Samsung Gear S: a smartwatch that is really a smartphone

21 Nov 2014
When Samsung launched its first smartwatch just over a year ago, its main objective seemed to be bragging rights that it pipped Apple to the wearables market.

Since then, Apple has announced its own Watch coming out next year, Google has launched its Android Wear range, and Samsung has brought out more and more wearables. The Gear S with 4G, out this month, is its sixth smartwatch and it is incredible both how fast the technology has improved – and how much there is still left to fix.


Curved for comfort: The first thing you notice about the Gear S is its big, curved touchscreen: 2 inches across, backlit and with bright Oled colours. The Gear S’s high-resolution screen may be too large for many people’s wrists but the curve helps a lot with comfort and ergonomics.

In appearance, it looks a little as though Samsung has shrunk a Galaxy Note (or, ahem, an iPhone) and bent it round your wrist. Which in some ways, it has. The Gear S’s really big innovation is that it includes its own 4G cellular wireless connection, and WiFi too.

Wearable smartphone: This is not so much a smartwatch as a wearable smartphone. All by itself, the Gear S can make phone calls, browse the web and send text messages, albeit from an impractical tiny keyboard.

 The initial set-up and installation of new apps does need a Samsung smartphone paired over Bluetooth, but retailers such as Best Buy say they can do that in-store if you don’t have one. After that, you can use the $400 (£379.99 in the UK) Gear as a standalone device for a relatively cheap monthly fee (rates vary by operator but are mostly far below a full-sized smartphone).

If you do have a compatible smartphone to tether it to, updating email and calendar is a lot easier, and of course you can get real-time notifications from apps and messages.

But remarkably, the Gear S does work well on its own.

Arm action: The Gear S runs Samsung’s little-used Tizen operating system, so the number of apps available is limited for now. The Financial Times’s own Fast FT is one of them, alongside Here for navigation, Nike+ for running, Yelp for local recommendations and eBay for shopping.

The Opera browser can render most sites with enlarged text and mobile formatting that makes browsing the web tolerable. It reminded me of using the internet on a pre-iPhone mobile – a somewhat painful memory, but then I couldn’t wear one of those on my wrist.

Apple discusses its Watch as more like fashion and jewellery than technology.

Samsung’s Gear S revels in how technological it is. The amount of connectivity packed into this little package is a marvel. It might not make the cover of Vogue, but the Gear S feels like a smartwatch from the future. You can even play Flappy Bird on it.

Why would anyone need a watch with its own 4G connection? After a few days with it, I admit that I’m still not sure. But the fact that you can leave your full-sized phone at home taking only a watch opens up all sorts of possibilities, especially in outdoor activities, and is oddly liberating.

Technology goes through cycles of bundling and unbundling. Smartphones have absorbed the camera, GPS navigator, music player, alarm clock, newspaper and much more. But sometimes it is still better to read the news on a bigger page, take photos with a longer lens or type on a full keyboard. At some point the smartphone may be unbundled again – just as the PC was.

I’m not saying the Gear S is about to render the smartphone obsolete, but it has been years since I could leave the house without one and not feel I had lost a limb.

Wrist misses: The Gear S has many flaws: its battery life is unpredictable, often less than a full day; typing on the screen is haphazard, even with predictive text; S Voice, its much-needed speech recognition app, often misinterprets. Nobody wants to have long conversations with their wrist, and I found Bluetooth headset pairing hit-and-miss.

The verdict: While Apple Watch and most other wearables remain slaves to their smartphones, the Gear S is a first, brave break for freedom. I’m not sure where it leads, but I look forward to exploring.

Source: FT.com