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Samsung Gear S2 review: A new spin on smartwatches

A great design and a clever rotating bezel make this one of the best-looking Android watches ever -- but it doesn't run Android Wear.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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14 min read

So far, 2016 has been a quiet year for wearable tech. The best watches and fitness bands you can buy right now were, for the most part, released in 2015. You can count the number of new and notable wearable things that debuted in the first five months of this year on one hand: The Fitbit Blaze, Fitbit Alta and -- for hard-core runners -- several new GPS watches from Garmin.

samsung-gear-s2-17.jpg
7.3

Samsung Gear S2

The Good

The Gear S2 has an eye-catching design, a clever rotating bezel that's actually useful, beautiful display, solid health tracking and slightly better battery life than other high-end smartwatches. Plus, it works with a variety of Android phones.

The Bad

Fewer available apps or seamless connected services than Android Wear and Apple Watch; no speakerphone; S-Voice commands work, but not as well as they could; not compatible with iPhone.

The Bottom Line

Samsung's newest smartwatch reinvents itself with a whole new look and feel to create one of the best-designed wrist gadgets around -- but it still lacks the apps to set it above the competition.

Summer '16 update

Samsung'sGear S2 debuted last year at at the IFA show in late August. It's a safe bet that the Gear S3 unveiling could happen at the same show this year. In the meantime, earlier this year, Samsung introduced the Samsung Gear S2 3G -- a close copy of Samsung's Wi-Fi-only S2 smartwatch, only with the addition of a speakerphone, built-in GPS, and phone and data service. Though it's an interesting device, it's not particularly easy to use and it comes up short compared with the Gear S2; it's bigger, more expensive, and comes equipped with a weaker battery.

Samsung also has yet to deliver the iPhone compatibility it promised for the Gear S2 back in January. And its app selection is still pretty weak.

This summer, the company introduced its Samsung Gear Fit 2 -- a mini fitness smartwatch featuring a slim design, beautiful curved AMOLED display, GPS, heart-rate monitoring, onboard music storage for up to 1,000 songs, all-day fitness and sleep tracking and automatic exercise detection. Despite relatively short battery life and some shortcomings for the hard-core athlete, it's a great-looking, feature-packed fitness band.

Editors' note: The Samsung Gear S2 review, first published in October 2015 and updated since, follows.

No one has really truly nailed the next great smartwatch.

While the Apple Watch landed in April, Google's 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.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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: Moto 360 , Huawei Watch , the LG Watch Urbane 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.

Giving the bezel a spin. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Left to right: new Moto 360 (42mm), Apple Watch (42mm), Samsung Gear S2. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The Samsung Gear S2 Classic. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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).

Dialed-down complexity

The Gear S2 doesn't do as much as the crazy feature-rich previous Galaxy Gear and Gear 2 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The wheel of apps. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Samsung Gear S2 and its side buttons (middle) next to the Apple Watch (left) and Moto 360 (right). Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Bloomberg's financial watch face. Sarah Tew/CNET

Clever watch faces, with function

Here's another great idea the Gear S2 has: It focuses on watch faces that actually do things.

Instead of opening apps, the S2 has watch faces that are apps: ESPN has a watch face that shows scores of teams you follow; a Bloomberg watch face tracks certain stocks; and a Nike+ watch face acts as your fitness tracker display.

ESPN's watch face. Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, Apple Watch has many watch face complications, which can let you add at-a-glance information from many sources easily. But the advantage of Samsung's brand-built faces is you can hone in on a particular purpose more directly. Am I in sports-watching mode? Or in fitness mode? I can decide.

Stopwatch watch face. Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung's other included watch faces also play with clever ideas: there's an activity watch face with two dancing bubbles for your active vs sedentary status through the day. Watch one get larger than the other, or try to achieve balance. Two different heart rate apps, Heart Wave and Pixel Heart, take readings quickly.

There are also a few classic-style round watch faces that can have added bits of info added in, like steps taken, weather, battery status and so on. One watch face even works that data into watch-like mini-dials. But these particular watch faces seem to offer too few ways to customize, or too few spots for complications (to my taste).

The Yelp app on Gear S2 is cleverly round. Sarah Tew/CNET

Where are the apps?

If you're looking for a lot of great apps, the Gear S2 has some bad news for you. Much like previous Samsung Gear watches, the S3 runs on its own Samsung Tizen operating system...and it's only compatible with a limited library of Gear apps. These apps can be downloaded (some are free, some cost a few dollars) via a small app store connected to the Gear Manager app you need to connect the watch to your phone. It's similar to what Pebble does with its smartwatch. The problem is obvious: This means the Gear S2 is standing apart from Android Wear's growing app landscape and the Google Play store.

In fact, Tizen watches and apps have been around since 2014, and a solid bunch of older Gear apps have been ported over to work on the S2. A few new big-name apps have arrived, too, for example Nike has a watch face. So do Bloomberg and ESPN, as mentioned before, and there's a CNN app. Samsung has promised a dozen or more big-name app partners for the Gear S2, including Twitter and Uber, but they're not all here yet.

Browsing news headlines. Sarah Tew/CNET

That's the biggest problem here is that apps will be hard to come by. Those that are here work pretty well, and fast; mini games load very fast on the watch, and other apps are zippy. At times it feels like a speedier, more dynamic experience than either Android Wear or Apple Watch. But those moments are fleeting.

Samsung has included its own collection of pre-installed apps, too: a stopwatch, alarm clock, timer, maps with navigation, email, messages, and voice memo. I downloaded a Milk Music remote app, a Flipboard-based news app, Yelp, Lifesum, and a few weird games (a coin-flipping app, and a Flappy Bird clone). All the basic things you'd need on a smartwatch are here, and I don't know if I really need that many "killer apps" on my watch. But I do worry about the Gear S2 not having enough -- and about being the odd watch out down the road, as Apple Watch and Android Wear carve up the wearable/connected world.

Pairing with a non-Samsung phone: Hit and miss

Good news: The Gear S2 now works not just with Samsung Galaxy phones (a limitation of all past Samsung smartwatches), but with nearly any smartphone running Android 4.4 or higher with 1.56GB of free RAM. I tested the Gear S2 on a Galaxy Note 5 , then re-paired it with a Nexus 6 phone. On non-Samsung Android phones, the experience is pretty close to identical, at least on the Nexus 6 I tried it with. You can install the Gear Manager app that the watch pairs with, you can manage nearly the same watch settings and change watch faces. And you can still access the Gear app store, downloading apps and installing them.

Bad news: The differences, while subtle, do show up. The email app disappears (instead, you can respond to emails as incoming notifications, using emoji, quick responses or voice commands, like with messages). But Wi-Fi connections don't happen automatically and some functions, like S Health and Maps, still require their own app downloads on the phone itself. Sometimes the watch triggers these downloads, sometimes it doesn't. Samsung admits that supported devices "may vary depending on region, device model and carrier." Basically, if you don't have a Samsung phone, it's a bit of a crapshoot.

I used the Gear S2 to navigate while driving, using turn-by-turn directions provided by Nokia's Here Maps. It worked (and I was able to use my voice to start navigation), but the experience wasn't quite as intuitive or as good as what I've experienced on Android Wear and Apple Watch.

Samsung S Health: Not a bad fitness experience for a watch. Sarah Tew/CNET

Fitness, improved

This is actually a pretty good fitness watch. Samsung S Health has its own baked-in app that runs all the time if you want it to, tracking steps and activity. The pedometer was accurate enough compared to other fitness trackers I wore simultaneously, including the Apple Watch. Heart-rate tracking worked well, too: better than previous Gears. You can track your heart rate continuously, but otherwise it's used for spot-checking and occasional automatic measurements during the day (Moto 360 and Apple Watch do this too).

Heart rate seemed similar to Apple Watch, when resting. Sarah Tew/CNET

If you start walking a brisk pace, the watch pulses a green activity tracker to keep you going; it's automatically always working, a rarity in watches. Again, you can dial that down to not have it interrupt you, but I found its coaching motivating (yes, it bugs you stand up once in awhile, too).

A daily activity clock. Sarah Tew/CNET

The S Health app does a decent job as a basic fitness hub, syncing activity progress, setting goals, tracking water and coffee intake, and working with a number of third-party apps including Nike+. It's not particularly pretty or as helpfully designed as what Fitbit and Jawbone offer, but it works well enough to stand in as a good daily fitness tracker.

Voice commands: "Hello, Gear"

Apple Watch and Android Wear have pretty stellar voice-activated controls with deep hooks into core phone and watch functions: Siri and Google Now can do a lot. Samsung's S-Voice probably won't ever be as good as those, but I found voice-activated controls responsive and ready to work. You can set your voice cue, too: I used "Hello, Gear," and asked about the weather, driving directions, US presidents, and basic math problems. It can search and give answers pretty reasonably. (For navigation, however, I had to install a separate app based on Nokia's Here navigation and maps). It even worked in a loud, crowded bar while watching a Mets game. Compared to previous Samsung Gear watches, it's a quantum leap forward.

Mobile payments via Samsung Pay coming later on

Expect mobile payments, too. A future feature that will set this watch apart for Samsung phone owners is Samsung Pay, which should become available via a firmware update. The Gear S2 has near-field communication (NFC), which can allow for mobile payments like the Apple Watch, or other types of smart functions (acting as a door key, for example). Right now, NFC isn't being used. But having Samsung Pay on this will be a big plus. The Gear S2 won't work everywhere like recent Galaxy phones can (that's due to LoopPay technology that mimics a magnetic card swipe, which is absent from this watch), but it should work at most of the same places that Apple Pay and Google's Android Pay do. Once this watch gets Samsung Pay (no confirmation yet on when that's going to happen), I'll update this review.

The magnetic charge dock is compact. Sarah Tew/CNET

A solid weekend's worth of battery

Guess what? You can forget to charge this watch and be okay! High-end smartwatches are notorious for needing daily recharging: the Apple Watch and Android Wear watches, while they can both last into a second day of use, won't make it all the way through day two unless you top them off with a recharge. Daily recharging, for a watch, is a terrible way to live.

The Samsung Gear S2 doesn't blow the doors off any of its competition, but it does last about a day longer. I found myself getting to a third day of use with the screen set to middle brightness -- not bad at all. I'd still want to charge every day, but I wasn't screwed if I didn't.

The Gear S2 keeps the watch face dark when it's not in use after a few seconds unless you lift the watch to look at it, tap a side button, or turn the dial. You can have the screen set to always on, like Android Wear watches (dimming down to a lower-brightness ambient watch face when resting), but that'll cost you on battery life: it only lasts a day in that mode.

There's another weird quirk of the Gear S2's build. You can't tap the screen to turn the display on if it's completely dark unlike on the Apple Watch. It's a small detail.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The best attempt yet at redesigning the Android smartwatch

Here's an idea: Google, hire Samsung to rebuild Android Wear...or at least the way Android Wear watches look and feel. Samsung's aggressive design decisions, inside and out, have made the Gear S2 a better watch, and a more attractive watch, than nearly any Android Wear watch I've ever used. And even Apple Watch owners may find themselves envious.

But there's a lot of work under the hood that I feel still needs to be done before the Gear S2 can really be a killer watch for all your needs. Or maybe not, maybe it does already work for all your needs. At the moment, it's really fun to use, even without every killer app I'd like. Plus it does most of what I'd need.

This is the kick in the pants that Android watches needed. All I want next is for the Gear S2 to work with Android Wear apps and iPhones. But I also want the Gear S2 to work even better under the hood, with Google Now and all the connected functions it offers. I guess I can dream for next year.

samsung-gear-s2-17.jpg
7.3

Samsung Gear S2

Score Breakdown

Design 9Battery 6Performance 7Software 7Features 7
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