Putting on jewelry or a watch in the morning before I head out the door has never been a part of my daily regiment. While I do enjoy watches, I can never get into the habit of leaving it on or putting it back on after I have taken it off. This has been a hurdle for most of my life and even more so with the introduction of the smartphone. After all, why would I wear a watch when I can just check the time on my phone that is always with me?

This is the dilemma that always strikes me before purchasing a smartwatch - a piece of "redundant" technology that I’ll need to charge every couple of days, that will, in turn, lead me to not strapping it back on once it comes off. My last smartwatch purchase was the original Motorola Moto 360. While I did enjoy it at the time, after a couple months, along with degrading battery life that made getting one day of use a challenge, the fact that there just weren't many useful apps from Android Wear, still in its infancy, was a hard sell. I tried the Huawei Watch but found it to be much of the same - even over a two year period, Android Wear hadn’t really evolved the way I had hoped and the battery life was pretty much the same, eking out one day of use before having to go back on the charger.

So imagine my surprise when Samsung announced a smartwatch that would be able to go four days on a single charge. I was skeptical like many, as most companies tend to overexaggerate their estimates in order to produce a bit of buzz. I’ll admit, I was intrigued, considering I had previously contemplated the Gear S2 classic because of its design and rotating bezel - the Gear S3 simply upped the ante by offering more - like GPS and the ability to make mobile payments via Samsung Pay. There would be plenty of time to think it over as the $350 wearable wouldn’t launch for several months after its initial announcement. Luckily, Samsung and other retailers would discount the watch shortly after its release date, making it an easier pill to swallow and sealing the deal for making the purchase.

It’s been quite some time since offering a first impression, but I think that my time with the Gear S3 classic has given me some excellent insight into the purpose of the watch and why it has become a valuable tool in my daily life.

Specs

Samsung Gear S3 classic
Display 1.3-inch Super AMOLED with Gorilla Glass SR+
360x360, 278ppi
Processor Exynos7270 - Dual core
1GHz
RAM 768MB
Storage 4GB
Connectivity Wi-Fi b/g/n
Bluetooth v4.2
GPS / GLONASS
Sensors

Accelerometer
Barometer
Gyro Sensor
Heart Rate Monitor
Ambient Light Sensor

Battery 380mAh
Launch OS Tizen 2.3.2
Launch Date November 2016
Size & Weight 46mm x 49mm x 12.9mm
2.1 oz (57g) - without bands
Price $349.99 USD
depends on carrier

Design / Display

The Gear S3 can be found in two different styles - the 'frontier' which offers a more ruggedized design, and the 'classic' that looks well… more like your standard watch. The frontier is probably the model you will see most when out and about because it is supported by various carriers and offers LTE cellular connectivity. While I would have loved to have cellular connectivity, I opted for the classic model because I like that it looks more like a standard watch, and it will work in most environments.

Luckily, opting for the classic doesn’t mean you’ll be sacrificing the ruggedized features of the frontier, as both watches offer virtually the same benefits, like “military-grade” durability and being able to survive extreme temperatures. The Gear S3 classic sits in a 46mm steel casing that houses a beautiful 1.3-inch Super AMOLED display with a 360x360 resolution at 278ppi. The display is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass SR+ which is a line of protection that specifically created with wearables in mind.

As for the display itself, the Super AMOLED display works well in all lighting conditions offering excellent viewing angles and colors that pop. Although it offers a circular display, the watch does have an ambient light sensor that can adjust the display automatically when in lower light conditions. Although the resolution is fairly high for a smartwatch, you can still make out individual pixels if you look hard enough, but the experience isn’t tainted due to the legibility of text and graphics.

What is undoubtedly one of the best parts of the Gear’s design is the rotating bezel that can be used to navigate menus and perform other actions. The bezel feels absolutely fantastic when rotating - making a slightly audible clicking noise with gentle physical feedback. As if the touchscreen and rotating bezel weren’t enough, the watch also has two physical buttons on the right side that give you quick access to settings, a back button, and Samsung Pay. As a whole, the control scheme of the watch is the best I’ve ever used and shows that something traditional, like a bezel, can be tweaked in a clever manner for a smartwatch to offer just a bit more functionality.

As for watch bands, you’ll be happy to know that Samsung has opted to go with a standard setup that will allow you to use any 22mm sized band. This is very convenient, considering that you are open to a whole slew of band options that can be purchased from different merchants. Samsung does offer its own bands, along with other third parties that have created them specifically for the Gear S3.

Software

In order to setup the Gear S3, you’ll need to download the Gear app from the Play Store. This watch is compatible with iOS, but I have not tested it with an iPhone, as I have heard that compatibility for the device is limited compared to its Android counterpart. As of now, you can see the compatibility of the device in the chart below. The Gear S3 for iOS will work with basic features like notifications and calls, but when it comes to messaging, you'll be more limited; for example, I've heard from colleagues that messaging is fairly stripped down, in that you cannot author or reply to messages from your wrist. Also, one of the major benefits of the Gear S3, Samsung Pay, isn't available on iOS.

After installing the app and running it, you’ll be instructed to pair the device and also download the ‘Gear S Plugin’ and the ‘Samsung Accessory Service’. Once all of the apps are installed, you’ll be ready to use your smartwatch.

Unlike the majority of Android-compatible smartwatches, the Gear S3 does not run Android Wear and instead relies on Tizen which has been seen on previous devices from Samsung and on its smartwatches, like the Gear 2 Neo. While it has had some time to mature, it isn’t nearly as fleshed out with app availibility like on Android Wear. After using the Gear S3 for a little over a week, what you’ll start to notice is that apps that you might use on your Android smartphone day in and day out, simply aren’t available for the Gear. Samsung tries its best to offer replacement apps that cover the scope for most users, but if you need to use Strava, Facebook Messenger, or others - these will most likely not be available. There are some third party apps that you can try that emulate these services, but judging by the reviews, I wouldn’t bet that these will be sufficient replacements for the real deal.

Again, everyone will have a different experience based on the apps that they need, but for my use, I was okay with the apps that were offered. I was able to track my workouts, courtesy of the S Health app, and messages, emails, and other notifications came through without a hitch. If there was one app that I missed during my use with the Gear S3, it was Google Maps. I know this isn’t an essential part of a wearable, but it’s nice to be able to have quick access to a location just for reference. As I mentioned before, there’s usually some alternative, but in this case, HERE Maps wasn’t a bad experience, just very different from what I’m used to.

Overall, in day-to-day use, the Gear S3 worked well in providing me information at a glance and allowing me to keep my phone in my pocket. I never felt limited in my daily interactions, and the information I received on my wrist was adequate. One last thing to note is that if you are someone that uses multiple devices, you’ll need to reset the watch every single time you connect it to a new device. This probably won’t be an issue for most people, but it’s definitely something that is a bit time consuming and tedious.

Samsung Pay

Mobile payments have become increasingly popular and convenient as the number of supported terminals have increased exponentially over the past couple of years. While not all mobile devices offer the ability to make mobile payments, a lot of high-end and mid-tier devices now offer the feature. While NFC is the primary technology that allows these interactions to occur, Samsung's products have also offered the little mentioned Magnetic Secure Transmission or MST.

MST is a wireless payment technology that allows a majority of payment terminals to accept wireless transactions. Now, I know it sounds just like what NFC accomplishes, but MST differs in that it is an older technology that most terminals already have. The technology works by emitting a magnetic signal that mimics the interaction of a traditional card swipe. While Samsung has long possessed the ability to take advantage of MST with its handsets, the company has now brought the benefit to its smartwatch with the introduction of the Gear S3 that makes it compatible with most Android devices.

For the past month, I have been experimenting with the Gear S3 and making payments at many different merchants and terminals. What I have found is that because of MST technology, the Gear S3 is compatible with an insane amount of pay terminals. I know it sounds like a small feature, but with pay terminals becoming more complex and requiring more time to process chip-based credit cards (still in its infancy in the US), the speedy interaction and high compatibility has been a lifesaver.

On average, it took about half the time for a check out interaction to occur compared to chip, even quicker when the checkout setup was familiar. There was also the aforementioned bonus of being accepted in more places. There were countless times when a terminal looked a bit too simple or archaic (no Apple or Android Pay) to accept mobile payments, or when clerks would repeatedly warn me that it wouldn't work, and then having Samsung Pay work without a hitch. It was a nerve racking but rewarding moment each time the terminal would accept payment, not to mention this could all be done without even the phone being connected to the Gear. Although companies haven't fully sold consumers on the benefit of having a relay device on the wrist, there is definitely a unique benefit being introduced with the Gear S3. This features alone gives it a leg up over the competition, which could make the Gear S3 this year's stand out smartwatch.

Performance / Battery

The watch gets its power from a 1GHz dual-core Exynos 7270 processor and 768MB RAM. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than enough to get the job done on a daily basis. The interactions of the watch are smooth and menu systems fluid. A majority of native apps run quickly, but if there is a more intense app, like mapping, it does take a couple seconds for it to open.

As for battery life, during my first impressions, I kept all of the features on and was still able to get through almost two full days, with the watch cutting out around 6 pm on the second day. For my use, I turned off Wi-Fi, GPS, and "Always On" display and only enabled GPS during physical activities. After experimenting with settings and dialing in what works best for me, I was able to consistently get three solid days, sometimes a bit more - but it was rare to pull off a complete fourth day. Again, this will all depend on what you require from the watch and how you use it - but for my needs, the three-day mark was more than enough and left a grand impression on me. As for recharging, the 380mAh battery takes around two hours to fully charge and does so wirelessly by docking into the included magnetic cradle.

Conclusion

So where does the smartwatch sit when it comes to the consumer? It's a bit of niche purchase at the moment, isn't it? A typical smartwatch can start at around $150, but you'll most likely be purchasing an older model with most higher-end models easily breaching the $300 mark. So there definitely needs to be some basic criteria satisfied if you're thinking about making the investment. I think one of the important things about owning a watch is how it looks because if it doesn't look good, you probably won't want to wear it day in and day out. I know this is all subjective, but in my opinion, the Samsung Gear S3 is probably one of the best-looking smartwatches out on the market right now. It offers a traditional-looking watch with the classic model, and for those looking for something a bit more sporty can find solace with the frontier model. There's also the ability to swap in any band of your choosing, whether it's a $150 Horween leather band or a $5 nylon strap from eBay, the possibilities are endless. The only drawback to the Gear S3 is that it does not come in different sizes, so those with smaller wrists might feel a bit intimidated.

If you think the watch looks good, the second hurdle that needs to be addressed is functionality. After all, what good is a smartwatch if it isn't... well... smart? You'll be getting the best compatibility and functionality out of the Gear S3 by pairing it with a Samsung device.

But, don't head for the hills just yet, as any compatible Android device will also work. Samsung cautions that using a phone other than its own won't unlock the full potential of the Gear S3, but during my use, everything seemed to work great. I was able to communicate using text and voice with a variety of different apps, I received calendar and appointment reminders, and it tracked my activity when I needed it. There is the issue regarding apps and how healthy the Tizen ecosystem will become, so this is one area you'll want to check and make sure the tools you need, or a valid substitute, are available. Also, while I have not personally tested it, I have heard that those with an iOS device might want to pass on the Gear S3, as the experience is not quite up to par.

When we're talking functionality, the battery life of the device is critical and probably one of the most talked about cruxes of a wearable. The Gear S3 packs a fair amount of battery life and got me through three days religiously. For those that need more you'll probably have to look elsewhere, but if two to three days is acceptable - this might be the watch for you.

Lastly, if there is one unsung feature with the Gear S3 that needs to be talked about, it has to be Samsung Pay. Samsung made an incredible business decision when it purchased LoopPay nearly two years ago. The ability to make mobile payments through my wrist at pretty much every single terminal (that I tried) is a godsend. Currently, there isn't another Android compatible wearable on the market that offers this ability, and as I mentioned before, it's an underrated part of the Gear S3's experience that really puts this watch over-the-top.

When we get past all of the points above, we really have to think about how much the watch is going to enrich your experience and chances are - it might not. There's an idea that a wearable needs to do more than it should, when all it should be is a complementary device. What I mean by this is that there shouldn't be an expectation when purchasing such a device that it can replace your mobile (not yet anyway), but it should be a pretty good extension of it that can get information to you in a more convenient and efficient manner. It's about being able to keep you in the loop but also allowing you to remain in the moment and not having to fiddle about with your phone.

So when you tally all the points above, does the Gear S3 provide value? Ultimately, for my use, yes, and it does so while looking good and, more importantly, like a standard timepiece that can blend in with your everyday life.

 

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