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Samsung Galaxy Watch review: A worthy Apple Watch alternative

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

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.

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.

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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.

Read more: Samsung Galaxy Watch 4: Samsung aims for the ultimate Android watch

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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.     

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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.

Samsung Galaxy Watch on our wrists, in both sizes

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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.

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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.

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 touchscreen, flipping through widgets or scrolling through notifications and news items. But the rotating bezel somehow seems more tactile -- or perhaps just more watch-like.

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One of my favorite battery-friendly watch faces.

David Carnoy/CNET

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 (as noted, both the 42mm and 46mm models come with 4GB of internal storage).

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 continues to add to its small collection of watch faces, which includes a semicustomizable Siri face. But it hasn't opened a 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 noncellular models are equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and you can log onto Wi-Fi networks directly from the watch. With the LTE models, 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 the noncellular models, but your phone has to be in the vicinity and linked to your watch via Bluetooth for that to happen.

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Back to the Future.

David Carnoy/CNET

Good battery life 

As I said, Samsung claims 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. Samsung touts the Watch's Tizen OS -- optimizing the custom software for the hardware -- as the key to its battery longevity. A larger 472-mAh battery on the 46mm model helps the larger one go even longer.

I've been using the 46mm model for over a month and I can say that I have gone four days without recharging. But in order to do that you have adhere to key battery-saving measures. For starters, you have to limit your Wi-Fi use (on the watch). You cannot do continuous heart-rate monitoring (I set it to record my heart rate every 10 minutes). It also helps to have the screen timeout after 10 seconds of nonuse (turn your wrist and the screen turns on again). And picking a battery-efficient watch face doesn't hurt either. Needless to say, using GPS significantly impacts battery life. 

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Prepping for a workout.

James Martin/CNET

Vanessa has used the 42mm model and shot a video (below) emphasizing the watch's workout features. She ended up getting a bit more than 24 hours battery life. Samsung reps suggested that could go up as the watch optimizes itself to her daily routines. Maybe, but the point is the battery life of smartwatches varies according to how you use them. 

From my experience, in a heavy-use scenario, you'll be lucky to get two days (from the 46mm edition). Overall, however, the 46mm Galaxy Watch's battery life is clearly ahead of that of the Apple Watch Series 4.

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Watch this: The Samsung Watch gets it right on almost every level

Spotify support

Until recently, Samsung was the only smartwatch maker to have a partnership with Spotify that allows Spotify Premium users to download playlists to its smartwatches. Certain Garmin models now support offline playback of Spotify playlists, and while the Spotify app for Wear OS recently got upgraded it doesn't allow for offline playback of playlists.

The process for doing this seems to have improved since last year, when Scott 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 1GB 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.

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Submersed in water.

David Carnoy/CNET

Working out the kinks

In our reviews of earlier Samsung smartwatches, we've always were impressed with their designs but have been a little less enthusiastic about the user experience. For instance, Scott 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 progress on the user-friendliness front. During my early testing, I 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; some dubious stair counting; and other small aggravations. But I didn't feel myself getting too frustrated and found the watch easy enough to navigate.  

Since its launch, Samsung has updated the watch's firmware a couple of times, as well as updated the companion apps for iOS and Android. The heart-rate monitor can be somewhat intermittent during runs, and it stopped working correctly for me after the latest watch update, I was able to fix it by doing a soft reset (you hold the power button for 2 seconds and then tap the screen to shut down the watch). That glitch aside, the updates appear to have eliminated a number of bugs and the experience of using the watch and interfacing with the app to add watch faces and apps continues to improve. And the fact that you can customize widgets from the watch itself without needing to use the app on the phone is a handy touch. 

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Stress test.

David Carnoy/CNET

Bixby also seems to be getting a little better, but it's still hit and miss. While it's better than S-Voice, Samsung's voice assistant still leaves something 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. 

Ultimately, though, the list of positives on the Samsung Galaxy Watch is getting longer, while the list of negatives is getting shorter. So does that make it the best smartwatch for Android users?

Probably. Fitbit's Versa and Ionic along with Garmin's smartwatches remain good alternatives for those looking for fitness-oriented smartwatches that cost a little less. It's also worth noting that we were impressed enough with the latest version of Google's Wear OS to think that it may start to find its groove. But from a pure hardware standpoint, the Galaxy Watch remains hard to beat. And hopefully, with continued software updates, it will get even better over time. 

  • CNET's Vanessa Hand Orellana and Scott Stein contributed to this review.
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8.0

Samsung Galaxy Watch

Score Breakdown

Design 9Battery 8Performance 8Software 7Features 8