Smartwatches are in an odd place right now. That is, if you’re not on iOS. The Apple Watch Series 2 dominates the market, and the only Android manufacturer that’s continually updating and expanding its smartwatch lineup is Samsung.
Hardly any Android Wear smartwatches were released in 2016, and funnily enough, the only great option for Android users is a watch that doesn’t run Android Wear. While Samsung is the leading Android smartphone manufacturer, it uses its own proprietary software: Tizen for Gear smartwatches.
That’s not a bad thing considering the state of Android Wear — the next iteration from Google has been delayed until later this year, and the lack of fresh devices in 2016 is not promising.
The Gear S3 is well ahead of most Android Wear smartwatches. It builds on the Gear S2, and while it hasn’t changed our minds about the usefulness of smartwatches, Samsung makes a compelling case. (This watch is not compatible with iPhone yet — there is a workaround and a beta program for the Gear S2.)
A classic watch look with a lot of smarts
There are two Gear S3 models — the Classic and the Frontier. The differences are minute: The Gear S3 Frontier has a sportier design, is 5 grams heavier, and comes with a more rugged silicone strap. If you want 3G/LTE enabled on the watch, you’ll have to get the Frontier and it will work only on AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks. We’re reviewing the Frontier version of the S3 on AT&T.
Both the Classic and Frontier models resemble the Gear S2 Classic, which Samsung released earlier in early 2016. They’re significantly larger at 46mm, which means this watch will look strange and out of place on smaller wrists. The design is bulky and very masculine. As a 6-foot, 4-inch tall man it felt comfortable and natural on me, but it’s still noticeably thicker than your average watch.
Both models have a beautiful round design we’re fond of, especially because the S3 looks like a regular watch. I usually prefer classic designs akin to the Classic S3, but the Frontier has more character. It looks more like a regular wristwatch than the futuristic Apple Watch. The Gear S3 comes pre-installed with some ugly watch faces, but thankfully the companion app is chock full of free and paid faces you can install.
The build quality is superb — the Frontier model feels like it’s worth the $350 price tag. It’s made of stainless steel, like the Gear S2, and it carries the same IP68 waterproof rating. That means you can take it up to 1 meter underwater for 30 minutes. It works okay in the rain, but we had some temporary touch issues the longer it got wet.
Samsung uses Gorilla Glass SR+ on the Gear S3, a new glass variant from Corning that’s said to be more damage resistant. While durability requires a long-term test, the Gear S3 has managed to survive minor bumps along walls with no scratches.
The S3 is easy to slip on and the strap is comfortable, though it’s prone to attracting dirt. If you’re not a fan of the strap, it’s easily replaceable with any 22mm watch band.
There are two buttons on the right side of the S3, but they’re textured and less pronounced on the Frontier. The top one is the back button and the second acts as the home button.
The build quality is superb — the Frontier feels like it’s worth the $350 price tag.
The Super AMOLED screen of the watch is similar to the one on the Gear S2 and it uses the same 360 × 360 pixel resolution. The only difference is that since the Gear S3 is larger, you’re actually seeing fewer pixels per inch. It doesn’t impact the display in the slightest — it’s bright, offers deep blacks, and the colors are vibrant.
The always-on display is a must for smartwatches; it dims the screen and leaves your watch face barely visible to conserve power. Samsung’s “wearable device” feels more like a watch with this mode on, but you can always turn it off to save even more battery. The Gear S3 shows color in always-on mode, unlike the monochrome style on the S2. That helps it look even more like a regular watch than the S2 or other smartwatches.
There’s nothing really groundbreaking here if you’re coming from a Gear S2 Classic. The S3 builds on its predecessors, and the end result is a good-looking smartwatch that’s fairly durable.
The famous rotating bezel is great
The real highlight that makes the Gear smartwatches unique is the innovative rotating bezel. It resembles the look of the Gear S2 Classic more than the original Gear S2. The Gear S2 was more futuristic looking, while the Classic and now the Frontier are more like traditional wristwatches with slick bezels, detachable straps, and minimal buttons. The bezel makes a satisfying sound when you rotate it, similar to what you’d hear on a combination lock with a dial.
It’s one of the best features of the watch, because you can quickly scroll through anything on the interface. You’re required to tap on the watch screen to complete actions, which is a shame, as we would rather not leave fingerprints on it.
But the rotating bezel isn’t as useful as we hoped. First, when you’re walking and want to rotate to another screen, you have to make sure you’re precise, because it’s easy to overshoot and jump ahead two or three menus.
The bezel also isn’t “hands-free” friendly. A smartwatch can be useful if your hands are occupied; I’ve grown accustomed to utilizing the various gestures available on Android Wear, for example. The lack of gestures on the S3 makes it unreliable when you’re carrying groceries and want to expand a notification, or if you want to browse some headlines while holding a pole on the subway.
Gestures can only do so much, understandably. S Voice, Samsung’s voice search service, fills the gap. You can use it to set reminders and alarms, send messages, make calls, open apps, and more. I find it strange to talk to my watch in public, but saying, “Hi Gear,” to trigger actions works fairly well. It’s not as fast as Siri on the Apple Watch, and it’s not helpful when you want to ask it questions like, “When was Obama born?” Android Wear is far superior with this, thanks to the power of Google Search.
Tizen is fast
The Gear S3 runs buttery smooth, and we had no hiccups with it. The smartwatch runs Samsung’s proprietary software known as Tizen. Unlike the current version of Android Wear, where you’re stuck swiping left, right, up, and down on almost everything, the Gear S3’s interface is simple and has largely remained unchanged from the Gear S2.
Just tap and hold the screens to customize them. The first screen on the right is where you can access your apps, the phone if you have the LTE variant, S Voice, and the watch’s settings. You can also press and hold the back button to trigger Samsung Pay, press and hold the home button to see powering off options for the Gear S3, or double tap it to bring up voice search with S Voice. You can also triple press the back button to send an SOS alert, but you have to connect it with an ADT app first.
From the main watch face, you can rotate the bezel right or swipe to move through various “widget” screens. Press and hold the screen and you’ll be able to delete ones you don’t want. All the way at the end of the list is the widget creation button, in case you want to add something new.
These widgets can range from news stories from Flipboard to music controls. This implementation allows for quick and easy access to the most important information, and it’s dead simple to use. It’s very similar to the Dock on the Apple Watch, which keeps your most-used apps pre-loaded for you. It’s something we’d like to see on Android Wear.
The Gear S3 is compatible with some Android apps, but for the most part, you’re stuck using Tizen apps. You can download these via the Gear app, but don’t expect much — the platform still suffers from a shortage of good apps (Spotify is advertised on Samsung’s website, but still isn’t available). Still, there are some decent options from the likes of Uber, Nest, Nike+ Running, NPR One, and more.
I use only a handful of apps on my smartwatch, but it’s still a big problem for smartwatches. What’s the point if there are no good apps? Another big problem is that there are inconsistencies in how some notifications are synced, and you may have to use some Samsung apps for optimal performance. Part of the problem is that developers have to make apps specifically for Samsung’s Tizen interface, which takes extra resources.
This also extends to when you’re using the Gear S3 on a non-Samsung smartphone. We connected the Google Pixel to the S3 and found that deleting some emails on Gmail via the S3 didn’t actually delete them. It deleted them fine on the Galaxy S7 Edge, though. Clearing notifications on the watch would only dismiss them on your phone, but they are still “unread” when you go into the respective app. This didn’t happen as often on the Galaxy S7 Edge.
It’s annoying that the experience is inconsistent when you’re paired to a Samsung phone versus when you’re paired to another Android phone.
On the topic of messaging, you can scribble letters to send quick messages, or you can access the keyboard to type something in. It’s awkward to do on the small screen if you have big fingers, but it is more helpful than being limited to just canned replies. Samsung gives you a lot of options on how to send messages, like Apple with the Apple Watch. It’s an area where Android Wear needs to catch up.
Notifications are fine in general, but it’s safe to say that you shouldn’t expect a flawless experience if you’re using the S3 on a non-Samsung smartphone. If you’re on a Samsung smartphone, you may have to adapt to using specific Samsung apps to make things play nice. In any case, it’s not seamless, and that may put a lot of people off from spending $350 on the watch.
Leave the phone behind
With the LTE model of the Gear S3, you can leave your phone behind and still have complete functionality on the watch. The 4GB of internal storage should be enough to download a hefty amount of songs onto the watch, but you can also make calls, respond to texts, or navigate, thanks to the built-in GPS. There’s also Wi-Fi so you can connect the device to your home or work network, though you may see a hit on your battery life.
The call quality is surprisingly decent if you turn the volume up to the highest level. It’s still odd chatting with someone on your watch, but it can be handy in certain scenarios. You can also use it to listen to music, but we wouldn’t recommend it — a pair of Bluetooth earbuds are a better option.
The Gear S3 is the first smartwatch to support Samsung Pay — both NFC and MST. This means that you can use your watch to make payments at almost any checkout terminal. MST, or Magnetic Secure Transmission, is accepted at almost all checkout terminals that have a card reader.
You also don’t need to have your phone on you to make a payment. Whether you have the LTE variant or not, Samsung Pay stores information so that you can make 10 transactions before you need to pair the S3 with the phone again. You’ll need to set up a pin to use Samsung Pay, so your watch is secure in case you are worried.
This is likely the best reason to get the Gear S3. Mobile payments work just as well on the Gear S3 as they do on the Apple Watch, but Samsung Pay is accepted at more locations that don’t have NFC payment terminals. Using your watch to pay may seem a little odd, but it’s a big feature that can be helpful in a pinch.
The Gear S3 Classic and Frontier come equipped with a 380mAh battery, and Samsung claims you can go up to four days on a single charge. We say more like a day and a half — maybe two. That’s with the always-on mode, Wi-Fi and LTE on, the brightness on the higher side, and location turned on.
You can stretch the battery life much longer if you have most of those features turned off. Still, the S3 has better battery life than we’ve seen on most smartwatches. It hardly loses power on standby mode.
Samsung packs a wireless charging cradle in the box, and it comes equipped with a LED indicator to notify you when your device is charging and has been fully charged.
Samsung won’t stop nagging you to install S Health when you set up your Gear S3, and we recommend it. The app is a simple to use and basic fitness tracking app — you can use it to record how much water and coffee you drink, see the number of steps you take, monitor your heart rate, track your sleeping patterns, and more.
The real highlight that makes the Gear smartwatches unique is the innovative rotating bezel.
The app alerts you when you have been inactive too long, which can be annoying but it’s for a good cause. I was more impressed with its accuracy in tracking when I began walking — it notifies you once you pass a certain threshold, like 10 minutes of walking. It also accurately detected the flights of stairs I climbed, and the heart rate monitor was better than expected. I measured 88bpm, but the S3 said 91.
The watch can also automatically start tracking specific activities — walking, running, cycling, elliptical training, rowing machines, and a dynamic workout mode that should cover general activities. The watch seemed to do well in triggering some of these activities automatically. The numbers from steps, distance, and calorie burn also closely matched results from other apps on the phone like Google Fit.
The Gear S3 should perform relatively well as a fitness watch for the average exercise enthusiast, though if this is important to you, we recommend a dedicated fitness tracker, as they have more robust features.
Samsung offers a Standard Limited Warranty with the Gear S3 and S3 Frontier, meaning you’re covered for one year from the date of purchase. The company does not cover accidental damage or ordinary wear and tear.Our Take
Samsung’s Gear S3 (Frontier) isn’t revolutionary and if you think smartwatches are useless and unnecessary, this one won’t change your mind. You’ll get access to notifications and you can act on some of them, but the device is more a limited extension of your phone on your wrist rather than a full-blown thing of its own. Still, if you’re in the market for a new smartwatch, the Gear S3 is among your best options.
Is there a better alternative?
The only alternative that’s better than the S3 is the Apple Watch. Unfortunately, you can’t use the Apple Watch with an Android phone so your best bet is the Gear S3 if you’re on Android — especially so if you have a Samsung phone. Android Wear smartwatches just can’t compete.
The DT Accessory Pack
Do note that Android Wear 2.0 is expected to arrive early in 2017 — it’s a major overhaul of the OS. There are rumors that Google will release a smartwatch to showcase the revamped operating system, though we can’t verify this information.
How long will it last?
The Gear S3 Frontier’s selling point is its rugged and tough exterior. Thanks to the IP68 water resistance rating and Gorilla Glass SR+ screen, the S3 should last you quite a while. Tizen will likely be supported for the foreseeable future, though it’s unclear at what point the watch will stop receiving updates. And given the rate of change in the smartwatch space, you should expect any such device to feel out of date after two years.
Should you buy it?
Yes. If you have $350, are in the market for a smartwatch, and own an Android phone — particularly a Samsung phone — the Gear S3 is the best choice.
It’s an even better deal if you’re an AT&T customer. Starting May 23, 2017, AT&T will throw in the LTE version of the Gear S3 Classic for $50 with the purchase of a Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8 Plus. Alternatively, it’ll cost $17.50 per month for 20 months ($350) on a monthly installment plan, or $250 with a two-year agreement.
The Gear S3 has two great designs, swappable bands, GPS, an LTE model, 4GB of internal storage, and you can use Samsung Pay at most retailers. You may want to test out the device at a retailer to make sure it doesn’t look too awkward on your wrists. though.
It may be wise to wait a bit and see if Google releases its own smartwatches in 2017 along with a new version of Android Wear, but if you have a Samsung phone and you want a smartwatch now, the Gear S3 is the one to buy, and we recommend the Frontier version for its LTE capabilities.
Review originally published in December 2016. Updated on 05-23-2017 by Kyle Wiggers: Added AT&T availability and pricing.