Samsung Gear S2 review: Awesome potential, incomplete experience

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Gizmag reviews the new Samsung Gear S2, a round-faced smartwatch with a rotating bezel (and a few missing pieces)(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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After making five smartwatches with either square or rectangular displays, Samsung now has a round-faced model that improves on its predecessors in other ways as well. Read on for Gizmag's review of the new Samsung Gear S2.

The Gear S2 is so close to being the best smartwatch you can buy that its bizarre missing pieces are that much more frustrating. It has an awesome new navigation method, handles notifications much better than any previous Samsung Gear and looks pretty good to boot.

But not only is Tizen's third-party app selection the worst of the big three smartwatch platforms (a list that also includes watchOS and Android Wear), we're left scratching our heads as to why Samsung left out one of the key pillars of the smartwatch experience: the ability to create reminders.

Say you're on the go, maybe one or both of your hands are full, and you think of something you need to do later on. Maybe pay a bill, buy a gift for your niece or set up a doctor's appointment. Sounds like the perfect job for that US$300 device that you're wearing on your wrist, right? Though you can't watch Netflix or play Grand Theft Auto on a smartwatch, things like reminders are a perfect fit, no?

Well, apparently Samsung doesn't agree. If the watch you're wearing on your wrist is the Gear S2, you're going to have to put down what you're doing, pull out your phone and create the reminder the old-fashioned way.

Not exactly the end of the world, but it's one less reason to bother wearing a product that's non-essential to begin with.

Nobody needs a smartwatch. They can't replace smartphones and the ones that look good are relatively expensive for something that duplicates functionality you already have on your phone. So smartwatch-makers need to give us as many compelling reasons as possible to buy them. Make the core experience as airtight as possible, add as much convenience as possible, and maybe then we'll buy enough of them so that developers are motivated to make enough killer apps for them, so that maybe someday they'll become something close to essential.

Android Wear supported reminders brilliantly from Day One. So did the Apple Watch. Even Samsung's first and second generation smartwatches supported them, albeit in a clunkier manner.

But when I tell the Gear S2's virtual assistant, S Voice, to create a reminder, I have no idea if the feature is unsupported or just plain buggy:

Me: "Create a reminder."

S Voice: "What is the subject?"

Me: "Pay my power bill."

S Voice: "Sorry, your request couldn't be processed. Please try again later"

... okay, let's try this another way.

Me: "At 3 pm, remind me to pay my power bill."

S Voice: "Unfortunately that is not supported."

Is this an error that couldn't be processed, or are reminders just not supported? We reached out to a Samsung PR representative a day ago and have yet to hear back. So not only can we not create reminders on the Gear S2, it isn't even clear whether they're supposed to be supported or not.

Not a good way to make a killer smartwatch, Samsung.

Third-party app support is another weakness, albeit one that Samsung has less control over. Once you get past marquee big-name apps that sit front and center in the Samsung Gear Apps store (like Yelp, ESPN, CNN and Bloomberg), there's an enormous drop-off, where you're left sifting through endless flashlight apps and watch faces.

There aren't any of the big note-taking apps like Evernote or OneNote, no popular music streaming services (unless you count Samsung's Milk Music), no ubiquitous fitness apps like Runkeeper or Runtastic (though Samsung's built-in S Health is quite good this time around) and not even any third-party task-creating apps to fill in that hole.

Android Wear and watchOS have all of the above.

The Gear S2's rotating bezel is our favorite smartwatch navigation method yet: similar to the Apple Watch's Digital Crown, the bezel lets you scroll through the UI, messages and menus without blocking the screen or needing to swipe over and over on a tiny display. There's a satisfying "click" with each new screen you rotate to, and Samsung has revamped its Tizen UI to look like it was built for the new rotating bezel. It's tons of fun to use.

There are also two buttons on the watch's right side: a back button up top and a home button down below. They fit the rotating bezel, located for easy access from the position your hand goes to when twisting the watch's bezel.

The Gear S2 also handles Android's actionable notifications, so you can interact with smartphone apps that don't directly support Samsung Gear. Things like archiving CloudMagic emails, responding to Hangouts messages or marking Google Now reminders as done (yes, the Gear does receive reminders you created on your phone). Another big improvement.

Best of all, this is the first Tizen-running Samsung Gear that works with most Android phones, not just those made by Samsung.

We like the design of the watch itself, even though we're reviewing the standard version of the Gear S2 (there's also a snazzier-looking Gear S2 Classic that looks a bit more like a traditional timekeeping watch). The one we're handling has a minimal stainless steel design that, despite looking a little smartwatchy and having a plastic band, looks pretty modern and stylish.

Like last year's Gear S, the S2 has an onscreen keyboard, something its biggest rivals don't offer. It still isn't a great experience typing on a small screen, but Samsung's virtual keyboard solution – a phone keypad type of layout with three letters on each key, with text prediction that usually figures out what you're trying to type – works well enough to be a nice bonus.

The keyboard isn't something you'll want to use all the time, but it's good enough to work in a pinch – and great when you want to rap out a message on a busy street or in an airport, where it isn't convenient to whip out your phone but you'd also rather not have others around you hearing a dictated response to your spouse.

The Gear S2 handles alert vibrations better than Android Wear. Sitting somewhere between Wear's buzzes and the Apple Watch's taps (the Gear's alerts are more like pulses), you can adjust between two strength settings. They're prominent enough that we never miss alerts when set to the stronger setting, something we can't say for most Android Wear watches.

Battery life is good. Samsung estimates 2-3 days of uptime, and that's about right if you keep the always-on clock face setting turned off. With the always-on display turned on, it drops between 4-6 percent per hour, still a full day with room to spare for most people.

With so many strengths in its column, we wanted to declare the Gear S2 the smartwatch of the year (and it is still Samsung's best smartwatch yet by a wide margin). But the indefensible lack of reminders, overall clunky voice assistant and underwhelming third-party app selection make us put it behind favorites like the Huawei Watch, Apple Watch and 2nd-gen Moto 360 that fill in all of these gaps.

These are all things that could change with software updates, and we'll keep our fingers crossed for that (and we'll be happy to re-review the Gear S2 if those improvements do arrive). In the meantime, though, this otherwise impressive ship has a hole or two that keeps it from floating.

The Samsung Gear S2 is available now, starting at $300 for the standard model you see in this review. The Classic version costs $350.

Product page: Samsung

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