Samsung Galaxy Watch Active review: A cheaper, round-faced alternative to the Apple Watch
Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active is the younger, sportier, sibling of Samsung's flagship Galaxy Watch 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 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 , 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 Galaxy Gears. 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 sleep in and would constantly get stuck on my workout clothes when I peeled off layers at the gym.
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.
Samsung has also partnered with the Calm app, which offers a range of longer, guided meditation exercises right on the Health app that can help keep stress levels in check. I could stand to sprinkle in a bit of meditation time throughout my day, but I don't think I need a stress test to get the ball rolling. The downside is that you'll need your phone to get the full meditation experience with the sound. The only thing you can do with the watch is play and pause sessions, and check to see how it affected your stress levels once you're done.
Blood pressure monitoring: Very much in beta
The Watch Active was said to be the first of Samsung's smartwatches to be able to measure your blood pressure, but this feature is still very much in beta. The watch measures blood pressure via the company's My BP lab app, which first appeared on the the Galaxy S9 ($455 at Amazon), S9 Plus and Note 9 last year. Interested Active owners can sign up to be part of this beta program which Samsung has developed in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF), but the measurements are part of an experimental study only, meaning the feature hasn't been cleared by the FDA yet.
Samsung will still likely have to submit all the data to get the necessary approval to consider it a viable health metric, so don't expect it to be a standalone feature that you should base any purchasing decisions on at this point. For now, Omron's HeartGuide blood pressure watch is the only smartwatch in the market that's been cleared by the FDA to measure blood pressure.
Using it for more than just working out
The watch watch runs on Samsung's homegrown Tizen operating system (not Google's WearOS). Tizen is made to work well with Galaxy devices but it's also compatible with other Android and even iOS devices, although you lose out on some of the features like text responses and mobile payments when paired with an iPhone.
I've been using the Galaxy Watch Active with a Galaxy S9 running Android Pie and the experience switching between the two has been seamless. It's quick at opening and closing apps and starting workouts, with little lag time when mirroring notifications from the phone. The one time I noticed a longer lag was when dictating voice commands and text responses, but that issue isn't unique to the Galaxy Watch Active. I've experienced a similar delay registering voice commands on other smartwatches such as the Apple Watch.
The Active also gives more customization options than competitors, such as the ability to add and rearrange widgets and apps right on the watch screen. It doesn't have that many third-party apps to choose from, but it has the basics, like Strava and Spotify which are all I really need on a smartwatch.
And even some of the third-party apps that you can't load onto the watch still provide some kind of notification support. My Gmail, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp alerts all work on the watch. Most of them aren't actionable, but WhatsApp for example does let you respond to a message directly on the watch just like you would a regular text via doodle, dictation or quick-reply.
You will have to rely on the haptic vibrations for the notification alerts, however, because the Watch Active doesn't have a speaker. It does have a built-in mic for voice commands and text dictation, but there's no way to play sound or make it ring if you've misplaced it.
You can also pair it with a set of bluetooth earphones for music via the native music app or Spotify. But the watch is Wi-Fi-only, so you'll still need to keep your phone close for calls and streaming. The watch displays your incoming calls, but will transfer them to your phone as soon as you swipe on the answer icon.
The Active is NFC-only like the Galaxy Watch before it. This means you don't get the same MST technology that allows Samsung Pay on Galaxy phones and the previous Gear S3 to work on nearly all credit card terminals with a magnetic strip.
Battery life: Not great, but not bad
I wore the Galaxy Watch Active for a little over 36 hours straight after charging it to 100 percent before I finally caved and put it back on the charger. That's with about 10 percent battery life to spare, so I may have been able to squeeze a couple extra hours of use. And I had a pretty productive 36 hours with it. I logged two workouts (one of them using the GPS), logged one full night of sleep, listened to a few tunes and received a decent amount of notifications in between.
It may not seem like a lot compared to the larger 46mm Galaxy Watch, or a Fitbit Versa, but it wasn't bad considering it has a smaller battery than both the 46mm and the 42mm Galaxy Watch, which lasted me roughly the same amount of time. That's also about half a day more than the Apple Watch if I were to wear it to bed.
Samsung says you can get up to 45 hours on a charge which could be feasible, but your mileage will obviously vary depending on what your using it for.
The watch took me a about two hours to charge to 100 percent using the little charging dock that came in the box, which seemed slow compared to the charge time on the Galaxy phones. The dock lies flush on the counter top similar to the Apple Watch charger and unlike the larger charging dock of the Galaxy Watch which propped up the watch while it charged. The Watch Active will not work on any other Qi wireless chargers, but you do have the option to get a quick boost on the go from a Galaxy S10, S10+ or S10e. The phones have a feature called PowerShare that allow them to wirelessly charge other Samsung devices like the Watch Active and the Galaxy Buds by placing them on the back of the phone.
One of the best smartwatches for the price
If you've got a Galaxy or Android phone and you're looking to test out the smartwatch experience, this watch is a no brainer. Sure it may not be the most beautiful of Samsung's smartwatches, but it offers the same great fitness features for a fraction of the price and it has a few more tricks up its sleeve than the similarly priced Fitbit Versa: There's better phone integration and built-in GPS.
You'll miss out on some of the more advanced health features that you'd get on the Apple Watch Series 4, such as the elevated and irregular heart rate notifications, the FDA-cleared EKG, and fall detection. But you'll save $200 and still get a great fitness companion that's comfortable enough to wear to the gym or to bed. And it will last you through the night on a charge.