my hands. It's round, it's got new apps and it works with lots of Android phones. Now that smartwatches are positively everywhere, can it win a place on people's wrists?

I won't know the answers to most questions until I've lived with it for a while. But I've been unboxing and setting up a white-and-silver Gear S2 model alongside a Galaxy Note 5 for just a couple of hours, and these are the first things that caught my eye.

Gear S2: Clean-looking, and a clever circular layout. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design is hugely improved

Previous Gear watches were pretty bulky. This Gear S2 cuts a really clean, nice profile, and its face isn't too large at all.

It's pretty similar to the 42mm new Moto 360 smartwatch, and close to the size of the 42mm Apple Watch. The Apple Watch is a bit thinner, and note that the Gear S2 watch band has a stiff curve to hug your wrist: it means it won't lie flat on a table, and the bands have a funky proprietary snap-out mechanism.

Samsung Gear S2 (white) next to the Apple Watch Sport and new Moto 360 (both 42mm) Sarah Tew/CNET

The rotating bezel is a great idea, too. I can rotate through watch modes and scroll through apps like a giant digital crown, but do it nearly anywhere on the watch face.

The Gear S2 comes with its own magnetically attaching contactless charge stand, and it autorotates into a bedstand clock like the Moto 360 and Apple Watch.

Yelp, ESPN, Bloomberg: a good start? Sarah Tew/CNET

There are already some big-name apps

ESPN, Bloomberg, Nike and CNN already have customized Gear S2 watch faces, which overlay news or scores along with the time. The Apple Watch allows bits of info on customizable watch faces, but Samsung's gone an interesting route by allowing brands to design their own watch face experiences, too.

ESPN watch face: just checking when the Mets play... Sarah Tew/CNET

Yelp and Lifesum are present, too, and Twitter, Uber, WeChat and Wall Street Journal should be on their way. The Gear S2's biggest challenge will be apps: Android Wear and Apple Watch already have a ton. But the Gear S2 is already out of the gate with more brand-name apps than previous Samsung watches.

Bloomberg's own watch face. Sarah Tew/CNET

It looks more human

The rotating glance-like apps, the fitness mode with its activity and heart rate features, and the wheellike ring of apps you can choose from are all clean and attractively designed. The whole concept already seems a lot more attractive than the weird layout of Android Wear...but I haven't used the watch much yet.

The Gear S2 in its magnetic contactless charging dock (the watch face flips to a bedside clock). Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life is estimated at 2-3 days, according to Samsung. That would place it ahead of most Android Wear watches, or the Apple Watch. We'll see how that stacks up. Its abilities are more limited compared to previous Samsung Gear watches (no speakerphone calls on this model...that's only on the cellular-equipped version), but it seems better thought-out.

I'll be wearing it for a while, and will circle back soon for a full review. For more, including our original opinions at the IFA trade show in Berlin back in September, read below.

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Wheel of fortune

The feature that immediately separates the Gear S2 from the current crop of high-profile smartwatches is the rotating bezel that's used to navigate through menus and apps. Anyone who's fiddled with a traditional diving watch will be familiar with this spinning dial, which -- because it surround the entire screen -- is very comfortable to spin, and to my mind is less fiddly than the digital crown on the Apple Watch, which performs the same functions but requires a more precise grip.

Samsung's built the Gear S2's interface to take advantage of this wheel, with app selections and menu items often arranged in a circle around the edge of the display. You spin the dial to move through selections, or -- when using software like the Maps app -- to zoom in and out.

Our hands-on time with the Gear S2 was brief, but I was very impressed with Samsung's take on smartwatch navigation, which remains one of the biggest question marks hovering over the nascent tech. Spinning the dial feels like a fast and more natural way to browse through your device, and I'll be interested to see how efficient it proves with long-term use.

Two Gear S2 styles, plus a cellular model

The first thing to note is that the Gear S2 is not just one watch: it's three. And each version has slightly different features and designs. The Gear S2 is available in two different styles, both 11.4mm thick. 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 third option is a 3G-enabled version of the Gear S2, which means it'll be able to make calls without being tethered to a phone, Dick Tracy-style.

The Gear S2 is slightly larger and heavier -- 42 mm wide by 50 tall, and weighing 47 grams -- versus the 40-by-44-mm dimensions of the Classic, which tips the scales at 42 grams. The watches will be rated at IP68 dust and water resistance, which means they'll survive underwater at a depth of up to 1.5 metres for 30 minutes.

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A new look

Up close and personal, the Gear S2 and S2 Classic make a good first impression, and I didn't find myself missing the squared-off or curved look that Samsung's used for some smartwatches in the past. Thanks to slender frames, both watches look and feel smaller than some smartwatches we've seen in the past, which to my mind is a step in the right direction, as many high-tech watches to date have have looked a little on the chunky side.

The 1.2-inch 360x360-pixel display looks very sharp, with text and icons rendered very clearly, despite the small size of the device itself. While the Classic has a more traditional style with its demure leather band, the standard Gear S2 feels a long way from cheap, and its metal construction felt -- at first blush -- very solid indeed. The spinning dial rotates with an easy, steady click that makes scrolling through menus a satisfying experience.

Peek inside

The differences between the Classic and the standard Gear S2 are largely cosmetic. On the inside, the specs of the two models are largely the same. The display uses the same AMOLED technology found in Samsung's winning phone screens (versus the standard LCD technology found on some competing Android Wear models). The watch is powered by a dual-core 1.0GHz processor, and includes 4GB of storage. It's unclear how much of that space is user-accessible, but the Gear S2 models are ready to double as portable music players, thanks to compatibility with the usual MP3, AAC and OGG audio formats.

The differences between the Gear S2 and S2 Classic are largely cosmetic.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Both Gear S2 styles will be chock full of sensors, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor and barometer (the latter is usually used to determine stair climbing activity). Those trackers will feed into S Health, Samsung's own health software, or Nike+ Running, both of which will be available.

Big battery boast

Samsung says the Gear S2 will muster two to three days of battery life. If true, that's far better than the Apple Watch, which often struggles to make it through a single full day, though we won't know for sure how long Samsung's latest smartwatches last until we have a chance to use it for a much longer stretch of time. That's something we'll be looking at very carefully in the full review, as charging a smartwatch every single night is a real chore.

No Android Wear

With the Gear S2, Samsung continues its tradition of eschewing Google's smartwatch operating system, in favour of its own Tizen-based platform. We've found Samsung's software to be slick in the past, and the Gear S2's interface feels well optimised for that spinning wheel -- but the trade-off is that ditching Google does put the Gear S2 behind in the app stakes.

The Gear S2's software is optimised for the spinning wheel, but it loses out in the app stakes compared to Android Wear smartwatches.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

There are roughly 70 app partners working on Gear S2 apps currently, with about 50 apps planned for launch -- a far cry from the thousands on Apple Watch and Android Wear. Samsung does have some high-profile partners, including Yelp, CNN, Bloomberg, Uber, Twitter, Nike+ and ESPN, who are all readying apps for launch and will be making customized watch faces, too. ESPN's watch face will let you follow along with sport at a glance, and Twitter's will show recent trends. The Gear S2's biggest challenge will undoubtedly be apps however -- how many, and how good they'll be. The firm says it hopes to get older Samsung Gear apps up and running on the Gear S2, but not all apps may make the transition.

With the Gear S2, Samsung has brought in some neat interface revisions, and for the most part it looks a lot better. There's a clever circular app launcher that stores favorites for easy access, a Milk music app that will use the bezel like a radio dial, and a new version of S Health that allows you to enter and track calories, as well as water and caffeine intake.

Opening the Android gates

Until now, Samsung's smartwatches have been restricted to pairing with Samsung smartphones, presumably in an effort to drive up sales of both watches and mobiles, and lock customers into the Samsung ecosystem. This time around, Samsung's allowing other Android phone owners to pair Samsung Gear S2 watches.

Any smartphone running Android 4.4 and above with 1.56GB RAM should work, but Samsung warns that some features -- including Samsung Pay -- won't work with non-Samsung mobiles. A separate Gear Manager app with the Gear app store will be available for download on Google Play.

Increased compatibility is good news for shoppers, and opens the door for those who might consider a Samsung Gear watch but aren't taken with: unfortunately, with so many Android Wear watches already available, convincing people to pick a Gear S2 might not be so easy, especially as the Gear S2 comes hot on the heels of Google's recent announcement that its Android Wear smartwatches will now work with Apple's iPhone. That opens the potential for a whole new market of tens of millions of users to Google and its hardware partners -- such as LG, Huawei, Motorola and Asus -- that had previously been limited to only Android phone owners.

There are plenty of rival smartwatches out there, which means the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic (pictured) will have to work hard to woo shoppers.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Gear S2 will be compatible with Samsung Pay, which is Samsung's mobile payment platform. All the new Gear S2 watches will use NFC to deploy that mobile payment tech, though they won't have Samsung Pay's unique ability to work at any credit card terminal, either, as the magnetic loop (MST) function won't be included. Samsung Pay can be quickly triggered by tapping one of two buttons on the side of the Gear S2, the other of which summons the home screen.

Pricing and availability

The Gear S2 and S2 Classic are available in the US now for $300 and $350, respectively. Pricing and availability for the UK but those prices convert to around £200 or and £230. In Australia, the S2 and the S2 Classsic are now available for order from Samsung's online store, with a retail store launch in November. The S2 is AU$499 and the Classic is AU$599. Additional bands will cost between AU$59 and AU$89.

The 3G version will follow later this year launching in the US on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. The Bluetooth-only version will land at US Cellular.

Outlook

The impact of Samsung's wearables to date has been doubtful -- you're much more likely to see an Apple Watch in the wild, if indeed you glimpse a smartwatch at all. We're encouraged however by Samsung's latest wrist-borne gadget, especially its interesting bezel-controlled interface and acceptance of non-Samsung Android phones. A lack of apps compared to other smartwatch platforms may put a crimp in our enjoyment, but for now our interest is definitely piqued. Stand by for the full review.

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