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Hands on: Samsung Gear S3 Classic and Gear S3 Frontier

Samsung's Gear S3 watches blend smarts with classic Swiss style

Is that a smartwatch? Samsung’s Gear S3 Classic and Frontier are gorgeous Swiss-inspired watches with big brains.

Samsung’s Gear S2 was a hit. The innovative, round smartwatch with its rotating bezel wowed tech lovers and analog watch fans alike with its practicality and sleek design. Now Samsung is back with the Gear S3 Classic and Gear S3 Frontier, two traditional-looking smartwatches with classic Swiss design elements.

We took a sneak peek at the new watches to see how they compare to last year’s Gear S2 and whether Samsung is ready to win over more analog watch fanatics to the smartwatch craze.

Traditional Swiss watch look with a masculine feel

When it comes to watches, people usually want an elegant, classic look or a sporty, rugged look. Samsung consulted with Swiss watchmakers and a watch designer named Yvan Arpa to craft two exquisite smartwatches that aim to look just like analog Swiss watches.

The Gear S3 Classic is for the classy businessman who’s most comfortable in a suit, while the Gear S3 Frontier is geared toward the more rugged outdoorsman who enjoys going off the grid. If the Gear S3 Classic were a man, he’d be George Clooney, all dark and handsome with a little dazzle. The Gear S3 Frontier is more of a Bradley Cooper, still classically good-looking, but a little rough around the edges.

No matter what Samsung says, the Gear S3 series is made for men and men only.

Unfortunately, both watches are larger than the original Gear S2 Classic with 46mm diameters. They’re also thicker and sport traditional-looking watch bezels with an index. The larger size is in somewhat of a step backward for Samsung (we thought the Gear S2 was perfectly sized), but the company stresses that these watches are for people who like bigger, chunky watches. I spoke with several men who loved the designs, though I remain a little sad. However, there’s no denying that the new Gear S3 watches look more classic than the futuristic-looking Gear S2.

The Frontier’s index is numbered like the dial on most outdoors watches, and the Classic uses hash marks. Both Gear S3 watches have stainless steel cases that are waterproof up to 5 meters for 30 minutes, thanks to an IP68 rating. The steel of the Frontier is coated with a dark color, while the Classic comes in a sleek, shinier machined silvery steel finish.

Both watches have two buttons and a rotating bezel, just like last year’s Gear S2 watches, and they look different on each model. The Frontier has flat buttons that are flush with the watch’s casing, while the Classic has more classic buttons that stick out like the crown on analog watches.

You can use any 22mm strap with the two Gear S3 watches, but Samsung will, of course, also sell its own straps. We saw a wide selection of leather straps in various finishes and colors. All of them were really gorgeous, and connect with the classic pin mechanism you’ll see on most watchstraps.

Inside that attractive steel casing is an incredibly powerful smartwatch, though you wouldn’t even know that it’s not a normal analog watch just by looking at it. Samsung included its Always-On display technology on the Gear S3 line this year, so now the watch face is always visible in full color. It doesn’t look as bright or pixely when it’s at rest, so it ends up looking like a normal watch with a cool face.

Speaking of watch faces, Samsung now lets you download them directly on the watch, so you don’t have to choose new ones on your phone anymore. The company has a number of new watch faces, some of which take advantage of new outdoorsy features and others that focus on replicating classic Swiss watch faces. Samsung also partnered with an artist by the name of Arik Levy to design watch faces that correspond to specific watchstraps. It’s a very neat idea.

Make no mistake – these are the most traditional-looking smartwatches Samsung has ever made. As a woman, my only gripe with the Gear S3 line is that no matter what Samsung says, these are made for men and men only. The design is overtly masculine, especially when you compare it to the Gear S2 Classic, which could go either way depending on which metal finish and band you chose.

Samsung was quick to say that the Gear S3 watches aren’t replacing the Gear S2 line, but rather adding to it. The company readily admits that making smaller, more feminine watches is a mechanical challenge, given the limitations of battery technology, but Samsung stressed that it wants to include women in all the smartwatch fun, too.

Review: Samsung’s Gear S2 should have been the best smartwatch ever. Instead it’s a mess

Gender issues aside, Samsung has pulled off a really nifty trick by making a smartwatch look just like an analog watch. That is, until you start twisting the bezel and calling your boss on it.

A rotating bezel controls slick software

With the Gear S3 line, Samsung heeded the old adage: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. The smartwatch uses the same innovative, circular Tizen-based interface as the Gear S2, and you use the same rotating bezel for navigation.

Twist the bezel right, and you’ll see a number of widgets, which give you lightning quick access to your favorite apps. You can also view your step count, control your music, or call an Uber right from the widgets. It’s the ability to take quick action that makes the interface so clever. Samsung opened up a Software Development Kit (SDK) to app makers, so that there will be more widgets available when the Gear S3 launches.

It’s the ability to take quick action that makes the interface so clever.

If you twist the bezel left, you’ll conjure up a list of all your apps. You simply rotate the bezel until you hit the app you’re looking for. Finding good apps is a challenge on any smartwatch. Most of them are useless, even though there are thousands in the app store.

Samsung has been working with app developers to up the app count for its watches and to make them more useful. The company currently offers around 9,000 apps for its circular smartwatches, and that number should grow to 10,000 by the Gear S3’s launch date. It remains to be seen whether the new and updated apps will be useful, but Samsung showed us a few nifty ones.

Spotify partnered up with Samsung to bring music streaming to the Gear S3, a feature that debuted on the Gear Fit 2. Since most people don’t actually buy digital music anymore, it’s great to have the most popular streaming service onboard. At this point in time, you cannot download Spotify music to your watch, which is a shame. No internet connection means no music. Same goes for iHeartRadio, which also has a new app for the Gear S3. However, you can add songs to the 4GB of storage onboard the watch – if you have any.

Hands-on--Samsung-Gear-S3-Classic-and-Gear-S3-Frontier_0312
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Another neat app we saw allows you to control smart home products like Nest with your watch. That way, you can adjust the thermostat without reaching for your phone or leaving the comfort of your couch. If you’re worried about your home security, there’s also an ADT app, which will connect you with call centers nationwide in case of an emergency. Additionally, when you triple press the back button, you’ll trigger an SOS alert to your emergency contact. You can even set it to call 911 directly.

The Gear S3 Frontier will come with activity and outdoorsy apps pre-loaded, since it’s geared towards active folks.

Battery life, Samsung Pay, and specs

Samsung says the battery should last 3 to 4 days on a charge, thanks to the 380mAh battery inside the device. The battery is nearly double the size of the 250-300mAh in the Gear S2 watches and there’s a power saving mode that kicks in when the watch hits 15 percent battery, which cuts down on some functions to ensure that it lasts long enough for you to make it to the charger. After that, there’s a watch-only mode that shows you the time for a full day before the battery finally dies. The idea here is that you’ll always know the time. After all, what’s the point of a watch that doesn’t tell the time?

The battery isn’t the only thing that made the Gear S3 thicker than its siblings. Samsung packed an MST coil inside the Gear S3 to enable the full power of Samsung Pay on the smartwatch. Although you could tap to pay using NFC on the Gear S2, you couldn’t use it with Samsung Pay’s MST technology, which works on the vast majority of payment terminals that accept mag-stripe cards.

Samsung packed an MST coil inside the Gear S3 to enable the full power of Samsung Pay.

It’s a neat feature that we’re excited to test out in the real world, though we expect some cashiers to be bewildered by the process. We used the Gear S3 to pay for a mock transaction with NFC on and with it off. It was absolutely seamless in the demo. Hold down the back button to trigger Samsung Pay, and you’ll be presented with all the cards you have loaded. Cycle through the cards until you find the one you want, and you’re good to go. You just have to hover your watch over the place where you’d normally swipe your card instead of where the NFC hotspot is.

Samsung Pay is secured by Knox, so your card info is as safe as info gets on a phone. Payments won’t function when you take the watch off unless you enter your PIN to unlock it.

In terms of connectivity, the Gear S3 Frontier will be available in both Wi-F-only and LTE-enabled models. That way, you can take the Frontier out for a hike and leave your phone behind. You can, of course, accept calls on the watch, just like you would on a phone. The Gear S3 Classic does not come with LTE, so you’re stuck with Wi-Fi only. Samsung argues that people who like the Classic’s design won’t want or need the LTE option, but it seems like an odd decision. We’d prefer to have the option.

Luckily, all the other specs are the same, and both Gear S3 models offer stand-alone GPS for navigation.

Pricing and availability

Samsung said that the Gear S3 line should arrive in the fourth quarter of 2016, but declined to provide pricing at the time of writing. Carrier partners for the Gear S3 Frontier will also be announced at a later date. We’ll keep you updated here.

Highs

  • Double the battery packed inside
  • Classic, masculine Swiss watch design elements
  • Samsung Pay works with NFC and MST
  • Lots of standalone features
  • Slick, rotating bezel and round OS

Lows

  • 46mm size is large for smaller wrists
  • The design is too masculine for many women
  • Classic model doesn’t have an LTE version