Samsung Gear S2 review: Does the Apple Watch have anything to fear?

£249
Price when reviewed

Samsung was one of the first major manufacturers to try its luck in the smartwatch space with the Galaxy Gear way back in 2013, and since then it hasn’t let up. Since entering the market, it’s released the Gear 2, the Gear Fit, the Gear 2 Neo, the Gear Live and the Galaxy Gear S.

That’s quite a list, but aside from the Android Wear-drive Gear Live, they’ve all disappointed; they’ve all fallen short. The reason? Limited compatibility with only a handful of Samsung smartphones.

The Samsung Gear S2 is different. As with most of its previous smartwatches, it runs Tizen – Samsung’s own take on a wearables-focused OS – but this one works with other Android smartphones (at least those running Android 4.4 or later, and which have at least 1.5GB of RAM).

That instantly broadens the appeal of Samsung’s latest wearable, setting it up as a viable alternative to the Motorola Moto 360 2, the Huawei Watch and the LG Watch Urbane for Android phone users.

Samsung Gear S2 review: Design & key features

The first thing to say is it’s one of the nicest smartwatches I’ve had the pleasure to wear. Samsung’s first round-faced smartwatch looks and feels gorgeous, in both versions. The Standard has a rubber strap and a smooth bezel, while the Classic – which is £50 more expensive – features a slightly more aggressive-looking notched screen surround and has a leather strap.

The watch body itself feels incredibly solid. It’s built from stainless steel with a dark gunmetal-grey finish, and the strap attaches via a proprietary quick-release clip on the rear. It’s very comfortable to wear – once I’d strapped it on, I barely noticed it was there. For my skinny wrists, its 1.2in watch face is the perfect size: not too big or lumpy, and not too small and dainty either.

The screen carries on the high-quality feel, helped in no small part by its small size. Its 360 x 360 display delivers crisp text and watch-face details and – thanks to its ultra-high-contrast AMOLED panel – great colours and inky black as well. It looks every bit the luxury smartwatch that Samsung obviously wants it to be.

The watch’s most interesting physical feature, however, is its rotating bezel. Much like the digital crown on an Apple Watch, this gives you an alternative way of navigating the watch’s UI.

Spin this around and, with a faint clicking action, it navigates you left and right through the Gear S2’s various screens. In messages you can use it to scroll up and down as you read, and it’s context-sensitive, so it does different things depending on where you are in the OS, such as adjusting the volume in the music app, or the screen brightness in the settings menu.

You can of course still swipe around with your fingers if you want, but the dial works best, providing quick, instinctive control of the Tizen UI and an unobscured view of what’s onscreen. Two buttons on the right side of the watch, meanwhile, replicate the home and back actions you get on standard Android smartphones – a decision that will make things particularly easy for those who aren’t familiar with rival smartwatch interfaces – and holding these buttons down or double-pressing them gives further options.

At the original launch, Samsung’s Pranav Mistry waxed lyrical about the bezel, claiming that the physical movements required to navigate the interface would soon become second nature, eventually imprinting on “muscle memory”. I’m inclined to share his positivity – it’s genuinely brilliant, and I can see Google and other manufacturers taking inspiration from it.

Samsung Gear S2 review: Is Tizen any good?

And so to the software, on which the Gear S2’s success or failure inevitably rests. Is it any good? The brief answer to both of those questions is that it’s good – in parts.

As I’ve described above, the navigation works beautifully, and Samsung has taken full advantage of the Gear S2’s rotating bezel here. Rotate left from the homescreen and you’ll see your recent notifications. Tap a notification to read it, or swipe it up to dismiss it.

Rotating (or swiping) to the right brings you to a selection of app screens, the equivalent of Glances on the Apple Watch. These screens, which you can customise using the Samsung Gear companion app, summarise things such as upcoming appointments, today’s steps and the weather, as well as providing music controls and so on.

You can swipe down from the top of any of these screens to go back to the homescreen/watch face, and swiping down again on the homescreen will show you battery life, let you put the watch into Do Not Disturb mode and quickly adjust the brightness.

So far, so good, but Samsung just can’t help itself, and adds yet more ways to get around. Press the bottom button on the watch’s right-hand side and you’ll get to a screen with a circular dial of apps with icons arranged around the edge of the watch face. It’s here that you gain access to smartwatch staples such as the stopwatch, timer, “find my phone”, heart-rate monitor and maps functions – all the watch’s apps, in other words.

This looks pretty, but the extra interface is unnecessary and requires too many clicks to access. And it isn’t helped by various bugs and inconsistencies. The biggest problem I had with it was that swiping up on a notification dismisses it forever, and yet, once you have a notification open, you can swipe up and down on it to your heart’s content. I constantly found myself deleting notifications by accident, just because I’d forgotten which part of the OS I was in.

This is crazy, and not in a fun way.

And some of the preloaded apps just don’t work as well as their Android Wear equivalents. For mapping, the Gear S2 relies on Nokia Here maps to provide navigation and public-transport information. On this watch it’s slow and unintuitive to use.

Samsung’s voice-recognition technology – S Voice – is just as disappointing. For certain key tasks, such as “start a timer” or “play music”, it works well, but ask it something more complex like “what’s 29 degrees Celsius in Fahrenheit” and it struggles. The first issue is that it’s slow – often leaving you staring at a spinning “I’m busy” icon for tens of seconds. It also often fails completely, complaining of a lack of network connectivity, even when that patently isn’t the case. It simply isn’t as flexible or accurate as Google’s equivalent.

This is a shame, because in some ways I prefer the way Tizen works to Android Wear, in particular the way messages and notifications from third-party apps such as Outlook and Slack are presented. They can be read in full with a quick tap, while on Wear they’re bundled together and truncated to an unreadable level. And I do appreciate having the brightness adjustment closer to hand, especially since the watch has no ambient light sensor. 

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