Samsung Gear Sport review: firmware update to add SmartThings support

Another top quality smartwatch from Samsung but it falls just short of multisport greatness

Jade Vincent
8 Jun 2018
3
Price when reviewed 
299
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Update: Soon, you’ll be able to use your Samsung Gear Sport to control any of your Samsung smart home appliances thanks to an update to the watch's firmware.

In a presentation at CES 2018, Samsung's general manager of mobile computing and wearables, Alanna Cotton, said "We've been leading the wearables journey for four years".

"In 2018 we're taking it to the next level, bringing the SmartThings app to the Gear S3 and Gear Sport. Whether it's dimming the lights to set the perfect mood for dinner, or setting the house to the ideal 71 degrees before I get home, I'll be able to control my environment in new ways, right from my wrist," she added.

It’s not clear when the watches will get the update, but I’d imagine it’ll happen at some point over the new few months. Acquired by Samsung for $200m in 2014, the SmartThings platform is currently compatible with a range of lighting, sensors, doorbells, cameras and other home appliances.

Unfortunately, there’s still no sign that Samsungs voice assistant Bixby will be arriving on the Gear Sport any time soon. This would have been a nice touch, especially if it enabled you to control your SmartThings devices without navigating a fiddly app on a small screen.

Original review continues: You could argue that the Samsung Gear Sport is the firm’s first true multisport watch. While last year’s Samsung Gear S3 Frontier was a great fitness-first smartwatch, it wasn’t properly waterproof, which means you couldn’t use it to track your swims.

The Gear Sport makes good on that omission; in fact, it’s not only waterproof to the usual (rather limp) IP standards but properly H2O resistant to 5ATM (five atmospheres). So, there’s effectively no mainstream sport it can’t track.

And it adds that capability to the all that was great about the original Gear S3, including a stunning 360 x 360 OLED display, NFC for Samsung Pay and integrated GPS so you can track your workouts without taking your phone with you. So, if the Gear S3 has the best bits of the S3, and builds on those with more sports features, it should be a great all-round multisport smartwatch? Sadly not. I’ll come to my reasons anon.

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Samsung Gear Sport review: Features and performance

The good news is that the Gear Sport does the basics well. It can automatically track any of your workouts. Just strap it to your wrist and get moving and it’ll track anything from walks and runs to football and dancing.

The only catch is that you have to do one of these activities for ten minutes or more before it’ll log it. If your session is shorter than this, you’ll need to select your activity manually. Not that this is a particularly hard thing to do, though.

Even if you’re not exercising for ten minutes or more, though, the Gear Sport will still keep track of your step count and staircases climbed using its internal accelerometer and altimeter. It also records the duration and quality of your sleep at night.

For moments when you want to track hikes, runs and bike rides with more precision you can use GPS but, unfortunately, this is where the watch starts to falter a bit. We saw fairly poor GPS reception on the Gear S3 in that it took quite a while to get a fix in built-up areas and, unfortunately, the Gear Sport is no better. In fact, it’s probably worse. I failed to get a fix altogether both times I tried to log my three-mile bike ride from work to the station in central London.

Fortunately, the watch’s GPS performed much better outside London. It had no problems picking up a GPS signal when I completed a park run in Sussex and it tracked my progress accurately, offering insights into distance, time, pace, cadence and heart rate along the way. Ultimately, though, I find it surprising that Samsung would not give the utmost priority to GPS performance on a watch that’s pitched as a multisport watch.

During my runs, the optical heart rate sensor gave slightly different readings to a Garmin chest strap, which isn’t surprising or particularly bad in itself. What is frustrating is that Samsung has failed to include the option to pair external sensors, whether that be a chest heart rate monitor, or speed and cadence sensors for cycling. It’s a major blow if you were hoping for an everyday smartwatch that doubles up as a serious sports watch.

And in terms of battery life, thanks to a sizeable cut in capacity (from 380mAh to 300mAh), the Gear Sport doesn’t last as long as the Gear S3, either. It’s still pretty good by smartwatch standards, though. I typically still had a little battery life to spare after 48 hours of use, when leaving the display set to timeout and tracking one or two short activities with GPS.

Samsung Gear Sport review: Design

The Gear Sport is both smaller and lighter than the Gear S3, which is good news for people with small wrists, but compared with Samsung’s Gear Fit2 Pro or even Garmin’s Vivoactive 3 it’s still quite a sizeable chunk and this may deter some people from running with it.

Having said that, I found it perfectly comfortable to run with and the heart rate sensor is flush with the casing, which stops it from leaving any kind of imprint on your wrist when you fasten the strap firmly.

The rotating magnetic rotating bezel, which has been carried over from the S2 and S3 before, enables you to quickly flick between widgets to track your general activity levels. It’s definitely preferable to swiping your finger across the screen, especially when it’s cold outside.

Without doubt, though, the Gear Sport’s best design feature is its 1.2in AMOLED display. The first time I turned it on, I was staggered at how good it looks and it puts many other multisport watches’ displays to shame.

A pin sharp display might not be a priority for fitness fanatics. After all, with a fantastic display comes quick battery drain. That’s why, by default, it’s set to only spring to life when you lift your wrist. You can change this and set the screen to always-on if you prefer and I’d definitely recommend doing so even if it is detrimental to battery life. It makes checking your progress during activities much easier and also makes it feel more like wearing a traditional watch.

Samsung Gear Sport review: Samsung Health and Apps

All activities logged on the Gear Sport, including sleep, are automatically synced to the Samsung Health app, which you can download to any iOS or Android device. This is a big improvement from the days where you needed a Samsung phone to use the app and, generally, it’s well designed, letting you see trends in your activity levels and heart rate over the previous days, weeks and months.

If you’re already part of a running or cycling community on Strava or Runkeeper, the good news is that the watch will interface with both of these apps via Samsung Health, although neither can be installed directly on the watch.

In terms of third-party apps, the Gear Sport doesn’t differ too much from other Samsung Tizen-based wearables and because they feel quite separate from the watch’s built-in functions (you need to press the Home button on the watch’s casing to open the app launcher rather than spinning the bezel) I didn’t find myself using them very often.

One exception to this was Spotify. Because the Gear Sport has its own Wi-Fi connection, Premium subscribers can download playlists directly to the watch and store them offline, which is ideal if you want to exercise to music without taking your phone with you.

Another major new introduction is the Speedo On swimming app, which lets you plan your swim workout on your wrist before you start. You don’t need to install this because the Gear Sport has its own built-in swimming app but I preferred it because it let me set a custom pool length right down to 15m, which happens to be the size of the pool at my local gym.

Elsewhere, golfers are well catered for with a range of pin finder apps. However, as we’ve pointed out in previous Tizen Samsung smartwatch reviews, anyone who has used Android Wear and WatchOS will be disappointed by the selection of apps on offer.

Samsung Gear Sport review: Verdict

With the exception of its failure to get a GPS fix in central London, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Gear Sport. It looks good, has an outstanding display and battery life is solid. At £299, it’s also in line with many of its rivals like the Apple Watch Series 3, the Fitbit Ionic and the Garmin Vivoactive 3 in terms of pricing.

Where the Gear Sport falls down though, is its name. The Sport moniker will leave many expecting a true multisport watch, with support for external sensors and outstanding GPS performance; and, on these fronts, the Gear Sport fails to deliver. Yes, it’s fully waterproof and will track swims, but the Gear Fit2Pro does this too and it’s £100 cheaper. You can read our full review of it here.