Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active ($199 at Amazon) is the younger, sportier, sibling of Samsung's flagship Galaxy Watch ($169 at Amazon) from 2018 packed in a slimmer and more barebones exterior. It has a slightly smaller screen that comes in only one size with no LTE alternative, with a sleeker body that feels lighter and lies flatter on the wrist. But it's most attractive quality is arguably its price.
At $200, it's almost half the price of an Apple Watch Series 4 ($300 at Amazon) and $130 dollars cheaper than the original Galaxy Watch. The Active lacks the advanced heart features and fall detection that the Apple Watch debuted in the Series 4, and still has some work to do on its blood pressure monitoring feature, but it one-ups the similarly priced Fitbit Versa ($150 at Back Market), with onboard GPS, more reply options on Android phones, and Spotify support, although the Fitbit still wins for battery life.
If you already have a Galaxy Watch, you can probably skip the Active (unless you're really craving that sportier design), but if this is your first smartwatch and you're a Galaxy or Android user, it's definitely a top contender. It has all the features you'll need from a smartwatch and fitness tracker in a comfortable, well-priced package.
A design that won't weigh you down
The Galaxy Watch Active improves upon one of my biggest design complaints of its older sibling, its thickness. But unfortunately it's at the expense of one of my favorite features from previous Samsung smartwatches: That rotating bezel.
I've been a big fan of the round watch face and rotating bezel on Samsung's smartwatches since the sleep in and would constantly get stuck on my workout clothes when I peeled off layers at the gym.. Samsung refined the look in last year's Galaxy Watch, making it look more like a traditional analog watch, and it finally looked nice on my relatively thin wrist. The rose gold color option didn't hurt the look either. The one thing getting in the way for me was how much it stood (profile wise) above my wrist. It wasn't comfortable enough to
After wearing it for a few days, I can definitely say the Galaxy Watch Active is a much more comfortable fit. It's so slim and light that I'd sometimes forget I was wearing it. It still feels a bit thicker than the Apple Watch or Fitbit Versa, but the heart-rate sensor lies flush against my wrist so it doesn't press in as much when I tighten the band. But this comfort comes with some sacrifices. The Galaxy Watch Active looks pretty plain next to the Galaxy Watch, especially in the solid black color I tested it in (it also comes in silver, rose gold and sea green) and you lose out on the scrolling features on the bezel.
The face of the watch looks bare to me without that rotating metal bezel and the rubber straps feel basic, but you can of course swap them out for other styles if you want to change the look. Although you are limited to the 40mm watchface -- unlike the Galaxy Watch, which comes in a 42mm and 46mm option.
On the plus side, the Watch Active keeps the round AMOLED display that's great to look at, even in direct sunlight. It has Gorilla Glass 3 like the Galaxy Watch, but doesn't have Corning's DX+ composite coating. The coating's supposed to reduce glare and protect against scratches and I've had no complaints on that front during my testing so far, although that's only been about five days at this point.
If you've used a Samsung watch before, navigating through your content on the watch will seem familiar. You can swipe or tap to move around and you still get the two physical buttons on the side of the watch to select your option or go back. The watch is pretty easy to maneuver, but I did miss that rotating bezel for scrolling without having to leave fingerprint marks all over the touch screen.
Health and fitness features that will get you moving
The Galaxy Watch Active has a few minor UI changes that make it seem slightly more fitness focused. There are sportier watch faces that can display more activity info, and a heart-shaped dashboard that helps you keep track of active minutes, calories burned and stand time at a glance, similar to the ring system on the Apple Watch.
But for working out, the Galaxy Watch Active offers a nearly identical experience to the Galaxy Watch. It comes loaded with just about every physical activity you can think of (39 total), auto pause and the ability to detect some workouts (like running and cycling) automatically without having to bother setting them on the watch. (Note that the Apple Watch and Fitbit Versa can do that as well.) It's also rated at 5 ATM, so you can safely take use it to track indoor and open-water swims.
The Galaxy Watch Active also has a barometer that can register altitude on hikes and a built-in GPS that makes distance tracking more accurate. I left my phone behind during my usual three-and-a-half mile run and was able to see my entire route mapped on the Samsung Health app once I got back to my phone. This is one of the features I missed the most on the Fitbit Versa.
I also liked that the watch shows you a breakdown of your heart rate zones, based on intensity: moderate, vigorous or maximum. It's a practical way to use your heart-rate data. The Fitbit also has a similar breakdown for workouts. I didn't test the Galaxy Watch Active against a chest strap, the gold standard for heart rate tracking in athletes, but I did notice a bit of a lag in the real time heart rate data on the watch based on how hard I was working during my run and needed a few seconds to catch up.
The watch also uses the optical heart rate sensor on the back to calculate calories burned, analyze sleep and keep track of stress levels just like the Galaxy Watch. The calorie count for my pilates workout seemed pretty consistent with what I get on other trackers, but I think it underestimated the calories on my run.
I don't usually wear my smartwatch to track my sleep. I'm a light sleeper and I hate the extra bulk on my wrist when I'm in bed. Last year when I was testing out this feature on the original Galaxy Watch I ended up tearing it off in the middle of the first night because it kept waking me up, but I wore the Active for four nights in a row without it interrupting my sleep (too much). And I did learn a few things about my sleep patterns (or lack thereof) that I wouldn't have otherwise. The Samsung Health App gives you a breakdown of your total sleep time, the stages of sleep (light, REM or deep sleep) and the quality of your sleep. This is something that Fitbit does well, but that you still can't do natively on the Apple Watch.
My biggest complaint in terms of tracking, both sleep and activity, was trying to find that information on the health app on your phone. Daily stats are simple enough to see at a glance because they're laid out on the front screen, but looking at specific information from different dates requires a some digging. I was eventually able to find old workouts and sleep sessions, but the Health app in general seems to be less intuitive than, say, the Fitbit app.
What I really wasn't compelled to track much of were my stress levels. It's just not something I think of on a regular basis and don't really know what to do with the information the watch gives me. You can take a stress test on the watch that basically tells you which end of the stress spectrum you're at and gives you the option to go through a guided breathing exercises to help get your rating down. It's reminiscent of the breathe app on the Apple Watch.