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Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 review: The first take of a great future idea

This might be the best Android watch right now, but it's still missing a few pieces.

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Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and Watch 4 Classic: great watches, but still not fully Google-ized.

Scott Stein/CNET

I'd love to say the new Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, which starts at $250 (£249), delivers the ultimate Android watch experience. I can't quite say that, but it's close. After wearing Samsung's newest watches for two weeks, however, I've liked it more over time. It's the first to run a whole new Google Wear OS co-designed by Samsung and Google, and while I'd say the future looks promising, the present looks a little unresolved. In a sense, my final feelings now are still pretty similar to my first few days wearing them.

Samsung makes great watches. The Galaxy Watch 3 was a strong mix of fitness and health features and a lot of smartwatch connectivity. But Samsung's Tizen OS and app store always stayed apart from Google's Android ecosystem. The Galaxy Watch 4 has much of the same design and features as last year's watch, but with more health sensor tech. The OS is the Big New Thing, though.

8.0

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4

Like

  • Lots of health-tracking features
  • Excellent display, fast processor
  • New Google OS includes Play apps
  • Great watch faces so far

Don't Like

  • ECG and blood pressure features require a Samsung phone to use
  • Samsung Health still the default health app
  • Has Bixby instead of Google Assistant
  • Only 1-2 days of battery life

Moving to Google's Wear OS, a smartwatch platform that's been around for years, means the Watch 4 runs Google Play apps and can theoretically be a lot more hooked-in to Android phones. I say "theoretically" because, right now, a lot of the key things on the Galaxy Watch 4 happen to run off Samsung apps, which require a Samsung account. It's part of the Google ecosystem, but also stands apart from it. 

The Galaxy Watch 4 can run Google Fit and other fitness apps, but Samsung Health is the only place where health features like ECG (electrocardiogram) and a new bioelectric impedance sensor for body analysis measurements can be synced. Some health features, like ECG (and blood pressure in some countries) need a Samsung phone to work, too.

Google Assistant, arguably the most important Google feature you'd want on a voice-connected smartwatch, is also a no-show for now. Samsung's Bixby is the default.

It all adds up to a Samsung watch that feels more like a lateral move after last year's Watch 3 than a whole leap forward. While moving to Wear OS is a big deal, and could mean this watch finally feels as integrated to Android phones as Apple Watches do to iPhones, it feels like the Samsung ecosystem Band-Aid hasn't been ripped off completely. Based on how Samsung's Galaxy phones run Samsung apps right next to Google apps, that may not ever be likely to change. And that makes this first Samsung-Google watch collaboration a tiny bit hard to recommend since I don't know what future Wear OS watches could be like. Is Samsung's version the best? Right now, yes, because I can't think of any Android watch that's as well-made and full-featured as the Watch 4. But remember, again, you're really best off using this with a Samsung phone.

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11:14

Google and Samsung: Together again (sometimes)

The new Wear OS-based operating system on the Watch 4 is the biggest change this time. The Galaxy Watch is Android-only, a shift from previous Galaxy and Wear watches that could also connect in a limited way to iPhones. The Wear OS experience feels a lot like other Android watches: swiping down for quick-access settings, up for an app tray, right for notifications, and left for "tiles," which are like mini-app readouts.

The tile experience carries over from previous Samsung watches: fitness dashboards can be browsed, the weather checked, text messages scanned. It's best used, for me, as a way to get to fitness functions fast. I can rotate the bezel or swipe a couple of times to start a workout, or get a body analysis, check blood oxygen, get an ECG scan.

Google Play is the only app store on the Galaxy Watch 4, so it hooks into existing Google apps like Fit, YouTube, and Maps. But the rest of the setup process feels very Samsung. You're using a Samsung Wear app to pair the watch, and Samsung Health as the go-to fitness/health app. 

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The Galaxy Watch 4 (left) next to the Watch 4 Classic (right). Note the bezel around the rim.

Drew Evans/CNET

Design: The bezel's back

Samsung's always made watches that feel good on the wrist, and the lighter-weight Galaxy Watch 4 is great to wear, for the most part. I tried both the larger 44mm Galaxy Watch 4 (aluminum body) and the 46mm Galaxy Watch 4 Classic (stainless steel). The Classic adds the physical rotating bezel that clicks, the same as the Watch 3 and previous Samsung watches, while the Watch 4 relies on dragging your finger around the display edge to for a touch-based "spin" like the Galaxy Watch Active and Active 2 (with some haptics-based feedback for "click").

The Classic's recessed Gorilla Glass display protects it from impact, but also makes pulling off some of the watch's swipe-based interactions a bit harder thanks to that bezel. Also, it's thicker and more expensive. I'm torn between Classic and the regular Watch 4, truly. I lean towards the basic Watch 4 because it does the same things more affordably and still looks good, but the more exposed glass could end up scuffing more over time. And the touch-based bezel is harder to turn than spinning a physical bezel, even if it's a largely unnecessary action (you can do all gestures you need through swipes and taps on the display, or by clicking the side buttons). Also, if you're a swimmer, that physical bezel makes the watch easier to operate when wet.

I didn't look at the smaller Watch 4, but both bigger sizes looked great on my large wrists. The 20mm pin-release watch straps can be replaced with other bands, more like a standard watch strap than anything proprietary. The straps bulge out a bit from the lugs, though, making the fit look a little stiff on-wrist.

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Dust and all, a look at how the display fares in bright sunlight. (Really well.)

Scott Stein/CNET

The Super AMOLED display looks great, bright and crisp and colorful. Samsung's preloaded watch faces are also really lovely. The animated animals, cute characters, and frequently dynamic effects make this watch's faces feel like the best ones I've seen outside of the Apple Watch. Most have lots spaces for complications (widgets for apps to show data, like weather or fitness info). Others have none. Google's own Wear OS watch faces are available too, along with plenty on Google Play to check out.

The redesigned sensor array on the back of the Watch 4 looks sharp, and combines the electrical ECG sensor from previous watches, plus optical heart rate and a new impedance-based electrical sensor. It's pretty to look at. It also feels less bulky than previous watches did.

Two side buttons bring up Samsung Pay (or Google Pay) when long-pressed, and Samsung Bixby for voice assistant stuff. Yes, Bixby. More on that below. The buttons can be single-pressed or double-pressed for other home/back navigation, and can be assigned a few other limited actions in the Samsung Wear app that's needed to pair the watches to your phone.

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I'm totally embarrassed by my body analysis readings via electrical impedance on Samsung's newest sensor.

Scott Stein/CNET

Body Analysis: A feature in search of a good use case

Samsung's newest health sensor on the Watch 4 is electrical impedance, a sensor technology that's found on some home scales, and even popped up on early wearables like the Jawbone Up 3. The impedance sensor uses electrical current to estimate body water content, which is used to calculate body fat percentage, skeletal muscle mass, and body water. The app asks for your daily weight, then after a 15-second scan (which is done by holding your middle two fingers against the watch buttons while staying still), it spits out a readout of BMI, muscle mass, body fat and water mass.

These readouts are a lot to deal with. Mine were all bad (in the red part of a green-to-red scale), along with numbers (like pounds of body fat or body water, or skeletal muscle). How bad were these numbers? Should I freak out? Samsung takes the data and imports it into the Samsung Health app, and charts the results over time. I can see my progress (or stasis), and...what then? Samsung doesn't really help interpret what it all means, or how concerned I should be. What workouts should I do next?

New sensors are always a challenge like this. After all, blood oxygen readings (which aren't medically accurate) were all the rage with Apple, Samsung and Fitbit last year, and I found that I basically started ignoring the data. Fitbit's electrical-based EDA stress sensor on its Sense watch last year showed possible signs of stress in spot-check scans, but I never found myself using it much and never knew what to make of those results, either. Samsung's body analysis tool feels intimidating and, for me, discouraging. I started to avoid it, because I already know I'm way too overweight.

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Blood oxygen measurements happen overnight... not always sure what to make of this either (the continuous readings aren't necessarily accurate, either).

Scott Stein/CNET

Health: A Samsung world that expects a Samsung phone

Most people I know who wear smartwatches use them for fitness, to at least some degree. Samsung knows this, and has a core focus on fitness and health on its watches. But that world is still Samsung app-based.

Samsung Health isn't bad at all. In fact, it's got tons of features: sleep tracking and sleep score (which isn't medically accurate, same as all sleep tracking on wearables, but can do a decent job overnight with sensing how well you were sleeping). Running, and run analysis. Blood oxygen. Food and water tracking. Steps, activity goals. Team activity sharing challenges. That new body analysis data.

I really appreciated the watch's sleep tracking (much like Fitbit, the sleep score kept me somewhat aware of how bad my sleep habits are, and encouraged me to go to bed earlier). The automatic activity tracking, which kicks into a watch face with a live heart rate readout, is great for brisk walks and spontaneous workouts. It's a really solid package.

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The rear sensor is redesigned, combining ECG, impedance and optical heart rate. It looks sharp.

Drew Evans/CNET

But Google has its own pair of fitness-tracking apps: Google Fit, and the recently acquired Fitbit. Google Fit apps can be loaded onto the Watch 4 for tracking alongside Samsung Health, but Samsung still expects your data to flow through Samsung Health as well. Fitbit doesn't have any Wear OS apps yet, but is expected to have some later this year...even so, there won't be a chance of having Fitbit's full tracking capabilities running on this watch anytime soon.

And there's another wrinkle: you need to pair this watch with a Samsung phone to use the health features that have actual medical clearance. Why? I have no idea. The separate Samsung Health Monitor app that collects data from ECG and blood pressure readings is only available on Samsung's Galaxy App Store right now, which means other Android phones can't access it. It's bizarre, since ECG wearables like Fitbit Sense just pair with normal Google Play apps.

An ECG is an electrical test for heart arrhythmia, similar to what's on the Apple Watch Series 4 and later, or the Fitbit Sense. It's FDA-cleared, but doesn't detect heart attacks or other heart disease, and isn't a replacement for seeing a cardiologist. Meanwhile, Samsung has a blood pressure feature that uses the optical heart rate monitor to get readings, once the watch has been calibrated using a physical blood pressure cuff. That blood pressure feature still isn't cleared for use in the US yet, and in other areas of the world you'll still need a Samsung phone to use the Health Monitor app.

Google Assistant: MIA. Hi, Bixby

As I said earlier: Google's excellent voice-based Assistant isn't on the Galaxy Watch 4. Instead, you're stuck with Bixby as the only assistant for now. That's incredibly frustrating considering how good Google Assistant is, and how Samsung's Google Wear OS partnership seemed to be lining up specifically to allow things like Assistant. Google Assistant should be coming sometime, I think, but it's unclear. It's hard to promise what isn't there.

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Bixby works well for voice responses! Seriously.

Scott Stein/CNET

Bixby does some useful things: it can handle voice dictation well enough to respond to notifications on Slack when I get a message midday. It can set timers and handle basic functions. But it won't hook into the rest of Google. Without Assistant, this watch doesn't really feel very Google-like at all.

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The Galaxy Watch 4's snap-on magnetic charger. You'll need it every couple of days.

Scott Stein/CNET

Performance: Fast. Battery life: Two days (or less)

The Galaxy Watch 4 feels very fast, and loads apps faster than any Android watch I can remember. It's not always as lightning-quick as the latest Apple Watch, but it still feels great. The watch's new chipset seems to be a very good sign of where other Google watches could go as far as feeling more responsive.

Battery life? Not as great, alas. I swapped the Watch 4 and Watch 4 Classic on my wrist for weeks, putting one on when the other ran out of batteries, sleeping with the watch overnight. Battery life never was better than two days. And that's with the always-on watch face turned off. When it's on, I only got about a day of use before needing a charge. And the smaller watch may have even shorter battery life. Also, if you get an LTE-equipped model that doubles as a phone (which I didn't get to test and costs extra), expect battery life to be even less. Same with using the watch for GPS-enabled workouts.

Charging is reasonably fast, though: About half an hour gave me enough top-off battery to wear for the rest of the day if needed.

My impressions for now: Promisingly incomplete

Here's the real question looming over the Watch 4: it's the first of a new line of Google Wear OS-enabled watches coming down the road. Others may not get the new OS until 2022: Fossil's next watches, Mobvoi's newer TicWatch models, and a promised Fitbit Wear OS watch.

Samsung is leading the pack with the first effort, and the Galaxy Watch 4 has a lot going for it. But it still doesn't feel like One Unified OS to make me feel like I'm solidly in one ecosystem. That's because I'm not: it's still Samsung's watch world, with a Google layer underneath.

Maybe that was the idea all along. Maybe the watch will get even better over time. But will the next Wear OS watches be similar, or even better? I can't tell. Samsung's Galaxy Watch 4 may be the best option for now, and it doesn't feel as fully perfected as I expected.

It may not be the ultimate Android watch, but it's the best Android watch for now.