Hands-on: Samsung's Gear S3 smartwatch is big, bold, and ready to phone home

The Gear S3 Classic goes for posh aesthetics, while the Gear S3 Frontier looks more rugged and comes with LTE support.

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Remember when Samsung released no fewer than seven wrist-worn wearables during the course of a year? It’s been two years since that smartwatch binge, and we thought that the mobile powerhouse had gotten its smartwatch ambitions under control. Well, apparently not. On Wednesday, Samsung revealed not one, but two versions of the Gear S3 smartwatch—and just like that, the wearables arms race is back.

The two new Tizen OS-based watches will compete for elbow room with the Gear S2 smartwatch and Gear Fit2 activity tracker in Samsung’s line-up. I had a chance to go hands-on with the new Gear S3 models last week, so let’s take a look at exactly what they offer would-be smartwatch buyers.

Hope you like big watches

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The Gear S3 Frontier (Left) and the Gear S3 Classic (right) are intended for two different types of users. 

The Gear S3 comes in two flavors: the silver-bezeled Gear S3 Classic, and the black-bezeled Gear S3 Frontier, which looks a bit sportier, and supports phone calls right from your wrist. Both smartwatches feature a 1.3-inch Super AMOLED display, a 1GHz Exynos 7270 processor, 768MB of RAM, 4GB of onboard storage, and a 380 mAh battery (Samsung doesn’t yet have battery life estimates).

Both Gear S3 models are compatible with standard 22mm watch straps, and are IP68-certified, so you can take the watches for a swim with nary a worry. Samsung also said the Gear S3s are durable enough to withstand quick changes in pressure and temperature, so you could probably take them sky diving, if that’s your thing.

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A closer look at the Gear S3 Frontier. That black case definitely looks more rugged than its silver counterpart.

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The Gear S3 runs on Samsung’s own Tizen OS, though it offers quite a few apps that you can also get on Android Wear.

Samsung’s Tizen OS 2.3.1 has been slightly updated. Like its predecessor, it features widgets and a rotating dock, as well as apps you won’t find on Android Wear, like Uber, which lets you hail a car right from your wrist.

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The Gear S3 employs a circular dock for organizing your apps.

Like the Gear S2, you navigate the Gear S3 interface using a physical dial that’s built right into the bezel, and spins 360 degrees. You can also tap around the screen to navigate the watch interface if you prefer.

On the side of the watch, you’ll find Back and Home buttons—just like what you’d find on a Samsung smartphone. It’s nice to have those buttons available, but they do make the physical design a bit more busy. On the Gear S3 Classic, the buttons are traditional circles, whereas the buttons on the Frontier model are oblong, and look a bit more “tactical.”

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At 46mm, the two Gear S3s might be too big for some wrists. Also note the always-on display, which makes the smartwatch look and act like an analog model.

At 46mm in diameter, the Gear S3s are some of the biggest Android-compatible smartwatches on the market. Shoot, the Gear S2 was “only” 42mm, and even that’s too big for many wrists.

Nonetheless, I was expecting to put on the Gear S3 and have it feel dense and heavy like the Polar M600, but it was surprisingly light. It was easy to swap out the watchbands, too, and that’s relevant because Samsung’s own bands are a bit too stiff for my liking. I imagine that they’d soften up over time, but at least you can use any 22mm third-party watch band you please.

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Samsung’s many watchband offerings.

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Now you can pay for things with Samsung Pay on your wrist.

Perhaps the most exciting feature of both the Gear S3 Classic and Gear S3 Frontier is wide-open support for wireless payments. Both watches are crammed with both NFC and MST chips, which means they’re compatible with both old school and new school payment terminals. The NFC support is ready when you walk into a big box store that supports wireless payments, while the MST comes in handy when you’re grabbing a bottle of water at the bodega down the street.

Buy Gear S3 Frontier for LTE

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The Gear S3 Frontier can make phone calls if you purchase the version with LTE built in.

The Gear S3 Frontier is meant for active lifestyles, so Samsung is offering an optional LTE-connected model that lets you make phone calls right from your wrist. To this end, the Frontier features a speaker on the side. Samsung hasn’t yet confirmed which of the US carriers will offer cellular service for the watch.

The Gear S3 Frontier’s phone-call functionality definitely has a futuristic appeal about it, but I’m not the kind of person who would ever use this in daily practice. Nonetheless, if you find yourself in some harsh environment and can access a cellular signal, the S3 Frontier could be useful for checking in with a loved one, or making an emergency call. In fact, the S3 Frontier includes an SOS function: Just triple-tap the screen to notify any of your preferred emergency contacts that you’re in danger.

The Gear S2 isn’t going anywhere

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The Gear S3 is a neat watch, but it seems targeted at a very specific type of smartwatch user.

The Gear S3 is a niche product. It’s not for the everyman looking for his first smartwatch, and it’s definitely not styled for women. It’s just too big for most wrists. But the good news is that Samsung will still offer the Gear S2 for those looking for a smaller wearable device. Shoot, you can even consider the Gear Fit2. It tells the time, and comes with a nice suite of fitness functions.

To this extent, perhaps it’s wise that Samsung has four wearables on the market. Seven models may be excessive, but four models might offer just enough options to accommodate various types of users—without paralyzing those users with too many choices.

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