Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 hands-on review

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active 2 adds ECG and LTE, brings back the rotating bezel

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 hands-on

“With LTE, an ECG sensor, and more apps and sensors, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a welcome upgrade to Samsung’s wearable lineup.”
  • Refined design that’s lightweight, comfortable
  • Digital rotating bezel works well
  • LTE connectivity
  • Twitter and Google Translate are welcome additions
  • More sensors should mean more accurate tracking
  • Still needs more third-party apps
  • Fewer features with a non-Samsung device
  • ECG sensor is in “research” at launch

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is an iterative upgrade over the original, but there are worthwhile additions that enrich the wearable experience, like two size options for more comfort, a digital rotating bezel for easier navigation, and LTE connectivity so you can leave your phone behind.

However, the biggest changes are more subtle. The Watch Active 2 has more sensors for accurate fitness-tracking data, not to mention an ECG sensor like on the Apple Watch Series 4. It’s shaping up to be a strong contender, all while maintaining a sleek aesthetic and enticing price point at $279.

Small, sleek, powerful

Samsung wants the Galaxy Watch Active 2 to be three things; small, sleek, and powerful. The Watch Active is certainly small and sleek, but the latest model is adding a 44mm size option along with the original 40mm. Both sizes are light and feel comfortable on the wrist, and neither looked too small or too big on my medium-sized wrists. The original 40mm Galaxy Watch Active didn’t look out of place on large wrists, as we found in our review, but it’s nice to have more options to choose from.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Still sporting an aluminum casing, this smartwatch is stylish. The smooth, rounded design differs little from its predecessor, but the bezels are smaller, and it’s delightfully minimal and elegant. On the right side are two buttons to go home or back which create little protrusion but are easy to click. The watch straps on both models are easily-removable 20mm bands, which can be interchanged with any of that size.

The Super AMOLED screens are beautiful in either size. The 40mm model sports a 1.2-inch display, which is 0.1-inch larger than the 40mm Galaxy Watch Active; the 44mm measures at 1.4 inches. Both have 360 x 360 resolutions and are protected by Gorilla Glass DX+, Corning’s wearable-specific formula engineered for clarity and scratch resistance. The screens are vibrant and sharp, appearing easy to read in almost any lighting conditions, though I’ll need to use it longer to say for sure.

Lastly, the watch retains its 5-ATM water resistance, which means that you can track swims in water as deep as 50 meters. Even if you’re not a swimmer, this feature is always appreciated for its wear-it-and-forget-it usability.

ECG is coming

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 has an ECG or electrocardiogram sensor, which means it can measure the electrical signals from your heart. It allows the watch to detect irregular heartbeats, as well as atrial fibrillation. The first FDA-cleared smartwatch with this feature was last year’s Apple Watch, but that doesn’t mean it replaces medical-grade ECG sensors and should not be used for diagnosis — it’s merely meant to help collect more data for your physician.

On Samsung’s wearable, this feature is still in research, working through clinical trials with the FDA, so you won’t be able to use it at launch. I’d love to see this feature arrive on the Active 2 sooner than later but I’m not holding my breath. Samsung announced a blood pressure feature for the original Watch Active at launch, but it’s not entirely available yet as a feature and is still undergoing research. That’s a bummer because it’s likely you’ll have to wait several months if not longer for the ECG feature to be ready.

Samsung didn’t bother to even show me what it’s like to use the ECG on the Watch Active 2, so the final version really must be a long way off.

The rotating bezel is back, sort of

Samsung’s Tizen is an excellent example of a simple, useful wearable operating system; it’s not as robust as Apple’s WatchOS, but it’s more capable than Google’s Wear OS. There is a collection of customizable widgets to the right of the watch face, and on the left are notifications from your smartphone. Scrolling through all of these widgets can be tiring, which is why Samsung’s smartwatches are known for the rotating bezel, which lets you physically rotate the bezel to scroll through the interface. It’s always been an effective, and satisfying way to navigate a tiny circular screen.

It was taken out in the Galaxy Watch Active, much to the dismay of Samsung fans, but it’s finally back. Sort of. It’s no longer a mechanical rotating bezel — there’s no physical piece that moves. Rather, it’s a digital one. Essentially, it’s an edge-based gesture that now moves you through the smartwatch’s menus and lists just as the physical rotating bezel does.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I’m happy to report this works well. Introducing haptic feedback as you drag your finger along the edges still delivers the satisfying feeling of moving the bezel physically, and it’s just as responsive.  While I like the implementation and the fact this feature is finally back, I’m worried I’ll miss the physical rotating bezel when it’s raining or when I’m sweating during a hard workout. I’m hoping this won’t affect the digital rotating bezel’s responsiveness too much.

It’s generally nicer to have physical inputs when you’re running, cycling, or bouncing around a lot during any exercise too, as touch controls are much more sensitive to your movements.

Still, I have to give kudos to Samsung for bringing back a beloved feature while maintaining a sleek, minimalist look on the Watch Active 2.

More sensors mean better tracking, and 4G LTE

Going along with its “active” theme, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 bolsters it’s activity tracking prowess with twice the LED sensors in the heart rate monitor for a total of eight, and twice the capacity for g-force measurement on the accelerometer, up to 32G’s from the original 16G sensitivity.

While this doesn’t yet add any new workout detection or features, Samsung said the additional sensors can enable development for more automatic tracking features down the line. That’s nice to hear, but the main advantage here is simply better, more accurate tracking — be it sleep or exercise. It’s unfortunate there aren’t any specific exercise additions or upgrades at launch.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

You’ll still find features like the built-in running coach, which you can tell your goal (run one mile in seven minutes, for instance) and have it coach you along the way with stats. There are also wellness tips, sedentary reminders, and other insights that come throughout the day.

Topping the feature list off is the addition of 4G LTE connectivity. This boosts the watch’s capabilities, making it more competitive with the Apple Watch and its own connected Galaxy Watch siblings. It enables you to receive smartphone notifications no matter where you are without the need for a phone nearby, and you can respond to alerts as well (including making and sending calls and texts). Keep in mind, the LTE version of the watch will cost more, and you’ll need to pay your carrier a monthly fee for LTE connectivity.

Google Translate, YouTube, and Twitter

While there haven’t been many other changes to the interface, Samsung is building out more app integrations so you don’t have to pull out your phone so much. That’s music to my ears. Among the new features is the ability to browse YouTube and Twitter directly from the watch. The former allows you to only browse trending videos while the latter can show your whole Twitter feed; you can send Tweets, like, and retweet.

Among the new features is the ability to browse YouTube and Twitter directly from the watch.

I can’t see anyone watching a video on a watch, but being able to interact with Twitter is pretty cool. Just like any scrollable list, you can rotate the bezel or swipe to browse your feed and interact with Tweets easily. It’s a surprisingly comfortable experience, and though I don’t see this becoming my primary mode of using Twitter, it works well for those moments you just have a minute or two to kill and don’t want to pull out your phone.

A more useful utility Samsung added is Google Translate. This does require an internet connection, either Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity, but it works just as well as the app on your phone. Sentences are translated relatively quickly, and you can even flip the translation on-screen so you can easily show someone your watch to display a translated message.

Battery

Battery capacity on the two watches has been upped slightly over the original Watch Active. With the original 40mm watch packing a 230mAh battery, the Active 2’s 40mm variant gets in a 247mAh battery and the 44mm model packs on another 100mAh at 340mAh.

In reviewing the original, we found the battery life on the Watch Active to last for about a full day of tracking with the always-on display enabled, and close to one and a half to two days with this feature disabled. That’s better than most of Google’s Wear OS watches, but trails behind the Apple Watch and its bigger brother, the Galaxy Watch. I’m hoping that the bump in battery on the new models translates to meaningful real-life improvements.

My Style

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 does have another cool trick.  A “My Style” feature is built into the Galaxy Watch companion app, enabling wearers to take a selfie and receive five unique, app-generated watch faces that match their clothing. This feature creates patterns and colors based on your outfit (you can choose which part of your clothing to pull from), and it’s different every time you use it.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It’s a pretty neat feature and the results are a pleasing mixture of Samsung’s stock watch face art and your clothing.  It’s something we’ve seen before on designer Wear OS smartwatches from the likes of Kate Spade or Michael Kors, but it’s welcome here.

Price and Availability

With the 40mm Galaxy Watch Active 2 priced at $280, and $300 for the 44mm, it’s increasingly hard to justify spending more than this for a smartwatch. The LTE variant is even more expensive, starting at $430 for the 40mm, up to $450 for the 44mm.

If you’re an Android phone owner and are feeling burned by the lackluster Wear OS experience on Google-powered smartwatches, Samsung’s Galaxy Active 2 may be your next best option, especially if you’re looking for LTE functionality (though Mobvoi’s 4G LTE TicWatch Pro should still be considered). Apple owners will find the most app support and integrations with the Apple Watch Series 5, and its ECG functionality is already live in the U.S.

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