I was blown away by the Gear S2 watch at the IFA trade show this year. Maybe I had Berlin goggles, but Samsung unveiled its new watch flawlessly, and it was the best-looking, easiest-to-use watch I had ever seen, from an interface standpoint. I stand by most of my initial reaction. The Gear S2, in many ways, is the best Samsung product in years. Unfortunately, since the final version of the watch hit my wrist, the experience hasn’t been all daisies and daffodils.
Samsung has made one of the most compelling smartwatches yet, and seems to finally understand why folks might want a watch at all. Sadly, severe connectivity issues and a lack of available software have mostly ruined our initial reviewing experience.
Updated on 11-19-2015 by Jeffrey Van Camp: I added a small explanation of what the Reactivation Lock is intended to do. Yesterday, I added another review that also had connection issues, added which phones we tested with, and tweaked wording in that section slightly for clarity. Thank you for all your comments!
Beautiful and comfortable
The user interface of a watch is important, but an attractive and comfortable design is more important. Watches are fashion statements, and no one wants to wear something crappy or huge just for some notifications. A lot of post-Apple Watch wearables are looking more acceptable on the wrist, but the Gear S2 is the best-looking, best-sized smartwatch yet.
Perfectly round and sized at a comfortable 1.2 inches (42mm total case size), it’s an optimal size to fit on a large variety of wrist shapes and sizes. It’s in between the two Apple Watch sizes, and comes in two designs, a sporty version and a Classic version. The Classic also has a ribbed watch face and traditional lugs, making it compatible with any 20mm watchband. There are versions of the Sport with added 3G/4G connectivity as well.
As much as I love wearing the Gear S2, it’s one of the most frustrating products I’ve ever reviewed.
The button layout on the Gear S2 is straightforward and better than any other smartwatch. It has two navigation buttons on its right side. The bottom one acts as a power button and Home button, which brings you back to the home screen, and the top acts as a Back button, bringing you back into the previous menu, like an Android phone. Both buttons are comfortable to press and easy to find, even in the dark.
The Gear S2’s secret weapon, however, is the bezel surrounding its screen, which turns and twists like a radial dial of sorts, allowing you to easily select and scroll through onscreen menus. Operating like a tiny little steering wheel, it has a pleasant click to it as you turn, giving light tactile feedback so you know how fast you’re wheeling around.
Finally, there is a heart-rate monitor on the bottom of the watch (which is pretty common these days). It also tracks steps at all times.
Samsung’s new interface is brilliant — the best around — blending Apple’s best innovations with smart, thought-out designs. All of the menus are built with a round screen in mind, and using the rotating bezel to scroll through menus, or swipe around as you would on a phone, is incredibly intuitive.
Seriously, there are almost no apps for this watch.
Samsung definitely stole a note from Apple with its watch customization menu. It looks and operates identically to the Apple Watch, but we can’t complain a ton, because it works. An added bonus: Samsung watch faces can be interactive. Several baked-in faces animate to show if you’re meeting your fitness goals, and companies like CNN have created special watch faces with their headlines scrolling past.
You would never know, but this entire watch runs on Samsung’s own Tizen operating system, which is in its new smart TVs but absent from its Android-powered phones. It wasn’t fun to use on the original Galaxy Gear, but six watches later, the Gear S2 shows that maybe Samsung can do its own thing. Except for one major problem: There are no apps.
Seriously, there are almost no apps for this watch. Samsung has its own app store, and claims that there are thousands of apps, but aside from the Flappy Bird clone, Yelp, Nokia Here Navigator, ESPN, Bloomberg, and CNN, there’s nothing you’ll want to use. Samsung’s apps are fantastic, especially its fitness app, but there just isn’t anything else.
Neither Android Wear nor the Apple Watch has great apps yet, but they at least have some. Unless the number of brand-name, notable apps in Samsung’s Gear store picks up quickly, I’m afraid this watch may be dead on arrival. Samsung desperately needs to attract more developers to its watch.
Massive connectivity bugs, and lag
As much as I love wearing and using the Gear S2, it’s one of the most frustrating products I’ve ever reviewed. I tested the device paired with a Nexus 5X and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus.
The setup process is fairly straightforward when it works. You download the Android app (the Gear S2 is Android-only, for now), find the watch, and then hit Yes on both devices. This will probably work the first time you set up your Gear. After that, prepare for hell.
If the Gear S2 runs out of battery, it will never reconnect to your phone again.
Switching the phone you use it with is another ordeal. It will require a factory reset, but if you had a different Samsung/Android account connected to the Gear S2 on one phone, factory reset it, but enabled the Reactivation Lock feature, you’re in trouble. This feature is meant to prevent a thief from stealing your watch, factory resetting it, and reselling it, but Samsung has not worked out the kinks.
The Reactivation Lock is a nightmare if you are the person trying to switch phones or users. DT Mobile Editor Malarie Gokey and I swapped the Gear S2 between us (a family might try to do this as well), but even though she factory reset it, it would not connect to my Galaxy S6 Edge Plus because she had turned on the Reactivation Lock. There were no good on-screen prompts for how to proceed — a hard reset and debug menu didn’t help, either. In the end, I had to log in as Malarie on my phone to make it work. It was a colossal pain in the ass. Don’t ever factory reset a Gear S2 before you disable the Reactivation Lock.
In addition to these crippling bugs, the watch repeatedly had trouble staying connected or reconnecting at a decent speed. Samsung smartly made it so you hardly notice if the Gear S2 disconnects, but it doesn’t seem to like to hold a connection, for whatever reason, and there’s no settings menu on the watch to easily connect and disconnect from phones. And when it is connected, it’s often slow.
Notifications often never came to the Gear, or came slowly. The few apps there are — like Bloomberg, Yelp, and CNN — take so long to load that they’re nearly worthless. What’s the point of opening an already crippled Yelp app on my watch if it takes twice as long as pulling out my phone and opening the app there?
Finally, we never encountered much lag in the OS, but if you scroll quickly, it will fail to keep up. More annoyingly, if you have an app that sends multiple notifications, such as a chat app, Samsung’s swipe-up-to-delete gesture will fail to work. Instead, it will just scroll through the notifications. Eventually, if you press hard enough or get lucky, these notifications will vanish, but they do so in an ugly, laggy way.
Related: Don’t Abandon the note, Samsung!
The connectivity and notification problems above are reason not to buy the Gear S2. They are terribly concerning and turned what could be the best smartwatch into something I’ve completely given up on.
I discussed some of the Gear S2’s lag issues with notifications in the Connectivity section, but here are some hard numbers, for those of you who like specs. The Gear S2 has a gorgeous 1.2-inch 360 × 360 pixel Super AMOLED screen that couldn’t look nicer. It’s covered by Gorilla Glass 3, runs Samsung’s Tizen OS, has a 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8x26 processor, 4GB of internal storage, 512MB of RAM, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, a heart-rate monitor, an accelerometer, a barometer, and a 250mAh battery.
Related: Samsung Galaxy S7 rumors and news
The NFC connectivity will allow it to work with Samsung Pay in the future, though that payment platform doesn’t yet work. It doesn’t currently work on Android Pay, but we hope it will soon.
Bountiful battery life
The Gear S2 kicks ass when it comes to battery life. The 250mAh battery in the S2 doesn’t sound like much, but I’ve gotten about 2.5 – 3 days out of every charge. I did experience a lot of connectivity issues, which may have improved battery life, but even when it was connecting regularly, the battery killed it. Most watches seem to average about 1 to 1.5 days, including the Apple Watch, so it’s nice to see Samsung excel in this regard.
The Gear’s charging cradle is also well thought out. Instead of a hunk of magnetic plastic that awkwardly slaps onto the back of the device, like the Apple Watch, this has a full stand that props the watch up like it’s on a pedestal, with a little indicator light that tells you if it’s charged or charging.
Samsung’s standard manufacturer warranty is normal for a mobile device. A Gear S2 is covered for 1 year after the day of purchase for defects that occur under normal use, though Samsung determines “normal use,” so it can deny any claim it wishes. Don’t expect a repair or replacement if you get the Gear S2 wet or drop it, but if the battery gets very bad before a year is out, Samsung may replace it. You can find full details on Samsung warranties here.
I love most everything about the Gear S2, but I absolutely cannot recommend it — not at all. I had severe connectivity issues, and it appears that I’m not the only person. Aside from losing connection or slow connection, if the watch ever dies completely, it takes a complete factory reset to get it to connect to a phone again. This is horrible.
Samsung has made a watch with possibly the best battery life, best interface, and best design, but it’s hampered by the dumbest and worst connectivity issues I’ve ever seen on a smartwatch.
There isn’t a good alternative to buy. Since the Gear S2 is an Android-only watch, and Apple makes the only other capable watch, it causes a pickle. The Apple Watch requires an iPhone and if you’re in the market for a Gear, you probably own a Galaxy or Android phone. Android Wear watches are getting better, but they still aren’t great. If you want to explore that route, try one of the new Moto 360s or the Huawei Watch. The Gear S2 retails for about $300 and most other watches hover around that price.
If Samsung fixes its connectivity issues, we will update this review. We hope to be able to recommend this watch in the future.
- Beautiful round design
- Elegant, fluid user interface
- Rotating bezel is a true innovation
- 2-3 day battery life
- If watch dies, it takes a factory reset to reconnect
- More connectivity issues
- Barely any usable apps
- Reactivation lock is buggy
- Laggy notification swipe away menu