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Samsung Galaxy Watch review: A worthy Apple Watch alternative

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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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