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Samsung Gear S2 & Gear S2 Classic review – hands on

Samsung’s first circular smartwatches are beautiful examples of software matching design

The rumours and leaks were true; Samsung has indeed been working on not one, but two circular smartwatches. The Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic were officially announced a day before this week’s IFA show in Berlin kicked off, but now it’s finally possible to bring you some first impressions.

Gear S2 hardware

The headline specifications will come as no surprise to anyone that’s kept a close eye on the company’s first circular smartwatches. Both designs have a 1.2in, 360×360 resolution super AMOLED circular display, are powered by a dual-core, 1GHz processor with 512MB of RAM, and run a custom version of Samsung’s Tizen operating system designed specifically for circular screens.

That display looks impressively sharp and detailed, meaning there’s plenty of room for fitting notifications on screen using small text while staying legible. Naturally for an AMOLED screen, colours were incredibly vibrant and blacks were as deep as they could be, but without taking a watch outside into daylight it’s difficult to tell whether it will be bright enough for everyday use without pumping up the brightness levels.

Inside, Samsung has squeezed an accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer, heart rate monitor and an ambient light sensor – without the need for a ‘flat tyre’ like on Motorola’s Moto 360. The whole thing is IP68 rated for up to 30 minutes under 1.5m of water, and is completely dust proof. Bluetooth 4.1 is onboard for tethering to your smartphone, but Wi-Fi is also available in case you want to receive notifications without having your phone connected.

Gear S2 smartphone compatibility

Perhaps the biggest lesson Samsung has taken from its previous wearables is that no-one wants to be tied down to a Samsung handset just to use a Samsung smartwatch. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case with the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic; both watches will be compatible with any Android device running version 4.4 or higher and with 1.5GB or more of RAM. There are a few caveats, in that the phone will need to be running specific Android APIs – ruling out a few handsets, but Samsung promises that the majority of modern Android smartphones should support the new watches.

iOS and Windows Phone users are currently out of luck, however; there are no plans to port the watches to other mobile operating systems.

Gear S2 software

As well as two physical buttons on the side of each watch for stepping backwards through menus or returning straight to the home screen, the Gear S2 has a rotating bezel that lets you control the Circular user interface by turning it left and right. One notch to the left will display notifications, and rotating notches to the right will flip through different installed widgets including weather, music controls, calendar appointments, activity statistics and any installed third-party apps. The bezel clicks satisfyingly whenever you turn it, so you can be sure not to overshoot the screen you’re looking for. You can of course still swipe the screen with your finger, but its far more intuitive to use your hands to turn something manually.

Apps are represented by circles and the app menu is its own circle, with icons spinning in and out as you flip through pages. Each app is designed specifically for the circular screen, with sensible use of space and attractive background art (or your contacts’ hilarious Facebook profile pictures). A customisable ap shortcut page displays four of your most commonly-used apps, putting them a single turn of the bezel away.

Notifications appear automatically, and you can dismiss or answer calls from your wrist with a gesture as well as with a swipe. Raising the watch to look at it will automatically wake the display from standby mode and reveal the home screen, saving you from pressing any buttons to wake it.

There’s plenty of scope for software customisation, with a long press on the home screen letting you choose between a wide range of watch faces. Many of these can also be customised with different backgrounds, watch hands, fonts and extra features like step counters, all on the watch itself. You can also add a shortcut to a specific, frequently used app, assigning a double-tap of the top button to open it instantly rather than dig around in the menus.

Once you start filling the watch with first- and third-party apps, those menus start to get rather full. Samsung says there will be a whopping 1000+ apps available at launch, although this is worldwide – UK customers won’t be getting every single one, but the choice should still be vast. Twitter, Nike+ running and a nifty speed-reading Wall Street Journal app are just a few of the headliners. Car manufacturers including VW and BW are also on board, with plans to make use of the Gear S2’s NFC capabilities in forthcoming vehicles.

Samsung’s S-Health activity log makes a reappearance here, only this time it will track your progress constantly. the 24-hour activity log will let you view your daily progress, compare active minutes, steps taken or calories burned to previous days, and issue inactive time alerts when you haven’t moved from your office desk for a while. That’s all par for the course when it comes to fitness trackers, but Samsung is saying that the Gear S2 will be able to tell when you’re walking, running or cycling and change its tracking accordingly. Runs will be entered as such in your activity log, and the watch will take heart rate measurements more often until you finish your exercise. If the system genuinely works as advertised, it could be a fantastic way to track your exercise goals without spending time manually entering workouts.

It all feels impressively intuitive, and it’s only a matter of minutes before you’re spinning the bezel around to jump into apps rather than continuously wiping through different screens. With Tizen on board it has far more on-watch potential than Android Wear

Gear S2 vs Gear S2 Classic – Design

It’s only really in the design that the two models differ. The Gear S2 takes a modern, minimal approach, with a stainless steel bezel and Gorilla Glass touchscreen. It will ship in a range of colours, with several different rubberised plastic watch bands to choose from.

The Gear S2 Classic takes the opposite approach, with a thinner chassis and notched outer bezel to better mimic a classic wristwatch, although it’s still made from aluminium with a Gorilla Glass display. It has a genuine leather band, instead of the regular Gear S2’s rubberised plastic, and is slightly slimmer on the wrist overall. Neither watch looks massive on a man’s wrist, but with no smaller option available it might still look quite sizeable on smaller wrists.

As much as the Gear S2 Classic will surely find an audience, the throwback design to ‘classic’ watches will polarise opinion. Many people at Samsung’s reveal event said they preferred the modern looks of the Gear S2, which suits the feature-packed nature of a smartwatch. Classic watches no doubt have their place, but if an AMOLED screen can’t capture the magic of a genuine chronograph, it’s not clear why the watch surround should attempt to mimic it as well.

Gear S2 battery life

Both the standard Gear S2 and the Gear S2 Classic have 250mAh batteries, which should provide between two and three days of general use. With 10 potential brightness levels, the option to disable the always-on screen standby and a CPU-throttling power saving mode, it’s possible that you might be able to eke out a little more with conservative use.

When you do eventually run out of power, both watches recharge using a supplied wireless charging dock. Both the dock and the watch are magnetic, meaning they clip together when you’re ready to recharge – ensuring the watch is properly attached. This was a real problem with the Moto 360, which practically needed forcing onto its stand in order to make a connection.

Gear S2 Samsung Pay

Naturally Samsung Pay, the recently confirmed for the UK contactless payment system unique to Samsung smartphones will also be included, thanks to an NFC chip inside each watch. While the Gear S2 won’t support mag stripe payments like the Galaxy S6 will, you’ll still be able to use it to buy things from shops that support contactless cards. 

Unlike Apple Pay on the Apple Watch, however, it doesn’t seem as though you’ll be able to make payments when the watch is offline – you’ll need to be tethered to your smartphone to make a payment. Samsung Pay is also restricted to Samsung phones, so you won’t be able to use it at all if you pair the watch with a smartphone from any other manufacturer.

Gear S2 strap customisation

Samsung will be launching its own set of rubberised plastic and leather bands for the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic respectively, but has also called on several third party designers to make their own. Names currently on board include Casemate, monowear, casetify and incipit, with a range of different colours and textures available at launch. 

The Gear S2 Classic uses traditional 20mm watch clasps, meaning you can use an existing strap if you have one, but the Gear S2 has its own push-button release mechanism which will restrict you to supported bands only. Annoyingly there’s no official stainless steel strap, meaning anyone that prefers metal to leather or plastic will have to buy a third party strap and fit it themselves.

Gear S2 price, release date and early verdict

There’s currently no official word on price for either watch, but Samsung did confirm that the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic would begin shipping in October. It will be a staggered launch, and the UK isn’t guaranteed to be first on the list, but it should follow very quickly.

Even at this early stage, however, the Gear S2 is looking very promising. Tizen has genuinely come into its own as a wearable OS, with well-thought out user interface and interaction designed to compliment the circular display and comprehensive first- and third-party app support. Throw in plenty of customisation, a minimal, modern design (in the case of the standard Gear S2) or a more retro-inspired homage to classic watches (the Gear S2 Classic) and it would seem both Apple and Android Wear could have some real competition.

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