When it comes to smartwatches, you have a few choices. You can get something that only works with iPhones, you can choose from a range of Wear OS-powered devices from the big names in Android, or you can go the fitness-focused route by choosing a Garmin, TomTom, Suunto or Fitbit and surviving with a slim selection of apps. Samsung’s Gear S3 offers another option: a customisable and flexible OS that works with Android and iOS, a solid app selection, and good looks to boot.
We had a look at the Gear 3 Frontier, which is the more ‘sporty’, darker version launched alongside the silver-rimmed Classic in 2016. This metal wearable might be the first Android-friendly smartwatch to truly deserve a spot on your wrist. Yes, we know the new devices are due any day now, but that’ll only make the S3 range cheaper. Also, for reasons that elude us, we weren’t able to get one to try before now. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Design: The wheel of …
First things first, this guy is properly massive. If you’re not into the ‘is that a side-plate on your wrist?’ look, then you’d be better off considering the smaller S3 Sport… or a Fitbit or Garmin band. We quite like the big face, although it does feel a bit top-heavy, and it took a while to get used to the extra swing in our arm thanks to the effects of inertia and gravity.
The leather strap and grey steel finish on the version of the Frontier we tested gave it a real touch of class… at least from a distance. The strap looked battered within a week of wearing it, and it wasn’t great for exercise — not only did we not want to sweat on it, but because the S3 is so heavy, we didn’t feel like we could finely adjust the fit enough to keep it staying put during workouts.
Usually the Frontier ships with a rubber strap, which makes more sense if you ever plan on taking it near a gym. Still, whatever strap you get, quick-release pins mean you don’t need to dig out a screwdriver when you fancy a new look. And if you wear out the supplied strap you can replace it easily enough.
Team Stuff had mixed feeling about the default digital watch face’s fake shimmer that the accelerometers prompt when you tilt the S3 from side to side. Some of us thought it nifty, while others thought it terribly kitsch. Nonetheless, there are plenty of watch faces to choose from — with, and without the artificial shimmer — in the Gear app store, some paid and some free. So whatever digital complications — or sports team allegiances — you want available at a glance you can probably find them.
Display: Smooth and bright like MJ
The 1.3in circular OLED screen does a solid job of letting the S3 blend into the background, rather than demand attention. The display is subtle and doesn’t put out excess light when on a black screen. The ambient mode shows the time and updates once a minute, but that’s it.
Wake up the display — by lifting your wrist if that feature is set, or touching the display, dial or a button if it isn’t — and the whole thing lights up bright enough to read even on the brightest day (well, the brightest we could find in the South African winter). Depending on your watch face of choice, useful info like steps walked, remaining battery or your current heart rate instantly update.
It all looks super sharp, too. 360×360 might not sound like a massive resolution, but it’s definitely enough when strapped to your wrist. Text is appropriately crisp and there’s more than enough space left for graphics and emojis if you’re catching up on messages from your buddies.
Software: Time to get exer(Tizen)
Circular screens are an adaptation for most smartwatch makers, and especially the software running underneath. Thanks to Samsung’s Tizen OS, we feel like the S3 Frontier has some great features coupled with a very logical interface.
The most noteworthy feature about the OS, is without a doubt the spinning bezel framing the face. Give it a swirl and you’ll quickly scroll through widgets and menus, instead of swiping in all directions, like with the rectangular Fit2 Pro. You can also customise the menus and order of apps, so everything key should be a short spin-and-tap away.
Right now, the only weak link is software support — try connecting the S3 to anything that’s not a Samsung and while it’ll work, you’ll need to download three external apps to get all the functionality from your watch. Tizen might not be quite as slick as Android’s Wear OS, but it’s definitely got exciting apps, including Spotify.
Want offline Spotify? No problem. Simply install the app on the S3, choose which playlists you want to save offline and you’re good to go. It’s the slickest music-to-wristable service we’ve used, and doesn’t require downloading actual MP3s, like Garmin, TomTom and Fitbit’s devices, do (though recent Fitbits do support Deezer, albeit less slickly than Samsung’s Spotify support).
Fitness: Stretch it out, Tizen
The Gear S3 Frontier is very tough, contrary to people’s idea about ‘good looking’ wearables. You can’t take it swimming, admittedly (Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and TomTom all win on that front), but it does include IP68 water resistance, so sweat and rain shouldn’t bother it.
An altimeter and barometer add more fitness-focused tracking like stairs climbed, or even weather reporting while you’re in the wilderness. There’s also a speedometer for cycling (or running, if you’re Usain Bolt).
The Gear S3 has a heart-rate monitor and is equipped with on-board GPS, and it’ll recognise anything more than a gentle walk and automatically record it in Samsung’s S Health fitness diary, so you can track your progress over time. It can count star jumps, crunches and sit-ups, too.
S Health is just one of the apps you’d need to install to have access to all of the features (if you’re not already using a Samsung device, that is). There’s no excuse not to get fit with one of these on your wrist. It’s accurate, and (swimming aside) does just as good a job at tracking your exercise as an Apple Watch.
Connectivity: There are sparks between us
NFC, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, contactless payments — it’s amazing how Samsung managed to squeeze it all in there, now we just need space for a SIM card and a micro-SD. Then we can download all of our favourite Spotify playlists and not just a handful. Of course, Samsung Pay isn’t in South Africa, yet, but the company says it’s in talks with major banks. So if it does arrive the S3 will support it.
The Bluetooth connection can connect to your phone and wireless headphones. And with 4GB of storage on-board combine with the onboard GPS, you’ll be able to head out on a run or workout without having to bring your phone along or contend with headphone cables.
The built-in speaker and mic can be used for taking hands-free calls (assuming your phone is in range), and you can play music straight from the watch too — just don’t expect top quality from such a tiny driver.
Battery: Life goes on and on and on…
The slightly larger watch face means there’s extra room for more junk in the trunk, if you catch the drift… Yes, there’s more space for a larger battery — 380mAh to be exact.
Samsung reckons you’ll get up to three days on a single charge, and we got between two and three, depending on the use. With a daily workout sesh with GPS-tracking, you’ll probably get closer to two — keep the more advanced sensors switched off and you’ll squeeze out some extra uptime. Constant heart-rate tracking will demand extra juice, too, so maybe leave that on intermittent.
The wireless charging dock doubles as a little display stand for your fancy new watch, and it’ll take a few hours to fully recharge the watch. You won’t have it up to 100% if you dock it before a morning shower — but even a half-hour top-up should get you through half a day.
Samsung Gear S3 Verdict
The Gear S3 Frontier opts for a sleek design that you’ll proudly wear with your favourite suit… or tracksuit. Design-wise, Samsung opts for premium materials like metal and leather, which makes this a great looking smartwatch for the fashion conscious.
If you like Samsung’s software (and preferably don a Samsung device, though it’s almost as tidy with an iPhone), and are okay with the R5,000 price tag, it’s a real winner… assuming you’re not interested in taking it swimming, of course. Tizen is a great OS and the rotating bezel makes for a great physical interface. Now to see what generation four looks like. With any luck, we won’t have long to wait.