Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 review: A sleek smartwatch that's better value than the Galaxy Watch 3
Editors' note, Nov. 18, 2020: With the addition of the long-awaited electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) and an update that's given the watch many of the same health features as the more expensive Galaxy Watch 3, we've awarded the Active 2 an Editors' Choice. It's a good all-round option for someone looking for a smartwatch compatible with Android and iOS. Our review, originally published September 2019, follows.
It took a year, but Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active 2 finally gets ECG, just like the Apple Watch , the Fitbit Sense and Samsung's latest Galaxy Watch 3. The $249 (£249, AU$549) Galaxy Watch Active 2 launched in 2019 but its flagship health feature wasn't turned on yet. Now the ECG app has received FDA clearance in the US and you can find it in the new Samsung Health Monitor app.
The Active 2 has a bright, circular AMOLED touchscreen, comes in two sizes (40mm and 44mm) and has a Bluetooth or LTE option. It has improved heart-rate tracking over the original Galaxy Watch Active and is compatible with Android and iOS, although you don't get all the features if you pair with an iPhone. The watch also has built-in GPS, so you won't need to take your phone with you on runs to track distance and route details.
I've been wearing the smaller 40mm Bluetooth Active 2 to track my workouts and my sleep , and I've been impressed with the results. For anyone new to the world of Samsung smartwatches or coming from the first Galaxy Watch and looking for a slimmer alternative, it has plenty to offer. Thanks to the new aluminum and stainless-steel finishes, plus additional health-tracking features, the Active 2 is much more comparable to the Apple Watch Series 6 than earlier Samsung watches.
The bezel is back
The original Galaxy Watch, released in 2018, had a physical rotating bezel you could turn to change settings. I found it highly addictive because it gave a satisfying "click" when you turned it and it was a faster way to navigate than relying on the touchscreen alone. This year's Galaxy Watch Active lost the bezel and you had to use the screen and buttons instead.
Samsung must have listened to my cries, as the Active 2 gives you the best of both worlds. Instead of a physical dial, you run your finger around the edge of the screen to scroll through menus with the touch bezel. Haptic feedback makes it (almost) feel like a real dial, although sometimes it took me an extra try or two to get it to register my touch. The Active 2 I received for review didn't come with the touch bezel activated, so you may need to go into the settings, find the advanced section and switch it on.
After a few days of wear, I'm impressed with how Samsung has improved the fit and feel of the watch over previous generations. The 40mm version fits nicely on my smaller wrist and the metal finish looks premium compared with the first Galaxy Watch Active. The aluminum version is available in black, silver or pink gold with a synthetic rubber strap, while the stainless-steel version comes in a silver, black or gold finish, with a leather band. The LTE version is only available in stainless steel.
The color AMOLED screen is bright and easy to see in direct sun, as long as you have the brightness cranked up to its maximum. And now the Active 2 uses Gorilla Glass DX Plus instead of Gorilla Glass 3, which means it should stand up to more bumps and scratches than its predecessor. It's rated IP68 or 5ATM for water resistance, the same as before.
Fitness tracking adds finesse
If you've used any previous Galaxy Watch there will be no surprises here when it comes to fitness tracking. You can still track over 39 workouts and see the breakdown of your data in the Samsung Health app or directly on the watch face itself. I still don't think the Samsung Health app presents your data as nicely as competitors like Fitbit do (it's just so much easier to visually interpret your workout data in the Fitbit app, for example).
The Active 2 gets an updated running coach, which gives you audio and visual cues through seven different running programs, from light jogging to endurance running.
It sounds great in theory. But on my run I was surprised at how well it worked, as long as you can get past hearing the robotic Bixby voice. Connect some Bluetooth earbuds and you'll be able to hear the guide in your ear, alongside any music you might have playing, or you can use the watch speaker to hear the prompts.
The coach tells you to speed up or slow down based on your current pace and it even gives you semimotivational comments ranging from, "How are you feeling?" to, "Try to smile if you can," which was equally infuriating and hilarious during the home stretch of my run.
Would I use it more than once or twice? Probably not in its current state. What I liked most was being able to hear my average heart rate and my pace after every mile, but I would want to be able to change the voice and customize the prompts it gave me to make it really helpful.
While the running coach may be a take-it-or-leave-it feature, I found the most useful fitness feature was actually the improved heart rate monitor. With a total of eight LEDs on the back to measure your pulse, the heart rate monitor is now more accurate during workouts than the original Galaxy Watch Active, which only had four LEDs. I'm a big fan of monitoring my heart rate during cardio-based exercises such as spin class or running and found the readings on the Active 2 updated much faster during a workout than the previous version. I haven't yet tested the watch against a chest strap monitor to compare results.
As of September 2020, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 has received an update to give it some of the same features as the newer Galaxy Watch 3: advanced running metrics, a measure of VO2 max and trip detection.
On top of the existing exercises the previous watch could autodetect, like running and cycling, the Active 2 adds swimming to the mix, bringing the total number of workouts it can autodetect to seven. Like the first Active, it does stress tracking and sleep tracking. The Active 2 also now has menstrual tracking and you can log your cycle from the Samsung Health app. And to help motivate you to meet your exercise goals each day, the Active 2 encourages you to close each segment of a heart graphic, like the ring-based system used on the Apple Watch.
It's difficult to avoid comparisons to the Apple Watch when it comes to other heart-related features. Not only does the Active 2 now have high and low heart rate detection like Apple's smartwatch (you'll need to have the HR monitor set to continuous measurement for this to work), it also has a built-in ECG to detect potential signs of atrial fibrillation (aFib). The ECG has finally received FDA-clearance as of September 2020 and I'll be updating this review once I've had a chance to test it out fully. Note that the ECG app is only available if you tie your Active 2 to a Samsung Galaxy phone. Sorry, iPhone users, you'll have to stick to the Apple Watch or a Fitbit Sense if you want ECG.
Like its newer sibling, the original Galaxy Watch Active launched with a feature that wasn't turned on at the time of release, the blood pressure monitor. Although it is now available through the company's My BP app, it's not yet FDA-cleared. Blood pressure monitoring results are still currently in beta and these measurements are used as part of a study with the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.
A fully fledged smartwatch with some quirks
Now that the Galaxy Watch Active 2 offers an LTE version (from $379, £249 or AU$799) you'll be able to get calls and send messages on the go. Just like with the earlier Galaxy Watch and Galaxy Watch Active, you can customize which notifications come through from your phone, regardless of whether you have a Bluetooth or LTE version.
All the versions of the Active 2 now offer closer integration with third-party apps like Twitter and YouTube, so you can interact with tweets or watch videos. Although I'm not quite sure of why you would ever want to watch videos on such a small screen, it's definitely a party trick. Subscribers to Spotify's premium tier can also store songs on the watch for offline listening, or stream over LTE. A built-in speaker means you can now listen to music or take calls without needing Bluetooth earbuds.
I really like the wide variety of watch faces available in the Galaxy Wearable app and you can download more from the Galaxy Store. But being able to snap a photo of your outfit and match your watch face to the colors of your shirt using the My Style feature is probably my favorite way to customize the look of the Active 2.
Samsung's Tizen OS, which the watch runs on, also feels slightly more responsive than on previous versions. You can still customize placement of apps and widgets.
It still did take me time to work out where some features are hiding, like the running coach for example, and I think the largest font size on the watch might still be too small for some people. I also found that the Bixby assistant started up of its own volition a few times, without any voice prompts or any button presses. It's a mystery as to why this happens -- sometimes it's during a workout, other times it's when I've been using the touch bezel.
Bixby aside, what I appreciate the most about the software on the Active 2 is an under-the-hood upgrade that makes it easier to transition back and forth between apps on your watch and your phone. You'll be able to use a single sign-on, so if you're logged into Spotify or Twitter on your phone, for example, that login will carry over to your watch.
Battery life will depend on the size you choose as the 44mm watch has a larger-capacity battery, and how much you use features like the always-on display and LTE. Unfortunately I didn't have the LTE version to test, so I can't tell you how much using a cellular connection will affect battery life.
But I can tell you that with normal use, getting notifications, changing watch faces, tracking an indoor workout and tracking sleep, I managed to get a day and a half from the 40mm Bluetooth watch before it needed a charge. I also noticed on a different day, when I had the display set to always-on during a workout, using the running coach with GPS and listening to downloaded music from Spotify over Bluetooth, the battery went from 40% to just 14% in 30 minutes. So do bear in mind this watch isn't invincible. If you have a Galaxy phone like the S20 Plus or Note 20 Ultra that offers wireless power sharing, you can charge the watch from the back of your phone (although it is slow).
The Active 2 also has Samsung Pay, although using it to tap and pay will only work at NFC-based terminals.
Better value than the newer Watch 3
Thanks to its sleek design, health features like the ECG and trip detection, plus an LTE option, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 feels like a full smartwatch that can take you from work to play without missing a beat. With software updates over the past year since launch, the Active 2 shares many of the same features with the Watch 3 which makes it a great buy for those on a tighter budget.
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is best for Android users who want a smartwatch that offers a lot of customization and great exercise tracking options. For iPhone users, it's still not as good an option as the Apple Watch overall because you're more restricted in how you can respond to notifications (and you don't get ECG), but it's cheaper than the newer Apple Watch SE and Series 6.
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Smartwatch specs compared
|Galaxy Watch Active 2||Galaxy Watch Active||Apple Watch Series 5||Fitbit Versa 2|
|Display type||Circular AMOLED||Circular AMOLED||Square LTPO OLED Retina||Square AMOLED|
|Watch size||40 or 44mm||39.5mm||40 or 44mm||1.4-inch display|
|Connectivity||LTE option, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC||Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC||LTE option, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC||Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC|
|ECG||Yes (not yet active)||No||Yes||No|
|Price (Bluetooth)||40mm: $249 (See it at Amazon)||$200 (See it at Amazon)||40mm: $399 (See it at Amazon)||$200 (See it at Amazon)|
|44mm: $269 (See it at Amazon)||N/A||44mm: $429 (See it at Amazon)||N/A|
|Price (LTE)||40mm: $379||N/A||40mm: $499 (See it at Amazon)||N/A|
|44mm: $399||N/A||44mm: $529 (See it at Amazon)||N/A|