Samsung Gear Sport review

Samsung’s Gear Sport appears to have two clear goals: be slimmer than last year’s Gear S3 model, and bring in swimming support.

In the difficult smartwatch market, so few upgrades seem a bit dangerous – but then again, given the Gear S3 was a decent watch it might not be the worst idea. 

Samsung’s been offering some market-leading capabilities with its digital timepieces for a while, so is the Gear Sport the perfect fusion?

Samsung Gear Sport price and release date

If you’re hoping the Samsung Gear Sport price is going to be a bit more palatable this year, you’re going to be disappointed as it’s retailing at $299 / £299 / AU$499. 

While not as costly as the Apple Watch 3, it’s still rather expensive for something in a category that’s not seen as necessary… more of a luxury buy, or a great gift for a significant other when you just can’t decide what to buy them.

The Samsung Gear Sport was released on October 27 2017, or November 1 if you’re currently residing in Australia.

It is one of the cheaper Samsung Gear watches on the market now though, as the Gear S3 is slowly being discontinued and is curiously rising in price. You can still buy the Gear S2, but that's a little archaic now.

Design and screen

The metal design is appealing

Given the key focus of the Samsung Gear Sport is all about making a more compact device, it’s bizarrely heavier than the models from last year – we’re not talking massive differences, but it’s nearly 10 grams and you can feel that on the wrist especially.

However, overall it’s a smaller device, coming in with the more compact dimensions of 44.6 x 42.9 x 11.6 mm – it looks far more like a normal watch than previous gears before it, which maintaining the same rugged sensibilities that we like to see for watches of this cost.

It’s very well-made as well – you know when you pick it up that you’re getting a timepiece that’s costing a little more, and with luxury being a key differentiator with watches compared to other gadgets, this is important.

The bezel and metal body have very little unwanted movement, and it doesn’t feel too tight against the wrist. Of course, that depends on the strap, and at 20mm you'll be able to switch these out for a wider range of 'generic' bands from other shops.

The large buttons are easy to find and press

Given the name hints heavily at fitness the rubber band that comes in the box is just fine, but you do have options. 

It’s a real pain to get the strap through the holding loops at times – especially annoying when you need to get going for a workout – so you’ll need a little more care there.

This is one of the most irritating things about the bundled strap

The 1.2-inch Super AMOLED screen is as clear and vibrant as you’d expect from Samsung – it can err on the darker side by default (as you’d expect given the South Korean brand is trying to save battery) but if you crank up the brightness it’s easily legible at all times.

It’s annoying that it’s a bit smaller than previous years – 1.2-inch vs 1.3-inch – as we want as much to look at as possible on a smartwatch, but if that’s the price of a more compact device, we can understand.

The screen is exceptionally clear and crisp

Circular designs don’t show as much as a squarer display, but offer a better aesthetic on the wrist (and Apple has pretty much owned the square design, so anything similar would be seen as a copy).

The Samsung Gear Sport is well-machined with a strong shell, clear screen and robust glass on top. That slimmer design does come at the cost of battery size (and we’re not sure where the extra weight has come from) but overall this is a premium smartwatch… which you’d hope for the price.

Spotify and apps

Offline Spotify is a massively appreciated feature

One of the reasons to buy the Samsung Gear Sport is that it’s the first ‘Spotify Watch’ – and it’s an incredibly smart move from the South Korean brand.

The ability to sync offline tracks from Spotify means, suddenly, this is a watch you actively want to take out on runs. Add in a pair of Bluetooth headphones and sync some music from the streaming platform, and you’re completely kitted out and phone free on a long run.

Setting up the service is as fiddly as can be – you’ll need to type in a password using an old-school T9 keyboard (those old enough to remember the early days of texting will know what that means) and peck out your username and password.

Controlling Spotify is a little tougher from the music app

However, once in the user interface is pretty slick and usable – the playlists are where you expect them to be, and a tap will download them for offline use.

Skipping through tracks is a little bit fiddly on the smaller screen – although you can use the rotating bezel – and it’s a nightmare to alter the volume.

It’s one of those systems where you can do it, but it’s not easy – it’s nowhere near as simple a system as the one Apple's brought with Music on its Watch, where everything flows and is right at your fingertips when needed.

Also, we constantly found the Gear Sport telling us that Spotify was ‘playing’ despite having no sound output… it seemed to take a little chunk of battery life, and mess up our playlist playback.

The other apps are pretty rudimentary on the Samsung Gear Sport, with only a real handful of choices for your delectation. As mentioned, Swim.com is there, but there's no Strava app, no Nike Plus, and many other titles we felt like were missing from the platform – although Under Armour Record is there, if you're embedded in that platform.

The third party apps don’t impress

This isn't necessarily a massive problem – we're seeing that it's more important that the basics are covered with a smartwatch, such as integrated workouts, nice alerts and more relevant notifications.

It's nice that you can reply to a WhatsApp message, for instance, without needing to open the app, but otherwise if you're looking to augment the capabilities of the Gear Sport you're not going to find a lot here other than some third-party apps that you'll be unwilling to take a chance on.

For instance: one of the best features of the Apple Watch is the breathing exercise app, helping you calm through the day or get to sleep more easily. However, while you can download something similar in function for the Gear Sport, it's siloed within an app and doesn't offer you notifications.

And the functionality is rudimentary at best – it's an indictment on how the app store is understocked, and isn't going to get any better as long as Samsung doesn't have a massive user base to create for.

Fitness tracking

Let’s get this out of the way: the Samsung Gear Sport is still an average fitness tracker. That’s not in terms of the things it can monitor and do – they’re impressively extensive – it’s how mildly irritating they all are to use.

Let’s begin with the fitness tracker, as that’s one of the better health elements of the Gear Sport. The step and calorie burning features are pretty robust, giving you a nice idea of what’s going on with you during the day. 

This is translated well into useful information into how active you are each day, and it synchronizes with Samsung Health, the app to monitor your body.

You can also track how many flights of stairs climbed, set goals for how far you want to walk each day, and easily see how active you’ve been in any given period through the app.

However, the Gear Sport also promises to be a great companion for tracking your calorie intake – which it’s really not. You can input the amount of calories you’re eating during a meal in manually but you’re basically just guessing unless you happen to know the amount precisely.

Samsung Health is a comprehensive app

That’s fine – we wouldn’t expect the Gear Sport to have the extensive database of calorie values that the phone does (and it’s a nice feature indeed) but Samsung is making it a selling point of the watch.

The same with water or caffeine intake – it's great that you can let the watch know how much you’ve had, but it requires manual entry each time and that’s fallible because we all forget to upload some things from time to time.

The reason we’re not sold on the Gear Sport as a fitness tracker is it doesn’t offer anything new. Samsung’s resources are such that it surely can be one of the front-runners in this area, learning your activity levels throughout the day and giving you pokes and hints at the right time.

As it is, it’s mostly a dumb tracker that gives you celebration or admonishment the next day depending on how you did. What fitness bands need to do is get smarter and smarter, becoming holistic in their understanding of your sleep patterns, water intake, calorie count and activity levels.

Were Samsung to offer that, it would be a much better incentive to input water and food more accurately.

Speaking of sleep tracking, that’s one of the better elements of the Gear Sport, with a dedicated update appearing each morning when you fire up the Samsung Health app. 

It’s annoying that watch itself takes an hour or two to show you the same information if you’ve not synced – how well you slept is something you want to know the instant you've woken up to compare to how you feel – but when it does appear at least the watch shows the stages of res well.

However, your sleep efficacy is only monitored in terms of the time you fall asleep and wake up, compared to the time you said you wanted to do so. It would be far better to have some hints on how to sleep better during the night, which is oddly what the Samsung Health app on the phone is generally good at in other fitness areas.

The other issue with sleep tracking is the battery life – as you need to charge the watch every couple of days you’ll only get a night or two’s sleep information before you’ll want to power it up overnight, so it’s hard to depend on the Gear Sport as a regular sleep tracker.

As mentioned, Samsung Health is a really strong app for tracking everything you could hope for – there’s an option to assess so many parts of your health, and it synchronises well with the Gear Sport to show you graphs on calorie intake, sleep, water, fitness… pretty much everything you’d want to look at.

Again, it could be more insightful in what it does with that data, but if you’re just looking to check how you did on a certain day, then this is where you’ll find that.

Workouts

The other side to the fitness smarts of the Gear Sport is the more advanced stuff – being able to monitor you through circuit training (lunges, squats, star jumps and crunches) and also a wide variety of machines, such a treadmill or elliptical trainer.

The treadmill tracking isn’t great – it’s basically just heart rate tracking, with no accelerometer sensor tracking to work out how far you’ve gone. When you consider that Apple’s pairing its Watch gym machines to show accurate data, that’s a big miss.

However, it’s the GPS chip inside that’s the great spec to see – this means the Gear Sport really can live up to its name. Combine that with 50m waterproofing, allowing you to take this watch in the pool, and you can see why we’d be interested in what Samsung has put together.

The unfortunate thing is that the performance when running is pretty cursory. You can see your pace, speed, distance, time… although they’re not all on the same screen. 

That said, kudos for Samsung for allowing you to sync your runs to Strava from the main workout app, something that Apple doesn’t do with the Watch 3.

The Gear Sport is not an impressive running watch at all

However, Strava interprets the data in a really strange way – in a half marathon we completed in 1:26, it came up with 1:24 as a result. It made no sense as we’d been pushing hard the entire time, so there were no stops to think about – but when we converted it to a ‘race’ in the app, the time was closer (although still not completely accurate).

It also failed during a five mile run, as despite clocking 4.6 miles (still wrong) it refused to log any pace for the first half of the race, and gave a thoroughly incorrect heart rate the entire way through.

On top of that, the Gear Sport started weirdly syncing activities to Strava – it would upload strength workouts instantly, but would only send your runs to the service just after midnight, with no way to force an upload.

The general fitness tracking feels holistic

This meant you can’t see your workouts instantly on the social network, which is half the reason to do it and interrogate your results alongside your friends'. 

Heart rate is tracked in the main workout app through the wrist-based sensor, but it's as poor as on the Gear S3… it just doesn’t work most of the time, and any hint of cold weather reduces the chance of it working well to almost zero.

Case in point: we went out on a run to test the Icon X 2018 headphones’ capabilities as run trackers, and set the Gear Sport alongside to check accuracy. At four degree centigrade, it wasn’t warm but also not freezing.

However, despite completing a very slow, 11 minutes per mile warm up, the Gear Sport tracked it as well over 180 beats per minute, meaning that the calorie count is completely wrong and no amount of fiddling could make it more accurate.

The GPS accuracy was pretty strong during our other run testing though, so we’d have faith in the Gear Sport as something that can basically tell where we’ve gone and for how long, but as an overall run tracker it just isn’t something we’d trust in.

It’s annoying, as this was the same thing that happened last year with the Gear S3 – sometimes the heart rate monitor would work, other times it would just give out bogus readings.

Other workouts

Fans of the Gear system will know that Samsung has a pretty robust set of 'other' exercises to track, and we tried out some of the circuit training capabilities, doing three sets of lunges, crunches, squats and star jumps to see how accurate the tracking was.

The lunges were up first – and something weird happened. The first set of 10 did not register, not matter how well we did them. Then, sporadically, the Gear Sport started to pick up the movements after about 11 attempts – in the end we did about 30 to trigger the 10 needed to complete the set.

So far, so bad. Then the second set began… and it was nearly flawless. 12 reps for 10 logged. With the third set, each was tracked exactly, with no change in form. 

Crunches and squats were next, and these were both accurate from the start, with the motion clearly a lot easier to track for the Gear Sport.

Other workouts can be hit and miss

Up next, star jumps… and the watch nearly went down the nearest drain, such was our frustration. No matter how many times we tried, which form, it would just NOT register a rep. In fact, the only way to make anything happen was to jump in a really exaggerated manner, stop, then jump back. It was ridiculous.

Again – this is the same as the Gear S3 and shows that Samsung hasn’t altered a lot. It’s so galling because the Moov Now, a small display-less bracelet that costs a sixth of the Gear Sport, is perfect at the same thing and has far, far more exercises. 

Samsung had a chance to lead the way here and it constantly misses it. And while you can set your reps, again there’s no obvious training plan on offer – so it won’t learn that you’ve done 30 squats today, for example, and then add in a few more next time.

Swimming

When it comes to swimming, this is basically the biggest addition to the Gear Sport – and it's unimpressive.

Perhaps that's a bit unfair – after all, you can track swimming through the main workout app, use the tie-in with Speedo to use the widespread Speedo ON app to monitor your splashing, or there's a powerful Swim.com app available to download as well.

Except, you can't save any swims to the main Samsung Health app if you use Speedo (the app Samsung is promoting), which means you'll miss out on fitness activity minutes if you're using the Speedo app.

In terms of how the accuracy is… it's not great. It gave us very low stroke counts for each length (often saying seven to eight when we clocked 21) and while it generally gave a correct number of lengths completed, we had to pause to let it catch up after four.

Speedo ON is a fine app – being able to control the granular level of the pool length is a nice touch, for instance – but it's not a lot different to the main workout app, and the only benefit is being able to sync your swimming workouts to the Speedo ON platform.

Otherwise, it suffered from the same limitations as the inbuilt app, making it hard to see why Samsung bothered with the tie-in if it was going to keep its own software.

Swim.com is by far the most powerful app on the Gear Sport, with the ability to do intervals, drills and set targets for a variety of options – but the app was buggy, not allowing us to scroll through lists properly without it flicking all over the place.

It was manageable, but it shows that the app isn't optimized for the Gear Sport, and is indicative of the overall level of effort that app makers are putting into this watch.

If you're a dedicated swimmer, we wouldn't suggest you buy the Gear Sport… and if you're a newbie we wouldn't either. Yes, Speedo ON is a nice platform to be part of, but a cheaper Garmin will give more metrics and save your progress in the same way.

Interface

The interface on the Samsung Gear Sport is rather fiddly, and that's mostly for one simple reason: the raise to wake isn't strong enough. You can leave the screen on, but that drops the battery life far too much.

It's just a case of trying to see the time, raising your wrist and nothing happening so often. And tapping the screen won't wake it, so you'll need to spin the bezel or hit a button to see what time it is. It's a fundamental flaw.

We like the idea of a spinning bezel to interact with the Gear Sport, but in reality it's still a bit fiddly if you're scooting through the interface. It's nice to spin it to dismiss a notification, but trying to bounce through different screens is tough and your hand almost gets in the way of seeing what you want.

The interface is improved, but still not super intuitive

Rotating the bezel is better for heading through lists, as the screen is too small to swipe on effectively, and that's where the physical mechanism comes into its own. However, for things like selecting apps it doesn't make it as easy… there's just something slightly unintuitive to the process.

It's something we got used to, but it didn't feel like the cleanest way of doing things.

That said, Samsung has improved the interface on the Gear Sport with the upgrade – things like the pull-down shade from the top of the watch's screen opening a set of quick action buttons was nice, and being able to rearrange them is really useful.

The two buttons on the side of the Gear Sport generally make sense too – the top/back button operating as a way of pausing workouts takes some getting used to, and the bottom button is supposed to open apps and head back to the home screen, but sometimes we found we were unsure as to what was going to happen when tapping away.

The bezel spinning is a novel way of moving through the circular interface, but isn’t always easy to use

It's inexplicable that Bixby isn't on this watch yet. There is 'S Voice', which is Samsung's rudimentary method of speaking to its gadgets from years gone by, but this isn't accurate enough as a wake up command, nor does it really do a huge amount, so we quickly stopped trying to use it.

And if you're using an iPhone (connecting to Apple's handset is a real fillip for Samsung and its smartwatches) you'll have to do little things like install the timer app when you actually just want to be reminded that your oven dinner is going to burn because you often fall asleep every evening.

iPhone connectivity is a nice touch though – it's nowhere near as good as compared to using a Samsung phone, with very basic app connections and lower battery life as a result of connecting to a slightly-incompatible OS, but overall the Gear Sport works well enough with alternative phones.

Battery life

The messages when charging are a little ominous

One of the things that we loved about the Samsung Gear S3 is that watch had excellent battery life, with up to four days' use from a single charge.

The Gear Sport has a smaller battery (despite being heavier, for some reason) and yet inexplicably doesn't pack the same time between charges… it's down to about two and a half days between needing to put the Gear S3 in the dedicated wireless charging dock.

This little dock, connected by microUSB, is great at charging your watch, and if you plop it in the charger every two or three days you'll find that you rarely run out of juice.

What's maddening about this is that, as mentioned above, you don't really build up consecutive sleep tracking days, as you'll need to charge it overnight most of the time. If the battery life was four or five days it would be manageable, but this shorter time between charges really smarts.

Also, while the Gear Sport does charge using the Qi charging standard, you can't put it on a standard wireless charging block and hope that you'll get some juice… it just doesn't work.

We can't criticise the Gear Sport too much for battery life, as Samsung's Tizen operating system is one of the leanest and most efficient for a smartwatch.

However, we can’t see why the Gear Sport is worse for battery life than the Gear S3, and with raise-to-wake being so poor it's tempting to leave the always-on display running so you'll know the time… but this will see your battery life slide dramatically, as will constantly music streaming from your wrist.

We can't help feeling disappointed with the Samsung Gear Sport – but it's hard to say what's really so bad about it. 

It does the basics just fine – you'll get step data through, all manner of notifications and can use it to track the odd run really well.

However, there are so many tiny niggles throughout the device and its design that it really sours the experience – from the fiddly strap to poor Strava integration to lower battery life than previous Gear smartwatches, it's hard to see what Samsung has brought here.

Who's it for

A polished watch in many ways

The Gear Sport is, as its name suggests, a device designed for those that are a bit more active. The additional swim tracking will entice, the sheer range of workouts it can guide you through and monitor are impressive, and the overall fitness tracking is strong.

If you're thinking about buying this watch we'd suggest you have a Samsung phone to go alongside… other models and operating systems will work, but won't pack the full range of features.

But you are getting a cracking OLED screen, easy-to-see notifications and a smartwatch that's been iterated on time and again to start making it easier to use than ever. 

Add to that offline Spotify playback – a truly awesome feature to have – and there’s a lot that the Gear Sport does that entices most smartwatch fans.

Should I buy it?

Slimmer design, but at the cost of battery life

Now, this is the tough question, because on one hand, it’s the best smartwatch Samsung has on the market, but on the other, it’s not a huge leap forward.

If this thing had the same three-to-four day battery life of the Gear S3, then it would be a no-brainer if you wanted a Samsung smartwatch. It’s sleeker, can do more, and has a more advanced OS from the outset.

But that battery life is a real issue, and the Gear S3 isn’t that much larger on the wrist. There are myriad little niggles that live within the watch too, with it feeling like Samsung has tried to do too much here without focusing on the basics.

The amount of things it can do is awesome, but the execution isn't quite up the standard we'd expect from a company of Samsung's size. This is a fine smartwatch, but one that comes with some compromises.

First reviewed: December 2017

The competiton

Not sure this is the watch for you? Well, step right up to find the best alternatives.

Samsung Gear S3

The Samsung Gear S3 is very, very similar to the Gear Sport, but has a slightly less advanced processor inside and is an overall larger (yet inexplicably lighter) model.

It's rising in price at the moment, but swim tracking aside it can do everything as well as the Gear Sport can manage, so if you're choosing between the two – and can find this for a decent price – we'd recommend this model.

Garmin Forerunner 735XT

The Garmin Forerunner 735XT is a top fitness watch, and for those that want a smart device to upload their activities well, they might want to consider something more targeted.

You don't get the fancy interface, but can control music, track all manner of workouts, get instant uploads and the heart rate monitor is more accurate.

Apple Watch 3

OK – we know that for a lot of people this won't be relevant. But if you're an iPhone user wondering whether to go for the Gear Sport, then we'd steer you quietly towards the Apple Watch 3 if you're OK spending a little more cash.

It's a more complete model and syncs so much better with the iPhone than the Gear model, so definitely have a good think about why you want the Sport over Apple's own model.

Gareth Beavis
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