Samsung’s Gear S3 is a small evolution from the Gear S2 announced exactly one year ago. The software is very similar, and the processing hardware hidden away inside the watch’s casing is nearly identical as well. But small evolutions can still be significant, and the Gear S3 is the first Samsung smartwatch that I’d consider wearing for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
Design: More An Actual Watch Than A Smartwatch
The reason for that is that, by putting some thought into building a timepiece that looks more like a watch than it does a smartwatch, Samsung has made the Gear S3 look normal. It’s the same X-factor that makes the Tag Heuer Connected outshine most of its Android Wear brethren — the Gear S3, in both its slightly understated and conservative Classic and more rugged Frontier variants, looks like a watch that you’d see normal people wear. And that’s a good thing.
On the wrist, the Gear S3 definitely feels bigger — but not much bulkier — than the comparatively sleek Gear S2. It’s a wider casing with a slightly larger screen — 1.3 inches versus 1.2 inches, or 33mm versus 30mm — that suits larger wrists more than the old model. The steel that the Gear S3 is hewn from is probably its biggest advantage over the S2, because it doesn’t feel like a toy any more. Like the Huawei Watch that has lived on my wrist since I got it, the face of the S3 looks adult and feels adult.
The two variants of the Gear S3 suit different tastes; I definitely like the Frontier more, with its chunkier and darker bezel with more obvious serrations, but the Classic is probably more palatable if you wear a suit to work every day. The Frontier has a sweatproof rubber strap that integrates more smoothly into the lugs, the Classic is leather. Both have precisely the same feature-set — there’s a 4G-enabled variant of the Frontier, but that won’t be coming to Australia — so the difference only comes down to taste.
When it does launch in Australia, before Christmas with a price tag as yet unconfirmed but likely within the Gear S2’s $499 range, the Gear S3 is going to have some tough competition. Maybe a new Apple Watch, maybe a new Huawei Watch, but also the fleet of fitness-trackers-with-watches like the Fitbit Charge 2. While its Tizen OS isn’t some peoples’ cup of tea — especially if you’re not already a Samsung smartphone user — the design more than stands up to competitors.
Hardware: A Bigger, Brighter Screen And Built-In GPS
The spec sheets of the Gear S2 and Gear S3, viewed alongside each other, are largely identical. The same 1.0GHz dual-core processor, 4GB of onboard storage, 768MB of RAM in the S3 versus the S2; all these are adequate specs for building a smartwatch that runs smoothly and looks pretty with its Tizen operating system as the Gear S3 does. The watch’s 1.3-inch face, though, is around 20 per cent brighter, and that makes a significant difference to viewability in bright areas and to the persistence of Samsung’s always-on watchfaces.
While the watchface is bigger and better, it’s also much more resistant to damage than the S2’s Gorilla Glass 3 slice. Corning’s new Gorilla Glass SR+ is smash resistant and scratch resistant, and should provide a genuine alternative to the sapphire glass used in other high-end smartwatches like the Huawei. The glass itself is also now slightly recessed behind a chunkier steel bezel, which should also protect it from accidental bumps.
Built-in GPS is probably the most useful in a list of small, subtle inclusions in the Gear S3’s hardware stack. That means you’ll be able to take the S3 for a run and have it track your metrics with a little bit more finesse than just step tracking and heart rate monitoring, and it goes 90 per cent of the way to a proper fitness tracker — probably the 90 per cent that almost all buyers will be more than adequately served by.
Samsung Pay, though, is probably the most flashy addition. It’s a useful one, too — combined with the GPS, it’s not hard to imagine leaving your phone and wallet at home while you’re out for a run or a bike ride, but still being able to pick up a coffee en route by tapping your watch against a NFC credit card reader. The Gear S3 also has MST — magnetic stripe emulation — but I can’t think of the last time I swiped a card so it’s an inconsequential inclusion for Aussies.
Beyond that, the watch’s software is the same generally good experience as the Gear S2. Tizen is clean, is built to run equally well on bezel clicks as it is on swipes and taps, and doesn’t get in the way of actually telling time and reading notifications for the most part. If you throw away all the widgets and only add back the ones you want, it’s a good experience. We’ll have more time to pass judgment on the Gear S3’s software in the coming days.
Gizmodo travelled to IFA 2016 as a guest of Samsung.