When it comes to new mobile products, Samsung doesn’t always get it right the first time. Its earliest phablets were comically big. Its first pair of wire-free earbuds were fine, if you could get past the inadequate battery life. Its earliest smartwatches were straight out of Inspector Gadget, especially the original Galaxy Gear, which had an inflexible strap with a built-in camera.
But Samsung’s design chops haven’t been honed by letting things languish, or by catering only to early-adopter nerds. Samsung learns, and it refines. That’s the case with its new, $200 Galaxy Watch Active smartwatch, which I’ve been wearing for the past week. It’s sleeker and more lightweight than any other Samsung smartwatch I’ve worn, and it records a whole bunch of activities too.
I like this smartwatch a lot. This isn’t in the category of praise like, “I didn’t hate wearing it, so that’s good.” It also doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. I mean that the Galaxy Watch Active struck me as attractive as soon as I took it out of the box, and I actively sought to wear it again after taking it off for periods of time. It’s evidence not only of Samsung’s evolution in smartwatches, but of the whole market’s progression towards decent-looking smartwatches that are dedicated to tracking your health.
Understanding where the Galaxy Watch Active fits in Samsung’s lineup requires a quick lesson on all the Gears and Galaxies out there. First: The Galaxy Watch Active is aimed at people who want to be more active. It’s differentiated slightly from the $300 Galaxy Watch, which is Samsung’s flagship smartwatch. It also effectively replaces the $280 Gear Sport watch, which Samsung will continue to sell as long as there’s inventory. And it’s different from the new Galaxy Fit, which is a wristband, and which used to be called the Gear Fit. (Got all that?)
Part of the reason why the Galaxy Watch Active feels so light—it’s 20 percent thinner and 60 percent lighter than the flagship Galaxy Watch—is because its casing is made of aluminum, not stainless steel. And it has a 40mm case, so it’s not as large as some other smartwatches. It has a flat, smooth face, and a touch-sensitive bezel.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy Watch Active lacks the physical rotary bezel that I found so delightful on other Samsung smartwatches. But since this was swapped out in exchange for a sleeker build, I’ll accept it. Its 1.1-inch, AMOLED touchscreen display doesn’t showcase any particularly new technology, but looks nice regardless. I kept the display at a brightness level of 5 or 6 out of 10 all week, and had no problem seeing it while running outdoors in the daytime. There are two physical buttons on the watch, one that acts as a back button, and another that takes you straight to the watch’s micro-apps.
The Galaxy Watch Active is running on Tizen, Samsung’s homegrown operating system. In the past, Tizen on a wearable meant limitations. Its early UI wasn’t great, and there was a chance your favorite app maker wouldn’t have bothered to make an app for a Tizen smartwatch. Neither of those points are as valid anymore, because the UI on Samsung’s newer watches is intuitive, and third-party apps aren’t all that critical on smartwatches. The Galaxy Watch Active supports some key apps that you’d want on a fitness watch, like Spotify, Strava, and Swim.com. But otherwise, you’ll mostly use the built-in stuff.
Watch Me Move
Table stakes time! The Galaxy Watch Active has built-in GPS, and tracks outdoor running, treadmill running, walking, hiking, outdoor cycling, indoor cycling, both pool and open-water swimming, circuit training, weight training, stretching, yoga, and a whole variety of singular exercises like planks or arm curls.
It offers some level of customization. You can, for example, determine what stats you want to see on different screens during your runs, and you can set a target goal based on distance, pace, or caloric burn. The watch automatically starts recording anything it registers as a brisk walk or beyond, and it auto-pauses during exercise too (yes, I take a fair number of breaks while running).
It tracks your heart rate continuously, and ups the sample rate during exercise sessions. Like almost every fitness smartwatch except the Apple Watch, it also has a native app for tracking your sleep. All of this data is wirelessly synced to Samsung’s Health app on iOS and Android, which blends straightforward data logging with some personalized insights. There’s even a symptom checker in the mobile app, although I didn’t use it, because for whatever bizarre reason the app asks for access to your contacts before you can use the symptom checker.
My favorite part of the Galaxy Watch Active was just how active the watch itself is. No task is too small for the Galaxy Watch Active to acknowledge. Ten-minute walks around the city are rewarded with enthusiastic notifications. Had a terrible night’s sleep, but still went to bed before 10 pm? “Yay for making it to bed on time,” the watch says the next day. Hit your step count goal for the day? Way to go! Get up from your desk to go to the bathroom? You are a goddamn rockstar.
There was one subtle issue that reared its AMOLED head while I was testing the Galaxy Watch Active, which is that during some workouts the display resisted waking up, whether I flicked my wrist or tapped the display. I sometimes had to press the top physical button in order to wake the screen and see my stats. Interestingly, this is not the first time I’ve had this issue with a Samsung smartwatch. Samsung suggested a hard reset of the watch to try to fix the problem. (I haven’t yet had the chance to test this fix.)
Thing about the Galaxy Watch Active is, if you were to run through a spec sheet or list of features, many of them wouldn’t seem new. The Gear Sport had the same level of water and dust resistance, had built-in GPS, and tracked a lot of the same sports and health metrics. The flagship Galaxy Watch does much of this as well; it also has the “stress-tracking” function, an NFC chip for payments, the same Exynos 9100 processor, the same four gigabytes of onboard storage.
With the Galaxy Watch Active, it’s all been squeezed into a truly sporty package, and for $200 too. There are also some benefits attached to this smartwatch if you’re committed to buying the newest (and most expensive) Samsung phones. If you have a new Galaxy S10 smartphone, for example, you can activate Power Share in phone settings, turn the phone over, and plop your Galaxy Watch Active on the back of the phone to charge it. It’s a magical little feature that I’ve used liberally this week with a Galaxy S10 Plus loaner phone.
Perhaps the thing that suffers most is battery life. In my experience the Galaxy Watch Active lasted under two days on a charge, and happened to die during a long hike. Two days is … fine for a smartwatch, but it’s not remarkable, and it’s less than the three days I got with the Galaxy Watch.
Maybe we still can’t have it all with smartwatches—smarts, good looks, and stamina—but with something like the Galaxy Watch Active, the sacrifices suddenly don’t seem so pronounced.