It seems like every company is now making a smartwatch — or, in the case of Google, a smartwatch platform for other companies to build on — but only Apple consistently makes the best smartwatches you can buy. Samsung is nipping at Apple’s heels with the launch of the Galaxy Watch Active 2, a beautiful new smartwatch with built-in sleep-tracking, advanced workout-tracking and an ECG sensor for diagnosing atrial fibrillation. (One caveat: That last feature doesn’t work at launch, but will be turned on later.)
In the design department, Samsung wins by a mile. This is the smartwatch I actually want to wear. Apple’s watchOS 6 delivers a slew of features that Samsung can’t match (yet), but the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is still one of the few Android smartwatches you’ll want to buy. Bonus: The Galaxy Watch Active 2 also works with iOS, so if you don’t want to be locked into a platform, this is a better alternative than the Wear OS options out there.
But you don't have to splurge on a second-gen Galaxy Watch Active to get some of this watch's best features. On Nov. 19 Samsung started rolling out a software update for the Galaxy Watch and original Galaxy Watch Active that brings the touch-based bezel, new health features and stylish watch face to older watches.
Galaxy Watch Active 2 price and availability
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is available to buy as of Sept. 27. The 40-millimeter Bluetooth version of the watch with an aluminum finish is $279, and the larger 44-mm model is $299. A stainless steel option starts at $379. For cellular connectivity, you’ll have to shell out $429. Samsung is also releasing an Under Armour special edition of the watch with MapMyRun integration at the forefront for $309.
Galaxy Watch Active 2 specs
|Galaxy Watch Active 2|
|Price||$279 (40mm); $299 (44mm)|
|Battery Life||24-60 hours, depending on workouts and display|
|Colors||Cloud Silver, Aqua Black and Pink Gold|
|OS||Tizen OS (One UI)|
|Music Storage||4GB (with offline Spotify playback)|
|Water Resistance||Up to 5 ATM (swimproof)|
|LTE||Yes, for $429|
|Heart Rate Monitor||Yes|
|Mobile Payments||Samsung Pay|
|Special Features||ECG sensor, which will be activated sometime after launch|
Galaxy Watch Active 2 design: Perfection
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the best-looking smartwatch I’ve ever tested. The watch comes in two sizes, a 40-millimeter case and 44-mm, just like the Apple Watch Series 5. But Samsung’s round display (as opposed to Apple’s rounded square) evokes a traditional timepiece.
The overall effect is stylish and elegant — with a leather band, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear the Galaxy Watch Active 2 to a wedding or a fancy dinner. In contrast, I always leave the Apple Watch at home for nice occasions.
Samsung offers three shades to choose from: Cloud Silver, Aqua Black and Pink Gold aluminum with fluoroelastomer bands. A pricier stainless steel model is also available in silver, black and gold with leather straps. An LTE version of the watch will be available only in stainless steel. I tested the 40-mm Pink Gold Bluetooth Galaxy Watch Active 2 with a light pink sport band, and I loved everything about the fit and finish. The band is comfortable enough to wear to bed and doesn’t irritate my skin or slide around while running.
MORE: Best Smartwatches 2019
When it comes to watch face design, the Watch Active 2 now offers more customized options. All you have to do is take a photo of your outfit (or as much of it as you can) with the Galaxy Watch app and then choose from patterned watch faces in complementary colors. I preferred the more useful watch faces that allow you to add complications, such as the Digital Neon face. But Samsung appears to taking a page from Fossil-owned Kate Spade’s smartwatches, which offer similarly fun features for making your watch face more personal.
Galaxy Watch Active 2 display: Always-on, if you want
An always-on display is the hallmark feature of Apple’s new Series 5, but for Samsung, that’s old news. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 can have an always-on display if you want, or you can extend the battery by keeping the display off until you raise your wrist.
The biggest change in the new watch’s display is the addition of the digital rotating bezel. Older Samsung smartwatches let you navigate around the watch by physically turning the bezels, but Samsung ditched that feature in the Galaxy Watch Active. The second-gen model brings a digital approximation of that navigational tool. You can use your fingertip to slide around the edge of the display, allowing you to page through the widgets to the right of the watch face or scroll down a page. This is slightly faster than simply swiping or scrolling, but it can also be too sensitive and overshoot how far you were trying to go.
Overall, the digital rotating bezel is neither a selling point nor a detraction. You can use it if you want, or forget it exists.
Health: ECG feature not available at launch
Samsung is taking direct aim at Apple by including an electrocardiogram sensor in the Galaxy Watch Active 2. But similarly to the Apple Watch Series 4’s ECG app rollout last year, Samsung’s watch doesn’t have the feature ready at launch. (Apple enabled the ECG features on the Series 4 a couple months after that model launched last year, and its Series 5 is on sale now with the ECG sensor enabled).
It’s not clear when Samsung’s ECG app will be ready. The company will need to submit data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration showing that its sensor can accurately detect atrial fibrillation in order to obtain clearance for the ECG feature. Samsung says it’s working with research institutions to conduct studies.
Fitness: An excellent running companion
Samsung added run-coaching to the Galaxy Watch Active 2, which lets you choose from seven programs for improving endurance or boosting speed. I chose the latter. The cues are both vocal, via the watch’s speaker or through a pair of Bluetooth headphones if they’re paired directly to the watch, and tactile — the watch will vibrate when you need to speed up or slow down, for instance.
I appreciated the guided program for increasing speed, because it wasn’t just about as running as fast as possible. The 40-minute workout included a 5-minute warm-up and cool-down. If I increased my speed too much to start, the watch would yell at me to slow down. I plan to spend more time with these programs to see how helpful they are in the long term.
I wish Samsung’s automatic workout-tracking was as fully-featured as Apple’s, but it’s useful when you forgot to log a 15-minute outdoor walk or hop on the bike without launching a workout first. For an outdoor run, the watch will automatically start tracking after 10 minutes, but all you can see are time elapsed, mileage, calories burned and total step count. There’s also no option to stop or pause the workout; you just have to wait for it to end.
Galaxy Watch Active 2 sleep-tracking: Needs improvement
Like the original Galaxy Watch Active, the Active 2 tracks your sleep, which won’t completely kill your battery. (More on that in a minute.) I wore the watch to bed for almost a week, and I found the breakdown of light, REM and deep sleep to be as interesting as it is in Fitbit’s sleep-tracking dashboard.
Unfortunately, the watch’s native sleep-tracking wasn’t as accurate as I had hoped. One night, the watch told me I fell asleep after 3 a.m., when I definitely went to bed closer to midnight. I have a knack for falling asleep instantly and staying there, so I’m not sure why the watch pegged my bedtime so late. On another evening, I put the watch in Goodnight mode to turn off the always-on display and then hit the sack. The next morning, the sleep widget on the watch itself reported my sleep accurately, but the data wouldn’t sync to the Samsung Health app.
With some fine-tuning, the Galaxy Watch Active 2’s sleep-tracking could be more useful. For now, it lags behind Fitbit’s Versa 2 and Charge 3, but ahead of Apple Watch (which lacks sleep-tracking) and watches based on Google’s Wear OS, which can pull data from third-party sleep-tracking apps but can’t track your sleep on their own.
Galaxy Watch Active 2 battery life: Average for a smartwatch
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 can last about two-and-a-half days on a charge, in my testing of the Bluetooth model. That drops to about 48 hours with workouts, and 24 hours when you keep the always-on display turned on. That’s slightly longer than the Apple Watch Series 5, which lasts about 18 hours with its always-on display. (Samsung says the LTE version lasts about 24 to 36 hours on a charge, depending on which size watch you buy, but I didn’t get a chance to test an LTE model.)
I track my runs with high-precision location accuracy turned on, too, which has a huge impact on battery life. A 40-minute run drained the battery from 40% to 15%.
However, these are all factors you can control if battery life is the most important feature to you. The always-on display and some of the workout features are obvious battery drains, but they don’t have to be.
I wish the watch would charge more quickly, though. A 30-minute charge only juiced up the watch to 39%, and close to an hour and a half to fully charge it back up. That’s fine if you charge it overnight, but not ideal if you need to quickly charge in the morning before a workout.
Tizen OS and apps: Still limited, but improving
Samsung’s Tizen OS app store doesn’t offer as many options as the Apple Watch, though Samsung is working to make apps more useful. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 brings Twitter support for tweeting, liking and retweeting directly on your wrist. You can also watch YouTube clips. Unfortunately, neither of these are ideal use cases for a smartwatch. Watching YouTube on a small watch screen is pointless, and I’m not the kind of person who feels compelled to compose tweets on her wrist (or scroll through Twitter on a smartwatch at all). There are some apps that are perfect for smartwatches — maps, messaging, fitness — and Samsung leaned into two that aren’t.
But Tizen OS does have some big names that are useful, including Spotify, which supports offline music storage for Premium subscribers (this is exclusive to Samsung; Wear OS and Apple Watch lack offline Spotify). Strava and Under Armour’s suite of health and fitness apps (MapMyRun, MyFitnessPal, Endomondo) are also included. A more fitness-focused Under Armour edition of the Galaxy Watch Active 2 will be available soon for $309.
Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active 2 blows Wear OS watches away, and proves the company is serious about catching up with Apple. With lengthier battery life, functional FDA-cleared health features, more big-name apps, and Fitbit-level sleep-tracking, the Galaxy Watch lineup could actually make Apple take notice.
For now, Samsung still lags behind, but at least the company is trying. If you’re looking for an Android smartwatch, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the one worth buying.