Smartwatches are no longer niche gadgets aimed at early adopters and enthusiasts, thanks in part to devices made by Apple, Fitbit, and Samsung. More than 50 million smartwatches are expected to be sold in 2016, according to research firm Gartner, up significantly from the roughly 30 million sold last year.
While today’s smartwatches are much sleeker and more capable than those that have launched even three years ago, they still come with notable limitations. Their most obvious drawback is their reliance on smartphones. Smartwatches typically need to be close to your phone in order to deliver notifications and run apps — especially those that need your location to function properly, like Uber. That makes them less useful when you’re not carrying your phone.
Smartwatch manufacturers aren’t happy with this state of affairs. Samsung in particular has been trying to ween its wearables from its phones, with its latest effort marking its biggest step yet towards severing the bond. Samsung’s Gear S3, which the company unveiled on Wednesday, will be able to send text messages, track your location, and stream music from Spotify all without the help of your phone, depending on the model. The S3 will launch later this year; pricing hasn’t been announced yet.
Samsung will offer the Gear S3 in three variants: Classic, Frontier, and Frontier LTE, the latter of which packs cellphone-like high-speed wireless Internet connectivity. Previous Samsung smartwatches have supported 3G wireless data, but this is the South Korean company’s first timepiece that connects to higher-speed LTE networks.
Another factor granting the Gear S3 more independence is its GPS sensor, which will be present in all models. The sensor will make it possible for smartwatch apps to see your location without communicating with your phone, unlocking new functionality — runners and bikers, for instance, will be able to track their location during workouts.
Samsung has also been working with Spotify to make it easier to stream music from your wrist. With the Gear S3, you’ll be able to stream songs even when your phone isn’t nearby — although you won’t have access to playlists you’ve saved. This will be possible even if you own one of the non-LTE models since all versions will be capable of connecting to WiFi. The company’s Gear Fit2 fitness band also works with Spotify, but you must have your phone nearby in order to tune in. Several smartwatches, including the Gear S3 and Apple Watch, allow owners to store songs on the device locally, but the ability to stream without a phone nearby is rare.
The difference between the Classic and Frontier Gear S3 models is purely physical: the Classic model has more of a luxury watch feel, while the Frontier edition is slightly more rugged-looking. Otherwise, they both come with the same features and hardware, including other updates that set them apart from the Gear S2 models. The S3 will support Samsung Pay, which means you can use it to make payments at most standard magnetic swipe registers. The Gear S2 only ran a beta version of Samsung’s payments service, which meant it could only be used at harder-to-find terminals with special equipment.
The Gear S3’s design is also more elegant compared to Samsung’s older model, which felt sporty and more casual. When looking at the Gear S3 alongside the original Gear S that launched in 2014, the two are barely recognizable alongside one another. The Gear S resembled a shrunken smartphone strapped to your wrist, while the Gear S3 looks and feels like a real timepiece. The one caveat is that this new aesthetic also makes the watch bulkier, which could be troublesome for those with tiny wrists. Samsung will be keeping its sleeker Gear S2 in its lineup alongside the S3 rather than replacing it with the newer version.
Samsung’s Gear S2 and Gear S3 watches also come with a characteristic that sets them apart from most competitors: a rotating bezel. Twisting the border that surrounds the watch’s screen allows you to interact with apps and widgets without having to tap and swipe the watch’s display. The new watch’s bezel felt slightly smoother and easier to use than that of the Gear S2, making it easier to be more precise when using apps.
Samsung says it’s targeting between three and four days of battery life for the Gear S3, which means it should be able to last an extra full day compared to its predecessor. A new safety feature will also let Gear S3 owners get in touch with emergency services or a specified contact by triple tapping a button on the watch. Since it has many of the same sensors as the Gear Fit2, Samsung is promoting the Gear S3 as a fitness device as well.
The Gear S3 isn’t the first smartwatch to come with features that expand what the watch can do when your phone isn’t nearby. LG’s Watch Urbane 2nd Edition works on Verizon’s LTE network, Sony’s Smartwatch 3 includes a GPS sensor, and Samsung’s original Gear S supported 3G and GPS connectivity. But the fact the Gear S3 and some of its rivals include these components and still manage to look like a watch rather than a “gadget” shows how far smartwatches have come over the past few years.
Even so, wrist-worn devices aren’t likely to replace our phones any time soon. That’s because they’re not designed to perform certain tasks as well as our phones can, like having a verbal conversation or reading an e-book. Still, gadgets like the Gear S3 could prove that there’s room for something in between that liberates us from having to tote our phones along on every small errand or workout session.