Smartwatches are experiments. For a taste of the future, you've got to live with compromise on your wrist. But for a lot of people, connected watches are best kept simple. Battery life wins out over tons of features, and ease of use over feature bloat. After all, that's what phones are for. Watches are where we check things quickly.
The problem is that the Gear S3 still feels like an experiment, when, in its second iteration (the S2 was the first major redesign), it should really start feeling like a more mature, polished product. If you're looking to see where watches will go next, Samsung's exploring the ideas now. Stand-alone cellular LTE connection without a phone? Check. Spotify on-wrist? Check. Use-anywhere wrist payments that are even more versatile than Apple Pay? Yes.
The Gear S3 is an insanely feature-rich smartwatch with a big, bold design. But unlike the latest Apple Watch and Android's upcoming 2.0 software update, Samsung's Tizen-based Gear S3 doesn't do enough to improve the experience or support more apps. And few of those apps actually use the Gear S3's standalone LTE. In terms of hardware, it's a better watch than last year's bold, clever Gear S2. And yet, it fails to take enough leaps forward in its software. Last year's S2 was innovative, but it needed polishing. And it really, really needed more apps.
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier See full gallery
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I used the Gear S3 for over a month paired to a Samsung Galaxy S7 (read my initial impressions here) and then recently via the iPhone 7, using Samsung's new iOS smartwatch-pairing app. Read on for everything that Gear S3 does right, and where it stumbles.
Basically, know this: For $300 (the basic cost of the Classic or Frontier models of the watch, which both look sleek and classy), you're getting a solid and complex watch. But it's really not any better, in terms of software, than last year. Meanwhile, the LTE-equipped Frontier model I reviewed has full cellular and phone functions, but probably isn't worth the cost. It's roughly $350, £350 or AU$589, but US carriers are offering a discount of $100 on a two-year data contract, which I probably wouldn't do. It also requires adding an extra monthly data charge to your phone plan.
Android Wear 2.0 is just around the corner, and new Android watches could be everywhere. Samsung's concept makes some successful executions, and some notable hardware improvements, but not enough of them to be the ultimate watch for everyone. And it hasn't gotten any easier to use.
Samsung Pay: Adding Samsung Pay to the Gear S3 doesn't just enable tap-to-pay at the same places that usually accept Apple Pay or Android Pay. It has MST, a magnetic technology that's also on Samsung's Galaxy phones since the Note 5 and S6, and it works at any credit card terminal. It's essentially a use-anywhere virtual credit card, accessible with a double-click of a button. It works by sending a timed ping that works at vending machines, terminals or anywhere close to the credit card reader. (The Gear S2 added Samsung Pay, but only the NFC kind.)
Spotify: Samsung finally made good on offering a Spotify app on the Gear S3 (and S2), and it works. There are caveats: It can stream over Wi-Fi or LTE (if you bought a Gear S3 that has LTE, like my review model), but it can't download tracks. And its interface is bad. And, streaming for an hour and a half nearly depleted my entire watch battery. But… it works! (It also requires a paid Spotify subscription.) I connected AirPods and listened on the go, and it was pretty fun. But I'd rather download tracks and save data.
The design: The Gear S3 comes in two designs, both far more "regular watch" than the futuristic but excellent-looking Gear S2. It's a step forward and a step back. The big (and I mean big) design feels like a massive sports watch on my thick, hairy wrist. But that design isn't for a lot of people, and loses universal appeal as a result. But at least it feels really well built and looks high-end. The LTE-equipped model is like a tank. But damn, if you like large watches, this is an eye-catching look.
It's a full stand-alone phone with LTE: If you buy the LTE model, it can take calls and even connect apps on the go (via AT&T or T-Mobile in the US). If you want a phone on your wrist, here it is. And it's probably the best phone-on-wrist watch that exists. With AT&T, for instance, the watch can share a number with your Android/Samsung phone. Add Bluetooth headphones, and discreet calls can be taken. Would I need that? No. Some might, though. But to use this as an LTE phone, you'll need to pay a monthly fee to add it to your phone plan.
Samsung's S Health fitness features are surprisingly good: S Health is the required baked-in way to track fitness on the Gear S, but it does heart rate and automatic activity tracking, can log water and coffee intake, and reminds me when I've stayed still too long. It even recommends stretching exercises when I stand again. I like that the S Health encourages activity streaks — walk for a while, and it shows me how long I've been walking for — and sometimes it borders on fitness coaching.