Being an early adopter must be a tough life. Yes, you’re first to the queue, have the cachet of being one of select few to own a new piece of technology and no doubt endless techie attention as you bat away endless questions. But ultimately, in the vast majority of popular product lifecycles, waiting out for a bit is usually a safer bet.
This analogy sums up the Samsung Galaxy Gear S smartwatch. Samsung have already moved on quickly, with the S2 available and details of the S3 already shared ahead of its release later in 2016. Earlier this year, I spent three weeks with the Apple Watch and quite liked it, but following a mobility trial in our team last year, we still had six Galaxy Gear S units kicking about with no owners. With a charity running event a couple of months away, I suddenly realised I could really use a smartwatch – and one that partners my S6 easily enough too.
Those unused Gear S units tell you a story. Our team’s Apple Watch has gradually done the rounds as part of a wider trial, and never sat still for more than 10 minutes. But we couldn’t give the Gear S away, even minority Android users in our office aside. It hooked up easily with my S6 via Bluetooth though. No fancy Apple screens; you open the S Health app and add the device from there.
Inevitably then, my review will make lots of comparisons with Cupertino’s finest. The Korean-designed watch itself fits nicely, without the arm-hair-grabbing abilities of its Apple competitor. The strap is a one-piece soft plastic or rubber item, with the watch pressed into it. A simple clasp does the rest, while during charging, you need to clip a fiddly base behind the screen and connect a micro USB lead into it. A smartwatch with the Apple charger and the Samsung strap would be ideal.
The Gear S makes do with a single button on the front, unlike Apple’s multiple control inputs. In this way, it’s a nice branding nod to the Galaxy phones, and once you tap the button to either see the time or your step count for the day, you can swipe around the curved display. Vertical movements open menus from the top or bottom of the display, or swipe left or right to work your way across sub-menu options. Initially, this approach in interface design didn’t sit well with me, but like all things in life, you get used to it.
The watch also responds to sudden arm gestures to wake up the screen, so you can tell the time or your exercise progress with a swift flick of the wrist. This wasn’t as accomplished as Apple, especially during exercise when I’d be positively wagging my arm on my bike to wake it up. You also have a number of pre-installed apps to kick off exercise and it handles a plethora of notifications (which aren’t easy to mark as read).
There are effectively two Android apps that manage the smartwatch. The first is called Samsung Gear, and this manages the watch itself and the connectivity. S Health does the rest in terms of collecting that all important activity data. The Gear S has its own SIM and GPS reception over the Apple Watch, both of which work well for outdoor sports.
Over the new three months I undertook cycling and running exercises, and bar some occasional delays in picking up my pulse, the watch worked well. I was impressed with the GPS reception, as it recorded my full 8.6 mile cycle route easily, while it worked well on the treadmill too. The numbers never matched those on the treadmill display, but that wasn’t a surprise.
The data is then compiled by the S Health app into a neat dashboard, that provides lots of hints and suggestions for other activity. It’ll even record your coffee consumption such is its level of detail. There are lots of rewards as well as many charts and graphs marking your progress. Serious health addicts will love consuming this but the dashboard does the basics well.
I liked the watch a lot. I think the Apple Watch is better by way of its desirability and – surprisingly – it’s size (the Gear S drew lots of mocking jokes from my colleagues). But the screen is nice, it’s packed with functionality and is quite user friendly, once you get the hang of all the horizontal and vertical swipes. Yet, like those early adopters, I’m not in the admiring group. Maybe some other time.