Less than three weeks ago, Samsung teased a brief glimpse of its next smartwatch, promising more information at the IFA electronics trade show in Berlin, Germany on September 3. Today, the Korean giant is jumping the gun and offering a few more details about the new Gear S2.
We already knew that the Gear S2 featured a round watchface with a rotating selection dial and was powered by the Tizen operating system, Samsung’s home-grown software that’s separate and distinct from Google’s Android Wear smartwatch platform. But now it turns out that the Gear S2 won’t be one watch, but three — each of which has slightly different features and designs. (That’s hardly a surprise from Samsung, which already has five high-end Galaxy smartphones so far this year, and more TV models than you can count.)
And Samsung is pledging battery life of two to three days; if true, that’s far better than Apple Watch, which often struggles to make it through a single full day.
The details come hot on the heels of Google’s announcement earlier today that its Android Wear smartwatches will now work with Apple’s iPhone. That opens the potential for a whole new market of tens of millions of users to Google and its hardware partners — such as LG, Huawei, Motorola and Asus — that had previously been limited to only Android phone owners. By contrast, Samsung’s smartwatches have — to date — only been compatible with Samsung smartphones.
For Samsung, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The company beat the Apple Watch to market by a good 18 months with its first smartwatch, 2013’s Galaxy Gear, and went on to release five additional smartwatch models before the end of the 2014. But the Gear S2 will be its first model of 2015, a year that’s seen Apple reportedly become the wearable market’s second most popular vendor in less than five months.
Two Gear S2 styles, plus a cellular model
The Gear S2 is actually a family of watches available in two different styles, both 11.4mm thick. The main model — called simply the Gear S2 — has a modern, minimalist bent, while the more traditional Gear S2 Classic boasts a black body and leather band. The former model is slightly larger and heavier — 42.3 mm wide by 49.8 tall, and weighing 47 grams — versus the 39.9-by-43.6-mm dimensions of the Classic, which tips the scales at 42g. The watches will be rated at IP68 dust and water resistance, which is towards the top of the scale — though Samsung still needs to specify the depth and duration for water immersion.
On the inside, the specs of the two models are largely the same. The 1.2-inch (30.5 mm) 360×360-pixel display uses the same AMOLED technology found in Samsung’s winning phone screens (versus the standard LCD technology found on some competing Android Wear models). The watch is powered by a dual-core 1.0 GHz processor, and includes 4GB of storage. It’s unclear how much of that space is user-accessible, but the Gear S2 models are ready to double as portable music players, thanks to compatibility with the usual MP3, AAC and OGG audio formats.
Both Gear S2 styles will be chock full of sensors, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor and barometer (the latter is usually used to determine stair climbing activity). Those trackers will feed into S Health, Samsung’s own health software, or Nike+ Running, both of which will be available. (No GPS indicators were listed on the spec sheets provided by Samsung.)
The watches will feature built-in Bluetooth 4.1 for communicating with paired smartphones and audio devices (wireless headphones and speakers), as well as Wi-Fi, which implies phone-free communication ability. Furthermore, the (non-Classic) Gear S2 will also be available in a version that includes built-in 3G cellular capability. That opens up the possibility of it working as a standalone Dick Tracy-style watchphone — a trick Samsung previously pulled off with 2014’s original Gear S model. Indeed, AT&T, T-Mobile and US Cellular have already confirmed that they’ll be selling the Gear S when it goes on sale later this year.
Finally, Samsung is pledging a 2- to 3-day lifespan with the 250mAh battery on the Wi-Fi Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic models with “typical usage.” That drops to 2 days with the cellular version of the Gear S2, despite its larger 300mAh battery. And yes, the new Samsungs will offer wireless Qi charging, too.
The Gear S2 has two different color options, either a white band with a silver body, or a dark gray band with a matching body. As mentioned above, the Classic will be available in black with a leather band.
Circular design — and an app deficit
With the Gear S2, the squared-off design of previous Samsung Gear watches is gone. Instead, Samsung’s latest effort has a futuristic, minimal round look that reminiscent of Android Wear watches, but with a distinct style. The result is a watch that looks smaller than the 2014 version of the Moto 360, which also features a circular design. (That model is also widely expected to be updated later this week, as part of the parade of Android Wear watches hitting the IFA show.)
Along with that change in shape comes the Gear S2’s biggest interface shift — a rotating bezel that scrolls through the round apps and dial-like interfaces, like a larger version of Apple’s digital crown. Figuring out how the tiny interfaces on smartwatches should be controlled is an industry-wide puzzler, so we’re pleased to see Samsung attempting something new. The rotating bezel is a clever design, assuming the Samsung’s apps have been modified accordingly to take good advantage of it.
Speaking of apps: Samsung has its work cut out for it. Unlike Apple Watch and Android Wear — each of which has a strong backbone of apps and developers — by going it alone on the nascent Tizen operating system, Samsung is creating a third universe of incompatible apps. The company says that a “variety of apps optimized for the Gear S2’s circular user interface will be available at launch,” but getting those popular, must-have apps on the Gear platform will be essential to keep it attractive. (Just ask Microsoft and Windows Phone.)
To be continued
The impact of Samsung’s wearables to date has been doubtful — you’re much more likely to see an Apple Watch in the wild, if indeed you glimpse a smartwatch at all. We’re encouraged however by Samsung’s latest wrist-borne gadget, especially its interesting bezel-controlled interface. A lack of apps compared to other smartwatch platforms may put a crimp in our enjoyment, but for now our interest is definitely piqued.
Pricing, availability and device compatibility are still a mystery for the Gear S2. Those are just some of the questions we’ll have when we see the phone later this week at the the IFA show in Berlin.