Samsung Gear S3 review: Samsung tries to throw it all on a watch, but it doesn't all stick
Smartwatches are experiments. For a taste of the future, you've got to live with compromise on your wrist. But for a lot of people, connected watches are best kept simple. Battery life wins out over tons of features, and ease of use over feature bloat. After all, that's what phones are for. Watches are where we check things quickly.
The problem is that the Gear S3 still feels like an experiment, when, in its second iteration (the S2 was the first major redesign), it should really start feeling like a more mature, polished product. If you're looking to see where watches will go next, Samsung's exploring the ideas now. Stand-alone cellular LTE connection without a phone? Check. Spotify on-wrist? Check. Use-anywhere wrist payments that are even more versatile than Apple Pay? Yes.
The Gear S3 is an insanely feature-rich smartwatch with a big, bold design. But unlike the latest Apple Watch and Android's upcoming 2.0 software update, Samsung's Tizen-based Gear S3 doesn't do enough to improve the experience or support more apps. And few of those apps actually use the Gear S3's standalone LTE. In terms of hardware, it's a better watch than last year's bold, clever Gear S2. And yet, it fails to take enough leaps forward in its software. Last year's S2 was innovative, but it needed polishing. And it really, really needed more apps.
I used the Gear S3 for over a month paired to a Samsung Galaxy S7 (read my initial impressions here) and then recently via the iPhone 7, using Samsung's new iOS smartwatch-pairing app. Read on for everything that Gear S3 does right, and where it stumbles.
Basically, know this: For $300 (the basic cost of the Classic or Frontier models of the watch, which both look sleek and classy), you're getting a solid and complex watch. But it's really not any better, in terms of software, than last year. Meanwhile, the LTE-equipped Frontier model I reviewed has full cellular and phone functions, but probably isn't worth the cost. It's roughly $350, £350 or AU$589, but US carriers are offering a discount of $100 on a two-year data contract, which I probably wouldn't do. It also requires adding an extra monthly data charge to your phone plan.
Android Wear 2.0 is just around the corner, and new Android watches could be everywhere. Samsung's concept makes some successful executions, and some notable hardware improvements, but not enough of them to be the ultimate watch for everyone. And it hasn't gotten any easier to use.
Samsung Pay: Adding Samsung Pay to the Gear S3 doesn't just enable tap-to-pay at the same places that usually accept Apple Pay or Android Pay. It has MST, a magnetic technology that's also on Samsung's Galaxy phones since the Note 5 and S6, and it works at any credit card terminal. It's essentially a use-anywhere virtual credit card, accessible with a double-click of a button. It works by sending a timed ping that works at vending machines, terminals or anywhere close to the credit card reader. (The Gear S2 added Samsung Pay, but only the NFC kind.)
Spotify: Samsung finally made good on offering a Spotify app on the Gear S3 (and S2), and it works. There are caveats: It can stream over Wi-Fi or LTE (if you bought a Gear S3 that has LTE, like my review model), but it can't download tracks. And its interface is bad. And, streaming for an hour and a half nearly depleted my entire watch battery. But... it works! (It also requires a paid Spotify subscription.) I connected AirPods and listened on the go, and it was pretty fun. But I'd rather download tracks and save data.
The design: The Gear S3 comes in two designs, both far more "regular watch" than the futuristic but excellent-looking Gear S2. It's a step forward and a step back. The big (and I mean big) design feels like a massive sports watch on my thick, hairy wrist. But that design isn't for a lot of people, and loses universal appeal as a result. But at least it feels really well built and looks high-end. The LTE-equipped model is like a tank. But damn, if you like large watches, this is an eye-catching look.
It's a full stand-alone phone with LTE: If you buy the LTE model, it can take calls and even connect apps on the go (via AT&T or T-Mobile in the US). If you want a phone on your wrist, here it is. And it's probably the best phone-on-wrist watch that exists. With AT&T, for instance, the watch can share a number with your Android/Samsung phone. Add Bluetooth headphones, and discreet calls can be taken. Would I need that? No. Some might, though. But to use this as an LTE phone, you'll need to pay a monthly fee to add it to your phone plan.
Samsung's S Health fitness features are surprisingly good: S Health is the required baked-in way to track fitness on the Gear S, but it does heart rate and automatic activity tracking, can log water and coffee intake, and reminds me when I've stayed still too long. It even recommends stretching exercises when I stand again. I like that the S Health encourages activity streaks -- walk for a while, and it shows me how long I've been walking for -- and sometimes it borders on fitness coaching.
On iOS you can connect and even install apps: Samsung's iOS app is not good, but it's more versatile than a basic Android Wear conduit. Samsung S Health connects for fitness tracking, and a handful of apps and watch faces can be downloaded. Just not all of them -- Spotify and Uber don't make the cut, for example.
Samsung S-Voice works... pretty well: Google's upcoming Assistant improvements to Android Wear, and Siri on Apple Watch, offer more connections to phone functions. S-Voice still works OK, though, and can do more than you'd expect (setting alarms, calling a contact, getting weather, asking what an aardvark is). It can retrieve brief entries from sources such as Wikipedia.
What's not so hot
Tizen (and its app deficit): Samsung's watch makes yet another bet on Tizen, its own software and app ecosystem. And no one else has. The amount of apps for Gear watches has trickled to a near standstill. And while there are some clever games and watch faces, and a few brand-name apps like a CNN or Bloomberg or ESPN watch face, or Uber or Spotify, these apps are so few and far between that you'll hunger for any new one just to justify your Gear purchase. There are technically thousands of Gear S3-compatible apps... but few of them are anything recognizable, or anything most people would want to use.
The interface: Last year, the Gear S2's novel spinning wheel design for navigation was eye-popping and fun. But it's also time-consuming, and I can't get to what I need as fast as I can on an Apple Watch. Too much dial-spinning, and two buttons to push instead of one, add up to a lot of wasted time fiddling around. At-a-glance info isn't always easy because most Samsung Gear watch faces are light on customization. I can't pack on shortcuts or quick readout info like on the Apple Watch -- say, to music or weather or calendar.
A more efficient design is needed. It's definitely better than Android Wear right now, but it's not another leap forward. And getting some apps to work requires a mix of Samsung apps, conduit apps and maybe even double log-ins. (Spotify required another log-in once my phone was out of reach.)
LTE model can drain the battery fast: I did get two days of battery life on average using the S3 Frontier LTE model when paired to the phone, but if I used LTE to connect to the watch away from the phone, battery life slipped away fast. Depending on what I did, my watch could drain before I got home for dinner (and my watch charger). A day on LTE standby was typical -- but not guaranteed. What's the use of a smartwatch that has such a wide range of battery endurance depending on performance?
It's water resistant, but not swim proof: IP68 means dust and dunk-friendly, but unlike the Apple Watch Series 2, you're not meant to go swimming.
Would I buy one?
Would I recommend the Samsung Gear S3 to an iPhone owner? Absolutely not. But with Android phone owners, the decision is harder. There is no perfect watch right now, just a field of inferior products. Android Wear isn't a good answer now, although Android Wear 2.0 could provide some promise starting in the next few months. Pebble has been absorbed by Fitbit. Samsung offers some interesting options with the Gear S3, and its ability to be a full phone if you spring for the LTE model could appeal to some people.
After more than a year since the Gear S2, the S3 amounts to a lateral move. Improved hardware, but not improved software. And no matter how clever the S3's design is, it needs to be better at delivering information fast. That being said, right now, I'd prefer the S3 over any current Android Wear watch... or any other Android-connected watch. That statement will probably change sooner rather than later. But the older Gear S2 is still available, and at around $230 it's far more of an impulse purchase. It lacks a speakerphone, though. And if you care about adding phone service, the Gear S3 LTE is far better than the S2 3G.
Samsung's watch is absolutely attractive. Its looks catch the eye of people I show it to, and while it's big, it's definitely good-looking. But it's not the best info-on-my-wrist remote way to quickly check in on my life. Maybe that's a problem with all smartwatches. But it's definitely a problem with this one.