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With the first smartwatch browser, the Gear S is first smartwatch to become more than a second screen/overglorified workout watch

Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) fans won't get their hands on the Apple Watch until next year, but when the long-awaited device finally does arrive it may already be missing one critical feature that its competitors have -- a browser.  
 
I. A Slow Evolution
 
Well that could change, as one of the leaders of the smartwatch "revolution" Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) has just added the ability to browse to its latest and greatest smartwatch, the Gear S.  The new browser app comes courtesy of veteran browser maker Opera Software ASA (STO:OPERAO).
 
Based in Oslo, Norway, Opera has long been a pivotal player in the mobile browser market with its Opera Mini browser app.  Opera currently boasts 300 million active Opera Mini users, across Apple's iOS and Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android, in addition to other legacy platforms.  
 
And now it's coming to the smartwatch.
 
For Samsung, smartwatches aren't exactly new hat.  Samsung was only the second company to make a major smartwatch push, following Japanese devicemaker Seiko (now: Seiko Epson Corp. (TYO:6974)).

Samsung wearable pioneer

After releasing the Galaxy Gear in Sept. 2013, Samsung has been on a tear releasing new smartwatch models every couple months.  In recent months it's greeted us with the Gear 2 (a refined second gen. model), the Gear Fit (which incorporates fitness tracking features similar to the Apple Watch), the Gear 2 Neo (a budget version of the Gear 2), and the Gear Live (which runs Google's Android Wear OS).
 
II. Finally, a Useful Smartwatch?
 
For its sixth smartwatch of the "modern era" of the device form factor, Samsung announced the Gear S, based on its own in-house developed Linux distribution, Tizen.  The watch packs many pleasant surprises, and is quite possibly the most bleeding edge smartwatch, if a bit lacking in the battery life department.
Tizen logo

One way the Gear S stands out is with its display.  Apple, for example, has not announced its smartwatch specification, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest it uses a 1.5-inch AMOLED panel (according to the NPD Group's DisplaySearch unit) with a resolution between 240x320 pixels and 320x400 pixels [discussion].  

Gear S

Samsung's display is much bigger, both in size and resolution.  It uses a curved AMOLED panel to balloon the Gear S's 1.63-inch panel to a honking 2 inches with a resolution of 360x480 -- the same resolution used for the touch panels on many older BlackBerry, Ltd. (TSE:BB) devices (e.g. the Bold 9700 (2.77-in. display) and the Curve 9370/9380 (3.2-in. display)).

Gear S back

The (relatively speaking) big screen allows it to do something most smartwatches can not -- type with decent accuracy.  Engadget's Dana Wollman reviewed this capability early, writing:

I had the chance to test the feature on multiple test units in various stages of development, none of them final. In some cases, I had an easy time both typing and swiping out letters, with very few typos to speak of. With certain cruder devices, I had trouble getting it to register an "H" instead of a "J." Either way, the word prediction is hit-or-miss: Sometimes it was spot-on; other times it served up the most unhelpful word possible ("My name is...'included'"?) Obviously, the precision here is something we'll have to revisit in our full review. Until then, I'm quite sure it would have been easier for me to just pull out my phone and type out "My name is Dana" with two thumbs.

Samsung Gear S
Typing on the Gear S has gone through several revisions to accomodate touch typing on the small screen. [Image Source: Engadget]

Since that experience, Samsung announced that it had partnered with smartwatch keyboard maker Fleksy.  That's exciting news as Fleksy was able to make a workable keyboard on the much smaller Galaxy Gear screen.

Fleksy keyboard


So the Samsung Gear S has a modest touch keyboard with predictive typing, thanks in part to its large screen real estate. But the second piece of the puzzle comes in its 3G cellular connection and onboard Wi-Fi.
 
Most smartwatches are at best so-called "second screen" devices, which act as glorified notification screens for a smartphone paired with Bluetooth 4.0 LE or 4.1.  While the Gear S can certainly handle notification, it also has Wi-Fi access, something that no other smartwatch aside from the Apple Watch has.  It also has 3G cellular data and voice access (yes, it can make phone calls) -- something even the Apple Watch lacks.

Apple Watch
The Apple Watch lacks a cellular connection and a browser.  And we've seen little to indicate what typing on it -- if possible -- might be like.

Hence, Samsung is in a league of its own. While Apple can have internet-connected apps via Wi-Fi, it doesn't have the hardware to allow users to enjoy truly on-the-go browsing on their wrist, as it has no cellular connection.  Then again, neither does any other device aside from the Gear S.

III. Putting it All Together

It would only be fitting that Opera Software delivered the first smartwatch browser.  It has decades of experience squeezing Opera Mini onto small screens and low bandwidth connections.  The new app is based on the same Opera Mini 7.5 release that's popular on modern high definition smartphones.

Opera Mini browser

To tune Opera Mini for the smartwatch, several techniques are applied.  First it transforms users’ favorites into a list of clickable buttons on the homepage.  Second, it ties in touch integration with swipe left and right for backward/forward navigation, double-tap to zoom, and standard pinch-to-zoom support as well.  Lastly, it compresses webpages, which should be very helpful given the inherently slow 3G connection.  The technology can shrink pages to as little as 1/10th their original size in bytes.

Opera Mini

Viewing a webpage on a smartwatch is obviously an experience some will scoff at in today's era of 5+ inch quad-HD (QHD/2K) smartphone displays.  But it's important to remember that just half a decade ago these kinds of screen sizes and resolutions were considered pasable for mobile browsing.

An Opera Software spokeswoman echoes this logic in a statement to Gigaom, remarking:

[Opera Mini launched eight years ago.]  At that time, you could browse, move up and down link by link with the number pad on the phone. I believe there are still people using these 2-inch basic phones to access the web.

Now this smartwatch has the 2-inch screen but with more powerful computing power. It has Opera Mini 7.5, the same version some users currently have on Opera Mini for Android. People can easily do the browsing with fingers since this is designed for touch-based devices.

Webpage viewing for pages without a dedicated mobile format is likely going to be suboptimal on the Gear S.  But in today's era of smartphones with short-lived batteries, a smartwatch that can browse could indeed be a useful and novel tool in a pinch.  Whether you're trying to find an address, find a phone number, or win an argument with a coworker, you can do all of that even if your smartphone dies, thanks to the Gear S's new browser, its small-screen optimized keyboard, and its Wi-Fi/3G cellular datalink tandem.

Opera on Gear S

In that regards the Gear S may transcend other smartwatches to date -- including the upcoming Apple Watch -- as the first smartwatch to be truly a standalone utility device and not just a second screen and overglorified iteration of the long lineage of workout watches.

Even if you care nothing for smartwatches and have no interest in buying one, it's hard to argue that isn't true innovation. 

Source: Opera Software [blog]





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