For the past week, my usually naked wrist has played host to Samsung’s new Gear S2 smartwatch. And though I’ve tested and reviewed more than a dozen such gadgets over the past two years, this is the first one I’ve actually wanted to buy.
Since I have an Android phone, an Apple Watch is out of the question for me. There are plenty of Google’s Android Wear watches out there, and they’re generally inexpensive. But they don’t do much beyond display notifications from your smartphone on your wrist. Samsung’s new Gear S2 is the first smartwatch I’ve tried that’s functional enough to make me want to bring my wrist into the future.
Sporty and stylish
The Gear S2 comes in two unique styles. If you’re looking for something elegant, there’s the Classic model, which comes with a black bezel and black leather band. Then there’s the sportier base versions, available with either a dark gray stainless-steel bezel and black rubberized band, or a silver stainless steel bezel with white band.
Samsung sent me one of the standard models, with a white band, and while I wouldn’t pair it with my tux, I still found it to be rather attractive.
Both versions of the watch have the same beautiful 1.2-inch display, which like the Apple Watch, automatically comes to life when you raise your wrist as if to check the time.
On the watch’s right side are two small buttons. The top one is a universal Back button, which takes you one step back in whatever app you’re using. On the bottom is the Home button, which returns you to the watch face; pressing it from there takes you to the apps menu.
The biggest selling point of the Gear S2’s design, for me at least, is that it looks and feels like a regular watch. It’s not too bulky (as the original Moto 360 was) and it doesn’t weigh a ton. And while it’s probably still a bit too big for smaller women’s wrists, it should fit most anyone else who tries it on.
Like the Apple Watch and Google’s Android Wear watches, the Gear S2 requires you to download a special app before you can pair it with your smartphone via Bluetooth.
If you have a Samsung smartphone, you’ll have to download the Samsung Gear Manager app from the Galaxy App store. Once you install that app, you turn on your watch, tap a Pair icon on the Gear Manager app, and you’re more or less set. From that same app, you can also do things like customize the S2’s watch faces, change notification settings, and find new Gear apps.
In a decidedly un-Samsunglike move, the Gear S2 (which runs on Samsung’s Tizen operating system) is also compatible with most Android smartphones running Google’s Android 4.4 and later.
The only difference between using the S2 with a Samsung phone and any other Android handset is that things like the Samsung Pay mobile wallet app will only work on Samsung phones. Beyond that, the watch is every bit as functional when used with competing phones.
Remember when the Apple Watch came out, and everyone said its digital crown was the best way to navigate a smartwatch’s interface? Well, Samsung just one-upped that crown with the Gear S2’s rotating bezel.
Instead of twisting a crown on the side of the watch to scroll through apps and various menus, you simply rotate the Gear S2’s bezel. Each turn of that bezel elicits a satisfying click, and makes selecting onscreen items far easier than the Apple Watch’s crown.
Of course, you can always fall back on the S2’s touchscreen to navigate menus and the like. But for me, the bezel is the way to go.
The watch’s homescreen is, naturally, a watch face. You can customize the color and style of that face, and change it from digital to analog by long-pressing it for about a second. You can check your notifications by either swiping down on the watch face screen or by scrolling to the left.
Scrolling to the right brings up shortcuts to your apps screen, favorite contacts, settings, and Samsung’s S Voice voice controls. Moving further right brings you to the Gear S2’s step counter, calendar, weather app, music controls, heart-rate monitor, and activity tracker.
Like the Apple Watch, the Gear S2 alerts you when it detects that you’ve been sitting for too long and reminds you to stand and move around. (I will note that such reminders can be annoying when you’re sitting in a movie theater or at a ball game.)
Messaging from your wrist
Beyond telling the time, the Gear S2 provides you with notifications from your smartphone, just like every other smartwatch on the market.
And sure, like the Apple Watch, and Google’s Android Wear watches, you can use the Gear S2 to reply to messages. But while the Gear’s competitors only let you dictate your messages or send emojis or canned replies, the Gear S2 also includes a T9-style keyboard so you can actually type your own messages.
No, you’re not going to want to use that tiny keyboard to compose elaborate emails, but it’s fine for sending a quick text or replying to a Facebook message.
Besides, do you really want to be the person standing on the subway platform talking into your smartwatch like a lunatic, while you dictate a message to your spouse? Or do you want to type your reply quickly and get on with your life?
Messaging works with a variety of apps including Gmail, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, HipChat, and others.
Apps on the go
In addition to sending messages, the Gear S2 works with a host of first- and third-party apps including CNN, Bloomberg, Nike+ Running, ESPN and others. To get those apps on the watch, you have to first download and install them on your phone.
The CNN app, for example, provides you with briefs on the day’s biggest news stories, while Bloomberg offers news briefs and stock quotes. There’s even a Yelp app so you can find nearby restaurants and bars right from your wrist.
Admittedly, there aren’t very many apps available for the Gear S2 yet, beyond those I’ve mentioned. But Samsung says it’s working with developers to grow its library.
The Apple Watch, by comparison, has a far larger library of apps available for download. Google’s Android Wear has a similarly sizable selection, though many of those apps feel like duplicates of each other, and a good number are just downright useless.
A battery that lasts
One of the biggest complaints people have about smartwatches is that their batteries just don’t last. You get halfway through your day, and you’re staring at a half-empty battery.
Even the Apple Watch lasts about a full day before it needs to be recharged, which can be annoying considering you’re already charging your phone at night.
That’s where the Gear S2 really excels. Samsung somehow managed to squeeze a full two days of battery life out of its watch. And by two days, I mean two days of continuously futzing around with the Gear S2, playing with the heart-rate monitor, testing location tracking, changing the brightness levels, and pretty much doing what I could to get to know the watch better.
My S2 went from a full charge at 7 p.m. on a Friday and didn’t have to placed on its wireless charger until 5 p.m. on Sunday. That’s pretty darn good.
Worth your time?
I’ve always been skeptical of smartwatches. After all, it’s not as if you actually need to own one. Then again, you don’t really need a smartphone, either. It’s something you buy because it makes your life a little easier, and that’s exactly what the Gear S2 does.
At $300 (for that base model), it’s far from a necessity. Yet, after spending the last week with it, I’m surprisingly compelled to buy one of my own. I love being able to check my messages and notifications from my wrist, and the apps are actually pretty useful, unlike many of those found on Android Wear.
If you’re in the market for a smartwatch, and aren’t an Apple fan, the Gear S2 is the best you can get.