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Review: Samsung Gear S2 is great, but it’s still a smartwatch

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The circular dial control is bang-on but the device’s overall usefulness is still questionable.

samsung, gear s2, smartwatch

SAMSUNG GEAR S2 CLASSIC
THE GOOD: Looks and feels like a real watch, circular dial control is perfect.
THE BAD: Still doesn’t do much that a phone can’t, limited apps.
RATING: A A A A

If you were to say I’ve been contemptuous of smartwatches in the past, you wouldn’t be wrong. I still am for the most part, but even the biggest cynic would be hard pressed not to admit they’re getting better, even if they are still largely without purpose.

That’s the domain in which Samsung’s new Gear S2 plays in. I can with say confidence it’s the best smartwatch I’ve tried yet. Indeed, I’ve been wearing it for the past week and feel like it’s almost good enough to use on a regular basis. Only time will tell on that front, pun intended.

The Gear S2 gets a lot of things right. For one thing, it’s not big and ugly, which is what Samsung’s previous efforts in the category – as well as those from many other manufacturers, including Apple in my opinion – have been.

The Gear S2, the South Korean company’s latest kick at the can, is small, light, comfortable and – most importantly – looks like an actual watch. There isn’t even any branding on it, which must have killed the people in marketing but is also exactly the right move.

Reviews like these are partisan pieces of writing and wristwatches are highly personal accessories, so making sweeping statements about the Gear S2’s aesthetics is probably dumb of me. Still, I’ll go ahead and say it: watches should be round, so Samsung scores points here.

It looks and feels like a real watch, rather than a garish gadget that immediately identifies you as someone who needlessly buys purposeless electronic toys. It’s comfortable to wear and the $449 (Canadian) Classic version can accommodate any standard watch band. The $399 sport version sells with proprietary bands.

samsung, gear s2

Better Controls

Other than shifting to a better form factor, Samsung’s other main improvement is reworking the watch’s controls into a rotating dial which, it turns out, is the perfect interface for such a small device. Turning it rotates through the apps on the watch while tapping on the screen dives into them.

“Home” and “back” buttons on the side make up the rest of the controls. All together, they work great. Other manufacturers are trying to pack too much of a watch’s interface onto its touchscreen, but that’s proving to be the wrong way to go. Our fingers are just too chubby to deal with such tiny controls.

Samsung’s other smart move is in ditching Google’s Android Wear operating system and going with its own Tizen software. The supposed benefit of sticking with Android was to benefit from all those apps that would come with it, but so far that’s just not panning out.

Not only are good Android Wear apps few and far between, the software itself is clunky and inelegant. And, just as with phones, the OS makes it harder for hardware manufacturers such as Samsung to differentiate their products.

The Gear S2 instead runs simple and functional software that still works with Android phones running version 4.4 or higher. Samsung is also hoping to make a connecting app available for iPhone users. Tizen allows for a nice interface that’s customized to the circular form, which is different from other smartwatches on the market.

Tizen Problems

The downside with Tizen is that Samsung must now convince developers to create apps for a third ecosystem. If the smartphone world is anything to go by, that’s not going to happen at any sort of scale. Gear S2 owners will probably be stuck with the few apps already on it, plus maybe a dribble of them in the future.

The existing apps are basic: weather, heart-rate monitor, step counter, music control and so on. They work decently well and provide a satisfactory out-of-the-box experience, but anyone hoping for the next big innovation probably won’t get it on a Tizen-based device.

Otherwise, there are some customized brand-oriented watch faces from Nike, ESPN and Bloomberg, which display fitness info, sports scores or stock information, respectively, alongside the time. There’s also a nifty circular version of Yelp, while the likes of Twitter and Uber are supposedly coming soon.

The Gear S2 packs four gigabytes of its own storage, so you can put music directly on it. That’s great for exercise buffs, who can choose to leave their phone behind while running as long as they have Bluetooth earbuds that can pair with the watch.

Samsung has also made some strides in battery life, with the Gear S2 boasting two days of charge. I made it through about a day and a half before recharging, so that’s not too far off.

This has been accomplished by eliminating some functions, like the Dick Tracy speakerphone – sorry, but you’re going to have to pull out your phone if you want to talk to someone. At least Samsung is saving you from looking like a dork in public.

That said, there are still voice dictation and search functions and they work surprisingly well. Just be sure to use them when no one is looking.

samsung, gear s2

Bottom Line

As with all smartwatches, the Gear S2 also delivers notifications from your phone, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective. I generally keep my phone notifications set to a minimum so that I’m not constantly interrupted, but I did enjoy being able to glance at emails quickly without having to dive into my pockets.

Is that subtle difference enough to make anyone want to wear a smartwatch full time? That’s the quintessential question that all potential buyers answer for themselves.

I’m still not sold on the utility or value of the category as a whole, but Samsung’s Gear S2 is handsome and well designed enough for me to want to take a second look.

Samsung supplied a loan unit for the purposes of this review.

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