Samsung Gear S3 first impressions: Much improved over the S2, but with potential to be the best smartwatch

Samsung continues to push the limits of technology, with the best LTE smartwatch available today. The Gear S3 can be even better once the advertised capability is released to the public.

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The modern smartwatch has made me a daily watch wearer, and in my quest to find the best smartwatch for me, the new Samsung Gear S3 is as good as it gets. Samsung advertising currently shows some capability that has not yet been provided, but when it does, it's clear the Gear S3 will be the best you can buy.

I purchased a Gear S3 Frontier from T-Mobile last week as part of the T-Mobile deal offering a free line of service, so there is no monthly charge for unlimited calls and texts with 500MB of LTE data. Samsung also sent along an AT&T version, with a Galaxy S7, so I could test out the excellent AT&T NumberSync technology.

Hardware

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Last year, I purchased the Gear S2 3G since it was the first version available at T-Mobile. Samsung then released the better looking Gear S2 Classic, but it was too late for me to trade in the standard model. The standard model had a health band look and feel to it, which didn't work well as a classy watch for the office or going out.

The new Gear S3 Frontier is an awesome piece of hardware, with stainless steel on much of the frame and rotating bezel. It looks amazing in person and on my wrist. It's smaller than my Garmin Fenix 3 HR and Citizen Ecodrive watches, but it's not a small watch and is unlikely to fit a smaller wrist that well.

Specifications of the Samsung Gear S3 include:

  • Processor: Samsung Exynos 7270 1GHz dual-core/li>
  • Display: 1.3 inch 360x360 pixels resolution Super AMOLED, 278 ppi, Gorilla Glass SR+
  • Operating system: Tizen OS 2.3.x
  • RAM: 768MB
  • Storage: 4GB internal storage
  • Wireless technology: NFC, MST, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, and LTE
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, barometer, gyro, heart rate, ambient light
  • Other features: IP68 dust and water resistant, MIL-STD-810G rated, integrated microphone and speaker
  • Battery: 380mAh battery with wireless charging dock
  • Dimensions: 46 x 49 x 12.9 mm and 62g

The Gear S3 Frontier comes with a couple different sized silicone bands that are malleable and well designed. It also uses a standard 22mm strap configuration, so you can purchase replacement bands to match your needs and style.

Software

The Gear S3 runs Tizen, and it is fully optimized for the round wearable experience. There are a number of optional watch faces with a ton more available in the Samsung Gear store. Buttons, screen swipes and taps, and the rotating bezel are all used to navigate around on the watch.

A rotation or swipe to the left reveals your notifications, and then moving to the right jumps through various customizable widgets you select. Pressing in on the home key (bottom right) takes you to the app launcher, which you can easily spin or tap through to launch apps loaded by default and those you install through the Gear app store.

Samsung's website shows Spotify and iHeartRadio music streaming services, but at this time, neither is available in the Samsung Gear app store. You can transfer your downloaded music content to the Gear S3 for now.

Swiping down from the top reveals the connectivity status and several quick controls. Settings can be managed right from the Gear S3 or through the companion Samsung Gear application.

The Samsung Gear application is available for all Android smartphones and is in beta for the iPhone. While you are supposed to be able to use Samsung Pay with the Gear S3 without a Samsung Galaxy phone, that functionality has not yet been released -- even though there is a step-by-step help document that shows you how to set this up without having Samsung Pay on your Android phone.

The Samsung Gear app allows you to fully setup and customize your Gear S3 experience. This includes viewing the Gear S3 status, finding and installing apps and watch faces, managing your notifications that are shared with the Gear S3, sending pictures and music to the Gear S3, and more. The Samsung Gear app also then connects to the S Health Android application.

Your Gear S3 syncs to the S Health app on your phone to capture and record all of your activity. You can setup other services to sync, including RunKeeper and Strava.

Why is the Gear S3 better than the Gear S2?

As a person who owned the Gear S2 3G for about six months, here is what I find improved on the Gear S3 Frontier:

What is needed to realize its potential?

Here is what Samsung needs to do to help propel the Gear S3 to the top:

  • Cross device number sync: About a year ago, T-Mobile made fun of AT&T's NumberSync service and said it had something better to offer its customers. Today, we see many devices with flawless AT&T NumberSync functionality, while T-Mobile still has nothing to offer. The Gear S3 LTE experience is a bit convoluted on T-Mobile, where you have to manually manage call forwarding or else make sure all of your contacts have both your cell number and your smartwatch number for communications. Hopefully, T-Mobile offers something quickly now that the Gear S3 is available. If you are on AT&T, then I can highly recommend the Gear S3 Frontier.
  • Provide the advertised music streaming apps: Spotify and iHeartRadio are shown, so let's get these apps out there to enjoy.
  • Provide the advertised Samsung Pay support without a Samsung phone: The table clearly shows this, and the support directions show how to set it up through a web browser, so it can be done.
  • Provide iOS support: This capability has been promised for months, and I understand it is being beta tested. Having a premium smartwatch that rivals -- and beats -- the Apple Watch with the capability to be used by iOS and Android smartphone owners helps make the Gear S3 the best smartwatch available.
  • Improve the GPS sports tracking experiences: Like the Apple Watch, the S Health app doesn't show you GPS status, so I began my runs without a GPS fix, resulting in the accuracy of the tracking being off. I would love to see Strava or RunKeeper release a Tizen app for running, but S Health does continue to improve, so there is hope it will do the job.
  • Continue to improve the app experience: Studies have shown the majority of Apple Watch owners use their watch to tell the time, track activity, and communicate. The Gear S3 does all of these well, but more major brands with apps would be nice to see.

Concluding initial impressions

S Health has come a long way over the past year, with support for connected services and finally the ability to export your run data in .GPX format. Previously, you could only export biking data, so I can now finally use the Gear S3 as both my smartwatch and my GPS sports watch.

Battery life was terrible for me the first couple of days, but after performing a factory reset, I am now seeing a burn rate of about 2 percent per hour during the day, which means I am easily going a couple of days with the Gear S3. This is better than the Apple Watch and Android Wear watches, but I will continue to test it over the next couple of weeks. I am training for my first full marathon and am not a fast runner, so I will need a watch that can last four hours with GPS tracking enabled, and I hope the S3 can meet this requirement.

I gave up on the Gear S2 as a running watch when it kept crashing and losing all of my run data if I tried to listen to music, record my heart rate, and track my run via GPS. On a couple of runs so far, I have been able to enjoy music, record my heart rate, track my route with GPS, send out SOS messages, and call to talk to my family without any crashing.

The Gear S3 build quality is fabulous, and it looks great on my wrist. I purchased it for $399 at T-Mobile and understand this is the current price for the LTE model. It is smaller than my Garmin Fenix 3 HR, has a bezel that can easily be manipulated while running, and is able to perform several functions at once without crashing.

Please let me know in the comments if there is anything you would like me to test as I work on my full review of this new smartwatch.

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