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Hands On: Samsung’s Gear S2 Brings Some Elegance to the Smartwatch

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Photos by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Samsung’s new Gear S2 smartwatch reminds me of an Apple product. No, not the Apple Watch — the original iPod.

Its clever spinning bezel, which lets you quickly switch between apps and select things within them, offers some of the same discoverable agility as the iPod’s click-wheel dial. “Elegant” is not the word I’d use to describe my experiences with many smartwatches. But after an hour of trying out the S2 (at this week’s IFA trade show in Berlin), that description seems to fit.

Fit and feel

The Gear S2 — announced Monday and due in October at an unannounced price — comes in three basic versions: the regular S2 (at left below), the more traditional-looking S2 Classic (on the right), and a 3G-capable version that you can use as a phone on its own (with your wireless carrier collecting an extra fee for the privilege).

The round face helps all of these Gear S2 models look less like a wrist-bound computer — another common issue with these devices — and more like a traditional watch. It’s no less chunky than other smartwatches but no thicker than many popular men’s watches. If you’ve been okay having a hefty running watch or a complicated chronograph strapped to your wrist, you should be fine with this.

Samsung says it’s 11.4 millimeters (or almost .45 inches) thick; I measured it at a tad under 12 mm. (A Samsung rep said the difference was due to their measuring from the bottom of the watch to the surface of the face, not to the raised bezel around it.) The Apple Watch, by comparison, is 10.5 mm thick.

Between the spinning bezel and the Back and Home buttons on its right side, the S2 requires much less guessing about which swipes take you in and out of particular modes than you’d have with Android Wear.

Not Android, but Android-friendly

The S2 offers the same basic functions as other smartwatches: Its round, 360-by-360-pixel screen transmits important notifications; it lets you read and reply to text messages and e-mails; it tracks your exercise; and, yes, it tells the time too.

Unlike competing devices, the S2 doesn’t run Google’s Android Wear software, relying instead on Samsung’s Tizen platform. But (contrary to what Samsung initially suggested) it should still work with a wide variety of Android devices — anything running Android 4.4 or newer with at least 1.5 GB of memory should suffice.

There are two qualifications to that: The S2’s ability to pay for things only works with a Samsung phone that includes the Korean firm’s Samsung Pay feature. And if your Android phone doesn’t use Google’s standard tools for managing calls and texts, those notifications won’t show up on the watch.

Beyond the S2′s built-in apps for keeping track of your schedule, the weather, e-mail, your activity, and messaging, you can install a variety of other apps from the likes of Uber, ESPN and the Wall Street Journal.

Voice input should work for most text entry, but I wasn’t able to test it in my short time with the phone. I can, however, report that you can reply to texts with a menu of canned replies as well as a set of 19 emoji.

I was also unable to test the activity tracker (which Samsung says will automatically detect your running, biking and so on once you’re 10 minutes into it) or Samsung Pay.

Missed opportunities and unknowns

Samsung says the S2’s battery can last “up to 2-3 days.”  But to achieve that, you have to set the screen to turn off completely when idle — in which case you couldn’t look at the thing and always see the time. If you decide instead to keep the time visible at all times (while still blanking the rest of the display), the settings app warns it “will significantly increase battery consumption.” It’s unclear just how bad that hit will be.

The S2 recharges wirelessly when dropped into a small plastic cradle, much like the Moto 360 and its just-announced successor. But while the 360 can recharge from a standard Qi wireless-charging pad — like the one Samsung sells to go with its Galaxy S6 line of phones — Samsung warned against doing that with the S2. It’s yet another missed opportunity for wireless charging.

The S2 faces competition from a new crop of Android Wear phones, such as the stylish, $349-and-up Huawei Watch. With those, you have a known issue: the risk of being overrun with notifications from your smartphone. With the S2, it’s unclear how much of a problem that will be. If Samsung can break with precedent by making this watch a little smarter about when to ping you, that would represent another overdue outbreak of elegance in the smartphone business.

Disclosure: Most of my travel expenses, along with those of a group of other U.S.-based tech journalists and analysts, are being covered by IFA’s organizers.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.