Samsung Galaxy Watch hands-on preview: Another Gear in all but name
The ‘Gear’ may be gone, but these are very much the same watches we know.
Samsung’s wearable strategy has settled into a groove the past few generations, with each smartwatch offering the same basic story: a circular display with a rotating bezel that runs Samsung’s own operating system and has tons of features for health and fitness tracking. The new Galaxy Watch may have a different name, dropping “Gear” altogether, but it’s primarily more of the same.
The last Samsung smartwatch, the Gear Sport, came out just 10 months ago — and as such, the new Galaxy Watch doesn’t have many differentiating features or specs. The main differentiation with this release is the “same” watch is available in two sizes, unifying the lineup a bit whereas the Gear S3 Frontier and Gear Sport were staggered releases with only a single size each.
The Galaxy Watch’s larger version is a 46 mm case, sporting a 1.3-inch display like the Gear S3 line. The smaller version is 42 mm, with a 1.2-inch display, like the Gear Sport. Both displays are 360×360 resolution, just like the last few generations of Samsung smartwatches — that means they’ll look good, and in my time they reminded me exactly of the experience I had using the Gear Sport and Gear S3.
This is effectively a Gear S3 and Gear Sport refreshed for 2018 under a new name.
The larger model has a really large battery at 470mAh, a big upgrade from the Gear S3’s 380mAh. The smaller model is just 270mAh, though, smaller than the Gear Sport’s 300mAh. With that 470mAh it’s not surprising Samsung can claim “several days” of use, as the Gear S3 was already a 2-4 day watch depending on how you used it. I assume the 42 mm Galaxy Watch will be more like the current lineup’s battery life, but Samsung’s talking a big game about longevity with a new processor that’s focused on efficiency.
The new Galaxy Watches look and feel very similar to the Gear S3 Frontier and Gear Sport, and the dimensions bare that out. My first take when picking up the new models was that they felt lighter, but they actually aren’t — this very well could’ve been the simple thin bands the demo units had on them. And to that point, you can still replace these bands with any standard watch band, which gives you customizability and upgrade options in the future.
Just like the current Samsung smartwatch crop, the new Galaxy Watch has a nice-looking shiny metal exterior that catches your eye with a contrasting texture or color (depending on the version) for its rotating bezel. The back still throws me off a little bit because it’s very cheap-feeling plastic, but that’s what’s required to be able to let the radios get out of this thing.
Samsung’s software and rotating bezel are still great for a smartwatch.
Samsung’s choice to stick with the rotating bezel interface is extremely smart, because it just feels so intuitive to grab that gnurled edge and turn it to move through the interface. The best part about it, just like using a rotating side button on Wear OS, is that you can navigate without obscuring the interface with your big finger — which is extremely important on a watch with just a 1.2-inch display. The two side buts are useful escape hatches for getting back a level or moving directly home to the watch face, and it doesn’t take much time to figure them out.
Unlike the rumors pointed to, the Galaxy Watch has Samsung’s custom-built Tizen Wearable Platform still, now updated to version 4.0. In my time scrolling through the interface Samsung doesn’t seem to have made any changes to the core design paradigm, but has simply refreshed the iconography and colors a bit. This is still a primarily black-and-white base with icons taking over the bulk of the colors and brightness. The default set of watch faces look great, so much so that I doubt most people will bother going into the Galaxy Apps store to download something new.
Samsung didn’t make any huge changes to the experience here because it really didn’t have to. Outside of offering two different sizes, changing the battery life story and unifying under a new brand name, the new Galaxy Watch doesn’t really do anything that the combination of the “old” Gear S3 and Gear Sport did. But Samsung wasn’t going to just keep selling devices as they get to be a year, and two years, old — they needed a refresh.
Right now, people will probably prefer to save $50-75 and get a Gear Sport or Gear S3.
If the history of Samsung’s smartwatches continues to play out and you can get a Gear S3 and Gear Sport for months after these new Galaxy Watches come out, there’s a good chance people will keep picking up those old models at steep discounts. The new Galaxy Watch comes in at $329 and $349 for the two sizes, which is quite expensive when the Gear Sport is under $250 and the Gear S3 Frontier is under $300 now with effectively the same specs, features and experience.
The U.S. carriers are likely to make a push with these watches when the LTE versions launch, offering them up at steep discounts when you sign up for a data plan or monthly financing. But for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-only models, these aren’t likely to flip the script from the slow-and-steady sales from the last generations they so faithfully follow.