Samsung Gear Sport review: A smartwatch regular people might actually buy

  ·  3 weeks ago   ·  

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Smartwatches were supposed to be the Next Big Thing TM a few years ago when Samsung launched the original Android-powered Galaxy Gear. That device came with a laundry list of problems, but the company quickly reassessed and got on board with Android Wear while also dabbling with the Tizen wearable OS. When Samsung quietly stepped back from Android Wear, many of us thought it was a mistake. With the release of the Gear Sport, it’s looking like Samsung made the right call.

The Gear Sport is a followup to last year’s Gear S3. Like that watch, the Sport has a round Super AMOLED display, a rotating bezel, and the Tizen wearable OS. Tizen on a watch works shockingly well with an excellent interface and long battery life. This watch is a few millimeters smaller than the Gear S3, making it much more comfortable on smaller wrists—in fact, it’s probably the most comfortable smartwatch I’ve ever worn. However, the slimmer case limits your payment options with Samsung Pay. The selection of apps is also poor compared to Android Wear. Still, this might be the best smartwatch you can buy.

Design and display

The Samsung Gear Sport bears a vague resemblance to the Gear S3, which is still technically Samsung’s top-of-the-line smartwatch. The Sport’s case is a few millimeters narrower, but the shape of the frame is a bit different as well. The round bezel sits atop a “squircle-shaped” middle section. Both these are stainless steel, but the underside is plastic with a small window for the heart rate sensor. The sensor protrudes a hair from the rest of the watch to ensure it makes contact with your skin. Not only is that necessary for getting an accurate reading, but it’s also how the watch knows if you’re wearing it.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the overall shape of the watch at first, but it’s grown on me. The bezel defines the Gear S3’s shape, but the Sport has those rounded-off corners that extend beyond the round bezel. I think I’d prefer a simpler rounded chassis, but perhaps there’s an engineering reason for this shape. Despite my apprehension, I’ve had several people comment on how nice the watch looked while I was wearing it, and most of them didn’t realize it was a smartwatch at first. That’s one of the best things about Samsung’s watch design—it does a great job of making these devices look like non-smart watches. This device is also guaranteed to be water-resistant up to 5 atmospheres or 50 meters. That’s a step above the IP68 rating that most watches have.

The Gear Sport case is only 42.9mm across, which makes it comfortable to wear for most people. I usually find that smartwatches have a little more bulk than I like on my wrist, but those with more robust arms might be fine with the slightly larger Gear S3 (46mm case). The Sport is also very light at just 67g with the watch strap. This isn’t a piece of technology that takes over my wrist—I actually forgot I was wearing the watch a few times. The drawback to making this watch smaller and lighter is a lack of MST payment technology inside. Thus, you can only use Samsung Pay on terminals that support NFC.

The lugs are exposed and extend downward toward the bottom of the watch. This design keeps the watch closer to your arm, avoiding those gaps some watches have where the band meets the body. One potentially big drawback: there’s no speaker. I’m not sure if that’s because of space constraints or to ensure the improved 5ATM water-resistance. Whatever the case, you won’t be taking any calls on this watch.

On the right side of the case are two buttons. The top one is back, and the bottom is home, but when you’re on the watch face, the home button opens your app list. The buttons feel solid with no extra play. There isn’t much travel, but they have a satisfying tactile click. I also love textured rubber inlay that makes up most of the buttons’ surface. There’s a microphone on the right edge of the Gear Sport between the buttons as well.

The lugs accept standard 20mm watch straps, but the stock offering is surprisingly nice. This is a sport-oriented watch (hence the name), so you get a silicone band with the watch. Technically, there are two: a regular band and a small one. It’s great to see Samsung include both with the watch. A standard buckle mechanism secures the watch, and those can be annoying if there’s a lot of extra length to tamp down. That’s not a problem with the multiple band sizes, though. The silicone is very soft and flexible, and it’s not sticky likes some similar watch straps I’ve used.

Display and navigation

The Gear Sport has a 1.2-inch 360×360 round Super AMOLED screen, and it’s the best display you’ll get on a smartwatch. The colors are vibrant and the brightness goes quite high. However, The brightness control is confusing. You can set the brightness level between one and ten, but there’s an auto-low setting that lowers the brightness from that based on ambient light. Why not just have a full “auto” setting?

The display is recessed a few millimeters below the bezel, which helps to protect it from damage. The slope can make edge gestures annoying, but luckily Samsung’s Gear watches don’t rely entirely on swipes and taps like Android Wear. This watch has a rotating bezel, and it’s the best navigation mechanism on a wearable right now. The bezel is faster and easier than a “digital crown,” and it’s so satisfying to use.

Each click on the bezel advances one screen in the UI (it would take about 24 clicks for the wheel to go all the way around). It’s also used to scroll through blocks of text and for adjusting settings like display brightness. The rotation is almost silent, but there’s a dull metallic sound at each position if you spin it quickly. You can still swipe the screen to get around in the UI, but the bezel makes it so much easier.

Fitness tracking and battery

The Gear Sport includes an improved exercise tracking algorithm that can understand swimming. It can apparently count laps, identify strokes, and record your total distance. Like other smartwatches, the screen on this watch does strange things when it’s wet, but there’s a toggle that puts it in “water lock mode.” That shuts off touch detection and will only reactivate it when you press and hold the home button for two seconds.

I didn’t have a chance to test the swimming capabilities of this watch, but I continue to be impressed with the overall quality of Samsung’s fitness tracking. When I hit the gym, the Gear Sport detects the start of activities like running and elliptical within a minute. There’s no setup and no fuss—it just happens. If you’ve got Samsung Health on your phone, you can review the data there. Otherwise, the watch app can give you the gist.

The Gear Sport defaults to checking your heart rate every ten minutes, but you can have it read as often as you like. There’s even a continuous tracking mode that will stomp all over the battery. Comparing the heart rate to other devices, I’m confident in the numbers from the Gear Sport. It’s quicker to read than most other smartwatches I’ve used, and it won’t fail if you’re moving around a lot.

Samsung claims you can get three days of battery life out of the Gear Sport with its 300mAh battery, and that’s actually close to what I’ve been getting. However, that assumes you’re using the watch in the default mode without always-on display. I prefer to have the AOD enabled, and that chops about a day off the lifespan. Still, two solid days of usage is nothing to sneeze at. By comparison, Android Wear devices mostly top out at a day of battery life. The Gear Sport comes with a wireless charging dock, which is still sporting a microUSB port. This is no longer okay, Samsung.

Software and watch faces

This watch comes with Tizen 3.0, a newer build than what’s on the Gear S3. If you’ve used that watch, you will notice some refinements to the Gear Sport software. If not, the two look basically identical. For the uninitiated, the interface is more like the home screen on your phone than Android Wear devices are. The “home screen” is your watch face. Twist the bezel clockwise, and you cycle through the widgets off to the right (kind of like other home screen panels). Go counter-clockwise, and you get your notifications lined up on the left.

The widgets are customizable with options like favorite contacts, weather, music player, calendar, and so on. Just long-press and you can add, remove, and rearrange them. I prefer this system to Android Wear’s reliance on notifications because you can’t lose your music player or a calendar event in a giant stack of emails and chat messages. The music player is always where you left it on the Gear Sport. I also enjoy the quick settings drop down. Swipe down from the top of the screen, and you can access the system settings, do-not-disturb mode, play/pause, battery saver, water lock mode, and more.

The way Samsung handles notifications on Tizen is worlds better than Android Wear. Whereas Google has made the highly questionable decision to unbundle all notifications on Wear, Tizen keeps things in their bundles. So, you don’t have a separate screen for each Gmail message—you have a stack all unread notifications from each app/account, which you can expand by tapping the number at the bottom. The number indicates how many notifications are in that group. To dismiss a bundle, just swipe it up. The Gear app on your phone can be used to set which apps push notifications over to the watch. My only issue with this system is that notifications on the Gear Sport sometimes lose rich content from your phone. For example, embedded images aren’t visible like they are on Wear.

One place where Tizen is behind Android Wear is the selection of watch faces. There aren’t as many developers working on watch faces, and the ones available in the Galaxy Apps store are often buggy. The selection of 13 pre-installed faces include some information-dense analog styles, customizable digital faces, and a few artsy ones, too. For the most part, they’re geared toward fitness with glanceable displays of steps, heart rate, and so on. Some of the faces only let you change the colors, but others have much-improved customization over the Gear S3 watch faces. Rather than having just a few sets of complications for the watch faces, they let you choose the complications individually. So, you can have a mix of fitness and device info available on the watch face.

Text input on the Gear Sport is solid with a T9 keyboard, voice transcription, and handwriting input. I think the handwriting input is my favorite. While the screen is a little on the small side, Samsung’s handwriting recognition is very accurate. You don’t have to worry about spacing or scale as you doodle. You can draw the letters as large as you want, even overlapping other letters.

You can pair the Gear Sport with any Android phone by installing the Gear manager app. This app acts as your hub for watch apps, Samsung Pay, and many customization options. It’ll connect to the watch and direct you to download a few other apps for maximum functionality. This process has been streamlined from the Gear S3 release, but it’s still more of a pain that setting up an Android Wear device.

The app problem continues to plague Tizen. There aren’t very many high-quality apps in Samsung’s Galaxy Apps store. Most of the apps you’ll want to use are pre-installed, and many of the others are fitness-oriented apps developed in partnership with Samsung. For example, the Under Armor, Spotify (with offline music), and Speedo apps are optimized for this watch. Some of the “top apps” in the Samsung store include a terrible Google Maps port and an unauthorized clone of Fruit Ninja. On Android Wear, developers can add modules to their existing apps that install on Wear, but Tizen is a completely separate platform. I’m not really surprised the app selection is still bad, but I had hoped it would at least show some signs of improving by now.

Voice controls are also lacking on this watch. The Gear Sport still has S Voice as its voice assistant, and it’s not even turned on by default. If you want to wake it up with a hot word, you need to enable it in the settings. There’s very little reason to do that because S Voice is slow and misunderstands a lot of commands. Even the things it does understand often return a “not supported” error. You can’t even do something simple like enable airplane mode by voice. I imagine Samsung will try to get some implementation of Bixby on the Gear Sport later, but I’d kill to have Assistant on this watch.

Conclusion

The Samsung Gear Sport is an amazing smartwatch—possibly the best one you can buy right now. The design is distinctive, yet understated enough to fit in a business or casual setting. The standard 20mm lugs allow you to swap in whatever band you want, but the included large and small silicone bands are very comfortable. Speaking of comfortable; this device is light and more compact than most smartwatches. It doesn’t look cartoon-ish on my small wrists, and even those with bigger wrists should find it’s a good size. It’s really in the sweet spot.

I never thought I’d say this, but Tizen is a better smartwatch OS than Android Wear. The customizable widgets and notification handling make basic tasks like controlling media playback and responding to email vastly easier on Samsung’s Gear devices compared to anything running Wear 2.0. The 2-3 days of battery life (depending on settings) is more than you get on other full-featured smartwatches, too. The rotating bezel navigation is also fantastic. Sometimes I just idly spin the bezel because it’s so satisfying—it’s like a fidget spinner on your wrist.

Samsung’s exercise tracking continues to be impressive. Without any setup or launching apps, it’ll recognize when you’re working out and start logging the data. The lack of a speaker on the Gear sport will bum people out, though.

It’s not all good news on the software front. The selection of apps and watch faces is still lacking compared to Android Wear. The Samsung apps and those from third-parties it has worked with are the only ones really worth your time. The inclusion of S Voice on this watch is also kind of a joke.

This isn’t the perfect smartwatch, but it’s closing in on an experience that I think average consumers could find compelling. The price is going to be tough, though. At $299.99, the Gear Sport is only $50 less than the Gear S3’s MSRP. Many retailers are selling that watch for $50 off, too. For me, the fit of the Gear Sport makes it at least worth considering, even at $300.

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