Samsung Galaxy Watch Active hands-on review

Galaxy Watch Active is the right size, no matter how big or small your wrist is

The Galaxy Watch Active’s size, design, and health tracking features are expertly woven together for the widest appeal possible
The Galaxy Watch Active’s size, design, and health tracking features are expertly woven together for the widest appeal possible
The Galaxy Watch Active’s size, design, and health tracking features are expertly woven together for the widest appeal possible

Highs

  • Design and size will suit most wrists
  • Two straps included
  • Software is smooth and slick
  • Comprehensive fitness and health tracking
  • Heart rate sensor

Lows

  • No rotating bezel
  • Strong competition

In the deluge of all the new Samsung products announced during Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked 2019, you may have missed the Galaxy Watch Active, the company’s latest smartwatch. This would be a shame because it’s actually a very versatile wearable. It’s a carefully considered watch that will suit more than just the big-wristed who lust after, but cannot hope to wear, the Galaxy Watch.

It’s part evolution of the old Gear Sport, and part refinement of the Galaxy Watch, boiling down the features to be more fitness focused and adopting a style that will suit more people — all wrapped up in a design nobody will find challenging. We tried it out for a brief time at the event and were impressed, but we ached for one of the Gear Sport and Galaxy Watch’s best features at the same time.

Design and wearability

The Galaxy Watch Active’s case measures 40mm, and the lack of extraneous furniture, bezel, or crown makes it appear quite dainty. There are two buttons on the side of the case. The lower button is to show the menu — the Galaxy Watch Active runs Samsung’s Tizen software, not Google’s Wear OS — while the top button is a home/back button. Aside from these hardware controls, the Watch Active is controlled using the touchscreen.

That’s right, one of the best control methods seen on a smartwatch — the rotating bezel on the Samsung Galaxy Watch — isn’t included here. Does it suffer? Thankfully, not hugely, although we’d much prefer it if the bezel were there. Samsung has re-engineered the software for purely touch control, so you swipe through screens and tap the little icons to select features. It’s a small screen, so this is a little fiddly when the watch is on your wrist. You hold down the main screen to select other watch faces, and swipe to the left or right to see different screens for heart rate, notifications, and fitness data. A press of the home button takes you back to the watch face.

The software was smooth and slick during our short hands-on time, which makes a big difference to usability. Add to this the fact that there are no bezels around the edge, and it’s much easier to interact with the small screen without feeling cramped. Users with larger fingers may nevertheless prefer a smartwatch with a larger screen.

The compact size helps the watch fit on smaller wrists. I found it a little too small on mine, and would almost certainly choose the Galaxy Watch over it for that reason, but I’m not really the target audience here. Samsung has made the Galaxy Watch Active in a selection of colors; the stainless steel body and light strap look great, alongside a rose gold model paired with a pinky, peach strap. Samsung has looked enviously at the Apple Watch’s Sport strap, and thought it could do something similar. It’s soft pliable silicone, but not do floppy that it feels cheap. Best of all, Samsung will include two strap lengths in the box, emphasizing the Galaxy Watch Active’s suitability for everyone.

Health, fitness, and battery

Samsung Health is a comprehensive fitness tracking platform found on your Samsung phone, and it integrates easily with the watch, counting steps, measuring sleep, and tracking various workouts. There’s a heart rate sensor on the back of the watch, and it’ll keep an eye on stress levels too. If it thinks you’re too stressed, the Watch Active will recommend some breathing exercises. There’s also a series of coaching and training plans available. We haven’t had a chance to try these out yet, but we like the graphical interface and simplicity brought by Samsung’s Tizen software. We have high hopes for the Watch Active’s health and fitness ability.

How about the battery life? Samsung seems to have done a great job here too. A Samsung representative tells us that while connected to Bluetooth and your phone, the battery will last for four days. Use the Watch Active without the Bluetooth connection, and it’ll last for seven. That said, you’ll want to use it linked to your phone, as it provides music controls and apps including Strava, MyFitnessPal, and swim.com integration.

Competition

If the Galaxy Watch Active has a problem, outside of the missing bezel control, it’s that there is plenty of competition already. Priced at $200, or 230 British pounds, everything from the Nokia Steel HR and the Mobvoi Tickwatch C2 to the Huawei Watch GT and plenty of hybrid smartwatches will be vying for your attention. The design is very subtle too, perhaps to the point of being faceless — will anyone single it out as a Samsung Galaxy Watch Active on your wrist? Doubtful, and that’s not good for an everyday wearable. However, the polished software, extensive fitness features, and universal fit make it appealing.

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active is available to pre-order now, with deliveries expected to begin on March 20

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