Whenever anyone asks me for an Android smartwatch recommendation, my top choice has been Samsung's Galaxy Watch. The smaller, cheaper, sportier Galaxy Watch Active is my new go-to best smartwatch for Android users.
Samsung developed its own software platform and processor for its smartwatches, instead of relying on Google's Wear OS and Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear CPU, and those moves have paid off. The $200 Galaxy Watch Active is leaps and bounds ahead of similarly sporty Wear OS watches. (See the $255 Fossil Sport, which is more expensive and nowhere near as good as the Active.)
The Galaxy Watch Active isn't perfect, but it comes closer to being a worthy Apple Watch rival than anything else on the market.
Design: Goodbye, bezel
The Galaxy Watch Active comes in one size: a lightweight, 40-millimeter case that's smaller than both Galaxy Watch models (42 mm and 46 mm). To me, this is the perfect size. My male colleagues with bigger arms found the Active too small and wished it came in a larger size. But I've been wishing for years for smartwatches to shrink, so I'm happy that Samsung has finally added this option to its lineup.
Though you have only one size option to choose from, the Active comes in multiple colors. I tested a basic black model with a 20-mm sporty black band, but the watch also comes in silver, rose gold and sea green.
Samsung was able to shed some bulk from the watch by eliminating the rotating bezel, which has become a differentiator for the company's smartwatches. I liked the feature on the older watches, but I didn't miss it on the Active. Swiping around on the beautiful circular Super AMOLED touch screen is a breeze. Ditching the bezel makes the display seem more vivid, and the slightly curved Gorilla Glass screen feels elegant. With a slightly fancier band, I wouldn't feel weird about wearing this smartwatch to an event, despite its fitness focus.
The Active sports two side buttons, just like the original Galaxy Watch. The top button is a back key and the bottom button returns you to the home screen. They're basic but functional.
Galaxy Watch Active Specs
|Galaxy Watch Active|
|Battery Life||45 hours (rated), 24-36 hours in actual use|
|Display Size||1.1-inch circular Super AMOLED (360 x 360)|
|Colors||Black, silver, rose gold, green|
|OS||Tizen OS 4.0|
|Water Resistance||Up to 5 ATM (swimproof)|
|Heart Rate Monitor||Yes|
|Mobile Payments||Samsung Pay|
|Special Features||My BP Lab app will help users keep track of their blood pressure, though we need more information on how the feature works and how accurate it is.|
Fitness: Works as promised
Developers aren't keen on making their smartphone apps compatible with Samsung's watch OS, Tizen. That means fitness-tracking apps are few and far between. Under Armour's MapMyRun, UA Record, MyFitnessPal and other apps are available for Tizen, and we've tested those in the past. But Samsung is also beefing up its native fitness-tracking features so you don't need a third-party option.
Like the original Galaxy Watch, the Active has built-in GPS and an optical heart rate sensor. It can automatically track six types of exercise, including running and outdoor cycling, and is water-resistant for swim tracking (though the actual swim-tracking functionality is coming later in May).
I really, really liked the Active's native workout tracking. I chose one of the Active's fitness watch faces, which put a workout shortcut directly on my wrist so that I didn't need to swipe or scroll. Before I hit the ground running, I tapped the gear icon next to Running. That opens up a world of personalization, where you can set a target, customize what you see on the screen as you run, toggle on location tracking and auto pause, and decide whether you want a voice guide to interject with your stats at every mile. Then I stepped outside. Within 10 seconds, the Active had locked on to a GPS signal and was ready to track my miles.
The workout screen customization is key. You can only see three metrics at a time when you run, so I put the most important ones (pace, duration and heart rate) up front. You can swipe over to view more stats on additional screens.
I wish Samsung's app store had more options, but I appreciate that the built-in workout-tracking is almost as good as the Apple Watch's. I also liked the way Samsung visualizes your health progress every day, with an outline of a heart that you fill in with calories burned, workout minutes and movement (or standing 8 hours a day). The Active's heart is much better than Wear OS' Heart Points, which are tough to quantify and aren't motivating at all.
Music: Spotify is a dream
Samsung's smartwatches have long offered onboard music storage, but the company's Spotify integration makes the Galaxy Watch Active an almost-perfect fitness companion.
To set it up, you'll need to subscribe to Spotify's Premium tier, install the app on your phone (if you don't already have it) and follow the on-display instructions to download the app to the Active. Then pick which Spotify playlists you want to download to your watch. I chose Today's Top Hits, and within minutes had dozens of pop songs on my wrist. I quickly paired my Jabra Elite Active 65t to the watch and then hit the pavement without my Galaxy S9 in tow.
Even without a cellular connection, the Active's native workout tracking and Spotify playlist storage make it simple and convenient to leave your phone behind while you head outside.
Sleep tracking: Could use some work
Unlike the Apple Watch, Samsung's Galaxy Watch lineup offers built-in sleep tracking. I wore the watch for five nights to log my rest and get a detailed overview of how much time I spent in light, deep and REM sleep.
It's tough to say whether the breakdown of sleep stages is accurate, because I didn't undergo a sleep study to break down my brain activity while wearing the watch. But the time the watch recorded as sleep was never accurate. Instead, the Active pegged my time sleeping as the time I spent laying down, despite the fact that I read before falling asleep, and I check emails and Twitter when I wake up. All of that time was lumped into sleep.
The watch did accurately pick up on the times I woke up during the night, but overall, Samsung's sleep tracking just isn't as accurate as Fitbit's. (The Apple Watch doesn't offer a native sleep-tracking feature, but one is rumored to be coming in the next generation of the device.)
Health: Blood pressure tracking is MIA
One of the Galaxy Watch Active features that Samsung highlighted in its announcement of the device was the ability to help track blood pressure. Unfortunately, that feature, which is enabled by the My BP Lab research app from the University of California, San Francisco, won't be available on the watch until March 15.
Even then, it's not quite the smartwatch health breakthrough it sounds like at first read. Samsung says the feature requires an initial measurement from a blood-pressure-monitoring device to calibrate, then uses the optical heart rate sensor to detect fluctuations. I'm not entirely sure how accurate that technology is. My BP Lab is designed solely for research, so Samsung isn't seeking clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the feature.
But I had hoped Samsung's claims of a blood-pressure-tracking feature would make the Active more competitive with the Apple Watch and its FDA-cleared heart health features. (No other Android smartwatch running on Google's Wear OS platform is even attempting to play in that field.)
I plan to try out the My BP Lab app and will update this review with more information about how it works (and how accurate it is).
Software: Clean, beautiful One UI
Samsung simplified and cleaned up its smartphone interface, which now feels a little too reductive for some users (see our Galaxy S10+ review for more thoughts). But on the Galaxy Watch Active, One UI is beautiful and easy to navigate.
The only problem I have with Samsung's smartwatch software is that there are still very few popular apps that are compatible with Tizen. Google Maps? Nope. WhatsApp? Forget it. The lack of third-party fitness apps also makes the Active a tough sell for gym rats and runners who have years of data stored in an app like Strava or Nike+ Run Club.
Smartphone integration: Smooth and seamless (with Galaxy phones)
When paired with a Galaxy smartphone (in my case a Galaxy S9 running Android Pie), the Galaxy Watch Active works as seamlessly as the Apple Watch does with an iPhone.
Notifications from apps were instant and actionable. My wrist vibrated with emails and text messages from my contacts as soon as they landed in my inbox, and I was able to instantly respond with canned replies, emojis, voice dictation or, my personal favorite, scrawling quick messages with my fingertip. The Apple Watch offers identical reply options for iPhone users.
You can also pair the Galaxy Watch Active with an iPhone by downloading the Galaxy Wear iOS app, though I couldn't test that during the review period because the Galaxy Wear app doesn't support the Galaxy Watch Active until the device goes on sale March 8. Presumably, the Galaxy Watch Active won't offer as seamless an experience for iPhone users, because you can only view notifications, not reply to them.
Battery: Falls short of bigger Galaxy Watches
Samsung's ads say that the Galaxy Watch can last 45 hours on a charge, but that wasn't my experience. I wore the watch every day for close to a week, taking it off only to shower, and the only time it lasted longer than 36 hours was when I didn't work out. With a workout and Spotify playback, the battery was almost dead after 24 hours.
You can do a few things to mitigate this: Don't use the Active to track sleep, adjust heart rate tracking from continuous measurements to every 10 minutes, turn the display brightness way down (though I like it bumped to high to easily see my running stats outside) and activate a power-saving feature when the battery drops to 10 percent. The 46-mm Galaxy Watch can last four days on a charge, but it also has a much larger battery.
The Galaxy Watch Active is an excellent smartwatch, especially for Galaxy smartphone owners. It's sleek, comfortable and responsive with accurate fitness-tracking features, which is more than I can say for the Wear OS watches I've tried.
Samsung needs to do two things to convince Android owners that the Active is the best watch to buy (or that you need a smartwatch at all). The first is to build out an app ecosystem that makes sense for a smartwatch. The Galaxy Gear store is full of watch apps that I've never heard of, and worse, most of them cost money. The second is to build more advanced health features — software algorithms, new sensors on the hardware side or both — to actually give Apple a run for its money. But even now, it's the best smartwatch for fitness-minded Android enthusiasts.
Credit: Tom's Guide