Samsung Galaxy Watch review: A worthy Apple Watch alternative

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The Good Samsung's Galaxy Watch has an arguably superior design to Apple's Watch Series 4. Battery life is good, it's fully waterproof and you can get hundreds of watch faces for it. Samsung has improved its software and enhanced its fitness tracking. Spotify premium users can load Spotify playlists on the watch. And it works with iPhones and Android phones.

The Bad The Bixby voice-assistant could be better. Samsung has quashed some bugs but not all. To achieve Samsung's battery life numbers, you have to institute battery-saving measures.

The Bottom Line The Samsung Galaxy Watch is a great looking smartwatch that beats the Apple Watch on battery life and its wide variety of custom watch faces.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Battery 8
  • Performance 8
  • Software 7
  • Features 8

The first thing you'll have to decide, If you're interested in the Samsung Galaxy Watch, is what size to get. 

I've got a small wrist, so 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, with LTE models costing $50 more. But after trying on the silver-only 46mm $350 version, I quickly realized I'd made a mistake. 

While the larger model is 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. 

All the models are equipped with Samsung's 1.15GHz Exynos 9110 dual-core processor and 4GB of storage, but the noncellular editions have 748MB of RAM while the LTE editions have 1.5GB.

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung has made a big naming change to its smartwatch line -- this is the Galaxy Watch, not the Gear. But 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, which also run Samsung's own Tizen operating system. You won't find Google's Wear OS here. The 46mm Galaxy Watch comes across as a slightly modified take on the Gear 3S Frontier, in fact, while the 42mm Galaxy Watch seems like a more refined, streamlined Gear Sport.

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung Galaxy Watch Rose Gold unboxing

The biggest changes are on the inside:

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

Better battery life ratings: The 46mm models is rated for around four days, the 42mm for three days (on the non-LTE editions, anyway). More on a battery life below.

Additional exercise and workout options: The new watches track a lot more types of exercises (21 indoor exercises, 39 tracked workouts total). 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 watch will eventually offer stress-management features -- for what that's worth -- using the built-in heart-rate monitor and integrated sensors, but they aren't active yet. 

I didn't think the sleep tracking was altogether accurate -- it tended to under-report my sleep compared to the Garmin Vivosmart 4 I wore on my other wrist at night. And my colleague Vanessa Hand Orellana noticed some inconsistencies with distance and step tracking as compared to the Apple Watch. We're going to follow up to see which is more accurate. But I thought that the watch performed well overall, tracking my workouts and motivating me to exercise more. You can also manually log your water and caffeine intake.

Serious runners will probably prefer Garmin's Forerunner and Fenix smartwatches for tracking workouts, but judging from the 3-mile runs I did with the Galaxy Watch, it seemed competent as a running watch after a software update improved GPS performance.     

The 42mm in rose gold.

James Martin/CNET

Bixby hits the wrist: Bixby, Samsung's voice assistant, is on board for the first time. You can issue such voice commands as "What's the weather?" "Start workout" and "Play music." You can also reply to text messages with your voice, though that feature isn't supported on iPhones. It doesn't work as well as Siri does on the Apple Watch, but it's an improvement over the underwhelming S-Voice.

Samsung Pay takes a step back: Samsung Pay is easy to set up and works with contactless payment terminals. But, as it did with the Gear Sport, Samsung left off its work-anywhere magnetic secure transmission (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 phones. 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 wearable market and consumers shift from basic fitness trackers to smarter devices.

Where Galaxy Watch beats Apple Watch

When I wrote up my initial impressions of the Galaxy Watch, the Apple Watch Series 4 hadn't yet been announced. With its larger, slimmer design and performance boosts (including better audio and speakerphone capabilities), Scott Stein called the Apple Watch Series 4 "the best overall smartwatch you can currently buy." But he didn't think it was that big a leap over the Apple Watch Series 3 and was "no closer to being a clear must-have device than it was before, unless you value the possible benefits of new health features."

I tend to agree with his assessment of the Apple Watch Series 4. But while it may indeed be the best overall smartwatch you can buy, many of the reasons I previously gave for preferring the Galaxy Watch over the Apple Watch still stand.

Round face, raised bezel on the larger 46mm model.

David Carnoy/CNET

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 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 to ding up, despite being made of Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. And while we're talking Gorilla Glass, let me note that the new Galaxy Watches are equipped with "military-grade" Gorilla DX+ glass.

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