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Samsung Gear S smartwatch review – hands on

We strap on Samsung's larger, more stylish Gear S smartwatch to bring you some first impressions

Samsung officially revealed the Gear S smartwatch ahead of the IFA show in Berlin, but waited until today to give us our first look at the device in action. We were among the lucky few to be allowed to strap one on and give it a test, so we could bring you some first impressions.

Samsung’s first smartwatch to put a greater emphasis on style rather than features has a metal edge and is available in several colours, but the rubberised plastic surround and portly dimensions aren’t quite as breathtaking as what we’ve seen from the likes of Motorola. Even so, the Gear S stands out thanks to an eye-catching curved AMOLED display. It’s just as bright and colourful as Samsung’s other OLED smartwatches, but much larger and easier to read. The 360×480 resolution is much higher than either the Gear 2 or Gear Live, and the larger size means Samsung has been able to fit far more information onscreen at any one time – making it much more practical for daily use.

Unlike LG’s G Watch or the Moto 360, which can only display notifications, you’ll be able to read whole messages and emails on the Gear S. Existing apps get a makeover to take advantage of the extra pixels too, so the S Health fitness tracker now gives you a breakdown of your most recent activity rather than just your step count for the day. The music app shows album art, track description and playback controls all at once, rather than one at a time. Text messages fit on one screen, with no need to scroll – as someone that’s used a Gear 2 every day for the last six months, these are all major improvements.

The Tizen interface is much more colourful, with bright icons to truly take advantage of that gorgeous screen, and the customisable watch faces have been upgraded with more stylish options. We particularly liked the chronograph, which shows battery life, notifications and daily steps as its three smaller dials.

In order to use the watch as a standalone device, Samsung has fitted a nano SIM card slot in the base of the unit, just to the side of the optical heart rate sensor. With a SIM installed, you’ll be able to make calls, send and receive text messages, and download data to any of the installed apps. Nokia’s Here Maps looks to be the highlight, as it will put turn-by-turn navigation on your wrist using the integrated GPS receiver.

Nike’s Nike+ Running app is another highlight, as it can use the integrated HRM to track your heartrate and use real-time GPS location reporting to create a map of your route on the fly. Runners and fitness fanatics will also be pleased to hear Samsung has exchanged the useless one song at a time transfer found in the Gear 2 to a Wi-Fi direct system, that can sync multiple files to fill up the 4GB of onboard storage. You’ll still need a Bluetooth headset for playback, however.

Samsung has refined the charging cradle first introduced with the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, so that it now doubles as an external backup battery. Plug it in overnight and you’ll be fully charged in the morning, but take it with you and you’ll be able to top the watch back up to 50% battery without having to search for a wall socket. You’ll still be out of luck if you leave it at home, though, as there’s no way to charge the watch without it. The watch should manage two days of average use on a single charge.

We aren’t yet sure how the chunky wristband will look in everyday situations; compared to the standard strap on a Gear 2, it’s almost twice as thick, and looked large on our wrists; anyone with slightly daintier proportions might find it looks massive on their arms.

Whether you plan to use it as a standalone watch or as a partner to a Galaxy smartphone, the Gear S is easily Samsung’s most fully-featured smartwatch to date. The higher resolution display makes more room for text, and the addition of a tiny keyboard means you really can leave your smartphone at home if you choose. We aren’t sure whether Tizen will be its limiting factor, as there are still few killer apps for the 6 month-old Gear 2 and developer attention seems firmly focused on Android Wear, but we’re hoping Samsung can find the support a watch like this needs to succeed.

The Gear S is expected to go on sale later this year, but wasn’t yet ready to talk to us about prices or UK availability. We’re hoping to give one a full review a little closer to launch.

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