Samsung Gear S review: This smartwatch can fly solo

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Gizmag reviews Samsung's (almost) standalone smartwatch, the Gear S (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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Samsung has released so many smartwatches in the last year that it's easy to start tuning them out. But no matter what you think of the Gear S, it certainly isn't forgettable. Read on, as Gizmag reviews the most forward-thinking smartwatch you can buy.

During my time with the Gear S, my left pocket, which almost always contains some kind of smartphone, has been completely empty. That's because, like your phone, the Gear S has its own SIM card, data connection and phone number. Every other smartwatch I've reviewed requires a Bluetooth connection with your phone, but the Gear S can fly solo when you want it to.

That isn't to say that the Gear S will replace your smartphone. In fact, not only does it require a phone, it requires a very specific kind of phone: a Samsung Galaxy running Android 4.3 or higher.

What separates the Gear S from other smartwatches is that it not only pairs with a phone over Bluetooth, but also over the Internet. So your phone can be sitting in Los Angeles, while you and your watch are in New York, and you'll still be able to send and receive texts, emails and phone calls on your wrist.

Right now you're probably thinking "hey, I didn't spend hundreds of dollars on my phone just to leave it sitting on a charger all day!" And that's a fair point. But the Gear S is one of the few wearable devices that gives you the option. Even if it's just for the occasional jog or trip to the store, this is a smartwatch that lets you leave your phone at home.

With or without a nearby phone, the Gear S lets you take and make calls, send and receive text messages, and reply to and receive emails (though, annoyingly, you can't compose a brand new email). Also it uses your phone's number for calls and texts, so you won't need to worry about giving anyone a separate number for the Gear.

If smartwatches are eventually going to replace our phones, then this is a big step in that direction.

What it doesn't have so much of right now is a great app ecosystem. It's compatible with apps designed for older Samsung Gears, but that library is only ... okay. Better than it was when the Gear 2 launched, but still missing many popular services.

If developers jump onboard and support its app ecosystem, the Gear S could be something special. But until that happens, it's going to be limited to more basic tasks: calls, texts, emails and the occasional web page (more on that in a minute).

Like any device with its own cellular connection, you'll need to sign up for a separate data plan for the Gear S. So far mine uses very little mobile data (we're talking a few megabytes per day at the most), so you can probably get away with a cheap plan (they're priced like tablet plans). But it's an added expense nonetheless, and something to consider when looking at the Gear's cost.

The watch itself has a futuristic design that's far from subtle. Smartwatches like the Moto 360 and Pebble Steel take on a jewelry-like aesthetic, offering some tech functionality without necessarily looking like tech products. The Gear S? Well, it's not one of those watches. This is a tiny, curved smartphone that you strap to your wrist – and it doesn't try to hide it.

The star of the show is that 2-in curved display. The 300 PPI AMOLED screen is sharp and colorful. The potential for a smartphone-like experience is here. Again, it's just a question of whether developers will make the apps.

One of the screen's biggest perks is that it has room for a keyboard. Voice control is a great fit for wearables, but how many of us want to talk to our wrists in public? The Gear S' keyboard (which you can either tap or swipe) lets you send messages or search the web without airing your business to everyone around you.

The screen is big for a watch, but small for a keyboard – small enough that it's tricky to hit the right letters. And when it comes to Swype-style tracing, that curved glass also takes some getting used to. Fortunately it has great auto-correct, and almost always translates my gibberish into the words I was trying to write.

Voice control is still an option if you want it, and Samsung's S Voice assistant responds faster than it did on the older Gears. It still doesn't let you ask for things like specific sports scores or random trivia questions, and is inferior to both Google Now and Siri.

Inexplicably, S Voice took one huge step back. On older Gears, you could set reminders and add calendar events from S Voice. But for some reason, when I try to do that on the Gear S, I get "adding tasks is not supported" or "adding calendar events is not supported." You can't add them any other way either.

I have no idea why Samsung would take this away. It's a big strike against the Gear S (and something that rival Android Wear watches do well). For many shoppers, this could be a deal-breaker. Samsung could potentially fix this mistake with a future software update, but it's disappointing that we're left waiting for something so basic to return to the fold.

Like the last round of Tizen-running Gear watches, the Gear S has some fitness tracking onboard: it can track your steps throughout the day, and also log individual workouts. It has a heart rate monitor too. As far as I can tell, this is mostly unchanged from what you'll find on older Gears.

One nice touch that is new: Samsung added an "Inactive Time" alert, which nudges you to get up and move when you've been sitting too long. You can set the interval as frequent as every 30 minutes or as infrequent as every 2 hours. If you work at a computer or spend most of your day sitting down, it's a great feature.

The Gear S has its own GPS radio, and ships with a Nokia Here app for navigation. I found it to be a bit clunky at first (for some reason the watch wasn't using location services, despite the setting being activated), but it ultimately got going. As you'd expect, it gives you real-time, turn-by-turn directions (pedestrian and public transit only). It can vibrate your wrist when it's time to turn. And it too can work when your phone is sitting at home.

Another nice touch is the Gear S' first killer app, the Opera Mini web browser. Web browsing can only be so good on a 2-in screen, but the app makes the most of it. Mobile versions of web pages are surprisingly readable (if only barely), and you can quickly search the web with the virtual keyboard. It's another way that the Gear S tempts you to leave your phone at home.

Battery life is good. It should last at least a day, maybe two, depending on how you use it. While paired with my phone over Bluetooth, it only dropped 1 or 2 percentage points per hour. When paired over the Internet, it fell around 4 or 5 percent per hour.

The Gear S is a fascinating device – even if it does feel like two steps forward and one step back.

On one hand, it's one of the most forward-thinking wearables I've used, with its curved screen, virtual keyboard and 3G data. Again, it won't replace your phone, but it's movement in that direction.

... on the other hand, it doesn't support something as basic as reminders, has a mediocre selection of third-party apps, and won't let you compose an email that isn't a reply. These may or may not be deal-breakers, depending on what you're looking for. Either way, they keep the Gear S from reaching its full potential.

If you want a smartwatch that's still smart even when your phone isn't around, the Gear S is worth checking out. It has a few annoying holes, and can also be pretty expensive once you factor in a data plan. But it does mark a step forward for wearables and, with the right software support (which may or may not come), it could become a truly awesome device.

The Gear S is available now in the US, for around US$300-400 full retail (it varies from carrier to carrier). US carriers are also offering it discounted with a new contract or installment plan.

Product page: Samsung

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