Hands on: Samsung’s phone-free Gear S still struggles with size, style

For the most part, the Gear S looks like a solid, premium smartwatch and based on what we’ve seen, it’s one of the nicest ones Samsung has made yet.

Samsung’s first smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, was an utter disappointment. The succeeding Gear Fit, Gear 2 and Gear Live also disappointed, but they all suffered the same the same issue: They were completely worthless without a phone.

Not anymore.

The Gear S, announced in Berlin on Wednesday before the start of IFA, is Samsung’s first smartwatch to fly solo, without the need for a smartphone. But will that save it from the same fate as its predecessors? We slapped one on at the launch event to find out.

Hands on video

Curved screen fits the wrist

The Gear S almost looks like a large bangle or wrist cuff at first glance. The 2-inch, curved Super AMOLED screen sits directly in the silicon strap, which is just as wide as the watch face itself. The screen has a decent 360 × 480 pixel resolution, making it sharper and crisper than the Gear 2. Although it is a little too big to sit comfortably on small wrists, it’s simply more practical to have a larger screen on a smartwatch like the Gear S, which is supposed to do everything your phone can do (almost).

Overall, the Gear S looks sleek and sophisticated.

The straps are interchangeable, and Samsung now offers black and white straps, as well as a fancy Swarovski crystal one for women. It’s unclear whether Samsung will include more strap options in the future, but it would add a personalized element to the watch.

The strap is held in place on your wrist by a bizarre sliding clip that is difficult to close one-handed. To fit the Gear S to our wrist, we had to slide the size adjuster up to make it smaller and then slide the mechanism into place before snapping in into the hole. The mechanism kept sliding away from our intended hole, so we ended up with a looser fit than we’d initially intended. Once it’s in place, the metallic clip looks nice, but getting it on was a struggle.

The Gear S has a physical home button that’s stuck discretely at the bottom of the screen. The button feels solid and seems like a nice addition to the smartwatch experience. Overall, the Gear S looks sleek and sophisticated, but it definitely has a futuristic vibe, rather than a traditional watch look like the Moto 360 and LG G Watch R.

Samsung goes back to Tizen

Instead of sticking with Android Wear, Samsung opted to go with its own Tizen OS on the Gear S. Tizen looks much the same as it does on Samsung’s other non-Android smartwatches. The app icons match the look of those on the new Galaxy Note 4, which makes for a more cohesive experience. You can access your apps by swiping up from the bottom of the watch, or you can simply flip through your favorites by swiping to the side on the home screen.

Tizen doesn’t have a ton of apps yet, but then again, neither does Android Wear. The apps that are available are useful, but you’ll have to download them on your smartphone before they land on your Gear S smartwatch. Samsung still hasn’t made the Gear S fully autonomous, at least not on this level.

Standard smartwatch specs

The Gear S is powered by a dual-core 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM, just like most other smartwatches. It seemed quick and responsive during our brief hands-on time with no noticeable lags or stutters. The Gear S has 4GB of internal storage for downloading apps and a 300mAh battery, which should last you a day or two. The Gear S also features 2G and 3G connectivity, so you’ll actually be able to make or answer calls with the smartwatch alone. Of course, doing so will drain your battery rapidly, and you would need to pay for another data plan to use your watch independently from your phone.

You can also send messages with the Gear S, which is a nice feature for when you need to send a quick text. The featured keyboard on the Gear S comes from Fleksy, which is known to be one of the fastest alternative keyboard apps around.

Conclusion

Samsung’s Gear S is a big step up from its other smartwatches in some ways, but in others, it’s just more of the same. The curved screen is nice and fits the wrist well, making it look more natural while you’re wearing it. The screen still sticks up a bit, though, and disrupts the bangle look to a degree.  The 2-inch screen size is nice if you want to use it more like a phone and less like a watch or fitness tracker. However, it’s still too big and outlandish for our tastes.

For the most part, the Gear S looks like a solid, premium smartwatch and based on what we’ve seen, and one of the nicest ones Samsung has made yet.

Highs:

  • Bright, curved screen
  • Wide strap looks like a wrist cuff or bangle
  • Works with or without the aid of a smartphone

Lows:

  • Short battery life
  • Still too big
  • Strap is difficult to fasten
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