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Wearable Tech

Samsung Galaxy Watch hands-on: 4 ways it's better than Apple Watch (so far)

It improves on the older Samsung Gear models, too.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Samsung Galaxy Watch was unveiled alongside the Galaxy Note 9 back on Aug. 9, and -- like the Note -- is available for sale as of today. We've only had the Watch for a bit more than two days, so we're not ready to render a final verdict yet. But we have plenty of impressions after our first 48 hours:

First off, If you're interested in the Samsung Galaxy Watch, you'll have to decide what size to get. Having a small wrist, I initially thought I'd be a candidate for the smaller 42mm model, which comes in midnight black or rose gold and starts at $330 (£279) for the noncellular editions -- LTE models will ship later this year for $50 more. But after trying the silver-only 46mm version ($350, £299) at a launch event in New York, I quickly realized I'd made a mistake, and immediately opted for the larger model. 

While it's a little heavier, it fit my wrist comfortably and has some clear benefits: Not only is its screen bigger but it has better battery life. I also preferred the look of its stainless steel silver finish. So, regardless of your wrist size or gender, you should definitely check out the larger Galaxy Watch before locking into a specific size. 

Both the 46mm model (shown here) and 42mm model have new fitness tracking features.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Those who've been following Samsung's smartwatch efforts over the years will be quick to note that while the company has made a big naming change to its line -- this is the Galaxy Watch, not the Gear. That said, from a design and operational standpoint, these new Galaxy watches aren't all that different from those earlier Gear models, including  last year's Gear S3 and smaller Gear Sport. In fact, the 46mm Galaxy Watch comes across as a slightly modified take on the Gear 3S Frontier while the 42mm Galaxy Watch seems like a more refined, streamlined Gear Sport.

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The biggest changes are on the inside:

Waterproof to 50m or 5 ATM (atmospheres): That's the same as the Gear Sport, but a nice improvement over the Gear S3's IP68 rating, which was merely "dunk proof." The new Galaxy Watch is specifically designed to be swimproof, however, including for salt water and chlorinated water, but you should rinse it after either.

Better battery life ratings: The 46mm models is rated for around 4 days, the 42mm for 3 days (on the non-LTE ones, anyway). 

More exercise and workout options: The new watches track a lot more types of exercises (21 indoor exercises, 39 tracked workouts total) and offer stress-management features using the built-in heart-rate monitor and integrated sensors. Fitness and sleep tracking is tied into Samsung's S-Health app but there are also tie-ins to other fitness apps from Under Armour, MapMyRun, Speedo and others.

The 42mm in rose gold.

James Martin/CNET

Bixby hits the wrist: Bixby, Samsung's voice assistant, is on board for the first time, replacing the underwhelming S-Voice. You can issue such voice commands "What's the weather?" "Start workout" and "Play music." You can also reply to text messages with your voice (though that feature is not supported on iPhone). It's far from perfect, but it's clearly an improvement over S-Voice.

Samsung Pay takes a step back: It's easy to set up and works with contactless payment terminals -- but like with the Gear Sport, Samsung left off its work-anywhere MST technology, so it won't work at quite as many places as Samsung phones or older Gear S3 watches. Nor does it work with an iPhone.

Obviously, with a name like Galaxy Watch, this is a device that's optimized for use with Samsung's Galaxy smartphones. But it does work fine with other Android phones and even iPhones to a degree. The Samsung Gear app is now called Galaxy Wearable on Android and Galaxy Watch on iOS (it was supposed to be called Galaxy Wearable on iOS but for now the app is showing up as Galaxy Watch on my iPhone X).

As much as this move to the Galaxy brand is about Samsung consolidating its mobile devices under its strongest mobile brand, it's also about giving its smartwatches a fresh start -- and a fresh look from consumers -- as Apple continues to lead the wearables market as consumers shift to smarter devices from basic fitness trackers.

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Where Galaxy Watch beats Apple Watch (so far)

So how does the new Galaxy Watch compare to the Apple Watch? While it still has a few shortcomings, in some ways it's actually better. Here's a few reasons why.

Design: Round beats square           

The obvious difference between Samsung and Apple watches is that Samsung's have round faces while Apple's have square ones. Plenty of people love the Apple Watch's design, including members of my family. Personally, I prefer round and prefer the overall look of these new Galaxy watches to the Apple Watch, which sometimes reminds me of a giant Chiclet.

From a practical standpoint, the other thing worth noting is that unlike Samsung's watches, Apple's don't have a rotating bezel around the screen to act as sort of a guard rail. The Apple Watch's screen is left completely exposed and is arguably easier ding up despite being made of Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass (while we're talking Gorilla Glass, the new Galaxy Watches are equipped with "military-grade" Gorilla DX+ glass).

I'm a fan of the rotating bezel, which may give you flashbacks to the original iPod's scroll wheel. You can also navigate the watch's interface by swiping the touch screen, flipping through widgets or scrolling through notifications and news items. But the rotating bezel somehow seems more tactile -- or perhaps just more watch-like.

Watch faces galore

Probably the Galaxy Watch's best feature is the ability to change watch faces and customize the look of the watch. There are literally thousands to choose from (many of them free) and you can store dozens of them on the watch (both the 42mm and 46mm models come with 4GB of internal storage and 768MB of RAM). Thanks to the sharp, high-contrast AMOLED display, watch faces look incredibly detailed. Many of the analog watch faces indeed make your watch look like an analog watch -- at least from from a few feet away. Apple offers a handful of watch faces, and a semi-customizable Siri face. But it hasn't opened watch face store yet, despite repeated entreaties on CNET and elsewhere.

You can load both watch faces and apps onto the watch directly from the watch or via the app. The launch models are equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and you can log onto Wi-Fi networks directly from the watch. As I said, LTE models ship later this year and you'll need to get a service plan (usually around $10 a month) to bring cellular access to your watch. You can still answer incoming calls on your watch with this model, but your phone has to be in the vicinity and linked to your watch for that to happen.

Promising battery life 

As long as you don't use the Wi-Fi much (on the watch), battery life is fairly impressive. As I said, Samsung says you can get about four days of use out of the 46mm model without having to recharge it and three days from the 42mm model. I'm on my third day of using the watch and I'm just under 40 percent of remaining battery life, so that estimate seems to be bearing out for the 46mm model.

It's worth mentioning that the Galaxy Watch, like previous Gear models, runs Samsung's Tizen OS, now up to version 4.0. Some people had hoped the company might switch to Android's Wear OS when it rebranded from Gear Watch to Galaxy Watch, but Samsung has stuck with Tizen. The company says part of the reason for that is that it's been able to optimize the software for its hardware, which has allowed it to make the watch run more efficiently and achieve better battery life. A larger 472-mAh battery on the 46mm model also helped increase battery life.

CNET's Vanessa Hand Orellana, meanwhile, has the 42mm model (watch her video, below). In early testing -- albeit with a more intensive workout regimen -- she got a bit more than 24 hours battery life. Samsung reps suggested that could go up as the watch optimizes itself to her daily routines.

The battery life of smartwatches varies based on how you use them, though. I can typically can go a couple of days without recharging my Apple Watch but generally not much more than that. With this Galaxy Watch, I turned on its Wi-Fi to download some watch faces and apps, as well as download a 1GB Spotify playlist to the watch. So for the moment, for me, Samsung is ahead on the battery life front. However, that may or may not change after Apple announce its rumored new Apple Watch 4 -- potentially as soon as next month.

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Prepping for a workout.

James Martin/CNET

Spotify support

Samsung right now is the only smartwatch maker to have a partnership with Spotify that allows you to download playlists to its smartwatches (you have to to be a Spotify Premium subscriber to do this). The process for doing this seems to have improved over last year (Scott Stein complained about how it was a pain to get it to work in his review of the Gear Sport). I had no trouble downloading a pretty lengthy Spotify playlist using my home Wi-Fi network. You can also transfer standard music files to the watch using Samsung's Music Manager.

Apple Watch users can download Apple Music playlists to their watches, but not Spotify playlists. The advantage to being able to store playlists on your watch allows you to play music to Bluetooth headphones directly from your watch without carrying around your cell phone. It's a good feature for runners.

Still some kinks

In our reviews of earlier Samsung smartwatches, we've always appreciated their design but have been a little less enthusiastic about the user experience. For instance, Scott Stein noted that after wearing the Gear Sport for a while, he appreciated the watch's "more practical outlook and design and its detailed on-screen fitness and notification readouts," but he still didn't think it was "easy to set up or use."

I think Samsung has made some progress on the user friendliness front. I still ran into the occasional kink: The workout app looking like it had launched but it hadn't; being unable to log onto Spotify from certain Wi-Fi networks and not others. Oh, and the watch seems to count elevator rides as steps up and down stairs. But I didn't feel myself getting frustrated and found the watch easy enough to navigate.  

As for Bixby: It's still hit and miss. It's better than S-Voice, but Samsung's voice assistant still leaves a lot to be desired compared to Google Assistant, Alexa and even Siri. 

The app store still feels somewhat limited and you often need a Gear app to hook in with key apps on your Android phone because Tizen and Android are separate operating systems. But watch apps are never going to be as robust as phone ones anyway, and the plethora of watch faces more than make up for any app shortcomings. 

We still need to test the Galaxy Watch's sleep tracking functionality, too.

Ultimately, though, the list of positives on the Samsung Galaxy Watch is getting longer while the list of negatives is getting shorter.

That's important when you're trying to sell a $350 product to consumers and going up against the likes of Apple, which will surely make its own set of improvements to its next-generation Apple Watch, which -- as mentioned above -- is quite possibly imminent. And that's why we're going to spend a little more time with the Galaxy Watch before putting a final rating on it.

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