Apple and Samsung have made some of this year's best smartwatches with the Apple Watch Series 5 and Galaxy Watch Active 2, respectively. Not only do these smartwatches function as fitness trackers, keeping track of your health and fitness goals, but they also allow you to go phone-free thanks to built-in GPS and cellular connectivity. The Apple Watch is closely entwined with Apple's ecosystem, iOS and the iPhone, while Samsung's wearable works best with Android phones, but it also offers iOS support.
I tested both these watches for several weeks to determine which was the best smartwatch to track my workouts, sleep, listen to music on the go and get notifications from a phone. The Apple Watch Series 5, which starts at $399 (£399, AU$649), is more expensive than the base model of the $280 (£269, AU$549) Galaxy Watch Active 2. Does that make the cheaper watch the better buy? Read on to find out.
The Apple Watch has long been one of the best smartwatches you can buy and the fifth generation adds an always-on display. It also has an FDA-cleared electrocardiogram and heart-health features, plus built-in GPS and the option of a cellular version. Battery life, however, isn't as strong as some of its rivals. Read our Apple Watch Series 5 review.
This is the most well-rounded Samsung watch yet. Thanks to a bright, circular display and the addition of a touch bezel that lets you navigate around the watch, you get great workout tracking, plus GPS. It's also got an ECG, although it's not enabled at the moment. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 works across Android and iOS, has built-in GPS and a cellular option too. Read our Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 review.
Round or square? Take your pick
The most obvious difference between these two is the design. Apple's watch is square, while Samsung's is round. Both come in 40 or 44mm options, so you can choose the one that fits your wrist size best.
The round Galaxy Watch Active 2 looks premium and resembles an actual watch. On the other hand (or wrist), the square Apple Watch screen is more functional for reading text and notifications.
Both watches have color touchscreens that I loved using. They're bright and easy to see in direct sunlight when doing an outdoor workout, for example. And they each have an always-on display so you can always see the time on your wrist.
The Apple Watch Series 5 has a digital crown, like all the previous Apple Watches that have come before it, while the Galaxy Watch Active 2 has a touch bezel. Instead of a physical rotating dial around the outside of the watch like on the original Galaxy Watch, the touch bezel lets you run your finger around the screen to select options. It has some haptic feedback and it's quite satisfying to use (though I still miss having the physical dial).
There are a number of finishes on the Apple Watch, including stainless steel, aluminum, ceramic and titanium, plus a plethora of strap options. Naturally, the price goes up if you choose more premium materials. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 has only an aluminum or stainless steel finish in three different colors.
Where the Galaxy Watch Active 2 pulls ahead though is watch faces. There are lots of third-party watch faces available, plus you can customize the face to match the colors of your outfit. While WatchOS 6 on the Apple Watch brings more watch faces and greater customization than before (such as complications that add extra details on the faces and the option to use a photo as your watch face) it's still nowhere near the selection you can get on the Galaxy.
Both excel at workout tracking, but Apple has the edge for health features
There is an extensive list of workouts that both the Apple Watch and the Galaxy Watch Active 2 can track. Anything from standard curling -- yes, curling is a workout on the Apple Watch!, to elliptical workout to and even
I found that both did a good job atduring a run and readings were close to each other, with only 2 to 3 beats per minute variance. (I haven't yet tested them against a chest-strap monitor.) The calorie burn at the end of all my workouts was quite different between the two, however. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 always said I burned fewer calories than the Apple Watch Series 5.
Both autodetect workouts after approximately 10 minutes of activity, but the Galaxy Watch Active 2 was a little more eager to autodetect my walks. I ended up with a big list of activities in the Samsung Health app I wasn't expecting.
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 also has a native running coach. You can hear audio prompts in your ear, on the watch speaker or just visually on screen to let you know if you are going faster, slower or at an appropriate pace for the workout you choose. The Apple Watch offers pace alerts on your wrist, but you have to set your desired pace before you start working out.
Built-in GPS accuracy is pretty good on both: I tracked the same workout on them and plotted it in Strava to see if there was any significant variance. There wasn't.
To keep an eye on your day-to-day activity, the Apple Watch uses a visual system where you aim to close three colored rings each day: move, exercise and stand. The Galaxy Watch has a similar system where you can complete each segment of a heart to fill each day. I prefer the ring-based system since it's easier to visually track your progress.
As for other health-tracking features, the Apple Watch Series 5 (like the Series 4 before it) has an FDA-cleared electrocardiogram in the US and some other countries. It can alert you of high or low heart rate readings. Plus the Apple Watch has fall detection and the option to call emergency services if you take a tumble. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 also has an ECG (aka EKG) and fall detection, but neither feature is available for use just yet and we don't have a timeframe when it will be cleared for use.
They're both water resistant to track swims too. Only the Galaxy Watch Active 2 offers native sleep tracking and it's pretty good at breaking down the duration and quality of your sleep each night.
Does Apple Watch work with Android? Nope
But the Galaxy Watch Active 2 does work with the iPhone. There are a couple of caveats: you won't get LTE, you lose Samsung Pay and you're limited in how you can respond to text messages. But you can still track workouts, get notifications and use a lot of the smart features. The best way to experience the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is (as you'd expect) with a Galaxy phone, although I didn't have any major issues when pairing it with another Android device such as the Pixel 4.
Thanks to built-in GPS and the option of LTE, you're spoiled for choice if you want to leave your phone at home. (Check these links to see if your carrier supports LTE on the Galaxy Watch Active 2 and the Apple Watch Series 5.) You can take and make calls, get text messages or stream music on the go. I didn't get to test out LTE yet on the Galaxy Watch Active 2, but will update once I get my hands on the cellular version.
Each has their own digital assistant that lives on your wrist. Bixby versus Siri is a personal preference and both are fine, although I found that Siri understood my Australian accent better than Bixby. Regardless, talking to your watch in public still feels weird.
They also have internal storage so you can keep tunes on hand, although with the integration of streaming music services -- Spotify on the Galaxy Watch and Apple Music on the Apple Watch -- I didn't find the need to transfer many songs at all. You do need a paid subscription to save music from those services to your watch, though. Spotify is also on the Apple Watch but it doesn't let you store songs offline, just control playback.
The Apple Watch has many more apps available, although the Galaxy Watch offers third-party YouTube, Twitter and Translate apps. You can pay for things with your watch as well, thanks to Samsung Pay and Apple Pay, although they are for NFC payments only (unfortunately you don't get the cool MST support on the Galaxy Watch Active 2).
Samsung wins on battery life, although you can push the Apple Watch
Neither have great battery life and you'll need to charge them either at the end of the day or every other day, depending on usage and size. (Note: I only tested with the non-LTE 40mm versions of both; the 44mm versions have larger capacity batteries.)
I love that the Galaxy Watch Active 2 supports reverse wireless charging from a compatible Samsung phone like the Galaxy S10. It makes it so much easier to give your watch a quick boost when you don't have the charger nearby.
And you'll probably need to do that if you really push this watch with an outdoor workout -- I went on a run with GPS, with the always-on screen active and streaming stored music on the watch and the battery drained by 35% in 30 minutes.
The Apple Watch Series 5 is a little better with battery management and it drains at a fairly consistent rate throughout the day, regardless of whether or not you do an outdoor workout in similar conditions. With the always-on display active I got 18 hours from the Apple Watch, so it worked best if I charged it each night. When I turned off the always-on display, I managed to get a day and a half of usage from the Series 5.
The Galaxy Watch, meanwhile, gave me two full days.
Which is the best smartwatch?
If you have an iPhone, it makes sense to get the Apple Watch because it offers you the best experience. But don't immediately discount the Galaxy Watch Active 2 as it's a great alternative -- and at least $100 cheaper for the base model than the Series 5. Just be aware you won't get all the perks it offers.
Android users won't be disappointed with the Galaxy Watch Active 2, although if you're looking for ECG and fall detection, they aren't active yet. If those are must-have features, you'll have to look elsewhere, or switch to iOS and the Apple Watch.
Originally published last month.