Samsung Galaxy Watch Active review

Samsung's smallest smartwatch is great at keeping you moving

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active is the follow-up smartwatch to the Samsung Gear Sport, and like its predecessor, it's all about keeping you active and healthy.

If you're sold on Samsung's approach to smartwatches but the two Galaxy Watch models are too big or pricey for you, then the Active is going to appeal. Don't be fooled by the difference in price either. Despite coming in at around $100 cheaper than the Galaxy Watch, Samsung doesn't scrimp on the features.

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The $200 Active packs in built-in GPS, swim tracking, heart rate monitoring, contactless payments and up to two days of battery life. The Active also introduces a new way to monitor your fitness tracking efforts and the promise of serious health monitoring through a new blood pressure tracking feature

One feature you're not getting here though is Samsung's signature rotating bezel, which has been a permanent (and popular) fixture on the company's smartwatches since the Gear S2.

But are the loss of that twisty bezel and drop down in size deal breakers for Samsung's Fitbit Versa and Fossil Sport-rivalling smartwatch? We've been spending some time getting to know the Watch Active to find out. Here's our full verdict.

Amazon: Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
Amazon: Samsung Galaxy Watch Active

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Design and comfort

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The Galaxy Watch Active is a 40mm-sized smartwatch, which feels tiny in comparison to both the 42mm and 46mm Galaxy Watches. Even next to the Gear Sport, the circular frame of the Active feels so much smaller. But that's not a criticism. Samsung has streamlined the design to deliver not only a lighter watch, but one that doesn't scream smartwatch in the same way that the Galaxy Watch does. Those with skinnier wrists will appreciate the drop down in size too.

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Samsung offers it up in silver, black, green and rose gold and that covers the casing, lugs and the watch-style buckle on the accompanying 20mm interchangeable band. Our black model definitely keeps things simple, but in a very stylish, minimal way. From the matte finish on the metallic casing to the low-profile physical buttons, it makes for a surprisingly decent-looking smartwatch.

If there's something Samsung does better than most, it's make great smartwatch displays, and the Watch Active is another great example of that. The 1.1-inch, 360 x 360 AMOLED display is an absolute beaut. It's bright and vibrant and images and text are crisp. It's disappointing to find a quite sizeable bezel around that display, but it's something you're going to notice less when the screen is on or if you've got it in always-on display mode.

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The bezel – or lack of – is the big talking point here though. Samsung decided to drop it from the Active, and has not really said why – but it's greatly missed. Its absence is felt most when you're in the app tray, which is well suited to scrolling with the bezel on Samsung's other smartwatches. But you can't do that here, making it awkward and fiddly to press on individual apps when they're so closely arranged together.

So the emphasis is on using the touchscreen, while two buttons on the side of the watch that take you to the home screen or your previous screen. Holding down the top button also pushes you into the Samsung Pay screen.

Overall though, the Active's smaller stature quickly grew on us. The lack of that twisty bezel is disappointing, but other than that there's a lot to like about the dinky little smartwatch.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Fitness tracking

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While the Active crams in most of the sports tracking features you'll find inside the Galaxy Watch, it's actually the fitness tracking features that stood out most for us. Samsung has introduced a dedicated fitness tracker screen that feels like a heart-shaped riff on the Apple Watch's ring-based fitness tracking feature. It offers a simple breakdown of your daily activity in calories, workout minutes and hours you've successfully kept moving for. On a day-to-day basis though this wasn't the feature that felt the most motivating.

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A quick glance at the main watch screen often tells you how inactive you've been. When it does notice you've been sitting down for some time, it'll suggest small exercises (it was torso twists for us) with the watch able to count your reps. Badges will appear when you've hit activity milestones during the day and you can get further activity insights, although those need to be viewed on your phone. With these features working in tandem the Active is able to live up to that name and keep you moving in a subtle but very effective way.

You're getting the fitness tracking staples here as well, so counting steps and sleep monitoring. The sample data below is a comparison with a Garmin fitness tracker and illustrates our findings on most nights. Total sleep time wasn't too far off the Garmin, but other metrics were a little less consistent. We also had mixed results with the heart rate-based sleep stages feature, which at times struggled to pick up reliable heart rate readings to provide additional data.

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You also get stress testing and guided breathing features, which we've already seen on Samsung's Galaxy Watches – and there's not a lot different to report here. They're present if you want to use them, but we didn't feel compelled or prompted to use them on a daily basis.

If you were looking for the Active to be a great fitness tracker companion, we'd say it comfortably ticks the most important boxes.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Sports tracking

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Samsung has done an impressive job trying to bring all the exercise tracking you get on the Galaxy Watch down to the Active. You're getting the same sensors, the same GPS coverage, the same heart rate monitoring and swim tracking.

In a lot of respects those features are a better fit on the smaller Active. It's a nicer smartwatch to hit the pool with or wear in the gym, and makes for a more comfortable running companion too.

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GPS accuracy: Galaxy Watch Active (left and centre) and Garmin (right)

We put it to the running test and are pleased to report it does a solid job from an accuracy point of view. After a three-second countdown you're good to go. Run data and split times pretty much matched up with the Forerunner 935 we put it up against. Even when we left Samsung's automatic exercise recognition software to detect when we were running, it was generally not far off the actual GPS-based data.

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Swimming accuracy: Galaxy Watch Active (left and centre) and Garmin (right)

It's more of the same for swimming. In fact, we preferred swimming with the Active compared to the Galaxy Watch. Again, you've got a great screen to view your data and we found accuracy was good compared to the Forerunner 935. There was no need to enter the pool size as the watch was able to detect it on its own, while offering rich metrics on the device and inside Samsung's Health app.

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Heart rate accuracy: Galaxy Watch Active (left and centre) and Garmin (right)

You have a heart rate monitor around the back of the watch to offer 24/7 monitoring and exercise-based heart rate tracking. The Active can continuously monitor heart rate during the day, just like you can on Apple, Fitbit and Garmin's watches, giving you a better indication of your current state of fitness. We expected the Active to falter during exercise but it actually performed surprisingly well. Above is sample data from an interval treadmill running session compared to a chest strap. Average BPM and maximum heart rate data was within 3-4 BPMs of the chest strap.

We should obviously caveat that heart rate performance is going to vary for each person, but based on our testing it performed well when put to that high intensity test – the place a lot of wrist-based monitors tend to suffer.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Blood pressure monitoring

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Apple has ECG for medical-grade heart rate monitoring, so Samsung decided it's going to make it easier to monitor blood pressure from the wrist. The Active promises to offer the ability to take blood pressure readings without the need for the cuff-style setup you'd normally use. The problem is, we've not been able to try it out.

The feature should be enabled by downloading the My BP Lab 2.0 app, which only appears in the Google Play Store and is nowhere to be found in the Apple App Store or Samsung Galaxy Store. The idea is that you connect the Active to the app and measure blood pressure from your smartwatch. What wasn't clear from the outset is that the smartphone app can only be downloaded to Samsung smartphones. So we had no luck accessing it on the Pixel smartphone we tested with the Active.

A scroll through Samsung's Community page appears to suggest a lot of people are having problems getting the feature to work properly or work at all. So if this was an important feature for you, prepare for disappointment.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Smartwatch features

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While it might be called the Active, this is a smartwatch first and foremost, so you can expect all the usual features here. You're getting actionable notifications, the ability to download apps, built-in music player support, Samsung's Bixby assistant, payments, weather and calendar updates and widgets giving you quicker access to your favourite features. It'll play nice with Android smartphones and iPhones, and our testing is based on being paired to an Android smartphone. We'll update our thoughts on the iPhone support at a later date.

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The big change here is that Samsung has ushered in its One UI from its phones.In reality things don't feel all that different in terms of how they're presented. Notifications work well and swiping through the interface has a really nice zip to it. However, acting on notifications on such a small screen does have its challenges. Tapping out responses on the keyboard is just not something anyone wants to do. Also, those actionable response are not well supported for third-party messaging apps.

Once you've got Samsung Pay set up it's as simple as holding down that top button on the watch to pay your way. Tinkering and setting up most of the features need to be done from the Galaxy Wearable app, which has been refreshed but still feels a bit busy. It does have a nice snapshot view of your current battery status (and how long it should last) and how much storage you have to play with.

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App support on Samsung's smartwatches has never been its strength and that doesn't change here. You'll have to download apps and watch faces from the Galaxy Store via the Galaxy Wearable app. While there are some big names covered like Nest, Strava, Spotify and MapMyRun, there's not a lot of apps here that you'll be desperate to explore beyond those.

If you're hoping you'd be making good use of Bixby (Samsung's smart assistant), you're going to be disappointed. Bixby had a tough time understanding what we said on most occasions and it's clear this is one Samsung smartwatch feature that still needs work.

For that core smartwatch experience, the Active does a good job overall. If you care mostly about notifications and basics like alerts, it's more than suitable. Payments work without problems and while the lack of app support remains Samsung's weakness, it's not something we greatly missed.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: App

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We need to talk about software. When you get your Active, you'll need to download the Galaxy Wearable app, but then you'll likely need to also download a Galaxy Wearable plugin to make everything connectivity-wise work smoothly. If you want to download apps, you need to go to the Samsung Galaxy Store. To closely monitor your health and fitness data, you'll need to use the separate Samsung Health app.

The likelihood is that unless you need to play around with notifications or display settings, it's the Health app you're going to spend the most time in. That app offers a Fitbit-style dashboard with widgets dedicated to all of your different data. Samsung has now added mindfulness features, exercise programs and articles from third-party publications (like Runner's World and Women's Health). While it's good to have this wealth of options and information, a more tailored and personalised approach would have been more appreciated.

There's nothing necessarily wrong or buggy with the Health app, but it definitely feels like it could evolve to a place where the rich data Samsung's smartwatches deliver is presented in a less cluttered way, offering insights to help you stick to your health and fitness goals.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Battery life

One of the more disappointing aspects of the Active is the battery life – or more accurately, the lack of it. While Samsung has made decent strides in improving the staying power of its feature-packed smartwatches, the Active doesn’t push the boundaries and has more in common with the longevity of Google's Wear OS models than Fitbit's watches.

The Active manages about a day and a half on average, and can stretch to two days at a push, but you’ll have to tap into the power saving mode to make that happen. That power saving mode does have a pretty impressive ability to keep that battery going while still giving you access to features like notifications, so you're not simply left with a smartwatch that will only tell you the time.

When it comes to charging, you’ll need to drop it on top of its small magnetic disc-shaped charger. If you’re fortunate enough to own a new Samsung S10 smartphone, you can also drop it on the back of the phone to charge it. From the more traditional charging method, the Active takes around two hours to charge from 0-100%, so it's not the speediest, but that's pretty much in line with other smartwatches.

Amazon: Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
Amazon: Samsung Galaxy Watch Active


Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
By Samsung
The Galaxy Watch Active is an enjoyable smartwatch to live with, more so than the standard Galaxy Watches in many ways. If you want a smartwatch that's small and light, but doesn't scrimp on features, then there's a lot to like here. Samsung's software still needs some refining in our eyes and it clearly hasn't delivered on that promise of blood pressure monitoring. But if you can overlook those shortcomings and can focus on the price and what you're getting for that money, this is a smartwatch well worth your time.

Hit
  • Small, comfortable design
  • Strong fitness tracking features
  • Great price
  • Decent heart rate performance
Miss
  • Battery life could be better
  • You'll miss rotating bezel
  • Samsung software still a bit clumsy
  • Blood pressure monitoring MIA


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3 comments

  • ssallen·

    Man, that thing looks magnificent next to the (admittedly ugly) Apple watch.

  • Masiero·

    Looks good, but the integration of spotify and others apps for people who doesn’t have a Samsung phone is a JOKE! Shame on you, Samsung support team!


    Before buy ot, take a look on spotify and Samsung support foruns

    • MarijnJ·

      Hi Masiero,

      I figured Tizen would work better with a Samsung phone, but don't exactly know which problems to expect (from non-Samsung apps) with other Android phones. My girlfriend plans on buying a Galaxy Watch Active and she owns a non-Samsung Android phone. Could you elaborate on your comment? I'm interested in you experiences.