Samsung hit on a good formula with last year's Gear S2 smartwatch. So for this year's model, it's making small changes and sticking with what already works.
That's the gist of the Gear S3, which Samsung is unveiling today in Berlin. It's basically a blown up version of the Gear S2 with a bit more tech inside, which should be good news for anyone who wants a big smartwatch.
And "big" is really one of the key changes here. Where the S2 was relatively small for a smartwatch, the S3 feels downright chunky. It jumps from the S2's 42mm case and 11.4mm thickness up to 46mm case with a 12.9mm thickness, which is a really significant change. At the same time, the screen size only moves up a tick, going from 1.2 inches on the S2 to 1.3 inches on the S3. Samsung claims this big size is "on trend in the luxury watch space right now." So if you want a smaller watch, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
The extra space leaves room for some extra features, though. All models of the S3 include a speaker and GPS, which were only present in last year’s 3G model. On top of NFC for mobile payments, Samsung is also including MST this time around, so that the watch can be used at older swipe-only terminals. A version of the watch that supports LTE will be available as well.
Samsung says it’s shooting for three to four days of battery life for the S3 — including for the LTE model — though its final measurements apparently haven’t come in yet. The estimate likely factors in a "watch only" mode that the S3 goes into after it reaches 5 percent battery, which is supposed to display just the time for another 24 hours. Even so, four days still sounds optimistic, especially given the addition of GPS and LTE. Last year, the S2 managed at least a full day in our tests; the battery is bigger this year, but there’s also more to power.
That includes the watch’s 1.3-inch display, which is sticking with the S2’s 360 x 360 resolution, but picking up a big new trick: the S3’s display is able to stay on at all times while displaying the screen’s full range of color. That means it should look a lot better while sitting idly on your wrist than the S2, which would only display eight colors when it wasn’t actively in use.
There are going to be two designs of the S3: the Classic and the Frontier. Like the entirely of the S3, they’re basically twists on last year’s designs. The Classic is built with stainless steel and has a polished silver look that’s supposed to be a bit classier, while the Frontier has matte black finish that’s a bit more casual and sporty. I like the look of the Frontier a lot more than the Classic, which picks up fingerprints along its polished edges and starts to look a little cheap. Both models have identical hardware on the inside, but only the Frontier will be offered with LTE.
In any case, Samsung is really focused on style here — something that it’s been doing increasingly well over the past two years. During a briefing ahead of the S3’s launch, Samsung said its research team found that the main reason people bought the S2 was its "overall design," which might explain why that’s one of the primary refinements you see here.
That extends into the watch’s interface, too. While it’s almost identical to last year’s (still using Tizen, rather than Android Wear), Samsung is tweaking things here and there to let S3 wearers rely more on the watch’s rotating bezel to control things, so there’ll be less swiping around. One example Samsung gave: you can now turn the bezel left or right to answer a phone call, rather than having to swipe left or right. The software changes will come to the S2 as well.
The changes are by no means about to rock the wearables industry, but they're likely to keep Samsung near the head of the pack on smartwatches. The S3 continues to stand out from Android Wear watches with its unique control scheme, and it'll likely stay even with or ahead Apple when it comes to sensors. Samsung doesn't necessarily add anything that would prove to smartwatch doubters that they're a necessary gadget, but it seems to have done a good job refining one of the better options out there so far.
Samsung hasn’t announced pricing or availability yet, but the S3 is supposed to arrive by the end of the year.
Photos and video by Mark Linsangan.
Update August 31st, 4:42PM ET: This story originally referenced measurements for the Gear S2 with 3G; it's been updated to reference measurements for the traditional Gear S2.