If you’re looking for a slimmer version of the Samsung Galaxy Watch, then you may want to wear the Galaxy Watch Active on your wrist.
It’s been six months since Samsung launched the Galaxy Watch. At the time, the design focused more on function than fashion, even though it wasn’t an ugly product. The challenge was more about size, given it was perhaps too big for smaller wrists. Women may have thought twice about it, too.
The Galaxy Watch Active serves as an alternative rooted in the suffix of the product’s title. You can be active with either watch, but if you’re looking for something lighter without losing much functionally, Samsung thinks this is the watch for you.
Design and setup
Physically, the Galaxy Watch Active is noticeably smaller than its larger sibling. In fairness, though, this watch is equally closer in relation to the Gear Sport, which is being phased out. Samsung’s penchant for iterative refinements with multiple products tends to create some overlap.
This model is the sleekest I’ve seen to date from Samsung. It shed 20 per cent of the diameter and 60 per cent of the weight of the Galaxy Watch. Even if I didn’t know those numbers, I would’ve concluded something similar anyway. It just feels so much nimbler and feathery.
Part of the reason is the 40mm body, making it smaller than the typical 42mm and 46mm sizes for rounded smartwatches. Trimming the fat required some sacrifices. The biggest of them all, at least to me, was removing the physical rotary dial. That design piece was a revelation for Samsung’s smartwatches because of how it simplified navigation. The Galaxy Watch Active is all touchscreen, save for the two physical buttons on the side.
The body is also made of aluminum, not stainless steel, like the Galaxy Watch, thus explaining the weight difference. Then you have the 1.1-inch AMOLED screen, smaller than both sizes of the Galaxy Watch (1.3 and 1.2-inches, respectively). The two physical buttons go back and shortcut to the app menu.
The same optical heart rate sensor sits underneath the watch face, and like the other two Samsung watches I mentioned, you get 5ATM waterproofing down to 50 metres. That includes saltwater, by the way. Built-in GPS makes it easier to track activity outside, which I’ll get to later.
Setup is the same—use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to pair with a phone. There’s 2.5GB of internal storage available to store apps, plus music files to play directly from the watch to Bluetooth headphones.
The Galaxy Watch Active is compatible with Samsung and Android phones running version 5.0 or later with at least 1.5GB of RAM. That also includes the iPhone, from the iPhone 5 and later, running at least iOS 9.0.
The watch itself runs on Tizen, Samsung’s own operating system. For any Samsung watch owner, it’s familiar territory. Only this time, the lack of a physical rotating bezel forced me to tap and swipe all the time, smudging up the screen more often.
The app layout and overall features are not any different. You still get exercises, sleep tracking, stress test, heart rate monitoring and phone notifications. Adding extra widgets is easy, like an alarm, calendar, weather or any number of health and fitness metrics. Answering calls is easy, and voice control is decent for responding to emails or messages.
Spotify is the most high-profile music app the watch supports. Integration is pretty good, though it only works when your paired phone is within range. Still, it’s nice to be able to navigate and select music to play without reaching for the phone. Unfortunately, other streaming services don’t work the same way, except for iHeartRadio. Google Play Music, Tidal, Deezer—none of them have apps for Tizen. You can control basic playback on the watch with those, you just can’t navigate playlists or seek other music.
Most of the apps are focused on health and fitness anyway. Samsung Health is all over it, though you can use others, like Strava, MapMyRun and Endomondo, among others The Galaxy Store is filled with apps—some free, some paid—but many will be virtual unknowns. I found it easier to browse for them through the Galaxy Wearable app on my phone. And if you want different watch faces, there are still tons to choose from.
The Galaxy Watch Active borrows heavily from its larger sibling, so I didn’t note a dramatic difference in performance. As an activity tracker, it did exactly what I expected it would, even automatically tracking certain exercises. Even better, it paused when I stopped for a breather or to rest before a new set.
Samsung Health acts as the repository for all the data the watch collects from your activity. Third-party apps will also do so, particularly for whichever exercises they’re supposed to track. Setting targets for everything is relatively easy, and it even includes sleep or stress level. Things like food and water intake require manual input, so you have to be consistent with them every day.
Throughout any given day, the heart rate monitor takes intermittent readings, giving you an idea of the ebbs and flows over that period. There are even options for blood pressure monitoring, which I’ll describe later.
For an activity watch, there are dozens of exercises to add. Since the watch can only show four at a time, I suggest creating extra widgets and populating them with the other exercises you want quick access to. You will already get the basics of running, walking, climbing and swimming automatically, but football, squats and yoga need manual starts and stops. Most of them do, but I will say, the list in Samsung Health is pretty broad.
Bixby is the watch’s resident voice platform, and it’s most effective when left to keep it simple. Asking for the weather, set an alarm or send a quick message to a contact worked well. It’s just not something I tended to gravitate toward when I wanted to do something on the watch.
Blood pressure monitoring
Samsung touted the Galaxy Watch Active’s ability to read blood pressure, which it technically can. It’s just that there are several steps to get started, and it requires you sign up for a test with university researchers. The app doing the reading is My BP Lab, which is available for free on Google Play and the Galaxy Store.
I had to download the app on both the phone and the watch itself. From there, I had to sign up and go through a short questionnaire. The app even quizzed me on details of the terms of service. After getting a link sent to an email address I provided, my account went live. From there, I calibrated the watch app with the phone one by taking a reading.
It took six attempts before the calibration went through. Another problem was that, though recognizing the paired watch, the phone app asked me to put in a reading I didn’t actually see on the watch. Fortunately, I had a Withings Blood Pressure Monitor to get a reading there, which I then typed in on the app. I took another reading on the phone itself, where I had to place my index finger on the light sensor on the back of the Galaxy S10+ I had paired the watch with.
None of this felt streamlined to me, and the fact that researchers use your BPM data (even anonymously) is a little unsettling. Bear that in mind before you go for it. The integration could be better to begin with, but it’s not as simple as just taking a reading and seeing results on Samsung Health.
With the iPhone
Like its predecessor, the Galaxy Watch Active does support the iPhone, though not with every feature. Exercises will work, so long as you install the Samsung Health app. You will get notifications, but you can’t act on them through the watch. Nor can you take calls or message people. Bixby is also relatively useless when paired with an iPhone.
The same issues still apply from before. There’s no Galaxy Wearable app, and thus, no real way of customizing or downloading Galaxy Apps. The workarounds to get them just aren’t worth it, in my opinion. As a pure fitness tracker, the Galaxy Watch could theoretically work for iPhone users, but it won’t match the integration the Apple Watch offers.
This isn’t one of the watch’s strongest features. I couldn’t make it to two days with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on. Consistent exercise tracking, especially if GPS had to go to work, also sapped the 230mAh battery. Make no mistake, using this regularly means consistently laying it down on its wireless charger.
That it supports wireless charging is nice, and I did take advantage of the Galaxy S10+’s Wireless PowerShare feature to give the watch some juice by placing it on the phone’s back. But any wireless charging pad will do, so you don’t always have to rely on the watch’s own charger to fill up.
This is probably the best Samsung has done for making a smartwatch that can appeal to women. The size, shape, and weight don’t make it cumbersome to wear. Men slighter in frame will probably also appreciate the form factor for similar reasons.
If you have a Samsung smartphone, this (or the larger Galaxy Watch) is your best option. The integration is nice, and the two work seamlessly together. You can get a similar experience with another Android phone, so it’s not an exclusive scenario. It’s just that I found Samsung’s handsets to work a little better, especially if you’re into using Bixby.