Tuesday, 29 November 2016 08:39

Samsung Gear S3 is a lot smarter than a smartwatch (review)

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Smartwatches, particularly those with good health and fitness underpinnings, are still a niche, but growing market. Samsung may well have made its new Gear S3 the best, certainly the most comprehensive, smartwatch with fitness benefits so far.

There is an old saying about “everything but the kitchen sink.” In designing this, I am sure that if Samsung could have, it would have included that and an emergency shot of coffee as well. This smartwatch has it all.

It has: Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone and headphones/buds; Wi-Fi to work stand-alone from your phone; a speaker and microphone to make and take calls, access OK Google and play music; continuous heart rate monitor; GPS; it is mill-spec, IP68 dunk-able; has great battery life and wireless fast charge; a fabulous always on AMOLED screen; uses standard 22mm wristbands; and that rotating bezel beats using a crown hands down. Dare I say it – an Apple Watch killer par excellence.

I have been using the Gear S3, Frontier version for only a week now and apart from a brief recharge it has not left my wrist. Before that, I was using the excellent Samsung Gear Fit 2 that does a lot of what the Gear S3 does, but the latter is more fully featured.

Out of the box

Samsung Gear S3 Frontier (also available in a classic style – identical functions)

Gear S3 both

Let me start by saying that in December 2015 I reviewed its predecessor – the Gear S2 and I called it a “sensible smartwatch.” It was more of an extension of a smartphone whereas the S3 can be more a standalone device. And the S3 has improved on every aspect of the S2.

It comes in a nice, elegant round, black, cylinder that will delight when found under the Xmas tree. The box contains the watch; a magnetic charger (small L-shaped that sits nicely on a bedside table); a micro-USB, 5V/750mA charger; a small-sized silicon 22mm, spring pin style, strap (only the side with holes – not the buckle side); and a brief manual.

Set-up is very easy – download Samsung Gear Manager for Android (almost any recent Android phone), pair up, S Health and sign up. By the way, Samsung is very close to the final version of Gear Manager for iOS too according to Softpedia.

You can download hundreds of analog or digital or themed watch faces – many are free.

Specifications:

  • 1.3” (33mm) 360 x 360, AMOLED, Always on Display (50% grey scale - can be turned off)
  • 768MB RAM and 4GB storage (about half available for music)
  • Bluetooth 4.2m NFC, Wi-Fi N, GPS
  • Accelerometer, Gyro, Barometer, Continuous Heart Rate Monitor, Ambient Light
  • 380 mAh battery – two to three days’ typical use and about 30-minute charge at 1A. Wireless dock provided, and it doubles as a night clock stand.
  • IP68 - water resistant to a maximum depth of 1.5m for up to 30 minutes, and are protected from dust, dirt and sand
  • MIL-STD-810G, Gorilla Glass SR+ (1.5m drop)
  • Microphone, speaker, linear haptic motor
  • Controlled via Touch, rotating bezel and two push buttons

Usability

I was sceptical that a 33mm round watch face had much usability with meaty fingers. It is surprisingly useful, and the ability to choose a large display font makes it easy if you are long-sighted.

The rotating bezel is the most intuitive interface I have used – and I have used many. Simply Rotate the bezel clockwise or anti-clockwise to see different screens or press the settings button and rotate through installed apps.

S3 Bezel

The phone function was remarkably clear – accept an incoming call via the screen (it has caller ID), you will hear adequate volume at 30cm away, and callers commented the microphone is very clear. In fact, I found myself wearing the watch around the home and leaving the smartphone on the wireless charger.

The S Voice function has improved, is remarkably accurate and it is useful for setting reminders, voice recording, and initiating calls. Just set your secret activation words — no OK Google here — and you are away.

The SOS function is handy too – nominate your contact, and if you press the home key three times it will contact them. Find my Gear also works well.

And that is where Wi-Fi comes in. Whatever Wi-Fi networks you have accessed with your smartphone are automatically available to the watch. If your phone is connected to the Wi-Fi at home and say your watch is connected at work, you will receive calls and notifications on the watch. It works – after extensive testing at the local café I can say I did not need to take my phone for a walk every morning.

The App

The other part of the equation is the health app. Samsung’s S Health app has improved enormously over the last two years. It is up to version 5.3.1.X and when I last tested the S2 it was version 2.x – the improvements are palpable, and it is ready for mainstream use with features being added regularly.

Personally, I still think the programmers have a little too much to do with its look – there is lots of gamification, certificates, social media and friends challenges. Good for some and thankfully fully customisable so you can turn it off!

Sleep tracking is automatic and reasonably accurate in showing start and stop times. It is now more useful in that it clearly graphically and textually shows light, deep (motionless) and restless times, gives you an efficiency rating and allows you to comment on the sleep quality.

Walking is also automatically tracked and gives steps (pedometer), estimated distance, pace, and timelines. It is reasonably accurate compared to the GPS – you can adjust step length to get it much closer. I found the HERE app most useful, and it even displayed a tiny map on the screen.

Heart rate is a continuous monitor type. It gives the range over time intervals. My only gripe is that it does not overlay heart rate on other activities like walking or sleep – take note programmers because it would be easy to do.

GPS functions are attached to running, cycling, hiking, skiing, backpacking, canoeing, circuit training, and much more. Again, the programmers have been busy, and it has more than 120 sports that you can track, and many are auto-detected. You can set up exercise guides and programs as well – marathon training etc.

S3 sports 1

The social aspect allows you to nominate friends and create challenges as well as gain valuable comparative information about where you relate to others at your life stage.

There is also a range of about 70 partner apps that will share S Health and Gear data – these cover fitness, nutrition, rest, health care and more.

My only gripe, take note programmers, is that it does not have a standard Web interface so I can check in from a computer browser – it is all on the phone.

Other apps and watch faces

Gear now has over 10,000 apps and custom watch dials. I installed a stopwatch, timer, and Samsung Pay. Things like Uber, Spotify, Here, Nike+ Running, GolfNavi, and more are either there or coming. It will even play games and link to Nest and control Philips Hue lights.

It supports connected services, data sharing, and exports data in .GPX format.

But the screen, no matter how good, simply does not lend itself to complex apps and that is where notifications come in – most apps can send notifications to the S3.

Samsung Pay

It supports both NFC and MST contactless payments with and without your phone. iTWire has an article here. I set it up with a FlyBuys loyalty card and Medibank and it worked well.

Music

Pairing a set of Bluetooth headphones was easy – be they Samsung’s ICON-X right up to Sennheiser, Parrot, Bose and more headphones and speakers. Usable memory is 1.64GB. I uploaded over 300 songs and had space left. It will display metadata (performer, photo, title, etc.) if known.

Conclusion

I think the Gear S3 crosses over the boundaries between a fitness band and a smartwatch adding considerable value to each category. It is fashionable yet highly functional.

I find it a tad large — 46mm diameter — but it fits well on a male wrist. Comments from others say it is fine. I suspect that women will find it too large but that is a matter of personal taste. Of the 50 or so people, I have shown it to, about 70% expressed interest in purchasing one, and about 75% loved the Frontier style over the Classic.

I liked the Gear S2 but at that time the S Health App was not up to Microsoft Health or Apple Health – it has now exceeded the functionality offered by both though it has been designed by a programmer!

Killer features – the rotating bezel is easy to use, Wi-Fi is an added bonus for untethered use, and the app ecosystem is comprehensive.

At $599 it is arguably the best smartwatch to date, and certainly, eclipses the Apple Watch – this is as good as it gets until the S4.

Gear S3

 

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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