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Samsung Gear S3: A Good-Looking Smartwatch That Needs Smarter Software

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Samsung Gear S3: A Good-Looking Smartwatch That Needs Smarter Software

After years of releasing feature-packed wearables, Samsung has largely perfected the smartwatch category. The Gear S3 is the company’s latest and greatest effort, packed with features that are unrivaled in a package that could easily be mistaken for an elegant Swiss timepiece. Available in two variants — a timeless brushed silver stainless steel Classic and a sportier Frontier in a dark grey steel — the Gear S3 retains all the hallmark features of the Gear S2, while also packing in new features this year.

There’s a lot to like about this smartwatch, especially if your goal is to carry less things while running errands. With built-in 4G connectivity on the LTE variant of the Frontier model — sold through AT&T and T-Mobile in the US — the Gear S3 could effectively replace your phone, and Samsung Pay support on your wrist means that you can ditch your wallet at most places. But will — and can — you leave your phone behind with the Gear S3?

Design
gears3_design.jpgWith a 46mm case that’s 12.9mm thick, the Gear S3 doesn’t hide its imposing presence on your wrist. The watch breaks away from more diminutive smartwatches from Motorola and Apple that appeal to wearers with smaller wrists. Instead, by going bigger, Samsung is able to pack in a bigger battery, more features and a larger display.

If you prefer a smaller watch, Samsung is selling the Gear S2 variants alongside the Gear S3 this year. If you choose the Gear S2, the biggest feature you’ll miss out on the Gear S3’s hallmark feature: Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) support for Samsung Pay.

gears3_design2.jpgDespite the jump in size, the aesthetics of the watch hasn’t changed much since last year. The rotating bezel makes a brilliant return, effortlessly melding analog watch design of yore with the Tizen operating system of present, and it feels buttery smooth. The notched serrations around the bezel’s edge make it easy to grip when rotating. The bezel does make a slight clicky noise when tapped, but that doesn’t affect usability or durability.

gears3_design3.jpgAlthough both the Classic and Frontier S3 models are both finished in jewelry-grade 316L stainless steel, there are visual differences between the two. The Classic model is the dressier option, with a brushed silver stainless steel finish, while the Frontier comes in a near-black gunmetal grey tone and a sportier bezel with tachymeter etchings around the bezel.

Even though most of the visible surface of the watch is covered with either premium metal or glass, the back of the watch’s case is finished in plastic on both models. This is where the heart rate sensor is located, and the material likely helps with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, MST and 4G transmission. The embedded digital SIM card on the LTE model is non-removable.

Even though I have smaller wrists, the larger size of the Gear this year did not bother me. The size is comparable to a few mechanical Swiss timepieces I own, and the Gear S3 didn’t look quite as imposing as dedicated fitness watches — like Garmin’s excellent Fenix 3 HR sportswatch — when worn. The watch’s bulkier size will, however, likely appeal more to male wearers than female.

gears3_design4.jpgThe Frontier’s sportier aesthetic means the watch ships with a rubber watch strap (the Classic comes with an elegant black leather band), the 22mm lugs means you can easily change the look of the your watch with a new band. The straps that Samsung and partner Strap Studio sell come with quick release pins, making swapping effortless.

I tried a variety of bands from Strap Studio, and I found the leather to be of high quality. Strap Studio bands are a great alternative to Samsung’s first-party offerings, giving a wider selection of styles, colors and leather textures. Even though Strap Studio plays up the “Made in Italy” label on its site, the packaging states that the bands are made in China, likely from Italian tanned leather.

Most of the styles I tried from Strap Studio come with thick, padded bands, which took some time to break in, but the leather is comfortable after a few days of wear. Like a Swiss timepiece, the look of the watch quickly changes with the addition of a new strap, adding versatility to the watch: use a rubber strap for workouts, add leather for the boardroom and change to a stainless steel watch for a night on the town.

If you obsess over design cohesiveness, I’d recommend you go with the Classic watch model. I found that most third-party bands come with a silver buckle, and although it works with the gunmetal grey finish of the Frontier, it was a bit jarring for me personally.

gears3_design5.jpgUnless you choose the 4G LTE variant of the Frontier S3, the standard Bluetooth and WiFi-enabled models of both series function identically, sharing similar internal components. Both come with 4GB of storage, but in reality, only 1.6 to 1.7GB is available to you. The S3 is powered by a 1GHz dual-core Exynos processor along with 768MB of memory. Samsung claims that the beefier 380mAh battery this year will get you three days of use on a charge, compared to two days last year. Both watches are IP68 rated for water resistance, compared to the Apple Watch Series 2’s IP67 rating.

And even though the Frontier’s MIL-STD 810G test rating, I found that scratches are more visible on the Frontier’s darker hue and brushed bezel finish. The watch is still functional, but I wish it was a little more scratch resistant.

The 1.3-inch circular AMOLED display has a 360 × 360 resolution, given it a pixel density of 278ppi. The resolution isn’t as high as the 400 × 400-pixel display on the Android Wear-powered Huawei Watch or the LG Watch Urbane LTE 2nd Edition, but it was still crisp, vibrant and bright enough even under bright sunlight. The S3’s screen is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass SR, which seems to do a good job of protecting the display from scratches in my few weeks with the S3 Frontier.

There isn’t an auto brightness setting to turn up the display’s brightness under sunlight, but the watch automatically dims in darker conditions. This is a brilliant feature as it makes the watch feel less like a digital tool — and more like a traditional watch — in more elegant settings, like a restaurant, in an office or when strolling around in a museum or art gallery.

Software
gears3_software.jpgThe best part about the Gear S3 is that the watch will work with most Android phones, not just recent models from Samsung’s Galaxy range. I was able to pair the Gear S3 with a Panasonic Lumix CM-1 running Android Marshmallow, a Verizon Galaxy S7, LG V20 and a US unlocked Galaxy S7 Edge. The watch functioned similarly across all the phones, but certain features are only possible on Samsung devices, so your mileage will vary depending on how you use the watch.

The Gear Manager software, which is required on the phone, did have some initial problems maintaining connection between the Galaxy S7 Edge and the S3 Frontier in my testing. It’s unclear what caused the issue, and Samsung says it is unaware of any reported problems. After a number of hard resets of both devices, something clicked and the problem disappeared.

Users of non-Samsung phones will also be prompted to download additional Gear plugins along with the Gear Manager app during the pairing process. Inside the Gear Manager, you’ll find options to setup Samsung Pay, download additional watch faces and install apps to your watch.

gears3_software2.jpgThe experience in using the Gear with a non-Samsung phone will be slightly more limited. On a non-Samsung phone, I was able to receive email notifications and previews on the watch, but replying to emails directly from the watch was only possible using Samsung’s own handsets. On competing Android phones, the Gear S3 would prompt you to open the email messages on the phone.

Thankfully, the Tizen OS on the watch makes excellent use of the circular display. The UI is largely the same as on the Gear S2, and instead of a listview, app icons are arranged in a ring around the display. You can scroll through your apps using the rotating bezel.

An option in the settings even allows you to automatically launch an app if you pause over an icon for a few seconds, but I wish Samsung had introduced a third button — a crown — along the side of the watch or allowed the bezel to be pushed to make an on-screen selection without requiring you to tap on the screen to launch an app.

gears3_software3.jpgComing from the Huawei Watch, I initially missed Android Wear’s touchless UI, which lets you use wrist flicks — if you see a notification on an Android Wear watch face, you can flick your wrist forward to open the notification and continue flicking to scroll through. However, as I began to get used to the Gear S3 Frontier, I found that interacting with the bezel and Tizen made the Gear feel more like a traditional watch, and this made it more engaging. I developed a positive emotional connection to the Gear S3’s digital bezel as a result, whereas Android Wear feels more like a screen strapped to my wrist.

From the watch face, if you turn the bezel to the right, you’ll see your widgets. A number of pre-configured widgets allow you to see your steps with the integrated S Health app, frequent contacts, music controls, Flipboard news and the weather. You can add your own widgets, and a number of third party apps — like Uber, Yelp and Spotify — also support widgets that you can add and personalize. If you scroll towards the left on the watchface, you’ll have access to the notifications. Once you setup the watch, you can choose which apps you want to see notifications for on the watch — I tend to limit notifications to phone calls, SMS, calendar appointments and the Google app to avoid unnecessary distractions and prolong battery life.

To download apps, the Gear Manager software also comes with a miniature version of Samsung’s Galaxy Apps store, where you can download apps and watch faces.

gears3_software4.jpgThere are two buttons on the sides of the watch. On the Classic model, the buttons are circular, while the Frontier uses a flatter, longer button design with a rubberized edge to give it a sportier look.

The top button takes you back to the previous menu, and a long press of the button launches Samsung Pay on the watch. The bottom button takes you back to the digital watchface. Long pressing the bottom button activates S Voice, Samsung’s digital voice assistant, on the watch. You can also activate S Voice with your voice by raising the watch and saying “Hi, Gear.”

Unlike the Apple Watch, southpaw users can’t wear the watch upside down on their left hands for easier access to the side buttons. This makes the watch feel more like an analog timepiece, but given the Samsung’s software smarts, this feature could have been an easy addition that would make left handed users feel more at home on the S3.

Fitness
gears3_fitness.jpgNot only can the Gear S3 deliver notifications to your wrist, it can also track your workout. Samsung aims to leverage the Gear S3 to replace dedicated sportwatches, like Garmin’s excellent Fenix 3 HR.

The Gear’s S Health app is able to track a number of indoor and outdoor activities, including walking, squats, crunches, pilates, yoga, cycling, lunges, elliptical, hiking and more. For any uncategorized activity, like weight lifting, the Gear allows you to record how long you’re performing the task, rather than the number of reps you’re doing.

I found S Health robust, and as a fitness enthusiast — rather than a fitness buff — the app and the watch served my needs well. I can also log water and caffeine intake and the flights of stairs I climbed. The Gear will also prompt me to stretch and stay active if I remain sedentary for an extended period. Compared to the Fenix, the Gear isn’t quite as accurate at tracking workouts, and I found accuracy to be within 10 to 15 percent of the Fenix, an acceptable range for a beginner like myself. Because the Gear is versatile in tracking a diverse range of activities, this means I don’t need to carry a dedicated sportwatch.

gears3_fitness2.jpgThe rear-mounted heart rate sensor is able to automatically log your heart rate, taking periodic measurements through the day. However, the intervals for measurements were more spaced out compared to the Garmin. The readings were also off by about 5 beats per minute.

For basic activities, like walking, running and sleeping, the watch will automatically create a log without any user intervention — the Gear S3 automatically logged my brisk walk around the mall while I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping.

If you’re a runner, you can also track your runs using GPS. Once you synchronize your data with your phone — the S Health app is available for all Android phones now — you can view your speed, a map of your path, pace and more. On a short jog around the park wearing the Gear S3 on my left wrist and the Garmin Fenix 3 SR on my right, I found that the results logged by the Gear S3 were almost spot on with the Garmin.

Compared to dedicated sportwatches, the Gear S3 lacks a GLONASS sensor, but I found GPS location to be quick, likely due to the fact that my LTE model uses cellular triangulation. Unlike the Garmin, the Gear S3 doesn’t have ANT+ sensors, so it won’t be able to sync with compatible gym equipment over that protocol.

Battery Life
gears3_battery.jpgThe Gear S3’s battery life is among the best I’ve seen on a smartwatch. For the most part, Samsung’s three-day battery life claim is accurate if you turn off some settings of the watch.

I was able to get close to three days of the watch if I turned off LTE, the always-on display and WiFi. In normal usage with the always-on display and LTE turned on, I got close to two days of use. When I use the watch actively to log my workouts at the gym and my jogs, battery life was closer to a day.

gears3_battery2.jpgBecause I valued the sleep tracking data in S Health, I changed my charging habits with the Gear S3. Instead of charging the watch at night, I kept it on overnight, and I top off the watch before I got into the shower in the morning. Overnight, the battery dropped from 100 to just 93 percent with the Do Not Disturb setting turned on.

And since the Gear S3 is able to automatically log your sleep, a nice smart security feature is that it would lock your watch if you have a security PIN enabled — a requirement for use with Samsung Pay. Once you doze off, the watch would automatically lock and those nearby can’t peep sensitive information from your wrist.

Wallet
gears3_wallet.jpgSamsung is given Android users a taste of digital wallet nirvana with the Gear S3. With promised compatibility at over 90% of checkout terminals thanks to support for both NFC and MST technologies, Samsung Pay works at most registers where you can swipe a credit card — no NFC needed! The only places that Samsung Pay generally won’t work is at ATM machines and gas stations where you need to insert your card.

For Galaxy owners who already have Samsung Pay on your phones, you’ll need to go through the Gear Manager app to setup Samsung Pay (again) for your watch. You can choose to use the same card or different cards between your phone and watch, but getting the cards onto your watch is similar to how you’d setup Apple Pay or Android Pay.

Samsung Pay requires a PIN on the watch, but to make mobile payments frictionless, you don’t need to enter a PIN on the smaller watch display every time you make a purchase. Once you enter your PIN, the watch is smart enough to recognize that your watch is on your body, and you won’t need to re-enter a PIN code with a few exceptions. If there is prolonged inactivity, your watch may lock itself and a PIN is needed. Also, if you fall asleep, the watch will automatically lock as well.

gears3_wallet2.jpgOnce you load your credit cards on your phone and the cards are verified by the card issuer for security, you can just press and hold the top side button on your watch when you’re ready to pay. Paying for your merchandise inside a store is as easy as holding the card near an NFC reader or right by the magnetic card reader of a credit card machine. Samsung says that Samsung Rewards — the company’s points program for using its digital wallet — will work on the watch as well, but at this time, there’s no way to see your Samsung Pay rewards from the Gear app. Galaxy phone owners can track their points through the separate Samsung Pay app on the phone, but owners of other Android phones are currently left out of the rewards program.

The Samsung Pay interface on the watch only shows your credit card. You’ll see an image of your credit card with the last four digits of your physical card number. If the cashier requires the last four digits of your card, you can tap on the “Card Information” button to retrieve the digital card number — Samsung Pay uses tokenization, so your physical card number isn’t used; the digital card number is verified against your actual card number to process a payment. Spinning the bezel allows you to scroll through all the cards you’ve loaded through Samsung Pay on Gear Manager.

Also, the Samsung Pay interface inside the Gear Manager app is stripped down from the UI that Galaxy owners are accustomed to. You can’t load or see your membership cards, and the app currently doesn’t support gift cards, deals or other promotions. If your aim is to ditch cash and your plastic cards when you’re out running errands, you should be covered.

When I went jogging recently, I decided to leave my phone and wallet behind, opting to rely on my watch for my fitness tracking. At the end of my workout, I decided to walk to a nearby grocery store to grab a bottle of water, and I was able to pay for some hydration using Samsung Pay on my watch.

Phone Replacement
gears3_replace.jpgGiven its versatility and feature-packed hardware, can the Gear S3 really replace your phone and wallet? While Samsung Pay comes closest to digital wallet nirvana, the Gear S3’s shortcomings may limit its role as a phone replacement right now.

For one, you still need to be within Bluetooth range of your phone to receive any sort of notifications. This is disappointing given that the original rectangular Gear S was able to get notifications from the phone over its 4G LTE or WiFi connection. If my phone is at home, and I got an email while I was out on a jog, I would not know about that email until I got back in Bluetooth range.

gears3_replace2.jpgGiven that I can reply to the email message on the watch, it’s puzzling why notifications can’t be delivered over a remote connection, or why basic pre-installed apps aren’t more full-featured. An alternative would be to have a full email client on the watch, so I can get messages on my watch without being tethered to my phone. This would eliminate the notification problem over a remote connection.

Another shortcoming right now is limited third-party app support. There are a number of popular third-party apps available right now for the Gear — Uber, NPR One Yelp, Spotify, Here WeGo for maps and navigation, USA Today, The Guardian, Weather Channel and more — but Samsung needs to expand its catalog if it envisions a personal computer for your wrist. It’d be nice, for example, if there were apps to control your smart home from your watch outside of AT&T’s Digital Life. At this time, not even Samsung’s own SmartThings support the Gear S3 for controlling your digital home. I also wish that the Gear S3 supported more digital streaming services, like Pandora and Audible for audiobooks. In order to stream Spotify over your watch’s 4G LTE or WiFi connection, you’ll need a paid Spotify subscription.

gears3_replace3.jpgAnd while the Gear S3 has capable hardware that could rival some mid-range phones, it still requires a phone. Out of the box, you can’t do anything with the watch until you pair it with the phone, and even loading credit card information to use Samsung Pay requires your paired phone. With its umbilical-like Bluetooth connection to the phone, it feels more like a secondary screen than a product with smart enough chops to stand alone on its own. If Samsung could create an equally compelling user experience that requires less phone tethering, the Gear S3 may convince me to leave my phone behind more, but as it stands, the Gear S3 lives within the orbit of Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

As an Android Auto user, the biggest issue that I had with the Gear S3 is Bluetooth connectivity. Since Android Auto uses Bluetooth to route audio between the phone and the car, when I start Android Auto, it seems that the watch would disconnect from my phone. However, when Android Auto disconnects at the end of my car trip, the watch doesn’t automatically re-pair with my phone. If I don’t remember to re-connect my Gear to my phone, I end up missing notifications. I wish the Gear could stay connected to the phone while Android Auto is running — I never had disconnecting issues with Android Wear — or the Gear Manager software was intelligent enough search for and repair with with the watch once it realizes that Android Auto was no longer in use.

If Samsung is able to fix some of these issues, it would go a long way to make the Gear S3 feel like a much smarter watch. But even before it tackles these issues, it still faces the daunting task of convincing popular third-party developers, including its own SmartThings subsidiary, to create compelling tethered and standalone app experiences for the watch.

gears3_final.jpgFor now, the Gear S3 feels like a the smartwatch of the future trapped in the present, and it lacks the software to take advantage of its advanced hardware. The Gear S3 has the most advanced set of hardware and UI on any smartwatch available today, but it software selection feels crippled. With built-in LTE, the Frontier has the hardware chops to rival most mid-range phones on the market today, but it lacks the apps to allow you to truly leave your phone behind without feeling like you’re missing out. The watch handles notifications well, but there is so much untapped potential.

In spite of its short list of shortcomings, the Gear S3 still manages to be one of the smartest looking smartwatches on the market. The watch’s brilliant display, variety of watch faces and support for third-party watch straps make the Gear S3 highly personalizable and customizable.

Even though you can use the watch as a speakerphone for your smartphone using the Bluetooth connection, the LTE model allows you leave your phone behind altogether and stay connected to the world with its own phone and data plan. Long battery life, sportwatch functionality and the ability to leave behind your wallet makes the Gear S3 a winner on your wrist, provided you’re able to live with a limited catalog of third-party apps.

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