Samsung has just unveiled its seventh smartwatch in three years, the Gear S3. Available in two variants – the professional-looking S3 classic and the more adventurous S3 frontier – this series makes several improvements on last year's well-received Gear S2 series. Let's take a closer look.
The body of the Gear S3 dwarfs last year's versions. The S2 watches were some of the smaller ones on the market at the time, but the S3s are some of the largest. While the size does evoke some éclat – oversized luxury watches are a thing in the fashion world – this type of bulk could prove difficult to wear everyday.
With additional size comes additional weight. Depending on which models you're comparing, this year's watches are 30 to 38 percent heavier. Despite having the same body size, the more-capable Gear S3 frontier is 8 percent heavier than the Gear S3 classic.
Like last year, the watch bezels and body are stainless steel. This helps maintain the "real watch" look and feel that Samsung is evidently proud of, if its unveiling and advertisements are any indication. Steel also feels better and more jewelry-like against the skin than other materials.
Both watches use Corning's Gorilla Glass, the industry standard for many types of mobile electronics. The Gear S3 uses the brand-new SR+ composite, which is said to be significantly more damage resistant while affording better battery life and readability.
Smartwatch display size can be a bit of a catch-22. Bigger screens are easier to read and use, but they typically drive the device size up, which makes them less convenient. Since last year, the watch bodies grew by 30 percent, but the display size only increased by 15 percent.
Just like last year, the display resolution is 360 x 360. However, the larger display means a slight drop in pixel density.
Samsung uses AMOLED displays across the board, and its smartwatches are no exception.
Always-on display (AOD)
AMOLED is an an excellent choice for wearable displays, because it enables the always-on display capability that makes smartwatches look and act more like traditional watches. In last year's models, the AOD setting removes color and creates a dimmed, simplified version of the display. The Gear S3 flagships maintain color screens when AOD is on, with a drop in brightness being the only visible difference.
We are pleased with Samsung's decision to bring back the rotating bezel it introduced last year. Twisting the watch face is a more intuitive, classic approach to manipulating a watch than being restricted to swiping and tapping the screen.
Both watches are water resistant enough to withstand anything a watch may encounter in normal use, such as splashing, hand washing and rain. An IP68 rating means the device is protected from immersion in water over one meter in depth.
The inflated size packs a bigger battery, which could extend the watch's running time up to twice as long.
Both devices have built-in wireless charging capabilities.
Samsung is still using its proprietary operating system, Tizen, in its smartwatches.
Like last year's offerings, the new Gear S3 watches are Android-compatible. You won't be restricted to using them with only Samsung phones.
Samsung has said the Gear S2 and S3 will be made iPhone compatible, but no confirmation yet on when it will happen. The company is working on an official iOS app that would let you control either Gear watch from an iPhone.
Both the Gear S2 watches were available in 3G cellular data-enabled variants, but standalone data is nixed altogether in the Gear S3 classic. The S3 frontier has built-in 3G/LTE connectivity, so you can make and receive calls phone-free.
GPS was only included in the 3G variants of the Gear S2. This year, all of the Gear S3 models have built-in GPS.
Heart rate monitor
The wrist-based heart rate monitor returns in this year's watches. A wise choice, because fitness tracking is proving to be a cornerstone of smartwatch appeal.
Samsung Pay has been integrated into the Gear series since last year. However, the 2015 models were NFC-only, so merchants need an NFC scanner in order to accept payments. The 2016 models have both NFC and MST (magnetic secure transmission) technology. Since MST mimics the sliding of an actual card in a card reader, it can be accepted almost anywhere.
Even though the bands on the S2 could be swapped with other S2-specific accessories (sold separately) from the get-go, Samsung began selling a universal adapter for the bands earlier this year. With the adapter, the Gear S2 can be worn with any 20 millimeter watch band. The Gear S3's bands can be swapped out with any 22 millimeter watch band, just like a traditional watch.
Samsung unveiled the new Gear S3 watches at the 2016 IFA conference in Berlin, but did not confirm an exact release date. If rumors are true and Samsung follows a timeline similar to last year's, we expect S3 watches to hit the market this October.
Starting price (full retail)
We're also still waiting to hear about the S3 classic and S3 frontier price points. Last year's watches started at US$300 and $350 up front, but now that the latest and greatest watches are getting all the attention, 2015 models are on sale through a number of outlets.
The S3 frontier is the more capable of the two new releases, so it will undoubtedly cost extra. Our brief hands-on time with the watches didn't leave us with an impression of completely premium-feeling materials, so hopefully cost does not spring up as precipitously as some of Samsung's other flagships, like the newly released (and recalled) Galaxy Note 7.
We'll post a full review of the Gear S3 in due course, but in the meantime, check out our hands-on impressions.