Samsung has gone to great lengths to make sure that the Gear S’s interface will seem familiar if you’ve used its brand of Android before. Many of the touch gestures such as swiping left and right for different screens are the same, although there are some new ones such as swiping down for a “back” command. Likewise, icons tend to be either the same or similar. But although it looks and feels like Android, the Gear S definitely isn’t — it runs on Tizen, Samsung’s in-house OS. Fortunately, this is far from Samsung’s first Tizen device, so there’s already a pre-existing base of apps that you can install.
To pair and install those, though, you’ll need to link the Gear S to an Android smartphone — and not just any smartphone, but one of a very select list of high-end Samsung devices such as those in the Galaxy S or Galaxy Note series. So that promise of a “standalone” watch isn’t entirely honest. The control app is simple enough, though, and makes it quite painless to find and install apps. The app selection is rather limited on the whole, but there are a few useful programs in the form of Opera Mini, GPS related apps, and alert systems.
The app isn’t the only important control option, though. Considering the small size of the touchscreen, one of the other most important software improvements to the Gear S is Samsung’s voice command system. “S Voice” allows you to do a great deal without having to fiddle with the touchscreen, like placing calls, sending text messages, and other limited commands. Browsing the web on a 2″ smartwatch screen feels extremely retro, though. It wasn’t that long ago that a 2-inch screen (or nearly that small) was normal for smartphone users–although Blackberry, Treo, and Blackjack uses also never had to cope with an on-screen keyboard. Getting around here isn’t what we’d call comfortable, but it’s surprisingly usable so long as you don’t try to dig too deep.
There are lots of other little features as well. For instance, if you have Bluetooth headphones, you can listen to music straight off the Gear S, but you can also use it to remotely control music playback from your smartphone while it’s still buried elsewhere.
All that said, there are a few glitches to contend with. The device doesn’t always recognize gestures perfectly, so you have to get used to the “right” way to do them. Any online activities are limited by the fact that the wearable is only equipped for 3G, so while you have apps like Spotify around, the experience might be less than you’d hoped for. Still, given that the screen space here is too limited to do anything intense, we can’t call the lack of LTE a dealbreaker in and of itself.
Powered by just a 300 mAh battery, it would be logical to assume that the Gear S’s battery life is underwhelming. Thankfully, that’s not really the case. Between the size of the screen, the highly efficient OLED display, and the lack of a power-hungry 4G radio, the Gear S manages to keep itself running through an average two days or so of use. That’s a ways behind the longevity of other non-smartwatch wearable, but it’s still nothing to scoff at for an always-connected device. And with such a relatively small battery, it charges pretty quickly too, even off a less than impressive power source.
The downside, however, is that recharging it has more complications than for a normal phone. Instead of having a regular microUSB port, even one covered by a door for waterproofing, it has a series of spring loaded pins on the back of the watch. These connect to the included dock when you snap the watch into it, and the microUSB cable connects to the dock. So if you want to charge on the go, you need to bring the dock with you. To make that a little more attractive, though, Samsung made it so the charger for the Gear S also has its own tiny 350 mAh internal battery, essentially acting as a backup for the main watch battery. So even if you’re away from a power source, you can still use the charger itself to get some extra juice.