Despite having been around for a few years now, the smartwatch still finds itself in a slightly awkward and (some may argue) precarious position. The launch of the Apple Watch has helped increase its fledgling awareness but I would still consider smartwatches to be a niche produce (and I own one!). However, Samsung does not appear to share my views and has been very active in releasing new devices in attempts to entice consumers further. Its latest offerings, the Gear S3 Classic* and S3 Frontier, look to build upon the Gear S2 (still available for purchase as the cheaper older sibling). Whilst the Frontier is aimed more at the 'adventurous' wearer, I will be reviewing the Classic, the 'base' model and determine whether it is a worthwhile investment. Read on to find out.
First impressions of the S3 are very strong: this looks like a 'proper' watch which sounds ridiculous but it's not a given these days that smartwatches share the same (or even similar) DNA to their 'dumb' brethren (the Apple Watch for example, the most popular of smartwatches, does not resemble a standard watch template). Thankfully, the Gear S3 does. It is a beautifully engineered circular watch exuding a high level of quality. The construction is solid and the buttons are tactile and secure; nothing creaks, nothing seems flimsy. The main watch component housing the display and internals is a bit chunky but would not look overweight compared to normal 'larger' pieces' from the likes of Tag Heuer for example.
That being said, I can see that the chunkiness would be off-putting for some but it's a non-issue for me and I have smaller wrists. The leather strap (the box comes with two straps: small and large) is a plain and basic but thankfully they use standard 22mm connectors so you can swap them out for another of your choosing. The watch is a bit 'blingy' for my taste due to the shininess of the watch body and the ridges of the rotating ring but overall I cannot really fault the design nor build quality.
The screen is beautiful, a 1.3" 360x360 resolution full colour AOD covered in Corning Gorilla glass. Edges are smooth and colours are vibrant which make it lovely to view content on. It's also bright and easily viewable in direct sunlight.
There are three physical controls to help navigate the watch. The top right button acts as your back button and the bottom right leads to your apps wheel. The apps wheel is probably the more useful of the two as you cannot access the wheel any other other; you can also program the button as a shortcut to another app when you press the button twice - I have mine set to the settings menu.
The most interesting of the controls is the rotating ring/bezel around the perimeter of the display. It allows you to swiftly move through selections and widgets, rotating a full 360 degrees and providing a satisfying 'click' with each small turn. In a similar vein to Apple's digital crown, incorporating this control method allows you to scroll through items more quickly as as well as cease the need to cover the display with your fingers, allowing you to see more of the display more of the time and reduce the number of grubby fingerprints on the screen. It's easier to use than the digital crown though as its larger dimensions make it less fiddly to manoeuvre.
One thing of note though: during a walk along a beach, grains of sand had lodged itself between the rotating ring and the main body. The ring became more difficult to rotate and it wasn't until I had blown away the sand that the ring smoothly rotated again.
Continuing the trend of Samsung smartwatches, the Gear S3 uses Samsung's proprietary user interface, Tizen, as opposed to Android Wear which is found on the vast majority of smartwatches. Having become very familiar with the user interface of Android Wear through using the Moto 360, it took a bit of time getting accustomed to Tizen. There is still the control shade when you swipe down and the watch face can be changed by long pressing the watch face but new cards (called widgets in Tizen) are accessed by swiping left (or rotating right on the ring) and then you can tap on a widget to access more information; new notifications are a swipe right (or left turn) from the home screen. Despite running on Tizen, you do not require a Samsung smartphone; a full list of compatible Android smartphones can be found here.
By using Tizen, Samsung is forcing you to use more of their own apps as opposed to the Google equivalents. Reminders, schedules, alarm, gallery, email and messages are the main ones and although they are not terrible apps in their own right, it would have been great if you could choose to use Keep instead of reminders or Inbox instead of email. I can see why they did this, wanting to envelope you into their ecosystem but it's still somewhat annoying. What is also annoying is the inability to open some third party apps which you can do on Android Wear, WhatsApp being one prime example.
However, Tizen does bring with it apps which are also found on Android Wear as well as S Health, a health and fitness package which can measure various variables: heart rate, steps, exercise, floors climbed, altimeter/barometer. It was pretty accurate in tracking my steps and heart rate and it can also track sleeping patterns but the accuracy of the altimeter was definitely a bit off: when at the beach, it said I was '-14m' beneath!
Is Tizen better than Android Wear? It's hard to say. The physical controls have been implemented well with the user interface to make it easy and intuitive to use. The hardware and software marry up to create a quick and smooth performing smartwatch with useful features. However, there are instances where some things take unncessarily longer than they should and seem a bit convoluted: you cannot read full message conversations for WhatsApp so you'd need your phone to check the conversation history. That is not the case on Android Wear. Also, If you want to view something on my phone, reply or block an app, I have to press the little dots on the screen to access these options whereas on Android Wear, it's only a swipe away. Furthermore, there are no gesture controls, no tap to wake screen, S Voice is hit and miss (mainly miss) and typing on the small display is (and always will be) clunky. These are small obstacles that hinder Tizen and it's clear that Tizen is still in its infancy. Hopefully, these things can be fixed easily via software updates to create a more seamless experience.
Photos and music can be stored on the watch for 'offline' consumption (when not connected to your smartphone) and there is approximately 1.6GB of free storage out of the box. I wouldn't put photos on it though as when I experimented with it, photos were cropped. Apps can be downloaded onto the S3 via the Galaxy App Store. The app selection is not as broad as on Android Wear or Apple Watch, but there is still a good range of apps (including Spotify and ESPN), custom watch faces and even fonts to choose from.
The S3 is packed with connectivity options and features including BlueTooth and WiFi (both can be used to connect to your phone) as well as NFC and GPS (location services can be measured using both GPS and wireless network radios and can also be turned off to save battery). There is also a built in speaker and microphone meaning you can hear notification sounds and speak during phone calls; whether you would want to speak into your watch during calls is debateable...
Battery life is solid as I was able to easily get through 3 days on a single charge and this was whilst tapping and rotating more often than usual as I got used to the watch. This sets it up well compared to other smartwatches but obviously charging a smartwatch every 3-4 days still is not ideal. Charging is via dock similar to the Moto 360 and has the added benefit of being magnetic so you can lazily chuck it onto the dock and the watch still attach. Unfortunately, maybe because I've been spoilt by fast charging on my S7 Edge, there is no quick charge functionality although at least the watch will indicate how long it will take to charge completely, usually around 2 hours from flat to full.
Would I recommend the Gear S3? If you are looking for a smartwatch, then yes but with a caveat. The Huawei watch has a larger display with a higher resolution, thinner bezel, runs Android Wear and even works with iPhones as well. There are also rumours that Google will be releasing a smartwatch (or two) in Q1 2017. If these are factors, then consider those options. Personally however, as their prices are similar, I would pick the S3 (£350) over the Huawei Watch (£350) although I would be sorely tempted by something by Google.
Tizen is still maturing but there is enough here to warrant its selection over an Android Wear smartwatch (unless you can are completely and absolutely embedded into Google's services). Furthermore, the smaller display (compared to the Huawei) fits better with my slimmer wrists and the classic design (compared to the Apple Watch) make it more appealing and timeless aesthetically. The implementation of the rotating ring/bezel has been well executed and enjoyable to use to the point that I find myself randomly rotating it throughout the day. Despite the little quirks of Tizen (it is a Samsung OS after all), the other features that Samsung has incorporated makes it slightly more appealing and useful than its Android Wear counterparts.
However, the more important question is whether a smartwatch is worth the investment. Some will see it as an expensive gimmick, a device which does not justify its price tag which is a fair point; these watches are priced very closely to mid-performing smartphones. Others will (and do) love the convenience of viewing notifications from their smartwatch as well as the ability to track health and fitness.
* The Samsung Gear S3 Classic was sent to me by Insiders EU for review. I did not purchase this item.