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Hands On with Samsung Gear S2 Smartwatch

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Sep 3, 2015, 12:00 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

Samsung's second-generation Gear S smartwatch is a well-conceived and executed wearable. The snazzy UI is leagues better than Android Wear and the hardware isn't too bad, either. Here are our first impressions.

Samsung has more wearables than any other phone company. Beginning with the Galaxy Gear two years ago, it has steadily released a veritable flood of smartwatches and fitness bands. The Gear S2 is the best of the bunch and shows off Samsung's most creative thinking.

The Gear S2 come in two variants, the standard S2 and the S2 Classic. The first resembles your average everyday sport watch with a plastic band and simple shape. It has a modern look, but comes across as somewhat cheap looking. (As in, you could easily think someone picked it out of the bargain rack for $10 at Target.) It will fit naturally in environments such as the gym, or the trail, or the pool (don't swim with it.) The second has a spiffier bezel, old-school strap pins, and a leather band. As the name implies, it looks more traditional, as a regular watch might, and would look classy when paired with business attire.

The initial set of colors and designs is somewhat limited, however. Samsung says the Gear S2 will be available in a dark gray case with a dark gray band or a silver case with a white band. The Gear S2 classic will be available in a black case with a leather band. In other words, the lot of them are rather monotone. I didn't find the gray colors to be all that appealing, honestly. I sort of feel like that Gear S2 should come in bright neon colors, or be able to pop into different splashy cases easily. Alas, it does not.

The Gear S2 may have a touch screen, but you'll spend a lot of time spinning the rotating bezel. In fact, it's all about the rotating dial. The Apple Watch may have its Digital Crown, but the Gear S2 has a rotating bezel that adeptly moves users through the expansive user interface and menu system. I'll get to that in a minute.

Gear S2  

I really like the feel of the dial, which clicks as you move past each selection in the menus. It is made of plastic, but felt well-made and strong. The rotating action is pleasing. There are two buttons on the right side of the watch; the top one is for selecting things and the bottom one takes you to the home screen. The buttons are OK, but not the greatest. I thought the profiles could be a little better, as could travel and feedback. Together, the dial and pair of buttons make the menu system much easier to manage. Samsung didn't explain how lefties will use the watch, though I assume it can be turned upside down.

The 1.2-inch screen is attractive thanks to the bright AMOLED display and 360-by-360 pixel resolution. We did not step outside with the watch, but I could easily read the screen under the harsh lights. The screen was responsive to the touch, but did accumulate finger oils quickly.

So, the user interface is neat. The rotating dial concept works well with a watch, and the menu icons are arranged in a circle along the outer edge of the display. As you rotate the bezel, it moves through the selection of menu items. There are actually three pages of these circular menu icon and it cycles through them in a way that makes sense (see video). When you reach the one you want to use, touch the upper button and away you go.

User Interface  

Samsung is not using Android Wear in the Gear S2. Instead, it is using its own Tizen platform. This gave Samsung lots of room to flex its creative muscles and the circular UI is the perfect example of this. Once you dial past the top layer, each individual app has its own set of tools and functions that can be adjusted to suit your wishes.

"What about apps?" you might be asking. Samsung loaded up a decent set of applications. The basics such as contacts, notifications, messages, email are all included, and it's easy to access preset text, use voice input, or dress things up with emoticons. Samsung's S Health app is on board, as is the Nike+ Running app for tracking workouts. Some standard info apps are there, too, such as calendar, news, maps/navigation, and weather. A basic media player will power your tunes and a gallery can hold some of your favorite photos.

Critically, the Gear S2 and S2 Classic have NFC and will support Samsung Pay when it launches. This particular feature will require the Gear S2 to be paired with a Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, Note 5, or S6 Edge+. IF you're not interested in Samsung Pay, the Gear S2 is compatible with any other Android handset thanks to the Gear app from Samsung.

Samsung plans to release a 3G version of the Gear S2 (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have said they'll support it), but it won't launch until later this year. The 3G version can make phone calls independent of a smartphone, but is somewhat thicker than the standard S2 and S2 Classic.

Samsung's previous efforts in the wearable space may have set the tone for the standard smartwatch feature set, but I'm happy Samsung avoided extra features like a camera and speakerphone and instead concentrated on delivering a better — and smarter — watch.

About the author, Eric M. Zeman:

Eric has been covering the mobile telecommunications industry for 17 years at various print and online publications. He studied at Rutgers Newark and University of Kentucky, and has a degree in writing. He likes playing guitar, attending concerts, listening to music, and driving sports cars.


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