The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a smartwatch we didn't expect to see for at least another year. Maybe even longer.
The first Watch Active launched in the first few months of 2019 as a successor to the Samsung's Gear Sport smartwatch and as a smaller (and cheaper) alternative to the two versions of the Galaxy Watch.
It offered pretty much everything you could find on the pricier Galaxy Watches, although it was missing one big feature: Samsung's signature rotating bezel.
Buy Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 | Amazon
While the bezel was certainly missed, the Active was, in many ways, the better smartwatch in Samsung's family of connected timepieces. It was nice to wear, offered strong fitness tracking features and was really well priced, making it a better option than most Wear OS smartwatches and a good alternative to the Fitbit Versa series.
Maybe Samsung saw the reception the Active received and decided to push out the Active 2 just months later, with an improved design and new features to better rival the best smartwatches.
Another thing that has changed unfortunately, is the price. The 40mm model of the Active 2 (with Bluetooth only) is priced at $279, while the larger 44-mm model comes in at $299. If you want LTE/4G connectivity, that pushes the price up to $429. That's available for both models. There's even an Under Armour edition, just to add to the number of options on offer.
So, was Samsung right to push out another Active so soon? Has it made big improvements to warrant making the upgrade? We've been putting the Active 2 to the test to find out.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: Design
If you want a Samsung smartwatch, but you don't want something that's looks bulky on the wrist, the Active is what you go for. Unlike the first instalment, Samsung has now decided to offer the new Active in 40mm and 44mm sizes.
Samsung did the same with the Galaxy Watch, but with the Active 2, the differences between the two sizes don't feel as dramatic. Whichever size you go for, you're getting a watch with a streamlined design, no big bezel and a softer, circular frame that lives far more discreetly on the wrist.
Essential reading: Best Apple Watch alternatives to buy
The 40mm, Bluetooth-only Active 2 we lived with unsurprisingly mirrors the stature and size of the original. But there are some subtle changes in the design that make for a watch that's a little more pleasing to the eye. The case has a slightly more elegant feel to it, while the grill on the side now indicates we have a speaker to play with. The design of the sensor array on the back has changed, too, but we'll get more into why that might be later.
The headline design change, though, is the return of the rotating bezel. Well, kind of. We were surprised to see that Samsung had ditched arguably one of the most creative ways to navigate its software. It seemed it has heard that disappointment loud and clear, and, without breaking up that streamlined design, has brought it back in the form of a touch-sensitive bezel.
It doesn't offer that satisfying clicking sensation when you use it, like older models, but the feedback when you slide your fingers across it still works.
Other than the bezel, wearing the Active 2 feels very similar to wearing the original Active. It's still got a top notch 1.2-inch AMOLED touchscreen display, a really comfortable watch band and goes about its business in a far more discreet manner than the Galaxy Watch.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: Fitness tracking
The fitness tracking was a bit of a surprise hit for us on the first Active. It doesn't do anything we haven't already seen on other fitness tracking smartwatches or dedicated fitness trackers. But it's all packaged together in a really nice way that will make you more intrigued to count your steps and generally be on the move more.
Your attention will be immediately drawn to the heart-shaped riff on the Apple Watch's Rings, which is a swipe away from the main watch screen. This was on the first Active, too, and it hasn't changed at all.
The idea is to fill up all three segments of that heart by burning calories, clocking up workout minutes and logging hours you've remained active for during the day. The main widget gives you a snapshot of your progress, and a simple tap will expand to show the numbers and your weekly progress too.
Is it as nice as Apple's fitness tracking UI? Maybe not, but it's not a terrible take on the feature and it does offer a quick way to absorb your progress through the day.
The more impressive aspect is what Samsung has done with the times when you become inactive. Like other trackers, it focuses on keeping you moving every hour of the day. If you haven't, it'll tell you by flashing up an animation and prompt a series of short exercises you can do to change that. When you get up after staying inactive for a while, it'll congratulate you on deciding to make a move.
It's all the same good stuff we got on the first Active and we're glad it's still as effective in keeping us active throughout the day, and not just for that lunchtime gym workout.
Step tracking compared: Samsung (left) and Garmin (right)
As far as accuracy is concerned, we put it up against a Garmin, and above is a snapshot of the kind of data we received. There was usually around a 100 step difference between the two trackers, which is very good going. These two trackers are never going to deliver identical numbers, since they use different algorithms to interpret the motion sensors measuring your movement during the day, but there was never anything in the step tracking data that suggested the Active 2 was wildly off the mark.
There were generally a much bigger disparity between the numbers produced for calorie burn, though, with Samsung's tracker estimating around 1,000 less calories that were burned from walking compared to the Garmin.
The Samsung numbers, obviously, seem more reliable, when you consider what you would normally expect to burn an average walk. It seemed much more in line with what we'd typically see from the likes of Fitbit and Apple Watch testing.
When you're not moving, the Active 2 is monitoring your bed time. It's done automatically, and its ability to do that has come on leaps and bounds from the early days. Like your steps, sleep data is stored inside the Samsung Health phone app. You can view last night's sleep by going to the Samsung Health screen on your watch, too.
However, we imagine you'll be going to the phone app to see how you got on. From there, you see data like Total Sleep Time on a graph, along with aspects like efficiency. The on-board heart rate monitor can also produce sleep stage data, though, in our experience, we were generally met with a message that our watch couldn't get a consistent heart rate reading, so this was usually left blank.
Sleep tracking compared: Samsung (left), Garmin (centre) and Withings (right)
We used it against the same Garmin fitness tracker and the Withings Sleep bed monitor, and, generally, found that the Active 2 produced pretty consistent results with those two other devices. It served up similar times when we'd fallen asleep and woken up, and it was a similar story for duration.
The core sleep tracking numbers looked good, though the Active 2 lacks in offering more actionable insights. It's also disappointing that we struggled to ever get any sleep stages information.
We should talk about apps, too. While the Galaxy Wearable app is where you can tinker with watch settings and do things like access the app store, you need Samsung Health downloaded too to track your health and fitness progress.
Our thoughts about Samsung Health haven't really changed from the last time we had to encounter it. On the surface, it looks like a nice app, but using it still feels a bit archaic and finding the data you care about is far less intuitive than, say, in the Fitbit app.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: Sports tracking
When you stick the word 'Active' in your name, you're saying that you're built for getting sweaty with. In the case of this smartwatch, it's got pretty much everything you need to get your through a HIIT workout or your weekend training run.
Everything you got on the first Active is here. Built-in GPS, a heart rate monitor, a swim-proof design and swim-tracking. The 40mm version is a better fit for workouts than the Galaxy Watch, in our eyes, and the experience of using it in the gym or on an adventure hasn't dramatically changed. That has its good and bad points.
Let's start with the good points. As far the actual sports tracking is concerned, it's really easy to do. Swipe to the workout tracking screen on the watch, find your activity and get tracking. The real-time metrics are easy to view on the crisp display, you have access to your music controls and you can hit the physical button to stop the session, then hit the Finish to sync it.
The problem comes when you need to review the data later on the watch. Samsung makes it pretty much impossible to locate where that information lies after the initial workout summary. It's there, but you have to work to find it. Workout summaries should be better presented on the Active. It was a similar story on the first and that hasn't really changed here.
Run tracking compared: Samsung (left and centre) and Garmin (right)
From an accuracy point of view, we expected to get similar results to what we got with the original Active, and that's largely what happened. The sample outdoor run data above shows that the Active reported a slightly longer run (0.3 miles longer) than one tracked by the Garmin Forerunner 945.
For swimming, it recorded a longer workout than the Form Swim Goggles, but measured the same distance. That longer workout duration has more to do with the fact that the Form wearable doesn't record rests in between lengths, however.
Another aspect of sports tracking is simply letting the watch detect when you're working out with the automatic exercise recognition. We tried this out with a few rowing machine sessions, and we found it was successful in recognising the activity. Generally, though, it would add a couple of extra minutes onto the session, and it only records workout duration and calorie information, nothing else.
More concerning is that, on rare occasions, the feature will detect an exercise we've never done. So, for some reason, an elliptical trainer workout was picked up despite our never being anywhere near one.
It's certainly a nice feature to have, and is more useful for when you're out walking, but if you have the chance to manually track, then definitely take that option.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: Heart rate accuracy
Heart rate tracking compared: Samsung (left and centre) and Garmin (right)
If you look at the back of the Active 2, the makeup of the heart rate monitor looks very different to the one on the first. That may well have to do with Samsung's future plans for tracking your heart and the information it wants to let users gain from those measurements.
Right now, the sensor is there to offer continuous heart rate monitoring during the day, stress tracking and data from workouts. For daily readings, it was pretty consistent with what we picked up with the heart rate monitor packed into the Forerunner 945. We also slipped on a heart rate monitor chest strap to see how those resting measurements shaped up, and we were pretty satisfied with what we got here.
It's during workouts, as always, where we were most intrigued to see how the sensor fared. Could it handle things when the intensity went up a notch? The answer to that question is, mostly, yes.
Our way of testing this was to jump on a treadmill with a chest strap paired to a sports watch and go through 30 minutes of running intervals. That way, we could clearly see how the Active 2's sensor handled the sudden drops and spikes, as we slowed down, rested and picked up the pace again.
What we found is that average heart rate and max heart rate readings tended to be 5BPM higher on the Active 2 compared to a chest strap. Looking at the graphs, the wrist-based sensor took a little longer to get back up recover from the rest periods. Heart rate zones were generally consistent, but, like a lot of heart rate monitors in watches, it's not going to give you the supremely accurate story of your most intense workouts.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: ECG and fall detection
For the first Active, Samsung promised us blood pressure monitoring and while we weren't able to test the feature, it's fair to say its integration was a disaster. It would only work when the watch was paired to a Samsung smartphone and based on the people that did get it working, it didn't work very well, if at all.
Essential reading: ECG on your wearable explained
This time, there has been zero mention of that blood pressure monitoring making a return. Instead we are getting ECG, just like the Apple Watch, to offer medical grade heart monitoring. Except it's not ready yet. Like Apple and Withings, Samsung will need to carry out the necessary trials and seek the appropriate regulatory approval so Active 2 owners can start putting it to use.
It's been suggested that the feature could be turned on in early 2020, though that's likely to be in just a few countries before it's rolled out to other territories.
Along with ECG, Samsung is also promising a fall detection feature that can identify when users have taken a serious fall and potentially set off alerts and alarms. Again, it's a feature that seeks to mirror what the Apple Watch is capable of, but it's also another feature you'll have to wait for.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: Smartwatch features
We've spoken a lot about the Active 2's health and fitness tracking prowess, but it's a smartwatch at heart, bringing all of the good stuff Samsung has done with its platform and squeezing it all into a smaller frame.
The Active 2 still runs on the company's own Tizen OS, bringing all those smartwatch staples like notifications, music controls and streaming, the ability to download apps, payment support and LTE connectivity β if you have the appropriate model.
Samsung's operating system sits somewhere in between Apple's watchOS and Google's Wear OS. It's not quite as slick as what Apple offers, but it's a big step up from what Google has come up with. It might not have the same number of apps or software to call upon, but it works so much better. If you're an Android phone user, you're getting a better experience paired to a Samsung smartwatch than a Wear one.
Getting to unread notifications is just a swipe away, with a small dot on the main watch face screen used as the indicator for unread ones. It's a nice approach where you're not having that main screen flooded with notifications flying in.
You can respond to notifications with simple default messages, typing out a message with the virtual keyboard or leaving a voice message. Most of the time, it's just enough to be able to see the notification, scroll down to read the entire message and then dismiss. But you do at least have the option of responding in multiple ways.
Spreading information you care about most across dedicated screens works well, and the returning bezel is great to have back for navigating the circular app drawer.
There's a good collection of watch faces on board here, too, letting you keep things simple or fill your time-telling screen with your fitness data or the current weather conditions. If you want more, you'll need to head to the Galaxy Store, which doesn't live on the watch like it does on the Apple Watch or Google's Wear watches.
That's no bad thing though as browsing watch faces and apps is easier to do on a bigger screen. Speaking of apps, it's still a bit of a mixed bag in terms of what you get here. And a fair amount of the apps cost money. We get it, the developers need to make that dough, but it seems like there are more paid for apps here than on other platforms.
At launch, Samsung also made a big deal about the deeper integration of YouTube and Twitter apps, though a browse of the store yielded zero results when we tried to locate them.
Then there's Bixby. Ah, Bixby. Samsung's answer to Siri and Alexa just wasn't very good on the first Active and there's still a debate over how useful it is on a smartwatch. When you keep questions simple, Bixby is more than adept at handling your queries. If you're hoping for something with more context or more of a back and forth, then sadly you're out of luck here.
Apps do remain one of the weaker aspects of Samsung's OS, but, on the whole, it offers a better experience than Wear and is slowly but surely becoming a decent alternative to Apple's watchOS.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2: Battery life
We really didn't like the battery life on the first Active. It was around a day and half β maybe two, at a push, if you put the power saving mode into use.
For the Active 2, there are now of course two models to pick from. The 44mm Active 2 packs in a 340mAh battery, while the 40mm watch we tested carries a smaller 247mAh battery. That's said to get you 3-4 days battery life with 'typical use'.
In our experience, though, it's more likely to max out at two days. And again, you'll need to lean on that power saving mode to make that happen. There's also a Watch Only mode that will push things further, but will inevitably restrict the features you can make use of.
If you're tracking workouts, have the full complement of smartwatch features running and have that screen on nice and bright, 3-4 days seems very unrealistic. Throw in LTE if you have that too and it's going to be tough getting beyond a day we imagine. It does feel like there is a slight improvement in its staying power, but not an amount that will dramatically change the way you use the Active 2. It's good enough, but we'd like to see it go longer.
In terms of charging, it's the same little charging puck that the back of the watch will magnetically clip into place to power up. It'll take about 1.5-2 hours to fully charge up from 0-100%. So, not exactly rapid, but pretty much in line with other smartwatches.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 v Active: Should you upgrade?
When Samsung announced the Watch Active 2, owners of the original had every reason to be annoyed that the successor landed just months later.
We've lived with both watches for a considerable amount of time now, and the changes in the experience for us are pretty marginal. The designs are largely the same, the software experience is nearly identical and the battery life comes in around the same.
The key things that may swing it for you is the touch bezel and the option of a bigger size. If you weren't all that bothered about the missing bezel and you're happy with the 40mm Active, stick with what you've got.
The other factors to consider are the features Samsung is going to add to the Active 2 in the future. ECG won't be available on the first Active, and it's not clear if the fall detection mode will be either. If those features matter to you, then that might be reason enough to make the step up to the newer model.