Despite many manufacturers developing smartwatches, the popularity and interest among users has been slow to rise. Samsung is one of the major players in this field and with their Samsung Gear S3 Classic they are showing no signs of slowing down. Starting now at $299, can this Tizen OS-based smartwatch compete with the other smartwatches on the market and entice potential customers into its ecosystem?
Right off the bat, you will notice how simple and beautiful the design of the Samsung Gear S3 Classic is. The black leather strap included in the box is no-frills and elegant, however a little stiff and perhaps needing some “breaking in” to allow it to curl around your wrist a little better. There are no other straps that come by default with the Gear S3 Classic (except the same leather one in a different size), but with a standard 22mm pin connector, you should have no trouble finding a different strap, especially if you plan to wear this during a lot of fitness activities.
The face of the Gear S3 Classic is an attractive mix of shiny and brushed metal with a relatively narrow bezel that also acts as a rotating dial for navigation, but more on that later. During my time with the smartwatch, it was not uncommon to receive lots of glances and even a few “which watch is that?” questions from strangers. That being said, I should also point out that this is a large and bulky watch. While it’s not unusually large when looking down at it, the Gear S3 Classic comes in at a thickness of 12.9mm and combined with a weight of 2.2oz this watch makes its presence known on your wrist. It’s not uncomfortable or unwieldy, however you do feel the weight of it continuously as you wear it and this could be a major deciding factor if considering this device.
If I could only choose one word to describe the screen, it would be “gorgeous.” The 1.3-inch Super AMOLED display comes in at a resolution of 360 x 360 (278ppi) and is simply wonderful to look at. While it’s certainly not as crisp as displays on smartphones, you would still have to struggle to make out individual pixels and the contrast and deep blacks of the AMOLED display brings everything to life. The brightness is outstanding as well and even at brightness set to half I never had any trouble reading what was on the screen in bright sunlight. This is one area that no one expected Samsung to slack off in as they continue to be a leader in display technology.
Moving back to the bezel is where we find one of the most interesting features of the Gear S3 Classic: the rotating dial. While other smartwatch manufacturers have chosen to stick with either just touchscreen navigation or using one of the side buttons for scrolling, Samsung has brought in a very clever use of the physical space of the watch. Even with the screen off, simply start rotating the bezel around to navigate between the various watch faces, such as time, weather, calendar events, fitness data, and more. And within each app, the bezel also acts as a way to scroll up and down between various sections or menu items. While touchscreen input is the standard across mobile devices, using the rotating bezel was surprisingly intuitive and allowed me to have an unobstructed view of the screen while navigating around.
Along the side of the Gear S3 Classic are the two buttons: a back button on the top and home/apps button below. It took me a while at first to remember that neither button is for actually making a selection and I would find myself hitting one and ending up back at the watch face screen by mistake. This was a minor issue, but it still made me wonder if it would have been helpful to have some kind of hardware-based select method versus only tapping on the screen, especially since Samsung put in the effort for hardware-based navigating. Again, not a deal breaker by any means, but was still something I thought about.
As mentioned above, the Gear S3 Classic comes with a 1.3-inch Super AMOLED display with a 360 x 360 resolution, a dual-core 1GHz Exynos 7270 processor, 4GB of internal storage, 758MB of RAM, a 380mAh battery, and the usual fleet of connections and sensors, such as Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth 4.2 and NFC (which works only with Samsung Pay). There is also a heart rate sensor on board that will periodically measure your heart rate throughout the day to pair with its host of other fitness data and apps.
So how does the Gear S3 Classic actually feel to use on a daily basis? Samsung has done a good job optimizing the software with the hardware and it leads to a mostly solid performance. The animations are slick and you can navigate through the various watch faces (clock, weather, calendar, current news, etc) very quickly and I never saw any hiccups or freezes jumping between pages.
The biggest problems I found with the performance of the Gear S3 Classic involved its connections either to my phone (which, admittedly is the Google Pixel XL and not a Samsung phone, but more on that later) or the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/GPS connections in general. Quite often, actually, I would find the Gear S3 Classic struggling to pinpoint my location or would appear to be connected to my Wi-Fi but would stutter trying to load some data, while all my other Wi-Fi connected devices worked perfectly. The Bluetooth was also not terribly reliable and would occasionally disconnect and then reconnect for no apparent reason. I’ve had this happen with other Bluetooth devices in the past, but it seemed more noticeable or happening more often here.
Related to the above performance issues, let’s talk about the battery. With a 380mAh cell inside, Samsung is promising up to 3 days on a single charge with some kind of “average use” metric. Everyone uses their devices differently, but I can say that with my moderate use I often had no trouble reaching that duration. It fluctuated of course, so you can expect somewhere between 2-3 days of use before having to charge it again. I was actually rather impressed with the battery life considering I kept the display mostly at 70% brightness (auto-brightness was off because I always find it more annoying than helpful) and the fact that the Gear S3 Classic is quite often communicating with my phone to sync data or measuring my activity.
Samsung includes in the box a very easy to use magnetic charging dock that I wish more smartwatch manufacturers would employ. Simply place the back of the Gear S3 Classic on the dock and it will gently attach itself magnetically and you’re good to go. There’s no fiddling with clip-on docks or cords you have to plug into the watch itself. It couldn’t be easier. One thing to note is that this is not a USB Type-C charger so you will still need to keep a micro-USB cord lying around and Samsung of course provides you with one. It’s not really a surprise that Samsung didn’t go with USB Type-C, as all of their smartphones so far have kept with micro-USB except for last year’s Galaxy Note 7, which no one even has anymore (you’ve returned yours, right? Right?!). There is no quick charging found with the Gear S3 Classic, but you can expect to go from 0% to 100% in roughly 4 or so hours.
So while this is a review of the Gear S3 Classic itself, I do want to briefly talk about how the smartwatch affected my phone’s battery. It’s perfectly normal and expected to see a dip in battery life on your smartphone when you have a peripheral always connected to it, but I will say I found the hit to the phone battery a bit aggressive here. Android 7.0 Nougat brought a lot of software optimizations not only for performance, but battery life as well with its improved Doze mode. When setting up the Gear S3 Classic for the first time and pairing it with your smartphone, Samsung asks to give permission to turn off all battery optimizations for the Samsung Gear app and the connections with the device itself. This makes sense, of course, since what good is a smartwatch that keeps disconnecting every time your phone goes into Doze mode? But the Gear S3 Classic is very often talking with my phone and syncing data (and keeps an annoying notification card present on the phone) and it led to a noticeable decrease in the battery life of my phone compared to other paired devices I’ve used.
So let’s talk about what’s going on with the software of the Gear S3 Classic. First things first, this is NOT an Android Wear smartwatch. Samsung is using its own operating system, Tizen, to run things here. While this decision can lead to a smooth and seamless experience, it is very much a “walled garden” system you will find here that’s so often the case when manufacturers choose proprietary services. Using Samsung apps on this Samsung smartwatch and especially when paired with a Samsung smartphone will give you a great experience. It’s clear that the South Korean company wants to sell you on their ecosystem in a similar way that Apple and LeEco do. So what was the software experience for me using a Tizen-based smartwatch paired with a non-Samsung smartphone?
Shaky. That’s the word that first comes to mind. As I mentioned before, my daily smartphone is the Google Pixel XL. Samsung does allow you to use whatever smartphone you want and is even starting to support iOS devices, but you will have to jump through a few hoops during the setup and accept some sacrifices. Right from the start, I had to not only install the Samsung Gear app, but Samsung Accessory Service as well as a Gear S Plugin. Naturally the smartwatch needs these services to properly connect to your phone, but it was a bit of a pain to have to install 3 separate apps especially since you’re not informed of this until you’ve already started the setup process. So I had to cancel the setup on the Gear S3 Classic itself, install the required apps and plugins, and then restart the watch to begin it again. I had thought that installing the Samsung Gear app in advance would be all that’s needed, but it was not.
Installation hiccups aside, you will quickly see the disadvantages of Samsung choosing their own OS instead of Android Wear. While you can receive and reply to SMS and messages from apps such as WhatsApp and Gmail, I was unable to get an actual Messages app installed on the Gear S3 Classic. This, I learned, was because my smartphone is not from Samsung and there is no or limited support for such an app depending on the smartphone you’re using. So I was unable to initiate a new message to someone directly from the watch, as well as not being able to see any MMS sent to me. One of the advantages to using a smartwatch is not having to rely on your phone as much, but I found myself required to pick up my phone to do something more than I felt I should have.
Speaking of apps on the Gear S3 Classic, or should I say on the Tizen platform overall, let’s just say that there are few. App developers are required to re-code their apps that they may have on Android Wear to be able to run on Tizen, and understandably there doesn’t seem to be much of an advantage especially if the user base is small. You get some big names such as Spotify, Yelp and Flipboard, but the majority of the apps you will experience will be Samsung’s own ones. And the third party apps that do exist tend to run with quite a lot of bugs and could run slowly, lose connection, or even get my GPS location wrong.
So the moral of the story with the Gear S3 Classic is that if you mostly want to use Samsung’s apps such as Samsung Pay and S Health, and also be able to see and reply to incoming notifications, then you will generally have a great experience. It’s when you decide you want to “do more” with the device and integrate third party apps and services that you will starting hitting some road blocks. Hopefully more app developers will turn to Tizen in the future, but for now it’s not looking good for the platform.
Where does this leave us? I have mixed feelings about the Samsung Gear S3 Classic. One on hand, it’s a beautifully designed device with a bright display, intuitive controls, good battery life, and a mostly smooth user experience. But where it falls short, it really falls. There just aren’t enough apps available on the Tizen platform and most of what is there runs with bugs and hiccups. If your smartphone is not from Samsung, then those bugs and hiccups get bigger and there are certain services you’ll miss out on in addition to a number of Samsung apps you’ll have to install.
Let’s not forget that the Gear S3 Classic is now selling for $299, which is down from the $349 it started at. This is not a cheap smartwatch and you will be spending a lot of money for a device that ideally has you also buy in to the overall ecosystem Samsung has set up. And with Android Wear 2.0 very soon to come out and other manufacturers planning smartwatches for that platform, Samsung has some stiff competition. It’s honestly difficult for me to recommend the Gear S3 Classic to someone who does not already use other Samsung products and services. I really wanted to love this smartwatch, and in some ways I truly did, but the one missing feature that kept nagging me during my time with it, was Android Wear.
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