Samsung Gear S3 preview: Big watches, bigger wearable family
Two new entries iterate on what the Gear S2 started, rounding out a full line of wearables.
Samsung was in at the ground floor with smartwatches with the original Galaxy Gear, and since then has dramatically changed its design and strategy year after year as the idea of what a smartwatch should be has evolved. They've dabbled with full-blown Android, Tizen, and Android Wear, but the Gear S2 of 2015 marked a refresh of the Tizen wearable platform that was dramatically better than previous iterations.
And in creating its best-yet smartwatch with the Gear S2, Samsung also made one of the top smartwatches available from any company. Its choice to open up beyond just Samsung phones had a large part to play in that, sure, but the sleek round hardware and new software experience were also great. A year on from that victory Samsung is rolling out the Gear S3 in two different variants: the Gear S3 Frontier is leading the charge with a masculine look and optional LTE while the Gear S3 Classic carries on from its predecessor. But in both cases we're looking at upgraded internals, slicker hardware and a refreshed circular software experience.
In an interesting move, Samsung has also decided to launch the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic into a wearable lineup that still includes the now-year-old Gear S2 and S2 Classic, which will let these new models sit at the top of a line rather than be the sole offerings. Having the previous-gen models available at new lower prices below it can act as somewhat of a safety net for the upcoming Gear S3 Frontier and Classic, but we're here to see how they shape up all on their own — here's our hands-on preview with the latest Samsung Gear smartwatches.
Bigger and better
Samsung Gear S3 Hardware
The fact that the Gear S2 is sticking around after the launch of its successors sets you up for understanding the hardware design of these two new watches. With the small and sleek Gear S2 still available, Samsung took the opportunity to make the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic much larger devices, with 1.3-inch displays, 46 mm casings and extra thickness. The difference in naming this year doesn't correspond to such a large delta of design between the models, either, with both clearly taking on some influence from the Gear S2 Classic.
The Gear S3 Frontier comes in a deep gunmetal finish and is far and away the more masculine of the two. Its rotating bezel is more imposing, with large gear-like teeth and more texture, standing out from the sleek body of the watch along with its angular textured buttons on the side. Around the body you'll find a mixture of finishes that come together nicely — brushed on the top of the watch, but also shiny and mirror-like on the sides.
The Gear S3 Classic, on the other hand, is far more subdued and ready to fit in with a wider range of clothing. Its body is silver, once again with a mix of glossy and matte finishes around different portions that give it an interesting overall look. Its bezel is simple and flat with smaller teeth along the outside and a single chamfered edge that gives a sparkle as it turns. The side buttons are small and round, again exhibiting a subtle mix of textures.
Below the classy sculpted metal on both watches you'll find an unsightly black plastic bulge, which of course is necessary from the standpoint of wireless charging, sensors and radios, but is still worth pointing out. Most smartwatches have plastic backs, but they're not all this unsightly or visible while on the wrist.
These are nice looking watches, but they're also probably too big for some wrists
Aside from the case design, both models are actually identical. The 1.3-inch circular displays are larger than the Gear S2 but still AMOLED and the same 360x360 resolution (though now with slightly larger pixels). You're getting an Exynos processor, same as the Gear S2, paired with a larger 768MB of RAM and the same 4GB of storage for apps and local music. The larger casing means there's a lot more room for battery: a considerable bump to 380 mAh (up from 250 mAh) that will offer an expected three to four days of usage. That's a day more than the Gear S2, according to Samsung's testing.
Like last year's Gear S2 Classic, both Gear S3 models are ready to accept any 22 mm watch band of your choosing provided you have a couple simple tools. And many may consider this strap-swapping route, as the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic will not come in a variety of styles — the Frontier just comes in black and the Classic comes in silver, both with a simple band. Samsung is showing off dozens of bands in various colors, textures and materials that will be made available for purchase later as well, which is a big tease considering if you really like one you'll have to buy it separately rather than choose it as your out-of-box strap.
Of course, you can grab any 22mm strap and throw it onto a Gear S3. Samsung has smartly chose to use quick release pins on their straps, placing a small metal nub on the underside of the lugs that you can grab onto with a fingernail to, well, quickly release the strap. It's not quite Apple Watch elegant or easy, but it's better than reaching for a specialized tool to do it.
In the default color combinations the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic are very handsome, and I use that descriptor specifically because these watches honestly seem to skew towards a strong, masculine design — even the more neutral Gear S3 Classic. That's the case in terms of design but perhaps just as importantly size, where the new larger casing and extra thickness make the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic hefty. My larger wrists, which comfortably hold everything from a Gear S2 up to 48 mm analog watches, were totally fine with a Gear S3 Frontier or Classic on them, but I don't think the feeling will be mutual among those with a smaller circumference down near their hands.
To each their own, I suppose, but I would most definitely caution anyone who isn't used to wearing large watches to go see and try on a Gear S3 Frontier or Classic before buying it. Even though you may like the looks, the size may be tougher to handle — and in the end you may be better off with the smaller (and now cheaper) Gear S2 and S2 Classic.
Going rugged with MIL-STD 810G and Gorilla Glass SR+
Both the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic are IP68 water resistant like their predecessors, and have Gorilla Glass SR+ scratch-resistant display coverings. The Gear S3 Frontier goes another step with a MIL-STD 810G rating as well.
The MIL-STD 810G rating is rather ambiguous, as it nominally says that the watches are able to withstand excessive heat and cold, pressure, shock and vibration. The issue being that there aren't rigorous checks to actually certify that a device is 810G compliant — so it doesn't actually guarantee anything. But in trusting that Samsung has faithfully built the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic to the MIL-STD 810G spec you can expect it to be quite a bit tougher than your average smartwatch, and much tougher than the wrist it's likely to be attached to whenever it encounters such situations.
An upgrade to LTE
Improving from last year, the Gear S3 Frontier will be available as an LTE variant if you feel you need standalone connectivity on your watch. Just like the 3G versions before it that means you'll be able to pull down data to your wrist, make and receive phone calls (but VoLTE this time) and stream music via apps like Spotify without the need for your phone to be nearby. The Gear S3 Frontier LTE will also include GPS, which like the Gear Fit 2 will have a primary function of following your movements for fitness tracking.
Adding LTE doesn't bring any extra size or trade offs
Unlike its predecessor the mobile data version of the Gear S3 Frontier has the same case size as the standard version, and of course offers the same specs as well. That means there's no bump in battery for the cellular model, though the large bump over even last year's 3G model should lead to the same or slightly better battery life — keeping it in the two to three day range.
We're still waiting to hear about pricing information and which carriers will be offering the LTE version, but a good place to start would be Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, which all carried the 3G versions of the Gear S2 and S2 Classic.
Little tweaks all around
Samsung Gear S3 Software
When it comes to the software, Samsung hasn't made huge changes to what was very successful — albeit sometimes unintuitive — on the Gear S2.
With the latest version of its Tizen wearable platform there's a distinct doubling down on the circular interface and the amount you interact with the rotating bezel of the watches. Rather than simply using the rotation for navigating the interface, you can now use it to take actions on the screen — for example when a call comes in or a reminder pops up, you can twist one way to accept it and another way to dismiss. For incoming text messages and emails, you can navigate through a set of "smart replies" with the bezel to quickly respond rather than dictating through voice or taking out your phone. In an attempt to do even more without touching the screen, there are also new voice commands for quick actions like reminders and to-do lists.
A few new features to an interface that was already solid and feature rich
Coinciding with the new larger batteries, there are two new battery saving modes. At 15% the Gear S3s will drop down to just a basic set of functions, losing third-party apps but retaining the watch face, notifications and incoming calls on the Frontier LTE. Once you hit 5% battery the watch will go to a "watch only" mode that simply just shows the watch face so you can still tell time — in this mode, the watch can last another full day from that little sliver of battery.
Samsung is also continuing to tout its app collection for the watches, which is growing but still very small. A new ADT app with always-available monitoring, a refreshed Uber experience and Spotify streaming music highlight the bunch, but there are lots of other big names like Yelp, BMW, NPR, CNN, Glympse, USA Today, WatchESPN and Nest that are still available. The app experiences are still a pretty mixed bag here, though — those with specific easy-to-use functions are very useful, while others that cater to a "browsing" experience just still aren't suited to a smartwatch.
Over a dozen diverse watch faces are pre-installed, many of which are brand new to the Gear line and are tailored to the look of the hardware. The watch faces look even better when the screen is dim as well thanks to changes in the always-on mode, which displays double the colors. There are also thousands of watch faces available to download through Galaxy Apps, though you can't really argue the third-party face offerings are as robust as Android Wear's on Google Play.
For all of the Gear S2 and S2 Classic buyers out there, the most important part of all of this is that Samsung is committing to bringing this software experience back to your year-old watch as well. That means you'll get the same smart replies, app compatibility and interface actions as the new watches through a basic software update rather than dropping money on a new (and bigger) watch.
Samsung Pay is already available in a limited form on the Gear S2, but the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic go all-in with a proper Samsung Pay implementation that mirrors what you get from its recent phones — both NFC and its amazing MST technology. The combination means you can tap your new watch on basically any payment terminal that takes card swipes, rather than just those with tap-and-go functionality.
Adding MST to Samsung Pay on your watch is a huge deal
That means you can make 10 payment attempts without your phone being connected, and if your watch is removed from your wrist you have to enter a four-digit PIN code. All of the security is done correctly here.
Need time to wear it
More Gear S3 to come
The Gear S3 Frontier and Classic are clear improvements over the Gear S2 line, with bigger displays, better hardware, larger batteries and new capabilities. The only downside to be found here is the size of the watches, which may not be compatible with smaller wrists — though that "issue" is heavily mitigated by the fact that the Gear S2 and S2 Classic are still on sale at new lower prices and will be receiving the latest software by the end of the year.
We'll have more coverage of the Gear S3 Frontier and Classic, as well as updates for the Gear S2 line, as the devices and more information become available.