Read next: The Samsung Gear S2 review.
A year ago, I was here at IFA in a state of exasperation. Every electronics company was throwing a diversity of awkward smartwatches at the wall and waiting to see what stuck. Nothing did, because they were all too big, unwieldy, and compromised. This year, though, Samsung has launched a volley so powerful and immediately convincing that it might just break the wall down entirely. I’ve just worn the first smartwatch that I would actually consider buying.
The slimmer, handsomer alternative to Android Wear
Samsung’s Gear S2 is unlike any other smartwatch pretender I’ve yet seen. It is the size and weight of a regular watch. It also works like a watch by showing the time all the time. That’s the baseline I expect every smartwatch to be starting from, but none had fully reached it until today. Android Wear and Pebble watches have always-on screens, but they’re all in need of either a weight loss plan or a plastic surgeon appointment. Apple’s Watch is showing up on people’s arms everywhere, but its iconic appearance is that of a big, obsidian, information-less block on the wrist. More jewelry and mobile computer than a watch.
When you retain the basic fundamentals that make a regular watch useful to people — which I would define as unobtrusive utility, as measured by a comfortable fit and unnoticeably light weight — there’s really only very little that you need to add to make your smartwatch appealing. That’s Samsung’s enviable position with the Gear S2. This is a handsome and light watch with a beautiful and bright display. The AMOLED screen is recessed slightly underneath the Gorilla Glass covering the front, which creates a really attractive halo effect as the light emanating from the display gently bounces off the internal walls of the watch. This is complemented neatly by some delightful glow animations that signal when you reach the end of a menu or a list of items. The austere dark background seems as natural a fit to the watch as its familiar round face.
The rotating bezel is both sensible and satisfying
Navigating the Gear S2’s interface is done by the most ingenious (and, in retrospect, obvious) method available: a rotating bezel. Watches have had rotating bezels for decades, but they’ve never been put to much use, other than as kinetically pleasing distractions. Samsung has basically added a free control dial to its watch, which dramatically improves usability. The Gear S2 only has a 1.2-inch screen, so anything that can be done to remove the user’s finger from the touchscreen while navigating is a big plus. The awesome thing is that Samsung has implemented the rotating bezel perfectly: it has just the right amount of resistance to make scrolling through the radial app menu a pleasure. It also helps that there’s hardly any lag in the Tizen-based UI.
Some will prefer Apple’s digital crown, which performs a similar function of offloading controls away from the touchscreen and to a tactile input scheme. Samsung’s approach is more intuitive, as my colleague Dan Seifert has already pointed out, and somehow more satisfying, as my experience with the Gear S2 would suggest. There's instant synergy between the rotating app menu and the controlling bezel that wraps around it.
I’ve only had a brief time with the Gear S2 in my hands and on my wrist, so I don’t want to overstate my impressions of this watch. They weren’t strictly positive, either, as apps can take a while to load and Samsung still has a lot to prove. I’m under no illusions that this company’s software expertise is anywhere near its engineering prowess. That being said, Samsung has laid down the framework of a user experience that is intelligent yet simple — a PIN code, for example, is required every time the watch is taken off the wrist, as with the Apple Watch — and it’s already recruited some big-name partners to provide apps for the S2. You can use this watch’s integrated 3G radio to order up an Uber without the help of a smartphone. You can plug into the Nike+ ecosystem too.
Smartwatches should start with the watch first
Despite the word order in their compound title, I fervently believe smartwatches should start with the watch first. Get that element right, then layer the smart functionality on top. I don’t personally care for all of Samsung’s integrated health tracking stuff, but I don’t have to. The Gear S2’s heart rate sensor doesn’t detract from the watch’s comfort and doesn’t get in my way. I want a watch that can do smart things, not a computer that can do watch things.
Samsung has been an undeniable leader in smartwatches, having kicked off the category with its Galaxy Gear two years ago right here at IFA. That pioneering role has not been a prosperous one, however, and Samsung’s been leading us through a horrendous thicket of compromised design and ergonomics, appalling battery life, and smartphone-dependent software. Today, though, I see a brilliant, round ray of hope shining through. The Gear S2 and its Tizen operating system still have everything to prove, but the potential they’ve shown is undeniable and, for me at least, irresistible.