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Lifewire / Yoona Wagener
Clear, attractive display
Heavy-duty and rugged
Bulky on smaller wrists
A lot to learn
Limited compatibility with non-Samsung devices
The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier is essentially like a smartphone for your wrist, which could make daily routines for the active and connected customer a breeze. But it can also feel clunky and unintuitive to use.
If you’ve ever wanted just a little bit more “wearability” from your smartphone, the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier might be a promising solution. In many ways, this smartwatch is like a tinier version of a smartphone, allowing you to complete many of the same actions—you can make calls, receive texts and other notifications, track activities, and even pay for your purchases without ever reaching for a wallet.
There are a lot of bells and whistles in this relatively tiny package, but there are some limitations, too. We tested the watch’s fitness-tracking prowess as well as it’s general comfort, durability, and user-friendliness.
There’s no getting around it: the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier sports a sizeable watch face at nearly two inches wide, two inches tall, and half an inch thick. The face is made of heavy-duty Corning Gorilla Glass SR+, which prevents scratching. A prominent feature around the watch face itself is the stainless steel bezel. Not only does the bezel give the watch a rugged and sporty look, but it also serves as a way to navigate through apps and settings. It’s a cool and functional flourish, but it does take some getting used to.
Just beyond the bezel, there are two buttons on the right side of the watch face. These function as “Back” and “Home” buttons and are often used in combination with the bezel for easier navigation.
The watch also comes with a thick and durable silicone band. The standard band is what Samsung calls its Active Silicon Band, but you can swap this out with any of the other 22-millimeter bands Samsung or other brands offer. This makes it even more wearable for dressy occasions or when the mood strikes to change up the look.
While the watch can be configured to stay on at all times and mimic the look of a traditional analog watch, that may drain the battery at a faster rate. If you’re interested in a little variety in the display, there are several to choose from. And some of these are customizable, too, meaning you can swap out certain information so it displays what’s most relevant to you.
In many ways, this smartwatch is like a tinier version of a smartphone.
While we didn’t take the watch for a swim, we did test its water-resistant design by submerging the watch completely and experimenting with the touch responsiveness while it was wet. The same flick of the wrist worked to reactivate the screen, and it was still easy to toggle through the screens with a swipe of a finger.
While we were dealing with depths far shallower than the maximum five feet, Samsung says this watch can handle being submerged at that depth for 30 minutes. We took care to rinse and dry it like the instructions advised and had no issue with it.
The manufacturer also says that it can withstand a drop or two since it boasts military-grade ruggedness. We dropped the watch from a distance of five feet onto a hardwood floor and left it loose in a backpack with keys, and were pleased to find no scratches, cracks, or signs of malfunction. It does seem to hold up to its claims of ruggedness. It’s a sturdy and substantial watch, but that also means it has the potential to overwhelm a smaller wrist.
At first, it seemed like there were a lot of moving parts required to get this watch set up. There’s the watch, a wireless charging dock, a Micro-USB power cord, and what looks like a display stand of some sort—which is exactly what it is.
While you can definitely place the watch on the charging dock and simply plug the power cord into a wall outlet, the packaging gives you another way to neatly display the charging device. By placing the charging dock onto the display stand, you can easily hide the power cord when it’s not in use by storing the cord in the bottom of the display stand, which also happens to be the bottom of the box the device comes in. This is also where you can keep the other extras that come with the watch: the quick start guide and additional watch band strap.
We chose to use the display stand with the charging dock to charge the device in full. It came 78% charged, which we could see by simply placing the watch in the charging dock, and quickly powered up to 100% in about 30 minutes.
Once it reached full capacity, we turned on the device by holding both of the buttons on the right side. After it powered on, we received a message to download the Samsung Gear app in the Galaxy Apps, Play Store, or App Store. We were setting up the device on an iPhone, so we headed to the App Store to download the companion app.
Once we downloaded the app, we had to set up the connection via Bluetooth, which initiated watch pairing and then reviewing user agreements and privacy policies, preferences about notifications, and an option to log in to a Samsung account if we wanted. We skipped the log-in step at initial setup, which allowed us to get into the app in just three minutes from unplugging the watch.
Once the watch was paired, we were given a tour of the bezel, button, and swiping functions and all the main apps and widgets. And that’s really all that was involved before we were free to begin exploring.
While that’s all that’s required to give access to the watch, we found that the setup process seemed to be much more involved than that. There are actually many possibilities for setting up the watch based on personal preference and how you’ll be using it. For example, if you want to take advantage of the weather app, you’ll need to use the Samsung Gear app to allow location tracking and set unit preferences. There’s also the issue of setting up your device to make and receive phone calls. This requires a second pairing.
While the initial setup is fast and straightforward, really getting the watch to a point that makes it easy to use for your purposes may take more than just an hour or a day or two of use.
The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active is attractive, but it’s also sizeable and heavy, which we found to be slightly uncomfortable on a small wrist. General wear wasn’t overly uncomfortable, but when we wore it throughout the course of a day, we noticed that it definitely felt heavier in the later hours—and felt relieved to take off.
It’s a sturdy and substantial watch, but that also means it has the potential to overwhelm a smaller wrist.
Because the band is so rugged, including the buckle, it’s very tightly secured by the two tabs that keep the band flush against the strap. This is great for keeping it on the wrist, but taking the watch on and off—and unlatching the buckle or securing the strap into the tabs—took some finagling because of the stiffness and thickness of the watchband.
We did manage a full night of sleep while wearing it, and it never woke us up or caused discomfort. But it was the least comfortable during more intense activity, like a run. From the moment we started the workout we felt the excess weight on our wrist, which made the general swinging motion uncomfortable and imbalanced. On a larger wrist, this might not be an issue.
If you’re an active person or want to be, the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier could be an apt companion or source of motivation. The Samsung Health suite, which is built right into the device, can help you track everything from calorie, water, and caffeine intake to sleeping, running, and other workouts like squats, planks, and crunches.
Certain activities like walking and running are automatically detected. Since we frequently do both, we appreciated not having to initiate a workout session. The only drawback was not being able to capture GPS data with the automatic sessions.
When actively using the watch on a run, we noticed that the motion that wakes the watch and displays the screen—raising the wrist in an upward motion—wasn’t always as responsive as we hoped it would be. In full sun it was also difficult to read the screen. When we switched the watch to “Always On” mode, that helped with readability, but it also drained the battery faster.
In terms of accuracy, we compared the data to our usual GPS watch for running (Garmin Forerunner 35) and the phone app we occasionally use to track steps (Health app for iOS) on two walks and two runs. We noticed a number of inconsistencies. While there’s always some variation in GPS data, caused by weather variations or trees and tall buildings blocking satellite connection, the Gear S3 Frontier was consistently off.
Unlike the Garmin watch, which requires a GPS connection to operate, we were able to just start the run with the Gear S3 Frontier. It was nice to not have to wait for that step, but we noticed that the connection seemed to drop a number of times over the course of our 1.5-mile excursion. This spotty connection might have had something to do with the results we saw. On that run, the distances all the devices recorded was fairly uniform, but the heart rate on the Gear S3 was always at least 10 points higher than the Garmin watch, the cadence was as much as 30 steps too low, and the pace was about 15 seconds slower.
As for overall steps logged for that particular run, the Health app and Garmin were within a reasonable range at 3,480 and 3,534 respectively, but the Gear S3 Frontier logged only 3,111 steps.
Since we tested the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier with an iOS device, we couldn’t take advantage of a few highlights of the Tizen 2.3.2 software, including Samsung Pay, text, and email. Samsung Pay is only eligible on certain devices (both Samsung and non-Samsung), and with certain carriers. And while we couldn’t send and receive messages, we were able to see message notifications. Our email was not accessible at all, which is a major disadvantage for those outside the Android ecosystem.
We did test out the note-taking and reminder feature, which uses the same keyboard or handwritten functions as the text and email features. We found using the touchscreen to hand-draw letters was fun but slow, and using the keyboard, while more controlled, felt even slower because of the use of the bezel to add punctuation marks, numbers, and symbols.
We did take advantage of the Spotify App available from the Galaxy Store. It was straightforward to download and pair to our existing Spotify account, but it does take time to download playlists for offline listening. Otherwise, streaming Spotify with a Wi-Fi connection is the only other way to stream music.
We also played with the built-in music player, which allowed us to upload music files from our computer directly to the Gear S3 Frontier. While this worked without a hitch, the method for doing it is not very sophisticated. We had to launch the Music Manager and connect to the same Wi-Fi network as our computer. Then we were prompted on the watch to visit a specified IP address through our computer and confirm that IP address in our web browser with the address listed on your phone. That convoluted process finally allowed us to establish a connection between the devices so we could upload files (another downside of using it with a non-Android device).
If you decide to upload music to the watch, you have to be mindful of the internal storage you’re taking up. This storage can be monitored via the companion app, and deleting music files from the device is simple if you need to.
Overall, the Music Manager interface is very plain and nondescript. Without taking the extra precaution of confirming you’re connecting to the device you want to, it does feel a little precarious. The contrast between the very flashy and feature-rich look of the watch and this overly-simple interface is a glaring style contradiction.
With a Samsung or Android phone, however, this is made much more seamless through the companion Samsung Gear app, where you can easily sync music right to the watch.
Samsung says the Gear S3 Frontier can last for up to three days on a single charge. We found that to be true unless we were using apps like Spotify to stream music over Wi-Fi and even when we downloaded playlists and listened offline.
When we actively used Spotify for short stints on one day, we noticed the battery drained to 10% in just a day and a half. We also observed that while using the Spotify app, the device seemed to warm up more than usual. It wasn’t alarmingly hot, but we took note of it. To recharge the device, which we did twice, from 12% and then 10%, we noticed it took about 2.5 hours to replenish the battery.
The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier retails for $299.99, which doesn’t make it the most affordable smartwatch option on the market. Considering the sheer amount of possibilities the watch presents, the price seems justified at first. But when you compare its features to those offered on similar devices, including the number of integrations and available apps, the Gear S3 Frontier comes up short and also steeper in price.
For non-Android users and serious athletes, you may have better luck—and pay less—elsewhere.
For the dedicated Samsung user who can benefit from Samsung Pay and all the messaging features this watch offers on an Android device, this may be worth it. But for non-Android users and serious athletes, you may have better luck—and pay less—elsewhere.
It’s great that iOS users can use the Gear S3 Frontier with relative ease. It’s harder for Android users to connect to Apple wearables. In that respect, the Gear S3 Frontier has an edge over the Apple Watch Series 3, a potential competitor model. While the Apple Watch Series 3 is only for iPhones, it starts at just $279 for all the same functionality.
Along with the slightly lower price, it offers an additional 4GB of internal storage, water-resistance up to 50 meters (versus 1.5 meters on the Gear S3), access to many more apps, and different sizing options for a better (and lighter) fit. This could make the Apple Watch a more appealing choice for those with smaller wrists.
What the Apple Watch lacks, though, is the distinct bezel and heavy-duty appeal of the Gear S3 Frontier. It also doesn’t have an option for always-on use, which makes reading and using the Gear S3 like a “regular” watch just a bit more natural.
Beyond the Apple Watch, there are plenty of options that cater to both Android and iOS users. And the value really comes down to how much you want from your smartwatch. For active individuals (especially swimmers), the $250 Garmin vívoactive 3 Music might be the preferable alternative.
It’s similar in shape and weight, and you can do many of the same things with it. But if you’re a music and fitness buff, this may be more in your lane. It can store music right on your device—up to 500 songs—and the battery life can extend for up to seven days. There’s also much more fitness data insight, menstrual cycling tracking, and even safety tracking available.
Interested in comparing this device against other options? Check out our roundups of the best smartwatches for women and the best Samsung smartwatches.
A commanding and multifunctional smartwatch that doesn’t dive too deep into fitness tracking.
The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier is striking and well-heeled in many ways, but it may not provide detailed-enough data for serious fitness enthusiasts. And while this device is technically compatible with iOS, Android and Samsung users will get the most out of all its features.
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