Editors' Note: Updated at 9:38 p.m. ET with impressions from a demo after Samsung's Unpacked event.
After years of focusing more on fashion than function, smartwatch makers are chasing after Apple to make their wearables more useful for tracking health and fitness. Samsung just unveiled a version of its smartwatch, the $200 Galaxy Watch Active, designed with wellness in mind.
The new watch, on sale March 8, is more lightweight than last year’s Galaxy Watch, and has a new strap made of softer, more durable material. In the demo area at Samsung's Unpacked event today (Feb. 20), Samsung reps told us the material used in the straps is resistant to stains and rips. It certainly felt comfortable when we held it, and we can imagine it feeling smooth on your wrist throughout the day.
Like the original version, the Active model has built-in GPS and heart rate sensor for accurate workout-tracking, and the watch can automatically start tracking a half-dozen or so types of workouts, including running and biking. (You can manually track dozens of others.) It also tracks sleep cycles, including REM, deep and light sleep, just like a Fitbit does. This sets Samsung’s watch apart from Apple’s, because the Apple Watch doesn’t offer a native sleep-tracking app.
The Active is water-resistant for swim-tracking, just like the last version, with 5ATM water resistance and IP68 resistance rating. You can charge the watch wirelessly, even using the Wireless PowerShare feature on the new Galaxy S10 phones to charge up when you place the watch on the phone's back.
But Samsung's newest watch goes further than its past versions.
Health at the forefront
Samsung says the Galaxy Watch Active can help people track their blood pressure with a new watch app, My BP Lab, that the company developed with the University of California, San Francisco. That app will be available to download March 15.
It’s unclear if or how the watch takes blood pressure readings on the wrist, or if Samsung has obtained clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A Samsung rep at Unpacked told us you enter in baseline blood pressure rate, and the watch uses that data to track you from there, but we're still eager to see how this works in practice. It seems unlikely that the Galaxy Watch Active is capable of taking oscillometric blood pressure readings, like Omron’s FDA-cleared HeartGuide smartwatch. I’ve reached out to the company for clarification and will update this story with more information.
Samsung’s reach into health with the help of an institution like UCSF is major. UCSF’s ongoing Health eHeart Study uses information from fitness trackers and smartwatches to research heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation. Apple worked with Stanford Medicine to develop its own smartwatch-based study, the Apple Heart Study.
The Galaxy Watch Active comes in one size, 40mm, and four shades — black, silver, rose gold and sea green.
A Fitbit rival
Samsung also has a Fitbit rival due out in the second quarter of 2019, the $99 Galaxy Fit, which also automatically tracks exercise, stress and sleep. That device also has a built-in heart rate monitor, but unlike the Galaxy Watch Active and its circular 1.1-inch display, the Fit features a rectangular 0.95-inch screen similar in style to the Gear Fit 2 from Samsung.
The Fit comes in two colors, black and silver, and is super lightweight — or "lighter than a strawberry," Samsung says. It's got 5-ATM water resistance, so it can stay when you hit the showers.
Stay tuned for full reviews of both the Galaxy Watch Active and the Galaxy Fit when they go on sale.
Senior Editor Philip Michaels contributed to this report from San Francisco.