Samsung Gear S2 review: A new spin on smartwatches

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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.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Battery 6
  • Performance 7
  • Software 7
  • Features 7

Summer '16 update

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's Gear 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 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.