For the past few years, the Apple Watch has dominated the fledgling smartwatch world. But while Google’s Android Wear platform has gone through fits and starts, Samsung has built an extensive wearable lineup running on its own platform with the Gear watches.
The latest is the new Gear Sport, a $299.99 smartwatch that works with both iOS and Android smartphones. The Gear Sport blends some of the features of last year’s bulky Gear S3, such as an upgraded display and interface, with a slightly smaller design that’s more reminiscent of 2015’s Gear S2. It’s also the first Gear watch that’s capable of swim tracking, and can withstand up to 50 meters of submersion. That makes it very similar to the Apple Watch Series 2, which introduced swim tracking itself last year.
As a whole, though, the Gear Sport doesn’t move the needle forward as much as I’d have hoped. Though it has a very intuitive interface, complete with a rotating bezel for navigation, many parts of the experience are still half-baked, whether that’s the pathetically anemic selection of apps or the hopelessly useless S Voice digital assistant.
As its name implies, the Gear Sport’s design and appearance are more appropriate for the gym or pool than the boardroom or a fine restaurant. Though it is smaller than the Gear S3, it is still a sizable watch, and sits larger on my wrist than I personally prefer while looking rather ridiculous on small wrists. The Sport is noticeably larger and less comfortable to wear than the Gear S2. The watch’s body is made of stainless steel and the rotating bezel and two side buttons have nice action.
The 1.2-inch, fully circular OLED touchscreen display is very good, with sharp resolution, vibrant colors, and easy visibility outdoors. It has a full-color always-on mode that I’m particularly fond of, which makes it easy to quickly glance at the watch to check the time.
On the underside of the watch is a heart rate sensor, making the Gear Sport capable of continuously monitoring your heart rate. But like any other wrist-worn heart rate monitor, the Sport isn’t going to be as accurate as a chest strap or other methods and should not be relied on for any clinical purposes.
The Gear Sport uses a standard 20mm watch strap with quick release pins, which makes it easy to swap out the strap on a whim. The included rubber strap is soft and comfortable on my skin, and it’s appropriate for the kinds of physical activity the Gear Sport was designed for.
Part of the reason the Gear Sport is slightly smaller than the Gear S3 is its lack of LTE connectivity. You can use the watch connected to your phone over Bluetooth or hook it up to a Wi-Fi network, but you lose all connectivity and many features if you leave home without your phone. The Gear Sport does have the ability to store music offline (there is 4GB of storage on the device), and you can even download Spotify playlists right to the watch for listening with Bluetooth headphones while running or working out. That’s one thing the Apple Watch, which currently only works with Apple Music, cannot do.
But outside of Spotify, the Gear Sport has an appalling lack of third-party apps. The Gear App Store, which you can browse with your phone, is filled with knock offs and poor copies of apps that you might find in other app stores. That means that if you don’t prefer Samsung’s own S Health for fitness tracking, or are looking to control smart home gadgets with your watch, the Gear Sport will likely let you down.
Samsung’s S Voice digital assistant will almost surely let you down, as well. It’s slow, lacks many of the features of Siri and Google Assistant, and basically doesn’t respond half the time. Voice control on other smartwatches is very useful for sending messages, setting reminders, or looking up basic information, but S Voice is best left unused.
Since it has Sport in its name, a lot of the Gear Sport’s watchfaces and features are designed for fitness tracking. As mentioned, it can now track swims, and it can automatically identify and track workouts. Like many other fitness trackers, the Gear Sport can count how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed, and you can manually start and stop workouts right on the watch. It also has GPS, so it can track your run or bike ride accurately.
All of that fitness data syncs to Samsung’s S Health app, which isn’t as popular or intuitive as other fitness apps. (Good luck finding any of your friends in the app to compete with.) You can sync the S Health data with a handful of other services, including Fitbit, Jawbone, Microsoft Health, Strava, and Runkeeper, but it won’t directly sync with Google Fit or Apple Health, which are probably already on your Android or iOS phone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Gear Sport works best when it’s paired with a Samsung smartphone. I tested the device with another Android phone and had to download no less than six apps and background services to make it work. If you do have a Samsung phone, you likely already have a Samsung account, which is necessary for features such as S Health and Samsung Pay to function. But if you’re using a different device, be prepared to create yet another account when you pair up the Gear Sport.
If all you’re looking for from a smartwatch is to relay phone notifications to your wrist and count your steps, the Gear Sport does deliver, and it does that well no matter what phone you pair it to. It has reliable battery life that easily lasted me a full day every day I wore the watch, with a little to spare when I went to bed at night. The display is vibrant and enjoyable to look at, and the rotating bezel is just fun to use. The Gear’s interface is the easiest to use of any smartwatch.
But all of those things also apply to the two-year-old Gear S2, which makes the Gear Sport far less impressive at the end of 2017. Perhaps smartwatches have matured enough that we shouldn’t expect massive leaps every year (this can certainly be said about the Apple Watch’s functionality, which has had annual, incremental improvements, but few radical new use cases) as they focus on delivering notifications and fitness tracking. But that also means that this year’s Gear smartwatch isn’t a whole lot different than last year’s, and if you haven’t been convinced to get one yet, the Gear Sport won’t push you over the edge either.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge.