Samsung Gear S3 review: A whimper, when smartwatches need a bang

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New Atlas reviews the Samsung Gear S3, a very solid smartwatch that doesn't improve in many ways over its predecessor(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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When a company has spent the last three years aggressively churning out smartwatches on a yearly or twice-yearly basis, trying to kickstart the "Next Big Thing," what does it do when demand sputters? If you're Samsung, the answer is apparently: not much. The Gear S3 is a solid smartwatch with an intuitive input system, but barely improves over its 2015 predecessor.

One of the most unsightly features of the earliest smartwatches was a tendency towards gargantuan sizes that announced to anyone in sight: "I'm a tech product." After a year or two, those sizes – thankfully – started shrinking down to better blend in with their timekeeping watch ancestors. The popular assumption was that smartwatches would continue in that trajectory towards inconspicuousness.

Not the Gear S3.

This is a big watch that appears to be aimed squarely at adult males. That isn't terribly surprising: Samsung likely looked at its buyer stats and saw that's mostly who was buying them anyway. But a casing that's taller, wider and thicker than last year's Gear S2 is an odd choice nonetheless – and one that won't likely be very appealing to many members of the fairer sex.

Fortunately it looks smart on my (manly?) wrist, and I'm a fan of the Frontier styling in the model you see pictured in this review. There's also a "Classic" variant with a cleaner, more traditional watch design (but the same huge size).

The big draw is still Samsung's rotating bezel. It's similar to the Apple Watch's Digital Crown, but I prefer the Gear's approach. The physical gesture of twisting the watch-face to scroll between screens or through text feels intuitive.

The Tizen OS is still functional-but-underwhelming: Samsung products soar the highest when another company handles the software (see Android-running Galaxy phones and the Oculus-powered Gear VR). Samsung did finally remedy the big gripe we had about the Gear S2 – the inability to create reminders or calendar events – with a built-in app dedicated solely to that. With the S3, you can now use either voice control or onscreen tapping to quickly create (and later receive) a reminder.

While Samsung is pitching this as a new addition, this was a glaring hole that shouldn't have taken an entire year to remedy: a quick update to the Gear S2 would have made more sense. Apple had Reminders on Day One for its Watch in early 2015; Google had it on Day One for Android Wear in mid-2014. Samsung leaves it out of its highly-marketed, $300, late-2015 wearable, and then calls it a new feature when it's finally fixed a year later.

Unfortunately, as Samsung giveth, so it taketh away. Another basic smartwatch task, setting a timer, has fallen off a cliff. Ask the Gear S3's built-in voice assistant to set a timer and, the first time, it will (annoyingly) tell you to download a separate app for this on your paired phone. Okay, fine. After doing that, I successfully set a timer and go about my business – only to later realize that the watch didn't notify me when it completed.

After several repetitions and a search through app and notification settings to make sure everything was kosher, it's clear that the Gear S3 simply won't notify you when a timer expires, rendering the feature useless.

Pair this with the no-reminders Gear S2 and, much more dramatically, the flammable Galaxy Note 7 and we have to wonder: Is Samsung dedicating too many resources to feature lists that make for slick, big-budget advertisements, and not enough to the core, day-to-day user experience? Are a wide enough variety of Samsung testers using these products in different ways that different customers would use them? After a long-term pattern of seeing Samsung tech that's heavy on attention-seeking gimmicks and light on a basic respect for a seamless, all-bases-covered user experience, this is becoming a legitimate – if not major – concern.

We can only hope this one won't take a year to fix.

Battery life is good enough: With light use, the Gear S3 only drops about 2 percent per hour, even with the always-on display setting activated.

Its screen has a minor drop in pixel density from last year's model, but you wouldn't know it: As is usually the case with high-end Samsung products, the display quality looks great in real-world use.

The S3 will eventually support Samsung Pay, including at standard credit card readers, but support for that isn't yet available to test (at least not when paired with a non-Samsung phone).

Smartwatches aren't the must-have products some people thought they would be right now, and the Gear S3 doesn't do anything to change that.

If you own an Android phone, it's probably your best bet right now – especially with Google and its partners pausing Android Wear product launches. But with barely noticeable changes from the still-available Gear S2, a questionable growth spurt and yet another basic-task fumble, it's far from an essential purchase for yourself or a loved one this holiday season.

The Gear S3, including both the Frontier model pictured here and the Classic model, are available now for $350. In addition to this Bluetooth-only model, there's also a standalone LTE cellular variant sold by wireless carriers.

Product page: Samsung

  • Buy Samsung Gear S3 Frontier on Amazon
  • Buy Samsung Gear S3 Classic on Amazon
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