Smartwatch sales have been sagging, according to analysts such as IDC, but many tech enthusiasts are sold on the concept. Smartwatches let you glance at you wrist for notifications from social networks, calendars, and apps, and to send out quick replies to messages without having to fish for a smartphone.

After Apple, Samsung is the market leader among smartwatch makers, and now its Gear smartwatches have been updated. The company's previous version was among the best performers in Consumer Reports' ratings, and we've been impressed by the new Samsung Gear S3 Class and Gear S3 Frontier, which will cost $350. 

Preorders have started at retailers including Best Buy, Amazon, Macy's, and at Samsung.com. And the watch will officially go on sale Nov. 18.

The Classic, as its name implies, has a silver-toned, polished-and-brushed-metal finish befitting a dress watch, while the Frontier, which is largely matte black, has the sportier look of a dive watch.

Both have round cases that are about 1.9 inches wide by 0.55 inches thick. They’re both made of high-grade 316L stainless steel and share most of the same specs and features. These include a large, 1.3-inch color watch face; an ample 380mAh battery; an accelerometer; a gyro; a heart-rate monitor; and a GPS chip for fitness tracking.

There’s also a built-in microphone and speaker for interacting with a voice-activated assistant and for making phone calls when the watch is paired to a smartphone via Bluetooth. Both accept standard 22mm watch bands.

The Frontier adds a cellular network connection via SIM card that allows it to function independently of a phone: You can make and take phone calls using the Gear S3 alone. The SIM-equipped version is available only from AT&T and T-Mobile.  

While they’re not as aquatic as the Series 2 versions of the Apple Watch, which can swim at depths of 50 meters for 24 hours, these new Samsungs can supposedly withstand a 30-minute dunk in about 5 feet of water. That doesn't make it a swim watch, but it should provide peace of mind around sinks and bathtubs.

Here are our early impressions of the new watches; lab testing will be completed after we buy watches at retail.

Hands-on With the Gear S3

A model interface. The interface on the Samsung Gear S3 is pretty much the same as it was on the S2—and that’s a good thing.

Many smartwatches require an inordinate amount of swiping and pecking at tiny, dot-like apps to get at what you want. For instance, on an Apple Watch, the app collection is jumbled together on one screen like an arachnid’s egg sack. Any app that's not in the dock is hard to find.

But with the S3, a simple turn of a clickwheel-style bezel lets you search through your apps with minimal fumbling and squinting.

Rotating the bezel lets you quickly dial to all the core functions, such as weather, important contacts, recent messages, health stats, and so on. The apps for making calls, changing settings, and accessing the app drawer are fairly large and conveniently located on one screen.

The clickwheel also makes it easy to dive deeper into your app drawer, dialing your way to apps on other levels of the interface. You can return to a previous activity by tapping the Back button on the S3's lower right side. The button on the upper right side of the phone will always take you to the S3’s clock face/home screen.

Quick reactions. Just about all smartwatches have onboard accelerometers that signal the display to wake up when you lift your wrist. That lets you check out the time or see other notifications without tapping the screen. But some watches are quite unresponsive, forcing you to shake and twist your wrist. Not the S3. The display woke up just about every time I lifted my wrist to look at the screen. When it didn’t a slight twist of the wrist did the job.

Not bad as a speakerphone. I’m not a big fan of placing phone calls by barking at my wrist, but I was quite impressed with how well I could hear—and be heard—during an unexpected phone call my LG G3 routed to my Samsung Gear S3. I was driving home after a jog in the park and, after pecking the green answer prompt on my S3’s display, I was able to carry on a clear conversation with my wife.

This, despite having the radio playing in the background and keeping both hands on the steering wheel.

Just a little too big. The S3 is one of the more elegant smartwatches on the market, thanks to its high-grade steel case and fashionable selection of watchbands. (It can also accept aftermarket watchbands.)

But the watch is more than a half-inch thick, which makes it easy to snag on a desk corner or bang against a wall. And while the relatively large 1.3-inch display is great for tasks like viewing comments on a recent workout, the 1.9-inch-wide watch case that surrounds it looks disproportionately large against all but the largest human wrists.

Of the two S3 models, the sportier Frontier looks more natural as a large watch.

Impressive battery. Battery life is critical to wearables because of the hassle involved in taking them off for charging. Samsung says the Gear S3 battery should provide about three days of service on a single charge. Consumer Reports evaluators rarely take a manufacturer performance claim at face value, but I did find that my early version of the Samsung Gear S3 could give me a full 12 hours of use, which included two phone calls, tracking a two-mile jog, and frequent weather and message checks. After all that, the S3 reported that it still had more than 50 percent of its battery capacity available.

We'll have more details on all aspects of these smartwatches' performance once lab testing is completed.