Samsung Galaxy Watch Active full review

Samsung launched a new smartwatch alongside its slick, excellent Galaxy S10. It’s called the Galaxy Watch Active and Samsung says it’s a fitness tracker but also a full-on smartwatch.

Rather than feeling like a halfway house, we reckon it’s the best Samsung smartwatch for most people. The company has a confusing line up of smartwatches and trackers but the Galaxy Watch Active is the best combination of design, fit, performance and features (even if the rotating bezel is sorely missed).

There’s already a regular Galaxy Watch, so what does the Active part mean? Basically, this is a smaller, cheaper way of getting all the features of the quite masculine Galaxy Watch in a sleeker form factor with updated software. Win-win.

See our Galaxy Watch Active vs Active 2 comparison as there's a 2nd-gen model.

Price and availability

The Galaxy Watch Active starts from £229 / $199, less than the £279 / $329 of the cheapest Galaxy Watch.

Spending less still gets you quite a bit of wearable, though the bigger watch faces and rotating bezel of the regular Galaxy Watch still come in at less than the equivalent Apple Watch Series 4.

No more spin

The Galaxy Watch Active changes the design of Samsung’s smartwatches for the first time since 2015’s Gear S2 by not having a rotating bezel. We love this feature, but it not being here makes the Watch Active quite a bit sleeker and smaller than the Gear S3, which is a good thing.

I found it incredibly comfortable to wear all day and night and it didn’t catch on coat sleeves like bulkier smartwatches. My black review unit is plain and understated but you can opt for silver or rose gold in the UK too. In the US there’s a smart green version which we actually like best 

The watch runs the same circular-minded Tizen software found on the regular Galaxy Watch, but now you have to navigate with swipes of the touchscreen rather than twists of a bezel. This is fine in practice despite having to tap to select and then tap again to enter an app, and the 40mm casing holds a 1.1in 28mm display that is pin-sharp and looks great even in bright light.

Samsung has updated Tizen to version 4.0 and it looks better than ever and in line with One UI on the Galaxy S10 phones with its use of deep blacks in menus. The several excellent official watch faces look vibrant and inviting, and are nicely customisable from complications to colour schemes.

The watch still has two buttons on the right edge for Home and Back, so aside from the Death of the Rotating Bezel (RIP), not much has actually changed.

Strap in

The Watch Active is incredibly light, almost impossibly so. It’s made from aluminium and a lightweight silicone strap that takes more than a few cues from the Apple Watch’s.

The design is a world away from the gnarly, bulky black and rose gold bling machines that are the Gear S3 and newer Galaxy Watch. The Active is minimalist and well thought out, if a little featureless in its design.

The strap nicks the loop design of the Apple Watch but with a traditional buckle rather than a push pin. Two buttons on the right edge combined with the touch screen are your sole input methods. There's also a small and large strap included in the box.

On the back of the watch sits a heart rate monitor that can constantly monitor your pulse, even at night with the sleep tracking function. I particularly enjoy this feature after I got used to it on various Fitbits, with heart rate tracking and physical movement used to collate a (scientifically rough) picture of your night's kip.

Specs away

Despite the lower price, the Watch Active packs in GPS, 5ATM water resistance, Galaxy Store app support, 60,000 watch faces (there be monsters), sleeping tracking, a heart rate monitor with stress tracking and supposed compatibility with a beta version of blood pressure monitoring.

It’s unclear whether this is approved by the appropriate international health bodies but download an app called My BP Lab and it’s there to try – so I’m told. I couldn’t find it in the Play Store or Galaxy Store, so it’s a mystery to this reviewer. A cursory Google shows that other people are having the same issue, so it’s a weird hollow promise from Samsung (it mentioned the app at the official launch event).

The Galaxy Store is a mess, made all the clearer by how well Apple has added an ECG monitor to the Apple Watch Series 4 without having to download a runaway third-party app. Unfortunately, the app store experience is generally horrible – the app wouldn’t load on the watch itself when I tried, the only time I encountered an error screen in my testing.

You can download apps to the watch via the Galaxy Wear app on your phone, but the experience is fragmented much in the same way it is with the Fitbit app store. The Watch Active is a great choice if you want to use just first party apps – like many other smartwatches, the third party app landscape is a bit of a minefield, and I’m still of the mind that these watches are better tethered accessories than standalone devices with their own apps.

The Exynos 9110 processor with 768MB RAM is up to the task and in my experience Samsung’s Tizen watches run better on limited hardware compared to WearOS devices – the same is true here. The 230mAh battery is very efficient and got me at least three days constant use, sometimes four. This goes down if you use the built in GPS to track runs.

For me though it’s all about that software. Tizen is great and Samsung hasn’t changed much, with notifications a left swipe from the home screen and widgets to the right - fully customisable, naturally. It’s so much slicker, simpler and better performing than Google’s messy, buggy Wear OS.

Talking of buggy, Bixby is here, and it's still very bad. It doesn't recognise even the most basic commands unless you say the exact phrase, making it much less useful and compliant than Google Assistant. You won't use it.

A better inclusion is Samsung Pay - if your bank is part of the scheme then you can use the Watch Active for contactless payments thanks to an NFC chip inside. 

With Qi wireless charging built in, you can charge the watch using the wireless power share feature on the new Galaxy S10 line. For the rest of us, there’s a charging cable in the box. Charging is not the fastest, going from dead to 100% in about two hours (you also don’t get a plug in the box, just a USB-A charging cable).   

App-rehension

Where I still feel the Watch Active falls down is in the phone software you have to use with it. Both the Galaxy Wearable and Samsung Health apps are messy and unintuitive. The latter in particular suffers from a cluttered UI that doesn’t help you find what you want.

It’s difficult to know what to press on and how to interact with the app, and I also had a couple of issues with synchronisation. But connection was always exemplary, meaning I got all notifications. I also tested the watch with an iPhone and it worked just fine.

It does record exercise well though, and you can dive deeper into stats from your walking to running to swimming and weights. I found step and run tracking accurate, and it's great to have standalone GPS on a small, circa £200 smartwatch - meaning you can leave your phone at home if you want to. 

Away from health tracking, and as ever with Samsung’s smartwatches, you only get the Messages and Email apps on the watch if you pair it with a Samsung Galaxy phone – these apps aren’t available for iPhone or even any other Android phone.

Verdict

The Galaxy Watch Active is an interesting roll of the dice from Samsung. By dropping the rotating bezel, it is beginning to differentiate between fitness watches and smartwatches - but only in design. While that bezel is missed there’s a lot to like here, from the price to the performance.

This is a GPS equipped smartwatch with similar features to the bigger, dearer Galaxy Watch. The Galaxy Watch Active is slimmer, more unisex, cheaper and better for most people.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Specs

  • Silver, Black, Rose Gold,
  • 40mm, 39.5 x 39.5 x 10.5mm, 25g
  • 1.1” (28mm) 360 x 360 AMOLED, Full Color Always On Display
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • 20mm strap (interchangeable)
  • 230mAh
  • Exynos 9110 Dual core 1.15 GHz
  • Tizen-based Wearable OS 4.0
  • 768MB RAM + 4GB Internal Memory
  • Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi b/g/n, NFC, A-GPS/Glonass
  • Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Barometer, Heart Rate Monitoring, Ambient Light
  • WPC-based wireless charging
  • 5ATM + IP68 / MIL-STD-810G
  • Samsung, other Android: Android 5.0 or higher, RAM 1.5GB above
  • iPhone 5 and above, iOS 9.0 or above

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