Smartwatches seem to be having a difficult time of it. When they first appeared, expectation was enormous and hopes were high. I have a Pebble Classic, which arguably kickstarted (see what I did there?) the trend. Although distinctly retro, it won enough love for many to believe we had found the next big platform after the smartphone and that everyone would be wearing them within a year or two.
It didn’t turn out that way. Sadly Pebble are no more (consumed by Fitbit, the health monitoring company who are getting ever larger), big players like Motorola have said they won’t be producing another smartwatch and Apple, who’ve made quite a nice one that I at least see on wrists when out and about, won’t publish their numbers.
So it’s backlash time. If the smartwatch isn’t going to dominate, then clearly it must disappear and die. The tech world is fickle and harsh.
I’m taking a more moderate stance and whilst I do think its appeals are more niche, there’s enough demand out there to see them here to stay.
And besides - smartwatches are getting better all the time. Take Samsung’s efforts; they’ve gone through several generations of smartwatch in a very short space of time, but now with the Samsung Gear S3, I believe they’ve finally cracked it.
Time to Improve
This is the S3 Frontier Edition. The outdoor version to partner the ‘Classic Edition’. In the UK, both versions are exactly the same under the hood, but other countries can get a Frontier with LTE on board.
First and foremost, this is a beautiful watch. I’ve seen criticism of its size and yes, it’s a large watch - but that’s also the trend in traditional watches, so try one on before you write off the idea.
Samsung have gone to great lengths to make the experience as close to a traditional watch as possible. The materials and attention to detail make this feel like a premium piece of wrist jewellery. The screen is big and bold with an always-on mode (called Ambient mode) that keeps your choice of watchface alive at all times, whilst still achieving a couple of days away from the charger. If you’re content for the watch to sleep when you’re not looking at it, then four days is possible and the wireless dock is convenient for overnight charges when you’re at home (perhaps less so when you’re travelling).
The S3 is also compatible with the industry standard 22mm strap and the aftermarket for good, cheap, quick-release straps has exploded, meaning you can enjoy a different watch look and feel every day! The supplied silicone strap is very nice, but I opted for a lovely metal affair from the good people at BritainBroadway via Amazon.
I must admit, I’ve become rather addicted to hunting down the perfect watch-face. The best ones are generally had via the S3 mobile companion app, but there is a huge range of community watch-faces available via ‘Facer’ too and if you want to have the S3 look like a Rolex or a Tag for example, then this is the easiest way to do that. The compromise with the generic watch-face stores, is that they rarely take account of the S3’s ability to run a high quality screen all the time, so will switch to very basic layouts, or turn off entirely to save power, as that’s what most other smartwatches need to do.
So Samsung can now make a good watch. Even better, they could already make a good smartwatch. With Tizen, I believe they have the best watch-operating system on the market. The menu system is based around rotating the bezel around a simple set of icons and then tapping the screen when the correct app is highlighted. ‘Back’ and ‘Menu’ buttons on the side provide support. I like to avoid touching the screen where possible, the smudges are never nice and you can have the S3 auto-open an app, which triggers when you hover on an icon for a few seconds.
Time Waits for No Man
On board you get the usual fleet of smartphone extensions. Notifications are handled well, at least on the Samsung S7 Edge that I’m testing this one with. Be sure to read other reviews to check it plays just as well with non-Samsung phones. When Samsung have both sides of the coin, all of your messages (SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger etc) can be received and responded to. There’s a choice of responses, including the usual canned reply, emoji and voice dictation, all of which work okay. There’s even a full keyboard, based on those old T9 layouts we had to text with back in the early 2000s on our Nokias before the touchscreen took over. I was surprised to find that I’m still demon-fast at it. I’ve never achieved much speed on the newer touchscreen.
Other notifications like emails can be responded to or archived. New Twitter followers can be followed back and Wunderlist and Google Reminders can be ticked off as you win at life whilst the phone stays in your pocket.
Sadly, one area where the decision to go with Tizen has yet to pay off is in the app-store. I was happy to see Spotify released just before Xmas and Uber is there too. Unfortunately there are precious few other big names there. For me, this is no big deal, but if you’re coming from Apple or Android, you may be disappointed. I also miss Google’s voice recognition, especially for reminders. The reminders-app on the watch only lets you type ones in for the next 24 hours. Dates are achievable using S-Voice, but it’s clunky by comparison and easily flummoxed by background noise.
Having Spotify on your wrist is fantastic. Premium subscribers can stream music direct to the watch over WIFI to a pair of bluetooth headphones, or you can use it as a remote for the app on your phone. In face, once Spotify is running anyway (like your PC or a Chromecast) the watch is then your remote, which is really handy when you’re up and about. If you’re not a Spotify user, there is 4GB of storage on the watch which you can use for music, or you can remote control music apps on your phone using the preinstalled control app.
Where there is still some general enthusiasm for wearables is in fitness monitoring and here the Samsung Gear S3 plays some aces. It has a plethora of sensors on board, including WIFI, GPS, altimeter, barometer, accelerometer and heart-rate monitor. Combined with Samsung S-Health, the comprehensive competitor to Google Fit and Apple Health, you can keep track of all manner of exercise including your daily steps and climb and various sports.
The S3 even has auto-detection, so in theory you don’t even have to tell it what you’re doing. In practise I’d label this as ‘needs work’ since going for a walk in the rain with an umbrella was generally picked up as being cycling and putting up a cot in the nursery (big times in the JP household!) was deemed to be using a cross-trainer! Still, even the dedicated fitness monitors are proving to be less than perfect accuracy and auto-detect aside, I found the fitness functions to be motivating and fun. The watch is IP68 water resistant, but don’t think that makes it a swimmer’s watch. Rain? Yes. Odd dip? Yes, but try not to. Swim? No.
Smartwatches are a challenging sell. If you live on your smartphone and spend your time in social networks, it may not enhance your life. Your phone is in your hand already.
I like them, because I love all the productivity apps that help me feel organised, but don’t love the constant interruptions that my phone demands. The watch allows at-a-glance dismissal of the internet ‘noise’ and quick interactions with the small jobs like ticking off lists and picking up reminders. Easy access to calendars, messages and a remote control for music have tipped me over the edge and I can’t imagine not having one now.
If you feel a little bit like that too and you also like the idea of your watch being of the premium variety, then the S3 is well worth a look. Yes, it’s not brimming with apps, but otherwise it’s beautiful to behold, easy to use and it keeps the internet at bay when you’re doing real stuff.