Hands-On: Samsung’s Gear S2 Classic May Be the First Great Smartwatch
At long last, a company may have figured out exactly how a smartwatch should act, how it should look, how it should feel, and ultimately what it should be. That company is Samsung, and that smartwatch is the Gear S2 Classic.
The S2 Classic’s act is a jarringly intuitive blend of old-school analog controls and new-school communication tools. The look and feel, in terms of size, weight, and materials, is that of a premium, round men’s watch. Ultimately, it adds up to a wearable computer that wants to be a watch first. It appeals to a traditional aesthetic, with a gunmetal stainless-steel case, a rotating ceramic bezel, and a black leather strap. It looks timeless, ironically, and it’s where smartwatch design should be heading.
This is not a review. This is a first impression, the result of about 15 minutes of hands-on time with a very nice watch that wasn’t synced up to a maddening queue of notifications. It was also done inside, in a press briefing, without the chance to see if the screen could defeat bright sunlight. As for raw specs for the Classic and the two other styles of Gear S2 Sport, those were released earlier in the week by Samsung: Voice commands via S Voice, dual-core 1GHz processors, 4GB storage, music players on board, NFC and Samsung Pay compatibility, and two to three days of battery life being the most important points.
Within the new watch lineup, it’s still a mystery as to how the Gear S2 Classic will be priced and positioned. Samsung hasn’t announced pricing or availability details for any of the watches yet. In terms of specs, the Classic is a step-down from the fully loaded version of the more-futuristic Gear S2 Sport. The Classic doesn’t offer a 3G-connected option, so it isn’t as much of a standalone device as the e-SIM-equipped version of the Gear S2 Sport. It’s also the smallest watch in the lineup, with a 40mm case as compared to the Gear S2’s Sport’s 42mm and 44mm options.
However, even though you can’t use the S2 Classic as a standalone phone, Samsung has a few surprises to add to the initial launch information. All the new Samsung watches are Tizen-based, and in the past that meant they wouldn’t play nice with anything other than Samsung’s newer Galaxy phones. That isn’t the case with this latest batch of Tizen watches: Samsung says they are compatible with any phone running Android 4.4 or later that has at least 1.5GB RAM. They aren’t Android Wear watches, but they’ll sync with Android devices.
They’ll also grab their own data over Wi-Fi. Samsung says that each watch’s standalone Wi-Fi mode will support all connected functions other than phone calls. There will be 1,000 apps for the watch available at launch, including Uber, ESPN, Nike, and Bloomberg news headlines.
But back to the Gear S2 Classic itself: Its control scheme is so intuitive and pleasant that it’s hard to believe nobody did it before. The ceramic coin-edge bezel rotates, which means you literally dial in the app you want or use it to scroll from screen to screen. It’s not a free-scrolling wheel; there’s a pleasant, machine-like weight as the rotary bezel locks into each step. It feels like you’re adjusting the diver’s bezel on a watch, albeit without the clicky noise. The watch reacts quickly, too.
Still, you physically have to tap the touchscreen to select an app after you scroll. It’d be nice to have a fully analog-feeling way to control the watch and launch apps.
The Gear S2 Sport watches also have that rotating bezel for navigating the watch, but there’s a key difference. With those watches, the bezel is a sleek, flat ring around the watch face. It’s more comfortable to operate the Sport watches by applying pressure from the top like an iPod scrollwheel rather than twisting them like the combination lock on a safe.
Along with that delightful scroll wheel, there are two buttons on the right edge of each watch. A top button gives you quick access to your apps, while the bottom button brings you to the homescreen. The fact that those buttons are flush with the edge also adds to that “real watch” feel: Instead of pressing an oversized button or scrolling an enlarged crown, it’s almost like you’re operating an old digital watch. It also adds to the slick, rounded look of each model.
Even though the cases are different sizes, all the watches have the same size screens. They’re all 1.2-inch-diameter OLED touchscreens, ones that looked sharp and readable indoors. But to me, the 40mm case, that slight difference in bezel operation, and the subdued style of the S2 Classic made a huge difference. The S2 Sport’s bigger cases and bold style screams “look at me! I’m a future watch!” The S2 Classic could pass for a normal analog watch with the right face, and Samsung says 26 face themes will be available at launch for each device.
So while the price and the possibility of a future 3G version of the Classic are still up in the air, it is the slickest watch-that-happens-to-be-smart yet. And as a bit of relief from a product category dominated by large, masculine designs, several of the options for the customizable cases and straps for the Moto 360 are slimmer, more subtle, and arguably more feminine.
But it’s much more than aesthetics—and the lack of a “ledge” at the bottom of the display—that makes the Classic seem surprisingly new. That grooved rotating bezel just acts and feels natural; finally, we’re starting to see the smartwatch evolve beyond being just a tiny, wrist-mounted touchscreen.
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