When we took a look at the Samsung Gear S2 range's specs we came away fairly concerned that, despite the new circular design, it was unlikely to match up to the dominant Apple Watch.
Having now tried out the standard Gear S2 and the Gear S2 Classic at a Samsung-hosted event at IFA in Berlin, we're somewhat less pessimistic. We couldn't test a few key features, but it was clear that both these smartwatches are better than their underwhelming specs might have initially suggested.
The Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic are not particularly svelte, being taller, wider and thicker than the biggest Apple Watch. Even so, they were quite comfortable on our wrists. We never felt like they were excessively bulky or heavy, and the standard Gear S2 in particular benefits from a light, soft strap. Supposedly, these can be swapped out for Samsung's own designs and with any standard-sized watch strap.
However, the really big feature design-wise is the rotating bezel. Turning with a tactile clickiness, it's the feature we never knew we wanted, a clever and intuitive way to switch between apps, scroll through news articles and search through photo galleries. It's far smoother and easier for these purposes than flicking at the screen with a finger, which blocks out most of the view anyway. The bezel on the Gear S2 Classic seemed to require less force to move, although the standard Gear S2's is easy to twist as well.
Backing up the bezel are Home and Back buttons on the right-hand side of the devices. These aren't quite as revelatory as the spinning ring, but they're just as functional as they need to be, and make the user experience just a bit more like that of a smartphone, which we appreciate.
The Gear S2 range borrows the Super AMOLED tech of Samsung's smartphones, and it shows. Colours pop out with incredible vividness, even on the modest 1.2in screens, and blacks are beautifully deep, which is good considering that the UI makes heavy use of them.
The 360x360 resolution is more than sharp enough to read text at arm's length. The display's only real problem, besides being something of a fingerprint magnet, is reflectivity. It can be hard to make out in direct light, on the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic.
Operating system and software
The entire Gear S2 family runs Tizen, a Linux-based OS co-developed by Samsung and Intel. We're still sceptical that Tizen will be able to offer the range of apps that Android Wear or Apple's watchOS can, but there was at least a decent selection on the models we tested, including all the expected messaging, fitness, utility and news apps.
It's worth noting that Tizen makes full use of the circular screen, organising apps in a semi-circle around the topmost curve and shifting on-screen prompts to the left and right, leaving an unobstructed rectangle in the centre.
There's also a handy Android-esque Power Saving mode. This turns the screen greyscale, disables most non-essential apps and adopts a very basic watch interface. This does look amusingly incongruous on the fancy Gear S2 Classic, but will undoubtedly prove useful to anyone who'll need to be away from their wireless charger for longer than a day or so.
We expected the relatively beefy 1GHz dual-core processor within the Gear S2 range to be one of its biggest strengths, and are thus pleased that both models we tried were unfalteringly nippy.
This is especially noticeable when using the bezel to, say, quickly flick between a packed photo album. This is much faster than doing so by touch, but the hardware keeps up easily. Apps open and close without delay, too.
We'd need more time living with a Gear S2 to truly judge its performance; we're curious as to how quickly its Samsung Pay functionality will work, for instance. For now, anyway, the range certainly seems powerful enough to challenge its premium competitors.
Going circular could have easily been a simple stylistic choice, but in the Gear S2 line's case it enables the inclusion of a fantastic control method that, by permeating every app, menu and interface, never feels like a gimmick.
There are other fine aspects to these smartwatches - their deceptively light weight, bold displays, high capacity for user-end customisation - but it's that little spinning bezel that makes them worthy of attention.
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