Samsung Gear S2 Smartwatch Review: Tizen Excels

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Software: Life with Tizen

The big story on the Gear S2 is the software. Yes, that excellent control bezel is worth lauding, but Samsung's decision to ship its own homegrown Tizen operating system in place of the more common Android Wear means that this watch is genuinely differentiated from the crowd. Making such a decision -- to shun Android Wear in favor of a lesser known solution is a risk. Tizen was a bust for Samsung on its phones, and the jury is still out on whether it'll be successful on televisions. Even Samsung and its mighty marketing budget can't just force a new OS onto the world.

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That said, Tizen feels right at home on the Gear S2. Smartwatches are so unlike any other mobile device that at a new operation system is practically unavoidable. Apple couldn't put standard iOS on its Apple Watch, nor could Google shove a full-fledged copy of Android on smartwatches from Sony and Motorola. We should also note that Samsung also allows the Gear S2 to work on any modern Android device -- not just devices manufactured by Samsung. Most any phone running Android 4.4 or later with at least 1.5GB of RAM can download the necessary Samsung Gear apps from the Google Play Store. Once those are installed, it's a simple pairing process.

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Frankly, Tizen doesn't feel all that different than Android Wear. In fact, it even looks pretty similar. Modern, whimsical graphics are the norm, with bright and colorful icons scattered throughout. Though it's quite playful, it works. The most important element of all this, however, is the vertical integration. Since this is Samsung's OS and Samsung's choice of internals, the two are perfectly aligned. In practice, this enables the Gear S2 to be the fastest, most responsive smartwatch we've experienced to date. It's really not even close.

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Swiping through screens on the Gear S2 and the Apple Watch provides a great comparison. Whereas the Apple Watch lags a bit on each touch and struggles to load data for each "Glance," the Gear S2's OS keeps up with your movements. The hardware dial can be spun around exceedingly fast, and the OS is capable of flipping through apps at the same pace. It's really responsive. Said another way, this is the first smartwatch where you really do not notice lag in everyday use.

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In terms of functionality, you'll find S Voice on-board to act as your digital assistant, which works most of the time. As with any digital assistant, S Voice occasionally struggles to properly translate what you're saying, particularly if your phone has spotty service. You'll find easy access to photos, music, calendar entries, Twitter notifications, Google Now cards, and S Health data. Users have access to around 2.5GB of the 4GB of storage, so you can fit a healthy number of playlists onboard for use when exercising sans phone too.

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Now, the topic of apps. Given that this is Tizen, developers are being forced to port their apps from Android Wear or rebuild them entirely. As Microsoft found with Windows Phone, it's supremely tough to persuade devs to cook up apps for a niche platform. That said, Samsung's muscle has enabled it to develop partnerships with Bloomberg, CNN, Nike, Volkswagen, SmartThings, Voxer, and a host of others. Apps from these partners are clean, fast, and polished. The rest of the app catalog, however, is hit or miss. We'll chalk this up to Tizen being a small fish in an already small pond -- after all, it's tough to argue that any smartwatch app ecosystem is a gold mine right now -- but those insistent on having access to the latest and greatest apps should take note.

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Personally, we think the ecosystem is strong enough now and will likely improve. You can only run so many apps on a minuscule 1.2-inch display before you need your phone to dig into real work, and Tizen seems to have the basics covered. Given the choice between Tizen's speed and smaller assortment of apps, and Android Wear's more elaborate app catalog, we'd probably take the speed at this point in time. If a killer Android Wear app arrives, however, we reserve the right to change our mind.

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