Even as a basic smartwatch, the Gear S fails to make itself essential, and that's largely a consequence of Samsung's not controlling the smartphone side of the equation. While Samsung's smartphones run on Android, the Gear S runs on Tizen, and the two platforms are constantly at odds.
The problems are most noticeable in the notification system, which is non-interactive for most apps. If you get a phone call or text message on the Gear S, you get helpful options for responding with a message or calling the person back. But for nearly every other type of notification — even from essential apps like Twitter and Facebook — you get nothing but a wall of text. You can't delete emails or respond to WhatsApp messages, like you can on Android Wear watches, and the text in each app's notifications is mashed together like a run-on sentence.
Google's non-presence on Tizen makes life harder for users in other ways. There's no Gmail app on the watch, so you need to use Samsung's own app — both on the watch and your phone — for full email functionality. There's no Google Maps, so you must set up Nokia Here Maps instead. And while Samsung's S Voice assistant can handle basic queries and commands, it's much slower than Google's voice assistant on Android phones and watches, and it's not as good at weeding out background noise.
The unfortunate reality for Samsung is that its smartwatches will never be useful unless the company fully embraces Android on the wearable side, or completely breaks away on the smartphone side. Neither outcome seems likely at this point, and it's users who suffer in the meantime.
An untethered ball and chain
To make matters worse, the Gear S's Tizen-based software is full of inconsistent, confusing design choices. I'll just run through some examples:
Swiping down from the top of the screen is the Gear S's equivalent of the "back" button. This isn't well-communicated, but the bigger problem is that the quick settings menu is tied to the same gesture. Therefore, you can't get to quick settings without leaving whatever app you're using.
Opening quick settings (with a downward swipe) or the app menu (with an upward swipe) requires you to start all the way from the edge of the screen. But to access notifications or widgets, you can swipe left or right from anywhere on the screen. Doing the wrong thing is inevitable as you try to internalize these conflicting rules.
Bringing up the "dismiss" button for notifications requires a downward swipe from anywhere on the screen. If you make the mistake of swiping from the top, you'll invoke the back button and return to the home screen (per bullet point one).
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.