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Samsung Galaxy Watch review: iteration over innovation

The Galaxy Watch is a great smartwatch, but are wearables worth it?

Photography by James Bareham

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It was my third time trying and failing to get the new Samsung Galaxy Watch to play Spotify music on my home speakers. Eventually, I gave up and just picked up my phone. That experience largely summed up my time with the Galaxy Watch, Samsung’s latest in its long line of smartwatches.

Don’t get me wrong, the Galaxy Watch is good at displaying and delivering information about my schedule, the weather, and my fitness. But it falls short of addressing my digital and physical well-being. Apps like Bixby aren’t ready for prime time, and stress- and sleep-tracking features alert you to issues, but they have no way of properly addressing them.

In many ways, the Galaxy Watch is an extension of Galaxy smartphones and Samsung’s own ecosystem, rather than a standalone wearable. A new smartwatch that pushes the category forward has been a long-overdue option for Android phone owners. And while the Galaxy Watch is a new wearable, it just isn’t that device.

One thing that hasn’t changed about smartwatches is price: they’re still expensive gadgets. The Galaxy Watch I reviewed is a 42mnn Wi-Fi / Bluetooth model that sells for $329, but you can go for a larger 46mm version for $349 that is topped off with a bigger battery.

Samsung also sells an LTE version (with more RAM) starting at $379 for the 42mm model or $399 for the larger 46mm LTE variant. For comparison’s sake, the entry-level 38mm Apple Watch Series 3 also costs $329, while the larger 42mm goes for $359, and the LTE versions are $399 and $429, respectively.

You can use the Galaxy Watch to pay for things, track up to 40 different physical activities, and track your sleep. You can wear it for days without needing to take it off and charge it. Samsung even claims there are 60,000 watchfaces in the Galaxy Apps store, but the watch already includes a handful of interactive watchfaces, including one that blocks out the hours you have meetings so you can better track your schedule.

Overall, the Galaxy Watch is a great example of show-and-tell by Samsung: it’s a decent-looking wearable with good battery life, a bright OLED display, other spec upgrades, and tons of software features. But at the end of the day, it’s still a smartwatch, which means it has all of the familiar baggage.

It’s a thick watch

There are two unavoidable things about the Galaxy Watch: the beautiful OLED screen and the bezel. On the 42mm variant, Samsung uses a 1.2-inch screen with Gorilla Glass DX+ casing for durability. It’s a small screen, but it’s sharp, vibrant, and adjusts brightness accurately enough so you can look at in direct sunlight or in the dead of night. Around it is a metal bezel that mimics that of diving watches — with a pleasant “click” feedback every time you turn it — and it functions as a navigational tool within the watch’s software.

Together, the display and bezel don’t present the most attractive face, but I don’t have any real complaints about the functionality of the display; if it’s too small for you, bump up to the 46mm variant with an ever-so-slightly larger 1.3-inch panel.

Durability is an essential feature for a wearable, so I’m glad to see that Samsung reinforced the Galaxy Watch with 5ATM waterproofing and MIL-STD-810G certification for durability against drops and shocks. I’ve had the confidence to thrash it about and not worry too much about cosmetic damage.

There’s even an “Eject Water” option in settings that moves water out of the speakers, similar to what you can do on recent Apple Watch models.

The hardware is nice

If you don’t turn the Galaxy Watch on its side, you might miss two buttons with primary and secondary functions. The bottom one triggers the home screen when you’re looking at another widget or screen or shows you all available apps if you press it from the home screen. On the flip side, the top button serves as a back function, so you don’t have to return to the home screen each time. Alternatively, you can hold it and bring up Samsung Pay. They’re straightforward, but the home screen button can also be mapped to open other apps, therefore doubling its functionality.

The Galaxy Watch’s software and interface are largely unchanged from Samsung’s prior models, but there are a few new features. The major new things involve fitness tracking, including tracking 40 different types of physical activity, sleep tracking, and stress tracking. You can have 20 widgets set for different activities, apps, or controls (like music playback).

The Galaxy Watch is even cross-compatible with iOS (though with limited functionality) and other Android phones. But if you are using a non-Samsung Android phone, be prepared to install at least four Samsung apps on your phone for the watch to function.

Overall, it appears as if Samsung is almost too reliant on apps and plugins that you have to download to make the Galaxy Watch tick. An embarrassing example of this was having to pay for groceries but realizing I had to download a Samsung Pay plugin so my Galaxy Watch could talk to my phone, a Galaxy Note 9. It makes no sense that I still needed to download additional software when I already had a Galaxy device, let alone the latest model.

Too many plugins are needed to keep it working

There’s also Bixby! Well, it’s more like a rebranding of Samsung’s old S Voice voice control system that was on earlier Gear smartwatches. It hasn’t been improved, either: it doesn’t have a natural-sounding voice, it frequently mishears my voice (or not at all), and it generally just isn’t useful. You can remap the home button to bring up Bixby by pressing it twice, or saying “Hi, Bixby,” but the latter method only worked half the times I tried it.

I sleep terribly, so I was curious to see how the watch automatically tracked my slumber and what it could tell me about my sleep patterns. At first, I thought the Galaxy Watch did a great job of accurately determining how long I slept, how long I was motionless, and how much of that time was actually spent in a deep sleep (REM).

But data is just data until it’s interpreted, and based on how efficient my sleep is (I’m assuming it’s just counting REM), the Galaxy Watch would tell me about my sleep “efficiency,” but in no way does it recommend or assist with improving my sleep.

Help me, don’t just tell me, Galaxy Watch

Also, sleeping with a watch on is uncomfortable, no matter how hard you try to ignore the fact that a battery, screen, and sensor sandwich is strapped to your arm. Enabling theater mode means the screen won’t wake me up in the middle of the night, but I can still make out the sensor cluster underneath my wrist, which glows green and can be seen easily in the dark.

The same can be said for stress tracking. If I glance at the watch on my wrist, turn the bezel to the stress widget, and tap “Measure,” I can get a gauged reading of what my stress level is like. It takes this data and compares it to my average stress level for the week, then recommends I partake in a deep breathing exercise. That’s all great, but I don’t actually feel any less stressed out in those moments. I actually felt more stressed out reading the Galaxy Watch’s report about how poorly I slept the night before!

Am I really always stressed out?

There’s also the issue of misreading my stress levels, like urging me to engage in breathing right before a presentation, when, in reality, I feel relaxed. The takeaway here is that the Galaxy Watch is blending the discrete, personal data that a fitness tracker would prioritize and bringing it to a more casual watch setup. In their current capacity, the sleep- and stress-tracking features aren’t the most useful things on the Galaxy Watch.

Tracking your physical activity is what the Galaxy Watch does best. Running, walking, cycling, hiking, swimming, treadmill, circuit training, deadlifts, push-ups, and leg raises are just a handful of the 40 different trackable exercises. And let me tell you: it’s pretty accurate at tracking them and reminding you to stay active.

Track all your physicality (or lack thereof)

The Galaxy Watch alerted me at least once a day when I haven’t been active (usually when I’m sitting at my desk), so I should do five torso twists. Interestingly, it didn’t accept shaking my wrist as exercise; I actually had to get up and do it. Similarly, when I worked out with a press group to test the watch’s circuit training and yoga functions, it kept up with accurate readings of my reps and time spent.

Honestly, the accurate workout training is useful if you’re looking for that sort of data. If the same attention to detail could be directed toward the sleep and stress tracking, then Samsung would have a truly compelling well-being device.

Samsung advertises four days of battery life on the 46mm Galaxy Watch and three days on the smaller 42mm model I’ve been wearing. In my testing, it took two days or so for the Galaxy Watch to learn your usage habits and adjust battery consumption accordingly. For example, I opened but forgot to close the Uber Gear app; 30 minutes later, I got a buzzing notification on my wrist suggesting that I close the app by tapping a “Fix Now” button.

By following all these small prompts that were beckoning me to take care of my battery usage, I was able to get full two days of use (that means sleeping overnight) before I hit the 15 percent mark.

I’ve tried my best to buy into the “watch as a companion device” lifestyle that Samsung has presented with the new Galaxy Watch. But being so reliant on Samsung apps to function — even on a Galaxy smartphone — gives me the impression that not much has changed with Samsung’s smartwatches. They still need to be connected to a phone to be their most useful, and they only reach semifunctional independence as an LTE model.

Smartwatches still need a defining moment

Being able to track most of your physical activities (even sleep) is a feature that can be appreciated by both users looking to learn more about their bodies and tech enthusiasts who want yet another way to stay connected.

Thankfully, the Galaxy Watch also does a good job of telling me what my day will be like with a morning home screen featuring my calendar alerts, news, weather, and basic fitness data. If I didn’t want to look at the alt-barometer, I could just turn the bezel back until I got to my notifications, tap a text, and finally scroll down to a pre-formatted (or optional voice-dictated) response.  

However, at the end of the day, I’m left wanting something more useful, seamless, and powerful than the Galaxy Watch. And as a whole, smartwatches in their current capacity aren’t at that point… yet.

Correction: Post was updated to reflect correct pricing for 46mm BT model.

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