As soon as I strapped the Samsung Gear S smartwatch to my wrist, I knew we had a problem.
The Gear S is by far the largest smartwatch I've ever worn, and it looks ridiculous. Granted, I'm a scrawny dude, but I've never been this anxious about sporting a smartwatch in public--not even when wearing the bulbous Moto 360, which at least paired well with business attire. The Gear S doesn't look good with anything, except for maybe an elaborate space-age costume.
I mention this right off the bat because every smartwatch needs to pass a basic fashion litmus test. If you don't feel comfortable wearing it in front of people, it's a non-starter no matter how useful it is. The Samsung Gear S failed my litmus test, and it's not even that useful.
The high price of smartwatch freedom
Instead of being thinner and smaller than Samsung's previous smartwatches--of which there are now five--the Gear S packs on more bulk in exchange for a larger screen and a built-in cellular connection. As such, it's the first smartwatch from a major brand that can take calls, send and receive text messages, get notifications, and connect to the Internet without a nearby smartphone. But while plenty of people think this is a great idea, Samsung's execution isn't fully baked.
For one thing, the Gear S has its own SIM card slot and its own phone number. Not only does this incur a $10 per month charge on most carriers ($5 for T-Mobile), it also requires some trickery to work with your existing number. To receive calls and text messages, your phone must be turned on and connected to the network. You must also manually turn on call forwarding to get calls from your number, and Samsung warns that this can affect battery life. Worst of all, unless the Gear S is paired to your phone over Bluetooth, any outgoing calls will appear under the new number, so your contacts won't recognize who's calling.
The Gear S isn't a fully independent device, either. You need a Samsung phone to set up and install new apps (including several apps that are pre-loaded on the watch itself), and there's no built-in GPS for turn-by-turn directions. Also some watch apps, such as Samsung's own Milk Music, won't work without your phone nearby.
For the untethered smartwatch to make sense--and to justify the additional monthly charge--it needs to be seamless, letting you leave your phone behind without any extra setup or drawbacks to connectivity. Samsung hasn't quite been able to make it work.
Android and Tizen make ugly enemies
Even as a basic smartwatch, the Gear S fails to make itself essential, and that's largely a consequence of Samsung's not controlling the smartphone side of the equation. While Samsung's smartphones run on Android, the Gear S runs on Tizen, and the two platforms are constantly at odds.
The problems are most noticeable in the notification system, which is non-interactive for most apps. If you get a phone call or text message on the Gear S, you get helpful options for responding with a message or calling the person back. But for nearly every other type of notification--even from essential apps like Twitter and Facebook--you get nothing but a wall of text. You can't delete emails or respond to WhatsApp messages, like you can on Android Wear watches, and the text in each app's notifications is mashed together like a run-on sentence.
Google's non-presence on Tizen makes life harder for users in other ways. There's no Gmail app on the watch, so you need to use Samsung's own app--both on the watch and your phone--for full email functionality. There's no Google Maps, so you must set up Nokia Here Maps instead. And while Samsung's S Voice assistant can handle basic queries and commands, it's much slower than Google's voice assistant on Android phones and watches, and it's not as good at weeding out background noise.
The unfortunate reality for Samsung is that its smartwatches will never be useful unless the company fully embraces Android on the wearable side, or completely breaks away on the smartphone side. Neither outcome seems likely at this point, and it's users who suffer in the meantime.
An untethered ball and chain
To make matters worse, the Gear S's Tizen-based software is full of inconsistent, confusing design choices. I'll just run through some examples:
Swiping down from the top of the screen is the Gear S's equivalent of the "back" button. This isn't well-communicated, but the bigger problem is that the quick settings menu is tied to the same gesture. Therefore, you can't get to quick settings without leaving whatever app you're using.
Opening quick settings (with a downward swipe) or the app menu (with an upward swipe) requires you to start all the way from the edge of the screen. But to access notifications or widgets, you can swipe left or right from anywhere on the screen. Doing the wrong thing is inevitable as you try to internalize these conflicting rules.
Bringing up the "dismiss" button for notifications requires a downward swipe from anywhere on the screen. If you make the mistake of swiping from the top, you'll invoke the back button and return to the home screen (per bullet point one).
For some reason, my voicemail notifications failed to disappear from the watch even after I'd checked the message, and they're strangely impervious to the "dismiss all" button that the Gear S provides in its notification menu. To dismiss a voicemail, you must swipe over to its individual notification and kill it there.
The whole point of a smartwatch is to enable quick interactions, but it seems like the Gear S tries to slow you down at every turn.
On a more philosophical level, I don't agree with Samsung's attempt to shrink a smartphone interface down to wrist size. The operating system is filled with tiny buttons that require fine motor skills, and apps that feel like they were primarily designed for phones. The Gear S even has a tiny keyboard you can fiddle with if you want to write a long email or text message, and it's as maddening as you might expect. The keyboard would be much more useful as a way to edit voice-dictated messages, but Samsung didn't think to offer that capability. On the whole, it just doesn't seem like Samsung really thought things through.
If there's one saving grace of the Gear S, it's the battery life, which is better than that of most full-color smartwatches, lasting an advertised two days on a single charge. But in real-world use, making it through those days is a struggle with anything but extra-light usage. In most cases, the Gear S will still need a nightly charge, and its snap-on cradle isn't as elegant as the wireless charging of some other smartwatches.
This is what's probably going to happen: The Gear S will flop, because no one will want to wear this hulking monstrosity. Nor will anyone want a smartwatch that costs hundreds of dollars with an additional monthly service charge, and still isn't as useful as the competition. Years later, other companies will figure out how to do the untethered smartwatch in a more stylish and seamless way, and Samsung's Gear S will be remembered as a quaint historical footnote.
No one will care, of course, because being the first to fail at a good idea isn't worth much. It certainly isn't worth another hit on your wireless bill.