Review: Samsung Gear S3 smartwatch

The Gear S3 is a well-built smartwatch with good tech trimmings, but can it take the category mainstream?

Samsung Gear S3
Placing the Gear S3 on the included magnetic charging stand rotates the face

Smartwatches are a product that’s been around for a while now. From Pebble to Motorola’s Moto 360 via the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S2 (which we reviewed last year), we’ve seen a broad range of devices come and go without really setting the space on fire. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wearing Samsung’s Gear S3 on a full-time basis. Here are my conclusions.

Gear S3 setup

After setting up a Samsung account, it’s fairly easy to get started with the smartwatch. After pairing it with your phone via Bluetooth, settings on the device can be adjusted through the Gear app or the S3’s own menu.

Samsung Gear S3
Contents of the box. The Gear S3 charges via a microUSB-connected magnetic stand. The extra shorter strap is a useful addition (Picture: Aiza Castillo-Domingo)

The S3 comes with a small charger stand that replenishes your device wirelessly. A cool function is that the display tilts 90 degrees when on the charger, turning the smartwatch into a nightstand clock. However, a small downside of this design is that you cannot turn the bezel when in charge mode.

Look and feel

At 63g (minus the 22mm band), the Gear S3 feels balanced on the wrist. The smartwatch is built with military grade material – its stainless steel body can withstand drops just under five feet and is unfazed by the resulting shock and vibration. However, a tapping sound emanates from under the plastic-feeling bezel when your finger lands on it. This doesn’t impact the functionality of the bezel, but it would have been nice had Samsung made this crucial part of the device a bit nicer to the touch, especially with it being the primary control interface. This contrasts heavily with the Apple Watch, which has a tactile crown that feels great to turn.

The included 22mm silicon band is comfortable and won’t stain even in repeated exposure to water or other liquids.

The 1.3-inch 278ppi display on the S3 doesn’t smudge easily. Colours come through crisply on Super AMOLED, though images received via WhatsApp are fairly grainy. That said, no one purchases a smartwatch to look at pictures on it.

Samsung Gear S3
The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier. The smartwatch has a sizeable library of watch faces, though a fair number will set you back Dh10 or more (Picture: Aiza Castillo-Domingo)

Usage

Gesture control, where lifting and turning your wrist activates the display, is on by default. The feature was occasionally faulty – I would sometimes need to lift my arm in a more exaggerated movement for it to work, a comical scene for onlookers. But most times it worked well.

The S3 includes a range of different faces and the Galaxy app store allows you to download more. Categories range from classy manufacture faces with visible movements to the classic Mickey Mouse one (as seen on the Apple Watch and Pink Floyd’s The Wall film). Alternatively, go with a more functional old-school Casio-style display that shows stats being collected by the device, including step count and heart rate – something we’ll come back to in a bit. There’s also a set of more unorthodox designs, including a Peanuts one. Switching between these is easy – just hold a finger down on the display and swipe the screen or turn the bezel to cycle through various options. You can also download new faces directly to the device. This was particularly useful as I was unable to browse the Samsung Galaxy App Store in English on my smartphone.   

Samsung Gear S3
The smartwatch rests on its disconnected stand. When on, it turns the display the right way up to make the Gear S3 a nightstand clock. It goes from near zero to 100 per cent just over an hour (Picture: Aiza Castillo-Domingo)

The most interesting aspect of the Gear S3 might be when you receive a phone call on it. Despite its tiny speaker, audio comes through well and the microphone relays your words with clarity when not being used in a noisy environment. I was able to hold conversations while driving without taking my hands off the wheel.

While we’re looking at the microphone, I thought the device’s speech recognition software did a great job. Whether it was saying something like “Remind me to renew the parking ticket at 11am” or “Text Daanesh at 6”, the S3 Gear would show the words pop up onscreen after a moment’s digestion. Even if an error did slip through, the interface to fix these was fairly user-friendly.

It’s a similar story with WhatsApp replies. I could quickly browse through a series of emoji to pick out a suitable response from a variety of sources, whether it was a colleague asking if I wanted to order in for lunch (“:D”) or a bad joke from someone that deserved an appropriate reply (“:/”).

In terms of longevity, the 380mAh battery would give me about two-and-a-half days’ moderate use, which included a few calls, reading and replying to dozens of WhatsApp messages, checking my calendar and heart rate stats a couple of times a day. Switching between watch faces and apps is a smooth experience too, thanks to 768MB of RAM and Samsung’s home-grown 1GHz Exynos 7270 processor.  

Apps

There’s a small but useful library of apps you can install on the Gear S3. Of these, Uber worked quite well, with the 1.3-inch screen turning into a map that shows the user where their pick-up is as well as the ETA. It even lets you adjust the pin to the collection point. For news, Flipboard is a useful application thanks to the provision of a small visual element and concise story summaries – if you want to know more, tap the screen and pick up your smartphone to read the full articles.

S-Health: a good fitness tool?

To get the most out of the fitness functions on the Gear S3, you’re encouraged to setup a Samsung account and download the app. Available on both iOS and Android, S-Health pulls in data from both your smartphone and the Gear S3 to track and present data on your step count, number of floors climbed, distance travelled, heart rate statistics and minutes walked in a day. You can manually enter the volume of water and caffeinated drinks consumed, as well as blood pressure and glucose readings. There are also goals such as “be more active” that will turn the app into a nagger that prods you towards getting up if you haven’t for a while. Fitness fanatics, meanwhile, can choose a specific programme such as “run 10K”.

The sleep tracker fulfills its function well, and the app provides all the graphs and trends you could ask for. However, it’s not so easy to fall asleep with a Gear S3 on your wrist unless you’re absolutely mentally and physically shattered. 

Samsung Gear S3 S-Health
S-Health sleep tracking is accurate, allows you to rate your snooze (presumably based on how rested you feel) and study trends over time

In terms of look, feel and function, S-Health feels quite similar to the FitBit app. How well does it work with its assigned wearable? It showed me a trend chart with resting heart rate lows, averages and highs over a daily, weekly and monthly period. I could look at the same for steps walked, floors climbed and other metrics. The graphs are useful, but my main gripe was when the app failed recognise that I had just worked out on a treadmill, despite my number of steps increasing and heart rate going up. On top of that, I found it difficult to retrospectively enter my 12-minute run.

However, steps are accurately measured on the device. A nice touch when I’m sat at my desk: first, it suggests I get up (with a friendly “60 minutes inactive” alert). If I dismiss the alert, the S3 Gear guesses that I don’t actually have the time to get up right now and then demonstrates how to do torso twists – a small but important movement that improves blood circulation, flexibility and the inevitable posture issues that come from sitting still in a desk job.

Gear S3 conclusion

The Gear S3 has a well-built body that looks and feels good on the wrist, although the bezel could have been constructed of slightly more premium material. The watch’s heart rate sensor and accelerometer are great for tracking your basic activity and resting heart rate, though less so for use during an actual workout. The device also loses points for not automatically realising what my exercise was. This smartwatch is a good gift for techies, but less so for fitness fanatics. 

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