Samsung's been chiselling away at the wearables market for years now... but without much success. With one simple product, the Apple Watch became the number one smartwatch in the world, wiping out the slight momentum the South Koreans had been building.
That seems to have forced the brand into stepping up its game – and the Gear S2 is a massive leap over the large Gear S from earlier this year. It's clear without even touching the new watch that the Korean firm practically went back to the drawing board to craft, frankly, its first wearable truly worth your attention.
When looking at the Gear S2, it's obvious that Samsung has been taking notes since even before its Samsung Gear S watch launched back in November 2014. With a new, round face, the Gear S2 is right in line with the likes of the new Moto 360 , Huawei Watch and LG Watch Urbane .
It's quite a photogenic thing, isn't it?
But the Gear S2 comes packing one feature that stands to set it apart from the pack: a rotating bezel. Used in tandem with its 1.2-inch, Super AMOLED 360 x 360-pixel touch display, this bezel rotates to navigate the interface. It's much like how the Apple Watch uses its crown, only easier – complete with a satisfying, tactile click.
A googol of Gears The Gear S2 comes in not one, but three flavors: the straight 42mm Gear S2 at 47g (which we're detailing here), the 40mm Samsung Gear S2 Classic at 42g and the 44mm Samsung Gear S2 3G at 51g.
The standard-issue Gear S2 comes in either a dark gray, textured aluminum case with matching band or a silver case with a white band – both bands are made of a rather chunky, rigid elastomer material and feature a standard clasp.
Which one would you rather buy?
The clasp is a little stiff, although not impossible to use, which is good if you're not planning to change the strap very much. If you're thinking of having one for sport and one for fancy cocktail parties, then things could get a little trickier.
See? The clasp works, but it's a little tough to manage
The Gear S2 3G is nigh-identical in design to the Gear S2, but obviously includes a 3G e-SIM card slot, making it ideal for runners and other land athletes. (No waterproofing here, folks.) Sadly, this model wasn't available to test during a recent press preview.
How the Gear S2 works All versions of the Gear S2 feature the same set up: a Home button on the bottom right of the case and a Back button on its top right. The former returns you to the watch face, of which there will be 24 loaded into every Gear S2 at launch, while the latter bumps you back one menu selection per press.
Turning the rotating bezel to the left takes you to the essentials: your call log and your text messages. Each click to the right takes you to one of the widgets you've selected.
A detailed look at Samsung's weather app
Samsung preloads a number of widgets onto the device, like a quick settings panel, the S Health step counter, more detailed weather info and a weird tracker of your water and coffee intake that depends entirely on your input. However, all of these widget spots are customizable, and can even be replaced with specific apps.
On paper, it may sound like Samsung loaded this tiny device with too many inputs. But in practice the two buttons and rotating bezel make for one of the more elegant control solutions seen on a smartwatch. Samsung has clearly taken the round design ethos to heart, engineering navigation in a nascent product type that makes sense.
Can you guess which tool this is?
The apps themselves scroll past easily, whether you're using a finger or the bezel. Some might get confused by the 'layers' on offer here though - the top level, with the clock on, is widgets, with things like weather, notifications and others accessible through the bezel or swiping.
However, pressing the lower of the two physical buttons on the side will take you into the app drawer - with the options shoved against the side of the screen to be scrolled through. This feels weird, as the need to stack them on the side of the screen means fewer can be shown, and moving through when you've got loads installed is slow.
The interface is clear and crisp for the most part, and the widgets are obvious and offer detailed information - with more available when pressing on the screen.
Samsung's still pushing forward with Tizen as its platform for the smartwatch, which means it's got some big wins on offer here (bar the app issue that's going to get a little bit in the way in the near future).
We have no idea why this widget exists...
The main one is battery life: at least a couple of days compared to Android Wear (and Apple's) single day of use - thanks to be a lot 'lighter' as a platform you'll have a smartwatch that won't die a few seconds after turning it on.
The rest of the things you can do with the Samsung Gear S are pretty basic at this stage, and largely in line with what we've seen on other smartwatches out there. The device will keep a regular check on your heart rate, has a number of customisable watch faces and allows you to dictate messages to your friends and family to help you reply without dragging out your phone.
(You can even edit the messages using the world's smallest keyboard... it's good to have the option there but we can't see many people relying on it).
Design Speaking of elegance, the Gear S2 sure is Samsung's most refined watch to date, but it still looks blatantly like a gadget – something that we see very few lining up to purchase. (The Gear S2 Classic, however, is another story.)
Just one of 24 watch faces in the thing at launch
It's going to take more than a streamlined design to get your average Jane or Joe to wrap one of these around their wrist. Sure, that's what the Classic watch is for, but then who is the Gear S2 proper for? Samsung says that it's for those who have "an admiration for minimal and modern design."
Let's interpret that as "folks that argue about the specific features of a phone in a tech website's comment section." Jokes aside, the Gear S2 looks and feels more like a sport smartwatch – thanks in large part to the chunky elastomer band – than one for standard use.
This is how the Gear S2 charges and reads your heartrate
The Gear S2's Super AMOLED screen is a pleasure to gawk at for how little you're supposed to, much crisper and color-rich than, say, the original Moto 360. However, there's a large focus on white font applied to black backdrops throughout the Tizen OS – the inverse of what we find makes for comfortable reading, especially when on the move.
What about the apps? The million dollar question: with Samsung sticking solely to its own Tizen OS for the Gear S2 line, a common worry was that the watches would be left wanting for apps.
Samsung nipped this concern right in the bud and right out of the gate: the company claims that around 1,000 Gear S2 apps will be available at launch through its aptly named Samsung Gear Apps store, and 100 more are currently in development.
And here's a glance at the Gear Manager companion app
Key launch partners include a slick and full-featured Uber app that looks to be the only way to hail a cab in a few years time, a focused CNN news ticker app and a highly customizable Twitter app among others. But perhaps the most important Gear S2 app is the updated Samsung Gear Manager on the Google Play Store.
Why does that matter? Because the Gear S2 line will be compatible with all phones running Android 4.4 or later through this very app. The worry was that the new Gears would be a Samsung-only ordeal, considering that was the case with their predecessor, the Gear S.
That said, certain Gear S2 features will not be compatible with just any Android phone, namely Samsung Pay, which makes heavy use of the company's proprietary firmware for security purposes.
Again, which one would you rather buy?
Samsung Pay is going to be enabled for those with Samsung phones - perhaps not instantly - although the most awesome bit (the ability to pay for stuff using the magnetic stripe reader) isn't in there due to space limitations. Still, you can beepy pay for things with your watch when the service launches in your area, which is pretty cool.
What else is packed in there? Powering all of these apps is a custom, optimized dual-core 1GHz processor that Samsung wouldn't specify the make, though my money's on its own Exynos chip. That's backed up by 512MB of RAM, plenty for such a tiny device, and 4GB of storage for (some of) those 1,000 apps.
Rounding out the spec sheet is a gamut of sensors – accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate, ambient light, barometer – 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC. Another feature unique to the Gear S2 is that it can automatically join a Wi-Fi network that you've saved on its own, something that the Apple Watch won't be able to do until watchOS 2 lands later this year.
The brawn behind the brains, so to speak, is a 250mAh lithium-ion battery that Samsung claims can last between two and three days. (The 3G version houses a 300mAh juice pack for a two-day max battery life.) Every Gear S2 will come packing a wireless charging kit, too.
Fitness apps Confusingly there are two sports apps on the Samsung Gear S2 from the outset: S Health and Nike Running. The former is a long-standing staple of the Samsung family, and allows you to do things like monitor your activity, keep an eye on how hard you're working daily, track your runs and even let you record water and caffeine intake with a tap on the screen.
A pretty detailed running app we think.
The fitness element is something that looks like it could be well-served here, as it's got a heart rate monitor on the underside, and GPS on board too.
Nike's running app makes good use of the space
Well, there's bad news on that latter point: it's only on the 3G version of the device (the Gear 2 that doesn't need to be tethered to a smartphone to work) thus taking away a strong chance of being one of the best running smartwatch.
Early verdict The Samsung Gear S2 is easily the company's best-realized smartwatch to date. It's the embodiment of Samsung's tendency to iterate under the spotlight, the culmination of several attempts to nail a type of product that we collectively have barely begun to understand.
That rotating bezel is an innovative new approach to navigating these tiny screens quickly and effectively, and we wouldn't be surprised to see its rivals respond in kind. And even still, I'm not convinced that the tech-buying masses will latch onto Samsung's latest smartwatch in the same way they have its phones and tablets.
It all boils down to look and feel, and the Gear S2 looks more like a tech product than a watch, or at the very least one designed for athletes. Sure, the Gear S2 Classic has a better shot at attracting the everyman, but then what does that make this model?
Should the things Samsung is promising come to pass (being able to open your car door or dim your lights with a flick of the wrist) in the near future, then suddenly this could become a more awesome proposition.
Definitely a 'wait and see' device for now - but we'll be able to definitively answer that when we've done our full review, so stay tuned.