Let's get this out of the way first: smartwatches have not been the big sellers that many technology firms were hoping they would be. Android Wear is stumbling, and even Apple is having trouble convincing its rabid fans to pony up $300 to $1000 on a wearable device. Samsung has taken a long and winding road through the land of wearables, having released an Android-powered smartwatch before Android Wear existed, then adopting Android Wear ever so briefly, then diving into its own Tizen-powered watch ecosystem.

That's where we are now—Samsung is making its own smartwatches running Tizen, but unlike earlier devices, the Gear S3 works on all Android devices. That means you can get Samsung Pay even if you don't have a Samsung phone. The Gear S3 is somewhat beefy and overtly masculine, and the software is very different from Android Wear. Despite that, the Gear S3 has a lot going for it. It might even convince a few Android Wear fans to jump ship.

Specs

SoC Exynos 7270, dual-core 1GHz
RAM 768MB
Storage 4GB
Display 1.3-inch round Super AMOLED, 360x360
Battery 380mAh
Software Tizen 2.3.2
Measurements 49 x 46 x 12.9mm, 59g

The Good

Design It looks classy and like a real watch.
Display Completely round AMOLED with great colors and brightness.
Samsung Pay Contactless payments with the Gear S3 are super easy and work almost everywhere.
Battery life About two days with always-on display, and over three without.
Rotating bezel It's a really cool way to navigate the UI.
Band Standard watch band attachment, and it comes with two sizes.
Software Tizen is a solid wearable OS. The widgets are cool.

The Not So Good

Design again It's a little on the large side, and is pretty explicitly a men's watch.
Setup Getting all the Samsung stuff installed on a non-Samsung phone is a bit of a pain.
S Voice It's no match for OK Google or Assistant.
Notifications It takes a few more taps to act on notifications compared to Android Wear.
Apps and watch faces The selection pales in comparison to Android Wear.

Design

At first glance, the Gear S3 looks like any standard mechanical men's watch. I'm stressing men's here because I really do think the style appeals more to a masculine aesthetic. Some other watches are at least somewhat unisex, but not the Gear S3.

The main body is all stainless steel and has a clean, simple shape. The lugs extend outward from the body and tilt downward slightly. I feel like they don't go down far enough. The plastic underside of the watch is actually slightly lower than where the lugs end, which makes it a bit awkward on smaller wrists. Thus, there are small gaps between the band and my wrist. The Moto 360 v2 fits better on small wrists, for example. It doesn't help that the Gear S3 has a 46mm case, a large but common dimension for smartwatches.

I don't want to imply that the Gear S3 is uncomfortable—it's actually not bad. I do really appreciate that it comes with a small band if the standard one has a lot of extra notches. I know in photos it does look big, but keep in mind that I've been cursed with very slender wrists. The band is a standard 22mm design with quick-release pins. It's a fine band, but the standard connection also means you can swap in whatever band you want.

Around the face of the watch is a rotating bezel with a subtle knurl pattern on the edge. This is your main navigation input for the Gear S3; simply spin the bezel and you'll advance through lists and rotate around the (usually) circular menus it uses. Each click on the bezel advances one item or screen. I'll get to the UI stuff later, but the rotating bezel is a pleasant experience. It feels very solid and has good feedback while rotating. You can also swipe and tap to move around the UI.

 

There are two buttons on the Gear S3. The top one is back and the bottom one is home. However, they have other functions that can get a little confusing. On the watch face, the home button opens the app list. You can also double-press home to open an app or shortcut of your choosing (the default is S Voice). The back button launches Samsung Pay at any time. The buttons themselves are excellent, with a soft click and no wiggle. There's a speaker and a microphone, so yes, you can take phone calls on the watch. The audio quality is very similar to using your smartphone in speaker phone mode.

The underside of the chassis is plastic with a window for the heart rate sensor. Just like on the Apple Watch, this sensor also lets the watch know when you're wearing it. If you have a PIN lock (required for Samsung Pay), you only have to enter it when the watch has detected it has been taken off. Here's one notable problem: the heart rate sensor doesn't work on tattooed skin, of which I have a great deal. That means you'd need to enter the passcode every time you used the watch. You better hope you don't have tattoos covering both wrists (my left one is clear, but it doesn't play nicely with my right).

Display and battery

The Gear S3 has a 360x360 round Super AMOLED display that looks very nice. It's a little lower resolution than what you get on the Huawei Watch or Watch Urbane 2 at 278ppi, but the colors and brightness seem better to me. Everything looks sufficiently crisp, and it performs better in bright sunlight than other watch AMOLEDs I've seen.

Unlike Android Wear, Samsung's default behavior for the Gear S3 is to shut the screen off when you're not looking at it. Raise your wrist, and the screen turns on. Android Wear has a low-power mode for its default always-on setting. Samsung has always-on too... sort of. It's buried in the settings, and it's not really very low-power. Animations like the second hand still run, but backgrounds are black and the screen is dimmed. It looks good, but I wonder how much more power could have been saved with a more aggressive power-saving version of always-on.

That said, the battery life is better than what you'll get on most Android Wear devices right now. With the display settings unaltered (i.e. off while at rest), the Gear S3 can get to nearly four days of life. With the display always-on, you're looking at around two days with moderate usage. Two days is pushing it for me, but I have all notifications enabled and three Gmail accounts syncing at all times.

For charging, the Gear S3 comes with a wireless dock. It's not Qi, though. The Gear S3 charging tech is based on WPC, so it's unlikely you'll have another compatible pad around.

Software and performance

If you have a Samsung device, pairing the Gear S3 is a pretty simple matter. All the components are already there to plug into the watch. On other Android devices, you have to jump through some hoops. First, you'll need the Gear app from the Play Store. This app manages the connection and acts as a hub for all the other Samsung services that communicate with the watch.

As you progress through the setup, Gear actually downloads and installs other modules from Samsung's own servers. For example, Samsung Pay isn't a Play Store download. Samsung downloads it using the Gear app, so it won't be in your Android device's app drawer. It's only accessible from the Gear app. It's a little bit of a hack, but it works well enough when everything is set up.

If you've been using Android Wear for the last couple years, you've got a lot of adjustment to do with the Tizen-based Gear S3 software. It accomplishes most of the same things, but the way you go about it can be markedly different. Notifications are one of the big uses for a smartwatch (at least in my opinion), and that's really one of the core parts of the Android Wear UI. The Gear S3 doesn't seem to make notifications quite as central to the experience, though.

The Gear S3 has more of a smartphone home screen paradigm. In the middle is your watch face, then rotate the bezel to go left and you cycle through your notifications. Each line in your phone's notification shade is a different screen. You can tap on any of them to expand the text and access the actions via a small menu button. If you go the other way from the watch face, you get your widgets for things like media playback, contacts, and weather.

If your main purpose upon looking at your watch is to check a notification and use one of the built-in action buttons, the Gear S3 is a little slower. It takes longer to access and select the button. At the same time, I do like having the widgets on the right. The order and selection is configurable, so you can have a favorite contact just a click away, or put a scrollable calendar within reach. Android Wear's interface changes as your notifications change.

Weirdly, the Gear S3's Do Not Disturb mode is distinct from your phone's. On Android Wear, enabling DND on the watch silences the phone too. Here, the DND toggle is only for the watch.

One more knock against the Gear S3 is that music controls can be harder to access compared to Wear. You have a widget that handles all your playback controls (on Android Wear it's just the notification with action buttons). That means you have to get to the widget (wherever you put it) to skip a track or pause playback.

One strength of Android Wear is the app ecosystem. I know, there aren't that many Wear apps, but there are way, way more for Wear than the Gear S3 has. There are some useful ones like a dedicated Spotify client, an NBA app, and various news readers. Samsung just doesn't have a very deep bench, though. In general, you had better hope the included Samsung apps do what you need them to do.

You're in a similar spot with watch faces. The ones pre-installed on the watch are solid, but most of what I see in the scaled down Galaxy Apps store isn't compelling. The included watch faces have customization features, but most third-party ones don't implement that. Very few of the free watch faces appeal to me, and some of them don't even work properly on the Gear S3. The paid ones do look and work better, but the selection still isn't as good as it is on Android Wear.

Possibly the most annoying thing for me is being stuck without OK Google commands on the watch. The Gear S3 uses S Voice, and let's face it, S Voice isn't very good. It will get the basics like placing calls and quick text input right, but search queries and longer strings of voice input seem to get garbled.

I suppose it's lucky that you don't have to rely entirely on voice input on the Gear S3. It has several different keyboard options, and they're shockingly useful. The default one is handwriting input; just write a few letters at a time and the watch inserts the text on the fly. There's also a little T9 pad, emoji, and a number pad. To Samsung's credit, it did not try to cram a full-sized keyboard into the software. What they have included works pretty well.

Launching apps seems to happen very fast compared to Android Wear. There's less lag whiles scrolling as well. I feel like I'm not spending as much time waiting on the watch to catch up as I am with most Android Wear devices. Samsung also saw fit to include a recent app menu (accessed from the app list), which has the ability to close background apps. And yes, apps do actually remain suspended in the background for you to come back to later. It seems like an odd thing to be messing with on a watch, but I suppose you don't have to micromanage your free memory if you don't want.

Fitness tracking is another feature that smartwatches should be targeting, but a lot of Android Wear devices aren't very good at it yet. The Gear S3 with its S Health integration is surprisingly capable. You can use the S Health app to check your heart rate, start a workout, track your water intake, and more. All that data syncs to the S Health app on your phone. Samsung made the questionable decision to leave "health nudges" enabled by default. That means the watch starts bugging you about inactivity if you sit still too long. That's not something I need while I'm working during the day. Luckily, you can disable nudges.

Even if you don't go into the S Health app on the watch, it can be of use to you. The Gear S3 has really impressive workout detection. I've been taking it to the gym, and it correctly guesses what I'm doing and starts up within a minute of beginning the activity. You can check the watch to get a readout of time and calories burned. All that workout data is available for review in S Health later. It can even track your sleep automatically... assuming you wear the Gear S3 to bed. I probably wouldn't seeing as it's rather bulky.

Samsung Pay

The way Samsung Pay works on the Gear S3 is something of great interest, so I'm breaking it out into its own section to cover in detail. This is one of those modules that Samsung's Gear hub downloads from outside the Play Store, so you won't have a Samsung Pay entry in your phone's app drawer. The version of Pay that's opened from your Gear app is very similar to the full version—it lets you snap photos of your cards to add, helps you activate with the bank, add a signature, and lists your recent transactions. You don't make any payments on the phone, though. It's all about the watch.

Your cards are synced over to the Gear S3. Simply swipe through the list to find the one you want to use and tap the "Pay" button. Again, Pay is always accessible by long-pressing the back button, so it's quick to get to this point. Actually paying is usually pretty quick too. After hitting the button, the watch begins beaming your card data into the ether. The selling point of Samsung Pay is that it works on virtually all payment kiosks via Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST). The watch also works with NFC terminals, and you don't have to choose which one. Hitting the pay button activates both.

You just have to get the watch withing a few inches of the card reader and MST will work. In my experience, it takes around three seconds for MST to get the card data over to the reader. The weird thing is that MST doesn't know when the data has been received, so it just keeps going until the timer runs out or you close it. You need to watch the terminal to see when it picks up the data. NFC is a bit faster, and the watch actually knows when your card data is received; you get a little vibration to let you know.

Once you get Samsung Pay up and running. it's a cool experience on the Gear S3. I've used it all over and it's worked every time. I'm not saying it'll be universally successful for you, but I'm encouraged. Although, if it doesn't work you're going to end up in one of those awkward conversations with a cashier explaining why you are trying to pay for something with your watch.

Conclusion

I'm still not convinced that a smartwatch is something most people need. It's still a novelty for people who are very into technology and gadgetry. Even among smartwatch fans, the $350 Gear S3 will be a tough sell. However, you do get a very nice smartwatch for that price. The build quality is excellent, the screen is gorgeous, and the bezel navigation is intuitive. I wish it was a bit smaller like the last gen version, but it's not outlandishly big for a smartwatch (or a regular watch).

There are some things I really like about Samsung's Tizen wearable OS, and some I don't. The customizable widget list when you twist the bezel to the right is really cool and useful, and the exercise tracking is very well done. Text input is surprisingly usable—I've actually found myself sending short messages from the watch because it's convenient. Samsung Pay on the Gear S3 is fantastic. It's probably the strongest selling point.

While the notifications are fine, it's a bit more tedious to take action on them. Media controls are more out of the way as well. The lack of OK Google is a real bummer for me. S Voice is not as accurate and doesn't integrate as tightly with the phone. On balance, though, I don't think you're better or worse off than with Android Wear.

I'm not going tell you to spend $350 on a smartwatch. If you're even a little skeptical of that idea, you should use that money for something else. If, however, you have $350 that you really want to spend on a smartwatch, this might be the one to get. Although, you may want to wait on Android Wear 2.0 and the Google watches to decide.