How the Gear S is like a phone
2015 is certainly the year of the wearables, and we’ve been eyeing the possibility of a smartwatch-centric future for the last few years. But if you’ve taken a close look at the smartwatch market recently, it’s a category that’s been waiting on the sidelines. Most customers are skeptical of the tech preferring to hold tight to their smartphones.
If a standalone smartwatch sounds too good to be true, it is. So far, we’ve mostly seen dummy smartwatches tethered to a phone in your pocket and a connection to a device with a SIM card in order to make phone calls, stay connected and access the internet.
With the exception of the Neptune Hub, a standalone 4G smartwatch and Will.i.am’s Puls smart cuff – these smartwatches end up being, largely, a half baked wrist-gadget or phone accessory.
There is hope, though; the latest Samsung Gear S might be the most ambitious smartwatch yet. It’s the first of six Gear smartwatches that let you make and receive calls from your wrist, no phone required. It has its very own cell service and data, basically putting the smartphone in a smartwatch.
And yet, even with all that, it’s still not the perfect wearable and remains achingly close to being a phone replacement.
How the Gear S tries to be a phone
Although it’s bulky, the Gear S’ 2-inch screen is a selling point for making calls and responding to emails, especially compared to the 1.63-inch display used on the Gear 2 and Gear Live. It has its own speakers and microphone, and vibrates when you get messages or an alarm goes off, just like a phone would – only it’s buzzing on your wrist.
With 480 x 360 resolution (300 ppi), the screen is pretty easy on the eyes making text big enough to read. It’s still a huge pain to enter long messages on the Gear S, and there doesn’t seem to be a plan for installing third-party keyboards or other input options.
The Gear S also shows full content of every notification. Yes, even those long emails from your boss, messages and or comments. So there’s no need to take your phone out of your pocket to to read. The big problem here is the syncing; there’s no two-way notification sync on your watch.
Thanks to its very own nano-SIM card, the Gear S can show you emails in full and has the option to reply directly from your wrist using an on-screen keyboard without using your voice.
If you want, you can also use voice control as an option for dictation. Samsung’s S Voice assistant responds even faster compared to the older Gears. It still doesn’t have the capacity to answer every question, making it inferior to both Google Now, Cortana and Siri.
It should be noted, that dictating voice messages in public will make you feel like Dick Tracy, and may even pose a privacy concern.
The huge Gear S display comes with large bezels, and a bottom bezel, which holds extra functionality with the UV sensor and ambient light sensor with a rectangular physical home button that matches ones you’d find on any Samsung phone today.
Also, like every Samsung device, there is an array of customization options. Want to change the color of the interface, sound profiles, brightness controls, connection preferences, do not disturb mode, home button shortcuts, a privacy lock, motion controls and power saving modes? It’s all done from the watch.
Can the Gear S replace a phone?
The pitfalls of the Gear S
The biggest issue with the Gear S? You’ll still need to pair it with a Samsung Galaxy phone (running Android 4.3 or higher) – and only these specific Samsung phones will work with it.
However, built-in connectivity means that even when the Gear S is far away from your phone, it can still send and receive messages and get turn-by-turn directions. You do have the option of leaving your phone at home and letting the two devices pair over cellular networks. You’ll even be able to make and receive calls on the watch – using your phone’s number, while your phone is miles away.
You might want to keep your phone nearby though, because it won’t help you with things like watching videos or taking pictures (there’s no camera). But the Gear S’ SIM card could come in handy for jogs, trips to the gym or other situations where you want to stay connected and don’t want a huge phone flopping around in your pocket.
If you do want to use the Gear S as a phone, you’ll have to pay an additional monthly fee on top of your regular phone bill, as it requires a carrier SIM card for service. That means the watch will require a paid voice plan, if not also a data plan, for consumers. And that’s going to be a tough sell. Especially since Samsung’s own Galaxy Gear series can deliver nearly the same experience, but without the data plan.
Not only do you need to pair it with a compatible Samsung phone in order to load apps onto it, but you also need to do so in order to even start using the Gear S. This seems like a curious shortcoming for a device that for all intents and purposes could otherwise completely replace a user’s smartphone. When you initially start up the Gear S, the first thing it’ll ask you to do is connect it to a Samsung phone with the Gear Manager app installed. But you’re not exactly going to want to send emails on the tiny QWERTY keys on the Gear S, anyway. The most you can do with the watch before then is make an emergency call.
By now you’re probably thinking, that defeats the purpose of the Gear S almost entirely. But let’s be clear, this device generally has no need for your smartphone. Assuming you’ve paid extra for a connected data plan, incoming calls can be answered via a built-in speakerphone, or via a connected Bluetooth headset.
Frankly, it’s nice using a speakerphone to make calls on the watch, especially for hands-free calling – something Android Wear watches can’t do at all. Still, using a watch for voice calls, even on Samsung’s existing smartwatch products over Bluetooth – doesn’t yet offer a 100% great experience in public.
Are wearables good phone substitutes?
As much as smartwatches make life easier, it doesn’t seem like the Gear S is designed to replace your smartphone. In fact it’s difficult to imagine any smartwatch on the market as a replacement for a smartphone.
While the Gear S can be, it shouldn’t be your main mobile device. If it tries to replace the phone, it will fail. It’s an exciting "why not?" concept, but when it comes to selling it as a standalone product, it’s hard to see this getting past a very niche, early adopter audience if the problems mentioned before aren’t solved.
As of now, the Samsung Gear S smartwatch is a solution to the inherent rudeness of smartphones. Whether we’re on a date, at work or driving in the car – any social setting, if your phone rings in your purse or pocket, your first impulse will likely be to reach or stare down, and see who or what is pinging you. These handy devices will let you keep your phone in your pocket by delivering notifications right to your wrist in a very incognito style.
Someday soon, smartwatches might be devices that work completely on their own, without a phone as a connected Web browser, a music player, a fitness device, etc., but it looks like this is the closest thing we have right now.