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Samsung Gear S3 launched, ready to take on Apple Watch 2 with waterproofing and rugged look

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Improved battery life and a rugged build are central to Samsung’s plan to conquer the wearable market

Today in Berlin on the eve of the IFA technology trade show, Samsung revealed its latest wearable. The Samsung Gear S3 is a chunky smart watch with a distinctive look and clever operation using its rotating bezel. And it is likely to be one of the biggest stories at this year’s IFA.

Samsung started making smart watches before Apple did and its first models were released in quick succession, adding features and even a sim card so the watch wasn’t slave to a nearby phone.

This latest model is big, with a 33mm circular screen. But though it’s thick (12.9mm from front to back) it feels very light in the hand or when you’re sporting it.

And sporting is the effect Samsung is after, so it’s made the Gear S3 water-resistant (it has an IP68 rating). You can sweat, shower and swim with it on, with no deleterious effect.

The Gear S3 comes in two versions, frontier and classic. The only difference is in the styling and a little extra stainless steel means the frontier weighs 62g against the 57g of the classic.

I’d say the frontier looks better thanks to its darker bezel and different proportions. Samsung has worked on the design of the watch with watch designer Yvan Arpa. It has also continued its collaboration with artist and industrial designer Arik Levy to create special watch faces and straps. This is easily the classiest and most attractive wearable yet from Samsung.

Samsung has also addressed one of the big issues with wearable gadgets: battery life. The company says the Gear S3 can last three to four days between charges.

That’s impressive because the watch has an always-on display so it’s always showing the time like, you know, a real watch. Samsung has this tech on its latest mobiles, cleverly managing to show the time onscreen without significantly impacting the battery.

The company’s previous smart watch had this trick but only with watch faces that were very limited in what they could display. Now it can show everything in full, glorious colour.

The watch face does look glorious, with a bright, sharp 360 x 360-resolution Super AMOLED display, a technology Samsung does better than anyone else does.

The bezel around that display rotates, as it did on the Gear S2. This is a slick way to scroll through apps and notifications. Using the bezel feels as intimate and useful as it does on a premium regular watch. It’s so well crafted that it feels precise and pleasingly tactile as you turn it. Apps include messaging, maps (GPS is built in) and items from BMW, CNN, Yelp, KLM and others. Samsung boasts the Gear S3 will have access to 10,000 apps from day one.

Of course, there’s a touch interface as well as the bezel. You can reply to a text message on the screen, scribbling words which turn into print, letter by letter as you go. You can also call up an onscreen keyboard (small but usable, thanks mostly to predictive word suggestions) or dictate your words using the watch’s microphone.

There’s plenty of tech stuffed inside. As well as wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.2, it has NFC and MST. That last one is short for Magnetic Secure Transmission and is used for Samsung Pay. It means that unlike other mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay which use NFC to talk to contactless-enabled terminals, Samsung’s system works with pretty much any card reader. It works to make the terminal think it’s being presented by a magnetic strip card. Putting it into the Gear S3 means you can pay without your Samsung Galaxy phone to hand.

It’s very clever stuff, though it’s currently only available in the US and South Korea The UK is due to see Samsung Pay later this year.

There are other intriguing features on the Gear S3 including an emergency set-up. Tap the screen three times and it’ll send out an SOS signal. Three taps sound like it might be a little too easy to do accidentally, but doubtless Samsung has thought of that.

The Gear S3 frontier is available in an edition with an electronic sim card built in, for 4G connectivity or without in a Bluetooth version. The classic is only available with Bluetooth.

The watch is due out in October, at which point the current models such as the S2 classic, will drop in price but remain in the range. Prices will be revealed then.

It’s still not clear just how niche the wearable sector is. Samsung is offering an alternative to the Apple Watch. And it looks like it has come up with a highly accessible, strikingly attractive smart watch.

By David Phelan