The Gear S3 Frontier is the new top of the range smartwatch from Samsung. Has the Korean tech giant done enough to convince people to get even more connected?
Are smartwatches cursed, forever to be luxury items? Smartphones are a vital tool of modern life. Unable to fully function without one, the Gear S3 could be just another forgettable sidekick. Find out in our Samsung Gear S3 Frontier review.
A year on from the success of the bezel-controlled and undoubtedly well designed Gear S2 comes this, the Gear S3 Frontier. It is one version of two new Samsung smartwatches unveiled at IFA 2016 in Berlin in September 2016, released with the Gear S3 Classic. Both have exactly the same features (and price) and differ only in design.
But smartwatch sales have taken a dip in the past year. While useful for notifications, their limitations become apparent as soon as you take a smartphone out of the equation. Also, one of the main complaints we had about the older Gear S2 was the lack of apps available, meaning it was a glorified notification device, rather than the more useful aspects of products like the Apple Watch. The lack of available apps was a clear disadvantage too.
Does the Gear S3 step up and make itself the first Android smartwatch we can’t live without? Here’s our Samsung Gear S3 review.
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier review: UK price and availability
The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier is available now direct from Samsung for £349. It’s also for sale at Mobile Fun for £10 more. Stock seems quite limited as demand is high, so keeping checking back if the Frontier isn’t listed, particularly on Samsung’s website. There seems to be delays in ordering, so be sure to check with the retailer first before parting with your cash.
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier review: Design and build
The Gear S3 Frontier is undoubtedly a design upgrade from the original, sporty-feeling Gear S2. The Gear S2 Classic was closer to what we have now, styled as the Frontier is to look more like an actual watch than a piece of tech. It most succeeds; the build quality is the best we’ve seen on a smartwatch to date, up there with the premium Apple Watch.
The very clever rotating bezel has ridges to help you turn it easier, and watch points for every minute on it. The inner ring of the casing also has five minute integers printed; it’s a good looking face. You can then, of course, choose your own watch face on the circular touchscreen. Gorilla Glass protects this touchscreen and you use it to input and select apps and menus, while two buttons on the right of thee watch act as back and home commands. The rear has the heart rate sensors housed behind glass.
It may be problematic for some that the Frontier is so masculine in its design – it’s not the daintiest of smartwatches for either sex.
If you’re not into the rugged outdoors look with a bit of military styling metal casing thrown in for good measure, it might not be for you. The screen and overall build is larger than last year’s S2, meaning it’ll dwarf small wrists, though a small and large size band is included in the box.
The rotating bezel is very well made and gives a tiny metallic ping on every turn, which is purely down to the materials. It gives it even more of a sturdy, premium feel. However when we wore some jackets with stiffer cuffs, the ridged edges caught and turned the bezel, which was quite annoying, landing us on different screens and in apps. The watch is on the verge of being too big, so we’d recommend trying one on in store first.
That said, it does mean the 1.3in circular screen shows more information, and the less squinting the better. Overall the watch measures 49 x 46 x 12.9mm and ours came with a black rubber strap with raised detailing, but Samsung has many different colours and leather versions to choose from. The rubber band is quite hard to get on and off because it’s so grippy, but it’s a surprisingly comfortable watch to wear all day given its size.
The watch without strap weights just 62g which is ridiculously light considering its many technological capabilities, including room for the mic on the right side and speaker on the left. We really liked the design of the Gear S3 Frontier, but fear that Samsung may have reduced its potential market slightly by making a device that is so black and metallic.
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier review: Features and spec
The Gear S3 Frontier is the definition of fully loaded. Bar LTE, it has everything (the UK doesn’t get an LTE version, but if you’re in certain regions like the US, then you do – lucky you!). It connects to any Android smartphone running Android 4.4 or higher and Samsung also recommends a device with at least 1.5GB RAM. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth but also has the ability to piggyback on the Wi-Fi network your phone is connected to if you stray out of Bluetooth range, which is a neat trick.
The 1.3in screen has a stylish, crisp feel to it due to Samsung’s decision to use black as the main background colour. Blacks display especially dark on the 360 x 360 resolution Super AMOLED display with a 278 pixel per inch density. In real life that mean it’s very good, and colours of apps, text and icons create a feel the right size of colourful. The software, which we will explore in depth, is Samsung’s own Tizen platform, opting for it as it does over Android Wear.
It’s good also to see the Gear S3 Frontier is IP68 rated for dust and waterproofing. So you can wear it in the shower, but you can’t take it swimming. This is great and means you can wear it all around the clock – unless you need to charge the 380mAh battery. You’ll generally have to do this every three days and we think this is good for such a fully featured smartwatch thought battery life will of course decrease if you have Wi-Fi on all the time. It charges on the supplied magnetic cradle and is very quick and easy to use.
Although there’s no LTE in the UK version of the watch, you can make and receive calls directly from your wrist, Star Trek style with the Gear S3. In real life you probably won’t do this unless you’re on your own, it’s something that’s nerdily really cool and you’ve probably always wanted it to be technologically possible. But now it’s here, it’s a bit gimmicky. It was useful when out on a run with our phone in a pocket, meaning you can quickly answer, or indeed reject, the call. Otherwise, you’ll see the notification and then pick up your phone.
Another feature is NFC, but Samsung is taking an absolute age to release Samsung Pay in the UK. Contactless payments with a smartwatch like this using the built-in NFC would be amazing and will work in the US, but us here in the UK are carrying around the tech without being able to actually use it.
When on said runs you can take advantage of the in built GPS that was missing from the UK version of the Gear S2, and is likely the reason this watch costs £100 more. This allows the watch to track and map your outdoor workout without having to rely on your smartphone. With the 4GB of on board storage, you can move MP3 files to the watch directly and go out running with tunes, provided you pair with some Bluetooth headphones. Leaving your phone at home is a massive advantage, but remember you won’t be able to call anyone without it.
What this all boils down to is that the Gear S3 has pretty much everything a smartwatch can have built in, even an altimeter and a barometer. The question is does it all work well, and do you actually need it? All of that can be answered by how well its components work with the software – software that is limited by the simple fact it’s built into a tiny watch.
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier review: Software and daily use
The Frontier runs Tizen 2.3.2, and is a minor update to the software running on older S2s. The use of the rotating bezel to turn through menus is still borderline genius in its simplicity, and once you’ve customised the various screens to your liking, you’re only a few clicks away from your music player, calendar, email and heart rate. Receive a text and the watch vibrates, popping up with the whole message thread. You can even reply directly using the pleasingly unfiddly on-screen keyboard or using your voice. The software is just about good enough for the latter, but you have to enunciate or it’ll make mistakes.
The real joy of using the watch is how it fades into the background. Like all fully featured rivals its little buzzes and pings will keep you on track with your emails and texts, but you’ll nine times out of ten revert to your phone to deal with them. By making their best smartwatch to date, Samsung has gone further to highlight it’s about as far as the form factor can go.
Slightly frustrating too is the lack of third party apps. Debatably you don’t need any as the S3 comes with text, email, phone, contacts, S Health, Weather, built-in music player, calendar and more that all sync with your phone’s corresponding apps. This means you can only compose texts or emails from the watch itself.
The interface is quite uniform, but customisation is possible in the changing of watch faces, many of which are on the device already and hundreds more can be downloaded from the Gear store. They can be as plain or as complicated as you like, and being able to choose depending on the occasion is handy. You can set the screen to be always on too, but this is at the sacrifice of battery life.
The only other way to send messages is by interacting with notifications from other apps; receive a WhatsApp and you can tap reply, but as there’s no WhatsApp app for the Gear, you can’t compose, only reply. It’s also shame that only Samsung phones support the text and email apps. With any other Android phone, these apps on the watch are unavailable meaning any composition of message is limited to a reply from a notification. The only third party app we downloaded the whole time was Uber. And even then we still didn’t use it instead of on our phone.
S Health works well and the watch monitors your heart rate throughout the day. It is very good at tracking a run or workout, displaying information clearly and syncing the logs with the app on your phone. If you want a fitness tracker’s capabilities in a full-on smartwatch, the Gear S3 is the best choice.
But really the best parts of using this watch are as a remote control and notification device. Change track without getting your phone out or turn down the volume. Check how close you are to your step goal by glancing down. Check the weather. Quick nuggets of information are smartwatches’ sweet spot and the Gear S3 Frontier presents all these things as painlessly as possible in a refined hardware shell. It’s one of the best smartwatches available, but it doesn’t do anything new or different to products that were out two years ago.