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Hands-on with the Samsung Gear S, a too-big, too-soon smartwatchphone

BERLIN—It was cool when Dick Tracy lifted his watch to make phone calls from his wrist, but in real life this technology remains riddled with pitfalls. But this isn't stopping Samsung, the company that's fearless in trying to establish markets that don't yet exist. Samsung's newest wearable, the Gear S, is a completely self-contained smartwatch-smartphone hybrid. It straps to your wrist, and comes with nearly all the accouterments of a regular smartphone—most notably, the ability to make phone calls independently. And it's all contained within a bulky, 1.57-by-2.3-by-0.49-inch frame.

I went hands on with the Gear S at the IFA conference in Berlin during Samsung’s official launch event. A few hours later, I'm still struggling to determine who exactly this watch is suited for. Not only will it be prohibitively large for many would-be consumers, it also precludes any possibility for private phone calls.

Do people really want to put all their conversations on speakerphone when walking down the street?

It’s simply too big

When I saw the Gear Live at Google I/O a few months ago, I was optimistic that Samsung was dialing down its obsession with gargantuan gadget designs. But, no! That was just me with my head in the clouds.

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That's a pretty big watch. Look at its size relative to my wrist.

The Galaxy Gear S is absurdly huge. It’s like one of those fashion cuffs you may have seen the ladies sporting lately, except that it’s not fashionable. Even worse, this is a seriously heavy wrist watch—my arm began aching after repeated use. I can't imagine actually using it day to day, at work, at home, while running or doing errands. I can’t even imagine typing at my desk with this thing on my wrist.

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Okay, okay. You still don't believe me about how big it is? Check it out next to my dollar-store watch. It's huge! 

Samsung's default watchband feels plasticky and cheap. In fact, it actually felt a lot like the $1 watch I took to Berlin. And Samsung's clasp caught on to my skin and arm hair a few times. I actually preferred the Swarovski watch band that Samsung was showing off, if only for its bling factor and more comfortable clasp. But, of course, those tiny gems add to the weight of the watch, which makes the Gear S even heavier than it already is.

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The Swarovski version of the Gear S features a different clasp than the regular device, and is much more skin friendly.

The screen is nice

I’d like to quickly reiterate that the display on this particular device is too big for my wrist—for any wrist, really. During my demo time, even some of the men around me were commenting on the watch’s large size, so know that my criticisms aren't just about me and my tiny(ish) wrists. Also, the black bezel consumes a significant portion of the overall display. If you're going to make a watch display this big, please make it edge-to-edge. Some day, technology will catch up to Samsung's aspirations.

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That's two inches of hardcore Super AMOLED for you.

Regardless, pixel for pixel, the 2-inch screen looks really nice. I'm not typically a fan of Super AMOLED, but it works better for smartwatches (where we expect brightness in direct sunlight) than smartphones (where such saturated colors can look almost ostentatious). I didn't get a chance to check display legibility outside, so look for details on that in our final review.

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A watch face with a glare.

I also really liked the curvature of the screen, as it helped the Gear S to fit comfortably (albeit loosely) around my wrist. That said, because of its gigantic size, I couldn’t see the top third of the display without rotating the watch toward me. Well, that's a hassle.

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See that gray part that sticks out? The one above the security tag? That's the watch band. 

Still trying to make Tizen happen

If you're fully emotionally invested in the Samsung device ecosystem, you might like everything that the watch's Tizen OS underpinnings have to offer. In addition to 3G support for data and phone calls, the Gear S can send you notifications from all your various social networks. And, of course, there's a smartwatch version of S Health to help you stay in shape. There's even a built-in UV sensor to help ensure the sun doesn't fry you to a crisp.

In all, the Gear S looks like a very useful device on paper. But it's still not an Android device, and this will ultimately limit app support. 

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This is Tizen on a watch.

The Gear S has a Home button embedded on the front; you press it to go back to the beginning of Samsung's Tizen menu structure. Swiping up brings up the app drawer, while swiping to the left brings up widgets—you're limited to a total of five. Swiping to the right will take you to the messages center, where you can check on notifications from various apps. You can also swipe down from the top bezel to get a status bar that’s similar to the one in Android.

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Apps, anyone? Samsung branded apps?

Just like I prefer stock Android to most skinned version of Android, this is a case where I prefer Android Wear, especially since Samsung made quite a hullabaloo about it earlier this summer. In fact, the Gear S doesn't even use Google Maps or Google Now—it uses Nokia's HERE Maps and its S-Voice, respectively. 

Overall, my first impressions of the Gear S are that it's just too big, and that it arrives too soon. The Galaxy Gear released a year ago also made phone calls, but the world didn't receive it with a warm embrace—perhaps because tinny-sounding speakerphone conversations in public aren't that appealing. There's also the issue of phone-plan redundancy. The Gear S can serve as a fully self-contained call-making device. But what are you going to do, cancel your primary number, and rely entirely on your watch?

Of course, I could feel differently after some time with the Gear S. But for now I feel like I'd have to shift around my schedule just to make room for this watch in my life.

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