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The redeemer: Why the Gear S2 is the best Samsung product in years

The Gear S2 is an astonishing watch. I cannot believe it came from Samsung.

After wearing it for a minute, I became a believer in smartwatches, but more important, I finally began to trust Samsung.

Years of frustration melted away with every click of the Gear S2’s circular bezel, which spins around the watch’s face like the volume knob on a stereo. Almost instantly, Samsung wiped clean my painful memories of its six previous Gear watch failures, dozens of Galaxy phones that almost matched the iPhone but always fell short in some odd way, and a decade’s worth of products rushed to launch instead of fully thought through.

The more I swiped, rotated, and touched my way through the Gear S2, the happier I became. Soon, elation set in — I still haven’t come down from the high.

Simply put: the Gear S2 is better than the Apple Watch.

Why the Gear S2 is genius

The Apple Watch was the first smartwatch that we could safely recommend, but it isn’t perfect. Assuming the final Gear S2 doesn’t have any odd issues when we do our full review at DT, it’s the first smartwatch I wholeheartedly endorse. It’s light years ahead of the crappy Android Wear efforts, Pebble wrist-machines, and other half-assed watches that came before it. For the first time, Samsung has one-upped Apple in ways that matter.

The reasons to love the Gear S2 are plentiful, but it all revolves around coherency and focus. For the first time, Samsung has brought its A game in every way. No space is wasted, no action frustrating. Like the Apple Watch, it has app widgets you can add to your home screen, but they’re far easier to access with a rotate of the dial. And if you swipe or rotate the other way, all of your texts, chats, and emails show up, fresh to browse. A Home button and a Back button are on the sides. Their functions are simple and make perfect sense. Apple had trouble mapping the buttons on its Watch.

The video below shows how intuitive it all is, but you need to try it to understand.

Unlike all of its Android rivals, Samsung has made a watch that should fit on male and female wrists. It’s stainless steel, round, and sized somewhere between Apple’s 38mm and 42mm watchfaces. Even the charging cradle is easy to use, resembling the fantastic cradle on the Moto 360; it lets you gently set your watch down each night instead of fiddling with connectors. Samsung also has an optional fancy model, which comes with 3G service and built-in GPS that should serve those who want to leave their phones at home.

No one option on the Gear S2 is a massive selling point. It’s the combination of fantastic design and ease-of-use that makes the Gear S2 such a flash of genius.

Even the launch event (in a gorgeous round hall) was executed to perfection. Executives debuted features in an exciting, organized way, and the entire event space painted a fluid, complete picture of the S2.

Samsung’s bad habit of “relentless innovation”

Usually, Samsung loads up its phones and gadgets with gimmicky features that play well in a press conference but don’t amount to much in the real world. And it always makes sacrifices in the name of speed.

One of Samsung’s slogans is “relentless innovation,” which accurately describes how exhausting its strategy is for everyone. A company that’s “relentless” in its innovation is one that will do anything to get ahead — and release anything whether it’s ready or not. Samsung is often so obsessed with staying ahead of its rivals and being first that it aimlessly releases piles of half-baked products, and uses its own customers as guinea pigs. And innovation sometimes means blatant copying of rivals, as Samsung’s lengthy lawsuit with Apple revealed.

It’s a combination of fantastic design and ease-of-use that makes the Gear S2 such a flash of genius.

Samsung is “relentless.” Like a freight train headed off a cliff, the Korean manufacturer often refuses to slow down despite looming danger ahead. Its relentless release strategy is like someone firing devices out of a shotgun, while a company like Apple uses a sniper rifle and scope.

Take the previous six Gear watches as evidence. All of these came out in the time span of a calendar year, and they all bombed. Why? None was thought through. The original Galaxy Gear came out in October 2013. It looked geeky, had a broken notifications system, wasn’t comfortable to wear, came with a terribly awkward charging cradle, and focused on activities people didn’t want, like Dick Tracy wrist-phoning and snapping crappy photos from your wrist. After it came out, I felt compelled to warn readers not to buy a smartwatch yet.

A few months later, Samung shotgunned out the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, two sequels that were mostly slight improvements and tweaks. Along with them was the Gear Fit, a widescreened thing that couldn’t decide if it was a Fitbit or a smartwatch. A couple months later, Google announced Android Wear, so Samsung repackaged its Gear with Android, which was also a poor user experience at launch. Finally, later in 2014, Samsung released the Gear S, an absolutely massive watch that would look more natural on a Power Ranger than a person. It was so bad that I overheard Samsung reps talking about its faults at a launch event in New York. It’s gimmicks included making you type on an impossibly tiny touch keyboard. That doesn’t even SOUND smart.

Our consensus again in 2014: Don’t buy a smartwatch.

Samsung knew it could make a watch, but executives never asked themselves why. If you release a product simply to stay ahead of the market, copy a rival, or keep up, you probably aren’t serving your customers. The Apple Watch, which is not without hiccups, does attempt to offer iPhone users a complementary, complete experience. It has a reason to exist, but even the Apple Watch isn’t winning everyone over. Editor-in-chief Jeremy Kaplan, for example, is not a fan.

Samsung doesn’t just make these mistakes with smartwatches. Even its flagship Galaxy S6/S6 Edge and S6 Edge Plus phones have problems. Not only were there too many near-identical phones for people to choose between, Samsung sacrificed the waterproof features and durability of the Galaxy S5 by covering them in two-sided glass and aluminum, so they looked more like the iPhone 6. Then there’s the Edge. Sigh. Though Edge phones are beautiful and fast, they are ultimately built around a gimmick. Bent-edged screens look gorgeous, but they aren’t useful, and they make the phones more fragile (and twice as expensive to fix).

Why we’re so excited for Samsung

Did Samsung finally hit rock bottom on its “relentless innovation” strategy? I’m not sure, but the Gear S2 seems to have come from a company that graduated rehab. Let’s hope it doesn’t relapse.

After six watches in one year, Samsung got the message: No one wants crappy watches. So it sat back, spent a year examining its failures, and made a device built entirely around the best ideas every company has come up for in smartwatches, a few fantastic innovations like the rotating bezel, and a coherent interface to tie them all together in a way that just works. It’s a crazy idea in the tech industry, but Samsung decided to stop spamming its customers and make the best product it possibly could.

If Samsung continues to take its time, say no to short-sighted ideas, and focus, the Gear S2 could usher in its rebirth. For now, it’s the best reason yet to consider a smartwatch, and I’m shocked and delighted that it came from Samsung.

Available from: Amazon | Samsung | T-Mobile | Verizon

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Jeffrey Van Camp
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