Samsung Galaxy Watch Active review

Comfortable. Beautiful. Affordable. What more do you want from a smartwatch?

The Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active is an affordable smartwatch that offers everything you’d need.
The Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active is an affordable smartwatch that offers everything you’d need.
The Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active is an affordable smartwatch that offers everything you’d need.

Highs

  • Good fitness-tracking capabilities
  • Excellent display
  • Beautiful, simple design
  • Comfortable and lightweight build
  • Decent battery life

Lows

  • Limited capabilities when used with non-Samsung phones and apps
  • No rotating bezel
  • Limited third-party apps

Smartphone prices are rising, but smartwatches remain accessories we don’t really need. Yes, you won’t need to pull out the phone out of a pocket as much, but most people may not want to pay $400 or even $350 for that luxury. At $200, however, a smartwatch is much more tempting. Samsung’s latest Galaxy Watch Active is a smaller version of last year’s Galaxy Watch, and it won’t break the bank.

It doesn’t have the long battery life of the Galaxy Watch, and its screen isn’t as big, but you’re getting many of the same great features. The compromises Samsung made to cut the price from $350 to $200 aren’t deal breakers, and you’ll find the Galaxy Watch Active still offers everything you’d need out of a smartwatch.

Minimal design, great display

I’ve always liked the design of Samsung’s “sportier” watches more than its flagships. The 2017 Gear Sport has a beautiful, minimal design, whereas the Gear S3 looks more masculine and busy. The same rings true with the Galaxy Watch, which feels like the sportier smartwatch over the newer Galaxy Watch Active. The latter is free of visual distractions and looks simple, and that’s what draws me to it.

I love its compact size, and I love how the glass on top feels bulbous. What I am bummed about is the lack of a rotating bezel, something Samsung is known for on its watches. The rotating bezel lets you scroll through the interface swiftly, and there’s a nifty ticking sound that makes watches like the Galaxy Watch fun to use.

samsung galaxy watch active review 13
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The Galaxy Watch Active omits that for a lower price tag, and it’s sorely missed. The interface is designed for a rotating bezel, so scrolling through widgets and notifications feels much slower. If you’re coming from a Samsung watch that had this feature, then prepare to be a little disappointed. However, interacting with the Active feels much like Wear OS. You’ll tap and swipe a lot.

The edges of the watch are a little rounded, and any touch on the watch’s screen feels smooth or, dare I say, sensual. You’ll find two buttons on the right side to aid navigation. The top is a back button and pressing and holding it can take you straight to Samsung Pay. The bottom is a home button, and pressing and holding it will take you to the power off menu. Double tap it, and you can access Bixby, Samsung’s virtual assistant. The buttons are clicky and responsive, and they have a slim profile.

The Galaxy Watch Active is free of visual distractions, and that’s what draws me to it.

The 40mm aluminum case is light. It doesn’t look small on large wrists, or large on small wrists. It’s also easy to forget this watch is sitting on your wrist, which makes sleeping with it quite comfortable (it can track your sleep). It’s thin and will never really get caught on shirt cuffs. The 20mm straps are interchangeable, and the default silicone strap, which feels quite nice, comes with two sizes in the box.

There’s a thick bezel around the 1.1-inch OLED screen, which leaves me thinking about how Samsung could have outfitted a rotating bezel here (alright, I’ll stop bemoaning about it). The screen is a little small, but it’s still to glance at data on it. I have noticed it doesn’t show as much information on select screens as an Apple Watch, which has more screen real estate.

The screen quality, however, is close to perfect. Colors are well saturated, blacks are so deep that the screen blends in with the bezel around it, and text is sharp thanks to a 360 x 360 resolution. It can become bright enough to see in direct sunlight. It’s fantastic, and one of the highlights of the watch.

Watch faces, on the other hand, are a downside. There’re a handful of solid options (press and hold the main watch face screen to change it), and they’re all customizable. You can choose different complications so you can personalize the data you see at a glance. I just never fell in love with any watch face. There are thousands more you can peruse through on the Galaxy Store, so it may just take some time to find one you love.

Great performance, Tizen 4.0, and robust notifications

The Galaxy Watch Active is powered by a dual-core Samsung Exynos 9110 processor with 750MB of RAM. I had no issue with performance. It operates fluidly, and I never found myself frustrated, unlike my experience with most Wear OS smartwatches. Opening and interacting with apps is speedy, though I did find the watch occasionally had issues registering touch.

The watch runs Samsung’s Tizen operating system, not Android or Wear OS. It works with all smartphones but does work best with Samsung’s phones. On other Android phones, you’ll need to download various plugins to ensure a smooth experience, but you get most of the promised features. On iOS, however, you’ll find some features won’t work. For example, you can’t respond to messages when the watch is paired with an iPhone. Samsung Pay and SOS alerts don’t work at all.

Screen quality is close to perfect.

You can get all your notifications from your smartphone to show up on the watch, and if you don’t want to be bombarded on the wrist, you can toggle off apps you don’t want to see. Notifications arrive almost at the same time as they do on the connected phone, and they’re easy to read. Responding to notifications is a little clunky, which is the case for all smartwatches, but you can use your voice, a cramped keyboard, preset responses, or you can scribble letters to write out short messages.

The experience is much better if you use Samsung’s apps, as they’re all accessible on the watch. That means you can jump into the Messages or Email app to see texts or emails and continue conversations from the watch itself. If you use apps like Android Messages or Gmail, you can only respond to notifications, as those apps aren’t available on Tizen.

samsung galaxy watch active review xxl

There’s a decent repository of apps in the Galaxy Store, but short of a handful of third-party fitness apps like Strava, there’s not much else I’d want to install. Even Wear OS has a better selection, but neither can come close to what you’ll get on Apple’s WatchOS.

Here’s one thing I don’t like that more smartwatch-makers could improve — downloading music. You can download and transfer songs to the watch itself — it has 4GB of internal storage — but the process feels like I’m back in 2008, transferring music from my computer on iTunes to my iPod. If you have Spotify, you’re in luck as the app is available and lets you download music for offline playback, but you may not want to bother otherwise.

I don’t think there’s much of a reason to use Bixby on the Watch Active.

Then there’s Bixby. I was able to start a workout just by asking Bixby, but it took me three attempts before it could understand the three words I was trying to say. It also frequently asked me to go back to the phone when I asked it specific queries, like “when did the iPod came out.” I don’t think there’s much of a reason to use Bixby on the Watch Active. Thankfully, it’s difficult to accidentally trigger it (unlike on Samsung phones), as it requires a double press on the bottom button.

Samsung Pay is present, but unlike Samsung phones, it doesn’t work at every store that accepts a credit card (there’s no Magnetic Secure Transmission technology, or MST). It only has a near-field communication chip, so you’ll have to stick to stores that accept contactless payments, which means anywhere that supports Google Pay or Apple Pay.

Good fitness tracking

The Galaxy Watch Active lives up to its name. In early testing, I saw some discrepancies with heart rate and other data when compared to other devices — but after an update, the Galaxy Watch Active’s accuracy greatly improved.

Using the Apple Watch Series 4 as a benchmark, the Galaxy Watch Active delivered almost the same exact results after a 15-minute run, from heart rate and distance traveled to step count. On average, the Apple Watch had a slightly higher daily step count, but the difference was marginal (around 200 steps more).

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I like how the watch continuously measures heart rate, so you can get a better picture of how it fluctuates throughout the day. There are also recommendations to do torso twists when it detects you’ve been sedentary for a while, and it can alert you when your heart rate goes past a customizable threshold.

All this data resides in the Samsung Health app, which is feature packed, but it could do with a serious makeover. The interface is too cluttered for my taste. Still, you can log how much caffeine or water you had in a day, as well as input calories from the food you ate. You can even track stress, and on one particularly stressful day, the breathing exercises the watch recommended me helped bring my heart rate down and made me feel a lot better.

samsung galaxy watch active
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There’s sleep tracking as well, which you won’t find natively on the Apple Watch. It’s hit and miss, though. There are times I’m surprised at how accurate the sleep data is, but there have been moments when I’ve been sitting at my computer late at night, and the watch thought I was asleep. It’s not the most reliable, but it works more often than it fails.

The watch has a built-in GPS if you want to track your runs, but the marquee feature is blood pressure monitoring. This feature requires a separate app you need to download — My BP Lab 2.0 — and it seems half-baked. I installed it on the Galaxy S10 Plus, but the app on the watch didn’t work, saying I still needed to install it on the phone. When it does launch, it will still be in beta, and even the app says its data shouldn’t be treated definitively.

Solid battery life

Battery life isn’t the Galaxy Watch Active’s forte, but it’s better than most smartwatches than run Google’s Wear OS operating system. I often ended a work day (around 6 p.m.) with about 60 percent remaining on the watch. The screen was set to always off in this test. Wear it to bed, and it will be able to track your sleep and get through half of the next day before needing a charge. On days where I took the watch off my wrist when I arrived home and didn’t use it to track sleep, I was able to get two full work days out of a charge.

Keep the screen on, and the watch will hit around 50 percent by 6 p.m. It will survive the night to track your sleep, but you will likely have to recharge it in the morning to get a second day out of the watch.

It doesn’t have the best battery life for its price, but it’s enough to get by comfortably.

Throw in a workout or two and life will be cut to about one full day. This isn’t as good as what you’ll find on the Apple Watch, the Samsung Galaxy Watch, or the Fitbit Versa. Still, I usually dropped the watch on the charger when I arrived home and slapped it on when I went to bed to track sleep, and the watch never died on me.

If the watch is running low on juice and you’re not near a charger, you can turn on power saving mode to get a grayscale home screen that turns of many functions. There’s another mode called “Watch Only,” and this can give you days of battery if you won’t be near a charger for a while. When I had seven percent left, Watch Only mode claimed it could give me two days and 12 hours more with the Watch Active. In this mode, you only can see the time, nothing else.

The 230mAh battery charges via a tiny puck wirelessly, and you can even use the back of Samsung’s latest Galaxy S10 smartphones to charge up the watch in a pinch. It doesn’t charge on third-party Qi wireless chargers, but it will work with Samsung’s own Wireless Charger Duo. It’s a shame, as I have a portable battery pack that also supports wireless charging, and it’d be nice to use it to juice up the watch on the go instead of needing to carry an extra cable.

Price, availability, warranty information

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active costs $200 and is available for purchase now. The company offers a standard limited one-year warranty that covers manufacturer defects, and not much more.

Our Take

The Samsung Galaxy Watch pairs sleek and compact design with fitness smarts and a robust notification system. It doesn’t have the best battery life, but it’s enough to get by. It’s an excellent value at just $200.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes, but you’ll have to pay more. The 46mm Galaxy Watch starts at $350. It has a rotating bezel as well as much better battery life (around four to five days). The Fitbit Versa is also a great alternative at $200 (or even the stripped down Versa Lite at $160), but the notification system isn’t as robust.

Want to stick to Google’s Wear OS? The Fossil Sport is your best alternative, but let’s be clear — the Galaxy Watch Active is definitely the better watch between the two.

If you own an iPhone, you really should only look at the Apple Watch, as it delivers all the features you’d want. Any other smartwatch will have limitations due to how Apple controls iOS. Thankfully, the Apple Watch Series 4 is our favorite smartwatch, and it earned our Editor’s Choice award. It’s the best smartwatch.

Check out our best smartwatches guide for more options.

How long will it last?

The watch is 5ATM and IP68 water resistant, classifying it as swim proof. I’ve worn it in the shower and saw no issues with watch afterward. The watch has great build quality and should last around two to three years before you’ll see noticeable battery degradation.

Should you buy it?

Yes. At $200, the Galaxy Watch Active is a great value.

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