I have to give Samsung credit: it went from making a me-too wearable to making something that feels like a serious commitment, something that its intended audience would actually want to use. I’m talking about the Samsung Gear Fit 2, the company’s new activity-tracking wristband.
Samsung’s first try at this kind of “smart” band, which shipped in 2014, launched with flaws; only worked with Samsung’s Galaxy phones; and initially only tracked a few activities — and it cost $200. In contrast, the new $180 Gear Fit 2 wristband works with all phones running newer versions of Android, has built-in GPS, and tracks a boatload of fitness activities — so many that I couldn’t try them all even though I’ve been wearing it for three weeks. This is not your basic step counter.
The intent behind the Gear Fit 2 is clear: Samsung wants to get as many people as it can into its hardware ecosystem, but chunky metal smartwatches generally don’t make great fitness trackers. And if there’s even a sliver of the market that would gravitate toward a Fitbit Surge, or get an Apple Watch — and millions of those people do exist — Samsung wants to make sure it’s there, too.
Right now, though, there’s still a tradeoff with these things: you either go with something lightweight and simple, with a long-lasting battery, or you go for a bright, colorful display and sacrifice battery life. The Gear Fit 2 is the latter. But does the platonic form of the activity-tracking wearable even exist yet? I’d say no. And so in the world we’re currently in, where there is no fitness tracker that does it all, this is one of the best possible tradeoffs.
Since the first thing you’ll notice will be its display, let’s cover that first. The Gear Fit 2 has a 1.5-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen. This display, with its black background and punchy colors, is glossy, rich, and responsive. It has a slight curve to it, like the first Gear Fit, but lacks the weird bezel of its predecessor.
And Samsung has opted to display all of the data vertically on the band, which means you don’t have to twist your wrist to read things like notifications.
There’s only one bad thing I have to say about the display: it’s difficult to see outdoors, even with brightness set to the highest level. (This is a complaint I have about the Apple Watch, too.) For some people this isn’t a deal breaker, but for me it is. When I’m cycling in traffic, the last thing I want is to have to strain to see the info on my wrist. When I’m running outdoors, I’m usually eyeing the minutes until I’m done with the damn run. Wearables with transflective or monochrome LCD displays are a better option in these cases. But again — those tradeoffs.
the display is tough to see outdoors
The large display also means the Gear Fit 2 is big. No one would describe it as delicate and it doesn’t fit the narrative thread of "wearable maker creates something that looks like jewelry." That’s fine, but just know that it’s going to look like a clunky fitness wearable.
But the Gear Fit 2 is comfortable, which matters a lot when it comes to things like sleep tracking. The tracking part of the band has two physical buttons: a power / home button, and a back button. On the underside are optical heart rate sensors. The wristband itself is made of a flexible polymer, and has a railroad-style strap you see on a lot of wearables.
So what exactly does the Gear Fit 2 track? Well, it isn’t fully waterproof, so it can’t track swimming, but it does virtually everything else: records daily steps, running, walking, hiking, cycling, stair stepping, stationary biking, elliptical training, treadmill running, rowing, lunges, crunches, squats, pilates, and yoga. An "other" tile will let you record other types of activity that might not be categorized. The band will automatically recognize some activities, too, which is an increasingly common feature in activity tracking devices.
Gear fit 2 tracks pretty much every activity except swimming
Samsung has also tried to display the data in an interesting way on the band itself, so you don’t have to open the mobile app for everything. For example, there’s a 24-hour timeline view of all of your activity, which reminds me a little bit of the Moves app that was acquired by Facebook two years ago. If you’re doing outdoor sports that utilize GPS, you can see a map of your workout right on the wristband.
There are two elements of health-tracking wristbands that are most often the source of doubt around accuracy: sleep tracking and heart rate monitoring from the wrist. And, unfortunately, it’s difficult to say exactly how accurate these things are without also performing concurrent tests in a lab of some sort, but I try to pay close attention to my sleep patterns at home and wear a chest-based heart rate strap at the gym while testing a new wearable. I’ve worn the Gear Fit 2 to bed most nights over the past few weeks, and generally felt like it was a little too generous. "93% sleep efficiency" the band would show me, almost like it was proud, after a shitty night’s sleep.
Heart rate tracking was much better. In stable workout environments, like when I was on a spin bike, the heart rate reading on the wristband often matched the reading I was getting from a chest strap, or was only a couple beats per minute off. Even during less stable activities like running, there was little to no latency in displaying my heart rate when I raised my wrist, and it showed my heart rate in zones (i.e., "vigorous").
Not every activity will trigger heart rate tracking, though; when I used the "other" mode on the band, no heart rate data was displayed. And you can’t wirelessly pair a chest strap with the band, which you can do with many other fitness trackers.
There are also non-fitness-focused aspects of this activity tracker. I’ve been able to view Twitter notifications, get Slack updates, and respond to text messages (via shortcuts, not voice control) from the Gear Fit 2, provided my phone was in range. But one of the things I like about the Gear Fit 2, maybe more so than some other hybrid wristbands, is that it’s not trying to be a smartwatch. Aside from Spotify, it doesn’t support any third-party micro-apps, at least not yet.
if you can get past the complexity, S health is a great health-tracking app
All of the settings for these notifications are handled by a Samsung mobile app, and that’s where things get a little confusing. There’s the Gear manager app, which determines settings not only for the Gear Fit 2 but all of Samsung’s Gear smartwatches. Then there’s Samsung’s S Health app, which is where you manage and view all of the data you’ve synced from the wristband. Within the S Health app, there are two different sections for other fitness apps — think Strava, RunKeeper, Fitbit, Jawbone, and Microsoft Health — that either integrate directly with S Health, or have open API’s that Samsung taps into.
Oh, and if you want to download that Spotify app to the wristband? You have to go to the Samsung Galaxy app store.
If you’re able to get past the complexity of this (and get past the fact that S Health does not sync data to Google Fit), then S Health is actually a pretty great health-tracking app. You can log things like caffeine intake, blood pressure, and stress levels and mood in the app, as well as all of the stuff the wristband tracks. The app displays a lot of the data in a tile format, and while I personally would like the option to view this in more of a chronological timeline, the tiles have grown on me.
The last issue I have with the new wristband is battery life. Samsung is promising three to four days of battery life with normal usage, which is impressive for something with a big, bright display. But the first unit I wore may have been a dud, because there were some days where it barely made it past a day, or died in less than a day if I was using GPS. The second review unit Samsung loaned me was more in line with the initial promise (more like two to three days). However, my Verge colleague Dan Seifert also experienced less-than-stellar battery life with his review unit.
Despite that, the Gear Fit 2 has worked its way into my life (and workouts) over the past few weeks, and in a positive way. The only reasons why I wouldn’t call it best-in-class are the inconsistent battery life, its barely-visible display outdoors, and the fact that it only works with Android phones, unlike, say, a Fitbit or Garmin or Microsoft Band 2. But if those things aren’t deal-breakers for you, then the Gear Fit 2 is a strong choice.
Photography by Tyler Pina