Suppose the smartwatch ever becomes a thing we buy out of necessity, not just curiosity. In that case, the Gear S3 Frontier will deserve much credit.
While Apple commands most of the attention in the smartwatch space, it’s actually Samsung that has consistently led the way. Bringing innovative features and unique touches that push the limits of what we expect from wrist-worn wearables. The journey hasn’t been without its share of missed steps. Who can forget the original Galaxy Gear strap camera? But with each new model. Samsung refines a little more of its vision, taking a slow, steady approach to an unchartered path.
The Gear S3 isn’t a continuation of this strategy as much as it is a culmination. Samsung’s latest smartwatch isn’t perfect. But after years of experimenting with various concepts and features. It finally feels like there is a solid platform to build on. And if Apple isn’t taking notes, they should at least take notice.
The first thing that grabs your attention with the S3 is its size. It’s big, like, massive. At 1.3 inches, its display is noticeably larger than its predecessor’s 1.2-inch one. Not to mention 1.5mm thicker and 10 grams heavier, so Samsung’s not trying to appeal to every wrist here. At $349, however, you’re not paying a premium for the extra size. It’s not the type of watch I’d be interested in buying, but it didn’t look terrible. And despite the heft, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the slightest.
The classic roundness adds a touch of class. The traditional silicone strap didn’t pinch or chafe my skin like Apple’s sports bands tend to do. Still, last year’s S2 is downright svelte by comparison. It’s a little surprising Samsung didn’t make a smaller version for slighter wrists. I tested the Frontier version of the watch, and the large bright display popped against the dark metal body. Large textured buttons and bezel accents gave the watch a truly rugged look reminiscent of a higher-end Casio G-Shock. Especially when paired with one of the chronograph faces. In fact, many of the bundled watch faces are skeuomorphic, echoing Samsung’s primary strategy with the S3. It looks like a watch because it is a watch. Samsung also offers a slightly less ruggedized Classic Gear S3 design.
Rugged Good Looks
Samsung has stuck with its 22 mm pin-based bands for the S3. Which opens up an array of options for styling. Like Apple’s method, official bands are a cinch to swap out. Utilizing a tiny switch on the underside that quickly disconnects the pin from its housing.
It can be challenging to install a regular watch band. Requiring a spring bar tool or something long and sharp with some patience. Still, Samsung sells enough official bands where it shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, the silicone strap of the Frontier is lovely. With a textured pattern that looks like it’s made of carbon fiber.
And Samsung is doubling down on its patented rotating bezel, which is integral to the look function of the S3. On the Frontier, the chiseled bezel makes it look like a diving watch. Although with the same I8 water resistance as the S2. You shouldn’t take it too profoundly; it does well to accentuate the recessed display.
Face to Face
It displays that comes all of the attention, not just because of how big it is. Its 360×360 Super AMOLED Gorilla Glass screen has the exact resolution as the S2’s at a larger size. Which means you’re actually getting less pixel density. But with bold, bright colors that hold up exceptionally in sunlight, the 24 fewer pixels per inch. As with the S2, there is an always-on option for the display. Interestingly hidden in the Style settings; it looks excellent when activated. So much so that people will likely mistake it from a distance for a regular wristwatch.
However, even with auto-low brightness toggled, keeping the watch face visible significantly impacted battery life. I still got comfortably through the day, but I needed to charge it overnight to make it through a second. Despite the S3’s larger 380 mAh battery compared to the S2’s 250 mAh. I didn’t mind; I never understood the bother of charging your watch every night. People expecting several days on a single charge might be disappointed.
I could comfortably push the battery throughout the display into the second day. Still, even when I turned the brightness way down and shut off automatic heart-rate monitoring. I couldn’t hit the promised three full days of use. The battery life never affected my daily activity. Samsung’s wireless charger looks so good at night, even rotating the display so it’s readable. I was perfectly content taking it off each night, even if it wasn’t begging for an immediate charge.
Turn for the Better
The Gear S3 doesn’t look like your usual smartwatch, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t act like one. Under the hood, it has a 1Ghz dual-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 with 768MB of RAM. While it still runs Tizen OS, it doesn’t feel like it. It needs the polish of Apple’s watch OS. Still, Samsung has created a platform that’s in some ways superior to its competitors. With simple, intuitive navigation that is among the best I’ve ever used. Even though it was my first time using a Samsung smartwatch, my first instinct was often the correct one. Where my previous encounters with Android wear were littered with early missed steps. The Gear S3 provided no such learning curve.
The main reason is the clever rotating bezel, which eliminates much of the need to touch the screen. I found it more naturally precise than the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown and could zip through app screens quickly. Scrolling through menu text is delightful while turning the bezel. I found it far more pleasant and intuitive than tapping or swiping against such a tiny screen. Playing games was fun using the bezel as a controller; I never really enjoyed gaming on other smartwatches.
Samsung has also built other functionality into the bezel, letting you rotate it to respond to calls or silence alarms. It will remain a core feature of Samsung’s future smartwatches. As well as the S3’s other stout feature: built-in 4G LTE.
Out and About
The Gear S3 has its own speedy cellular service. The S3 Frontier is like having a smartphone strapped to your wrist. You’ll need to piggyback off your existing data plan, an extra $10 for AT&T customers or $5 for T-Mobile subscribers. Verizon has yet to begin selling it, but when it does, it’ll be $5, too. But the expense is well worth it.
If you forget your phone or leave it at home, you won’t miss it. About the only thing the watch won’t do is snap pictures. You’ll be able to take, make calls, get notifications, send messages, check sports scores. Do pretty much anything your phone can do. Assuming there’s an app for it, more on that later. Of course, the Gear S3 is one of many smartwatches to feature LTE. Still, the implementation here goes beyond the convenience of getting emails, messages, and calls on the go. As its name suggests, Samsung isn’t just allowing you to leave your phone at home. It wants you to explore the world with the Frontier.
To that end, it has expanded the S3’s capabilities as an outdoor companion. With new sensor apps designed to track your movements. The altimeter and barometer measure how high you’ve climbed and detect sudden atmospheric changes. The Speedometer app will show the maximum speed distance traveled on a bicycle ride. I’m no exercise enthusiast. But the flights of stairs I climbed and the steps I took. Are accurately tracked after a few days with it. I found myself looking forward to the occasional notifications to stretch.
Pay to Play
Beyond the outdoorsy stuff, Samsung has also made the Frontier a Samsung Pay companion. Supporting NFC and MST Magnetic Secure Transmission terminals. That means you only have to load it up with a credit card. You can use it virtually anywhere you would usually swipe your card. It worked without fail wherever I tried it. Although you can’t use it at terminals where you insert your card rather than swipe it, gas stations, mostly. And while Samsung Pay supports several bank cards, Chase Discover is two notable holdout. Still, it’s a fantastic feature; the real-world use diminishes what you get with other watches.
And you don’t even need one of the latest Galaxy phones to take advantage of it. Samsung has quietly infiltrated the Play Store with its own Gear app. It mimics what you’d get with a Galaxy S7, right down to storing access to credit cards. Along with the Galaxy S7, I tested the Frontier with a pixel phone. The experience was virtually the same, saving several location issues and notification quirks.
Substandard App Side
Samsung clearly dreams of building an app store that rivals the Gear app are a small taste. But getting developers to buy into it is another issue altogether. Samsung includes its own store for the Gear, but you will find only a few of your favorite apps. To entice developer support for the S3, Samsung has opened up the bezel to developers. The shelves at the Gear store need to be filled. While a few significant bars are represented by ESPN, Uber, newbie Spotify, and more.
You won’t find essential smartwatch apps like Facebook, Twitter, Nike, or Strava. Couples are charming exclusive offerings, and many gorgeous watches face. Still, most users will need help with notable gaps in the Gear store.
Samsung may boast that there are some 10,000 apps available. But for the most part, the quality is far from what you expect from a major mobile app store. And it’s doubtful it ever will be.
Should You Buy It?
It’s hard not to recommend the Gear S3 watch, but the size is a big caveat. People with slight wrists, most women, will be turned off by the enormous size. As something of a conciliation, Samsung is still selling the smaller S2. Still, at $249, you’re not paying much less than you got last year’s technology.
With the uncertainty surrounding the future of Android Wear. The S3 is a fantastic choice for anyone who wants a smartwatch. It’s been over a year since we saw any significant new Android wear watches. It’s unclear how long we will have to wait to get one. Android Wear 2.0 has been delayed for several months; important manufacturers have signaled a wait-and-see strategy. Besides, Samsung already has a head start on the next generation of Android wear watches. It’s hard to imagine anything Huawei releases will be able to top Samsung’s list of features.
Samsung was the first to bring the promise of full smartphone functionality to the wrist. With the Gear S3, it’s delivered a complete package. Even with a shortage of apps, the Frontier is the realized, full-featured independent smartwatch we’ve been waiting for. With a bright, stylish aesthetic and an OS optimized for the wrist. Someday every smartwatch will be as capable as a smartphone. From the luxurious ones wrapped in rose gold to the no-name knock-offs for sale in the bargain store.
But until that day arrives, the Gear S3. Huge though it may be, it is the best glimpse of how awesome and liberating that future will be.