The best watch for the iPhone isn’t made by Apple. It’s a Samsung creation.
I was already a big fan of the Gear S3 Frontier when it came out late last year, but Samsung’s decision to add robust iOS support to its latest smartwatch has pushed my enthusiasm for the device over the top — and the Apple Watch from my wrist.
The Gear S3 comes in two designs, classic and Frontier. The Frontier is one of those chunky watches, like something you might wear while hiking or going for a run. It’s slightly thick for a regular watch, but considering the fact that it can also function as a stand-alone phone, I’m willing to overlook the additional bulk. Besides, that never really bothered me.
The watch includes a bevel that can be rotated to interact with apps, a heart rate sensor, two buttons and a round, vibrant touchscreen face. It’s also a clear step up from the Gear S2, Samsung’s 2015 smartwatch, which is an important distinction when you start comparing it to Apple’s approach to the smartwatch.
In 2015, the Apple Watch was the clear winner among the slew of smartwatches that hit the market that year. While the Pebble, a strong contender with support across platforms, was a close second, it was also the sort of tech that required an admiration for how and why it was built to truly appreciate it.
The Apple Watch, on the other hand, was the most mainstream-ready of all the smartwatches on the market at the time. In my review from 2015, I called that out, along with the Apple Watch’s chief problem.
“That’s the good news; the bad news is that the reason it is the easiest to understand and use is because it remains firmly planted inside Apple’s walled garden of content,” I wrote. “There are no other watches that can rely entirely on Apple’s operating system, and to get an app onto the Apple Watch a developer has to go through Apple. Apple sets the limitations of those apps and of how much of the watch’s sensors and other hardware a developer can use.”
There were other issues, to be sure. The Apple Watch wasn’t the nicest-looking smartwatch, it wasn’t waterproof and for some reason, it didn’t allow for custom watch faces or for developers to tap into a lot of the basic functionality of the watch.
But all of that changed last year with the Apple Watch Series 2.
The S2 opened the doors on development. It made the watch waterproof and … well, unfortunately, there isn’t really an and. While it was a step in the right direction, it increasingly felt like too little, too late, as other smartwatches began to hit the market.
Then Samsung decided to open the door to its watch working in a real way on the iPhone, and that was that. I went from wearing my Apple Watch every day, to wearing it every week, to now only wearing it when I forget to wear the Frontier.
The only thing preventing me from putting the Apple Watch away in my watch case is that Samsung’s own app store is still missing some crucial apps.
But first, the good.
It’s fat, but it also looks and feels like a watch — not a smartwatch, but a watch. That’s thanks to some nice design elements like the stainless steel body and bezel, and the silicon band. That bezel is also one of my favorite ways to interact with a smartwatch. I appreciate Apple’s smart crown, but the bezel’s larger size makes it a bit easier to use, and it feels more precise.
The watch also features a great selection of built-in tech like GPS, an SOS service that can quickly send out a location beacon to pre-selected people, an accelerometer, gyro sensor, barometer, ambient light sensor and a heart rate sensor. It also includes fairly robust IP68, water and dust resistance.
Now let’s talk about the battery, one of the major sticking points for any smartwatch owner. Because the Gear S3 can operate as a stand-alone cellphone, or use Bluetooth to connect to your phone or use Wi-Fi to connect to a nearby signal, battery life is sort of all over the place. What I’ve found is that when it’s using just Bluetooth, it lasts about two full days. When it’s being used as a stand-alone phone, it barely lasts eight hours. That’s a wide spread, but it gives you a sense of what to expect from. Typically, I fall in the two-day zone, except when the watch loses connection with my phone.
Which brings us to the bad.
The Gear S3 is designed to work with Samsung’s phones. That’s how the company made it; it’s probably also why the company made it. So the best use cases are always with those phones.
When you use it with an iPhone, well, your experience may vary.
The Samsung Gear S3 app for iOS is pretty straightforward. Once you connect your watch to your phone, it tells you the battery life and communicates all sorts of data back and forth. For instance, it can send — with your permission — your health data to the phone, and can send notifications to the watch. Fantastic!
Unfortunately, I periodically found the watch disconnecting. I believe this has something to do with the app running in the background on the phone. That works, but if it ever crashes or I close it, the connection is lost. It’s not a huge deal, but it does impact battery life.
You can also use the phone to browse the app store for the watch. You can do this with the watch, too, but it’s much easier on the phone.
While the store currently has a huge selection of watch faces, including some amazing game-themed ones, it’s a little light, a little spotty on the other stuff.
There are a bunch of workout apps and games. My favorite game right now is a fantastic adaptation of Fruit Ninja that uses the touchscreen of the watch for play. But I can’t load up Spotify or Twitter. Yelp is there and so is CNN, but not Apple Pay or Samsung Pay.
And it’s unclear if or when any of these will show up. I do find new things popping up occasionally, but mostly it seems to be watch faces.
With a bit more support in the apps department, Samsung’s Gear S3 could easily become the best smartwatch on the market. It’s technically already there, if you look just at the watch, but hardware is really only as good as the software it supports.
Of course, that said, Android Wear 2.0 is coming, along with new watches, next month. Among the many improvements the OS system is bringing is the ability to download apps directly to a watch, no matter which sort of phone you have it connected to.
Samsung better get going if it wants to cement its enviable position.