Last year, I spent a few weeks with both the first version of the Apple Watch, and then, a few months later, the rather more clunky Samsung Galaxy Gear S1 smartwatch. As the South Korean’s first foray into mainstream wearables, the latter was credible but dated from launch and a long way behind Apple.
Two iterations later brings us to the S3. With LoveToRide.net’s Cycle September campaign about to start, I had the chance via work to try out the S3 and combine it with a bit of extra cycling activity to see if this third version had moved the game on.
This, the more rugged-looking Frontier version, is certainly prettier than the S1 I tried. The curved display of the first version was clever in some respects, but perhaps convention rules in watch design; evolving the portable timepiece into a different form was maybe a step too far. The S3 looks positively conventional with only its darkened glass face a clue that it’s a smartwatch at all.
There are five key user interactions: two buttons on the side of the chassis (the upper works like a Back button, the lower to access the apps menu), a rotary controller built into the circular bezel, the expected tap/swipe interface on the screen and the gesture control activated when moving your wrist. The Android-derived user interface is much friendlier than before, with simple, circular menu options that show off the neat, 1.3-inch round screen. Definition is pin sharp, and its shape is impressively engineered.
The rubber strap isn’t much to write home about, except to say it’s quite rugged, and once attached to your wrist set-up takes just minutes. My Galaxy S6 actually detected it automatically and presented an option to pair up. Battery charging is wireless via the little magnetic micro-USB equipped holder, and notable here for the sheer speed at which it charges up: 30-40 minutes charging can yield well over a days’ use. From a full charge, 36 hours moderate use is within its grasp.
The S3 can function as a standalone device with its own Wi-Fi connectivity and even an LTE version with an embedded SIM card. But it does its best with a phone nearby, syncing your physical activity via the S Health app which has evolved a fair amount since I last used it.
The S Health app retains its tile interface with all the normal, various measured metrics. Tap one for a detailed view, including past data shown as a trend. I found the sleep data particularly insightful; the watch records motionless (deep), light and restless levels of sleep and presents you with an efficiency score. It was also remarkably accurate in determining exactly when your head hits the pillow, while the screen briefly activates when you first move out of bed to acknowledge activity.
On the smartwatch itself, you can access some of the S Health data collected during the day from the app. There’s also methods to record heart rate – which the watch can do at different times of the day – as well as record the amount of water or caffeine you’ve consumed. The S3 also has some simple heuristics to work out when you’re working out, and it handled this reliably enough (bar one cycle ride where even after beginning with a big hill climb, I had to start the work out manually).
Among the myriad of health tracking devices, it’s hard to know which is the most accurate. Strava, running on my S6 in a phone holder on my bike, would record a different distance to the S3 on most excursions. I could live with a few tenths of mile missed either way, but one Sunday morning, after sweeping past the turn-off for my street to add two extra tenths of a mile to make a nice, round 30 miles, the S3 reported I’d cycled a fraction under 32 miles when I pressed Finish on the ride. I don’t doubt the calories burned from the watch as it is measuring my heart rate and speed, but where did two extra miles come from?
But again, the detail is excellent: even on the small screen, you can review your workout with heart rate data and even a little Google map with your route crammed into the display. During your workout, the watch makes some really helpful updates. The frequency of these can be tailored by distance or time. The default, when riding, was an update every mile, giving you the distance travelled, average speed and heart rate. If you’d set the total planned duration or distance on the watch beforehand, it will also tell you how much longer is remaining based on your average speed – a nice touch, even though due to wind noise I often had to put the watch by my ear to listen to it.
Samsung report that the S3 is water resistant (to level IP68) although only to depths of 1-3 metres or so. This means it’s fine to use for swimming I guess. However, on one of my cross-country rides, where I got pretty much soaked and covered in mud, the watch was fine throughout but some grit had got in under the rotary bezel. This led to a mild crunching type of vibration when rotating it afterwards, at least for a few hours until the dust had been crushed to find its way out again.
I also got annoyed with a vibrate and visual notification when it paired with Wi-Fi at home. No need for that, while the gesture control means those odd, random moments of screen lightening when you don’t expect or need it. Mind you, the S1 and Apple Watch suffered from this too.
Elsewhere, the notifications work nicely, with the usual vibrations and display changes. The watch has a speaker and microphone, so when paired with my phone – or standalone, I assume – you can make calls with it. While driving a courtesy car back to the dealer after my car was serviced, the dealer called en-route and I was able to answer the call just using the watch. There was a Michael Knight moment as I responded by talking to my wrist. That said, the SMS interface has a neat voice-to-text function for quick responses.
All told, I really like the S3. Note that I haven’t used the word “like” in the past tense; I actually decided to put my money where my mouth is, and ordered one (direct from Samsung. At the time of writing, they had reduced the price to just £250). I began my review of the S1 talking about the downsides of being an early adopter, and kudos to those guys: their input has led Samsung to deliver a terrific product that’s easy to live with and bristling with useful functionality. Over to you, Apple.