Note: This article was first published on September 3, 2016 and has been updated on 1st November with Gear S3's local pricing information.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, smartwatches are here to stay. And if we’re being honest, the steady improvements we’re seeing year-on-year are such that it’s no longer quite fair to consider them gimmicky or unnecessary.
When Samsung announced the Gear S2 last year, we were wowed by its elegant use of its round form factor. The rotating bezel was a simple and intuitive way of navigating, far more so than the fiddly digital crown on the Apple Watch. What’s more, the Gear S2’s Tizen OS helped it stand out from the sea of nearly homogeneous Android Wear watches.
But while the Gear S2 helped break new ground in the area of how to build a round-faced smartwatch, the Gear S3 simply adds on with a bunch of new features. It’s really a Gear S2 with things like GPS and LTE crammed in – after all, if it’s not broken, why fix it?
To be clear, Samsung has actually introduced two versions of the Gear S3 – the Classic and the Frontier. As its name suggests, the Frontier is a more ruggedized version of the Classic and comes with extra features (or feature, because that’s quite literally the only hardware difference) like LTE. Yes, appearances aside, both watches are remarkably similar and even have the same IP68 rating for water and dust resistance.
The watches ship with Tizen OS, which continues to be a strong differentiating factor amidst the multitude of Android Wear competitors. The rotating bezel has just the right amount of resistance and clicks into place reassuringly as you navigate the UI.
However, sticking to the Gear S2’s tried-and-tested formula doesn’t mean that the Gear S3 is the same watch. Samsung has had to place the GPS and LTE components somewhere, and the result is a watch that is considerably bigger, chunkier, and heavier than last year’s model. That’s not exactly a bad thing, and may even up its appeal for fans of larger watches, but its blown-up dimensions aren’t to be glossed over.
The Gear S2’s 42mm case has swelled to 46mm on the Gear S3, bad news for those of you with smaller wrists. The new watch is also thicker, going from 11.4mm to 12.9mm thick. Samsung is well aware of the added bulk, and it’s even attempting to put a positive spin on the whole thing by alluding to a supposed trend in the luxury watch market toward bigger watches. For better or worse, the Gear S3 isn’t going to be one of those watches that you just forget you’re wearing. But of course, you do get the benefit of not having to constantly tether the watch to your phone just so you can navigate via GPS.
These dimensions apply to both the Classic and Frontier models, although the Frontier is slightly heavier at 62g (versus 57g on the Classic) because of the need to include LTE functionality.
However, the more generous dimensions have actually given Samsung the room to bump up the screen size slightly, and the Gear S3 now has a 1.3-inch display, compared to 1.2-inches on the Gear S2.
Unfortunately, the resolution has stayed the same as 360 x 360 pixels, which means pixel density takes a slight hit, dropping from 302ppi to 278ppi. That said, there’s little point in quibbling over numbers, and the bright Super AMOLED display still appeared gorgeous to our eyes with colors that were vivid as ever. Some of the watch faces were truly eye-catching, while texts still looked plenty sharp.
More importantly, the screens on both watches are now of the always-on variety. While the Gear S2 could only display eight colors when not in active use, the Gear S3’s screen is designed to stay on all the time and display a full range of colors just like a real watch should. For those concerned about what this means for battery, the screen actually dims after a period of inactivity so it won’t guzzle as much power.
Finally, Samsung has bolstered the watch's capabilities as a fitness or trekking companion. They now come with an altimeter and barometer for measuring altitude and atmospheric pressure, features which are present in both the Classic and more outdoorsy Frontier version.
GPS and LTE aside, the new Gear S3 smartwatches also come with more powerful hardware and design tweaks. The processor is a new 14nm dual-core 1GHz Exynos 7270 chip, and the RAM has been bumped up to 768MB from 512MB. Suffice to say, everything felt snappy and responsive when we were swiping through different watch faces, widgets or apps.
One of the more significant changes is the use of the new Gorilla Glass SR+, a glass produced by Corning specially for wearables. Formerly known as “Project Phire”, Gorilla Glass SR+ is supposedly more resistant to scratches than certain alternative luxury cover materials (for instance, sapphire), according to Corning.
But if there’s one thing for sure, standing up to scratches and drops doesn’t mean standing up to fingerprints. The watches we saw at Samsung’s booth were grimy and had their faces covered with fingerprints after passing through many eager hands.
The battery capacity has been increased as well. The Gear S3 now houses a larger 380mAh battery, just over a 50 per cent jump from the regular Gear S2. Samsung says this is good for up to three to four days of battery life, including on the LTE-equipped Frontier model, but we’d advise taking these figures with a pinch of salt.
It’s unlikely that the LTE watch would last the same as the non-LTE models, and Samsung could probably have been factoring in features like the “watch-only” mode that the S3 enters after dipping below 5 per cent battery (this mode sets the watch to display just the time and is reportedly good for up to 24 hours).
Finally, the strap design has also been changed. Samsung now uses industry-standard 22mm straps (the Gear S2 used 20mm ones), and it also commissioned industrial designer Arik Levy to create matching sets of straps and watch faces.
Watch straps are an intensely personal choice, and the good news is that you’ll have recourse to a wide range of third party straps if you don’t fancy Samsung’s designs.
Updated on 1st November 2016.
Both the Gear S3 Frontier with its dark gunmetal finish and rubber strap, and the Gear S3 Classic, with its shiny stainless steel case and leather strap will retail for S$548 (the same price that the Gear S2 Classic launched for last year).
Samsung hasn’t released any price or availability information at this point in time, but the Gear S3 is expected to arrive by the year’s end (perhaps in time for the holiday shopping season).