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Wearable Tech

Samsung Gear S3 first impressions: A bigger, bolder smartwatch, but few apps

Samsung's latecomer holiday smartwatch is here. It's packed with features, but where are all the apps?

Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the late arrivals to the 2016 parade of ho-hum smartwatches is the Samsung Gear S3, announced back in the late summer. It just went on sale last Friday, and it's on my wrist right now.

You might see it advertised in holiday sales, or in stores. Should you buy one? And what can it offer next to the Apple Watch?

My review is still in progress, but I wanted to give you a heads-up on what to expect. In short, instead of big changes in software, Samsung went for lots of tweaks to hardware.

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Design: impressive, but big.

Sarah Tew/CNET

First of all, by the way, you can't use the Gear S3 with an iPhone. And you can't use the Apple Watch with Android phones, so consider the Gear S3 an alternative to Android Wear watches instead, strictly for Android phone owners.

Samsung impressively revamped its smartwatch last year with the Gear S2. It had a round display like Google's many Android Wear watches, but it also had a much more interesting design and better software. Its clever rotating bezel acted like a giant scroll wheel. The watch faces, and Samsung's own fitness app, were well executed. It looked great. It worked with many Android phones, not just Samsung's. But it was hamstrung by a weak selection of apps from Samsung's own apps store, because the watch runs its own distinct software apart from Google.

The Gear S3 is bigger, and it looks more like a larger-case men's sports watch. But it runs the same Samsung Gear apps, has that round display and uses the same rotating bezel.

Its hardware, however, is improved across the board...sometimes in pretty subtle ways.

This is what you're paying up for:

A bigger battery, bigger watch. Samsung promises somewhere around three days of use this time in a bigger watch, jammed into this watch's bigger steel case. After one day, I'm hovering around 46 percent battery life. And the 46 mm case feels big. On my wrist, it's fine. But this won't have universal appeal, and there's no smaller size.

Improved Samsung Pay that works anywhere. This is a biggie. Samsung not only lets you tap to pay like the Apple Watch does, but its MST technology basically lets you use the watch at any credit card terminal, even ones that aren't tap-to-pay enabled. This is what Samsung's recent phones already do, and it's pretty great on the Gear S3...but you have to press and hold a top button and tap the screen to make the payment mode activate. And it should work when paired with non-Samsung phones, too.

A speakerphone. Like Apple Watch or older Samsung Gear watches, all Gear S3 models can make speakerphone calls. The Gear S2 (£300 at Amazon.co.uk) lacks this.

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Gear S3 on its included charger.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Optional LTE. Some models can act as their own independent 4G LTE-enabled phone-watches, via AT&T or T-Mobile in the US. I'm testing an LTE model, and not only is the connection speed faster than the older Gear S2 3G cellular smartwatch, but the watch looks better than last year's 3G model. It's a thick watch, but well designed and not uncomfortable.

Improved water and dust resistance. The Gear S3 isn't swimproof, but it should handle any everyday exposure otherwise. It's IP68 water resistant, a step up from the Gear S2.

An altimeter and barometer. A new app shows elevation and barometric pressure, a clever feature I haven't seen on other smartwatches.

A faster processor. Hard to appreciate this, though: the Gear S2 didn't really have any laggy performance problems.

GPS. I haven't tested this yet, but GPS comes on all models.

Two models: Classic and Frontier. The Classic looks sleeker, but the Frontier -- the one I have to review -- looks more like a dressy sports watch. Both have standard 22 mm watch strap support, which the Gear S2 didn't have.

The Gear S3 varies in price: the LTE-equipped Frontier I'm reviewing costs roughly $350, £350 or AU$589, but US carriers are offering a discount of $100 on a two-year contract (which I probably wouldn't do). The non-LTE model costs $299.

Meanwhile, the slightly differently designed Gear S3 Classic only comes in a Bluetooth-connected non-LTE model.

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Decent fitness tracking, but it feels similar to what was offered in last year's Gear S2.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As the ultimate smartwatch? Mixed emotions

As I wear this watch at home and at the office, and everywhere in between, I'm feeling some frustrations. The LTE-enabled model can access data on the go, but I can't find many killer apps to take advantage of it. Flipboard scans news headlines, but can't pull up whole stories. Samsung's Milk Music has been shut down. And Spotify, the killer app for the Gear S3, isn't available yet. The Gear S3 can download apps directly to the watch without a phone, but only for a handful of apps.

I made a few phone calls over the watch (using AirPods to pair via Bluetooth, no less), and the call quality was good. It worked as a phone, no problems. The added battery life in this model should help the watch last longer in cellular mode, too.

The Gear S3 keeps its screen off by default unless I raise my wrist, to save battery. The watch faces look nice, but Samsung hasn't made any progress in making helpful bits of info live on these watch faces, like Apple's done with the Apple Watch in WatchOS 3. And the layout of apps and controls can get confusing. There are two buttons on the side of the Gear S3, but they don't do as much as I'd expected.

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Making a call.

Sarah Tew/CNET

S-Voice, Samsung's voice-assistant service, isn't available at a button-press by default, either. I have to speak to the watch to get it to help me, unlike Android Wear and Apple Watch.

I still think Samsung's Gear watches are better designed than Android Wear ones, but the lack of apps even a year later is alarming. It doesn't look like the problem will be solved, and if that's true, I can't see the incentive to hopping aboard and getting one...unless the core Samsung apps like fitness, weather, notifications, email and the ability to use a speakerphone are worth it as an alternative.

The biggest-name apps currently on Gear S3 are Uber, ESPN and Bloomberg, and little else. It's also weird that certain core apps, like a timer or voice memos, need to be installed separately.

It's not a watch for everyone. And I'm not sure it's a watch for me, either. It looks like the best smartwatch hardware that exists next to the Apple Watch, and its features push the envelope beyond what the Apple Watch can do, exploring LTE connectivity in some unique ways. But what good is that if the software and apps aren't there to maximize that?

Until more apps arrive, and the watch makes better use of its LTE connection, the Gear S3 seems more full of potential than actual performance. Stay tuned for a review once I've worn it for a while longer.