Samsung Galaxy Watch review: safe but satisfactory

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The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 is an important device for both Samsung and Google. Not only did Samsung ditch its tried-and-true smartwatch platform, but it’s also relying on Google to not drop the ball on Wear OS (again). Google, meanwhile, is relying on Samsung to show off what the new Wear OS can do, without having much of a say on the user-facing platform or hardware on which it’s presented.

The results, so far, are mixed. Samsung’s heavy-handed approach to software outshines the new Wear OS experience, causing us to wonder what elements are Samsung’s and what elements will appear on future Wear OS 3 watches. Regardless, the Galaxy Watch 4 offers something for most buyers — as long as those buyers are really into Samsung products

Samsung is one of those companies you can count on to take interesting risks, like resurrecting the stylus or reselling a version of a phone that was better known for bursting into flames. With its latest wearable, the Galaxy Watch, Samsung couldn’t have played things safer: It’s combined some of the Gear S3’s design language with some Gear Sport fitness features and added a handful of new software frills to boot. It’s about how measured you get a hardware upgrade. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though: while the Galaxy Watch may not be the most exciting wearable we’ll see this year, it’s still a solid performer with some room to grow.

Hardware

There are two versions of the Galaxy Watch: a 42mm model ($329+) that comes in rose gold and a beautiful blacked-out finish, and the shiny 46mm model ($349+) that I spent the last week with. You’ll get a 1.2-inch or 1.3-inch display, respectively, and, as usual from Samsung, they’re pretty sharp and bright, even in strong sunlight. No matter which one you find more appealing, they all use the same dual-core Samsung Exynos chipset and 768MB of RAM, which keeps everything running smoothly, except for the occasional hiccup when switching between apps. (LTE versions of the Galaxy Watch have double the RAM, so might perform better.)

More importantly, Samsung is sticking with its rotating bezel for navigation, and it’s still exciting to use. Navigating through widgets and installed apps is a breeze, and little touches, like subtle clicks when the bezel locks into position, make the Galaxy Watch feel like a premium watch. To be clear, you don’t need to use the bezel, as swiping across the touchscreen does the same thing, but you’d be a fool not to. As far as I’m concerned, this is still the most elegant way to interact with a smartwatch. The rotating bezel also doesn’t interfere with the watch’s water resistance. Like the Gear Sport before them, the Galaxy watches are rated for 5 ATM water resistance, which means you can submerge them in water just fine, but they’ll also hold up well during your strenuous swims.

Normally I’d recommend the smartwatch version that looks best on your wrist, but there’s a big difference in battery life here. The largest one I’ve been testing has a 472mAh battery, easily going four full days on a single charge. You can squeeze even more juice out of it by turning on battery saver mode. Once enabled, it speeds up performance and turns off all features except calls, messages, and notifications. You’re also left with a monochrome color mode and a simplified watch face with the time and little else. It’s certainly useful, but using this mode more than occasionally defeats the purpose of having a smartwatch in the first place.

If you’re using the smaller version of the watch (like my colleague Cherlynn), you can expect it to work between two and two and a half days before needing a charge. That’s not exactly a surprise, considering the 42mm watch has a battery that’s almost half the size of its larger companion, but it means you’re better off splurging on the larger model.

In use

The Galaxy Watch runs Samsung’s in-house Tizen operating system, and man, has it evolved since the old days. Samsung says there are thousands of apps and watch faces available for the Galaxy Watch, and the company does a respectable job of highlighting the really good stuff in its Galaxy Apps store.

While the number of Watch-compatible Tizen apps has grown dramatically over the years, I’d caution you not to confuse quantity with quality. The biggest problem with Tizen right now is the same as it’s always been: there are some useful things available, but many of the major app and service developers haven’t supported the platform. Sure, heavy hitters like Spotify and Uber are on board, but you might run into trouble if you want specific apps on your wrist.

And then there’s Bixby, the Samsung-made virtual assistant that has largely failed to impress. It’s here on the Galaxy Watch to execute all your voice commands, and at least the basics are well taken care of. Bixby was always quick to pick up when he was calling, and had little trouble messaging and tracking exercise when I asked. (That’s no small feat considering I knocked out a tooth halfway through the revision process.)

While Google Assistant and Siri largely retain their features and personalities on their respective wearables, Bixby on the Galaxy Watch just doesn’t. Bixby’s main draw on smartphones was that it allowed you to make fairly nuanced requests and access third-party software, neither of which works here. He can ask you general knowledge questions, but he falters most of the time. And sometimes Bixby suggests things to ask, like “search the Bermuda Triangle.” Bixby might be getting better on phones, but on watches? Forget it. Google Assistant and Siri are clearly better.

Samsung’s virtual assistant may be bad enough, but hey, at least the Galaxy Watch is the fitness tracker that the Gear Sport was. Actually, delete that: it’s even better. The Galaxy Watch can track 39 different exercises, from traditional fare like running and bench pressing to more specific options. (I’m looking at you, try burpee!) My only regret writing this review is that my chubby body couldn’t handle all 39 exercises, but the ones I tried worked pretty well. It took a toll on the watch’s battery life, but my few GPS-tracked runs seemed nice and accurate. And despite the fact that circuit training nearly killed me, the number of calories it claimed I burned was in line with results from wearables like the Fitbit Versa.

The thing is, the watch can be picky about what actions it does and doesn’t track. Let’s say it’s leg day and you’d like to do some squats: the watch recognizes when your hands are on your hips and keeps track of each rep nicely. Oh wait, what is that? Don’t you like your hands on your hips when you squat? Are you one of those deviants who like to hold weights or lift something overhead while working out? Umm, sorry. These are not uncommon additions to the basic squat, but they completely prevent the clock from tracking your movements. To be fair, while this is definitely not ideal, it’s hard to imagine how Samsung could teach the watch to take all of these training variables into account.

If you’re forgetful like me, it helps that the watch can also automatically recognize and start tracking certain exercises, like running, cycling and the like. It’s helpful that the function exists, but I wouldn’t trust it. In my experience, it doesn’t start tracking walks or runs until long after they’ve started. Really, the biggest shame is that all this useful information ends up in Samsung’s S Health app, software that sometimes makes no sense. Do you need proof? Swipe far enough to the right and you’ll find a section of curated health stories from Flipboard, a long-time Samsung content partner. The right health-related content could easily be inspiring, but instead I got a bunch of stories about salmonella outbreaks and anxiety from Stephen Colbert. Great I guess.

To my complete surprise, the watch turned out to be a very good sleep tracker. I’ve put this thing to bed almost every night for a week, and its sleep estimates closely match what I saw when I checked the time before I fell asleep and after I woke up. Well, most of the time, anyway. The Galaxy Watch can’t track your brainwaves or anything, so it’s making guesses based on your movement. That means that when I go to bed reading or working on crossword puzzles before I get out of bed, the clock doesn’t always think I’m awake until I’m actually upright. However, this issue is fairly minor, and the results generally seemed more accurate than the numbers my Fitbit Versa reports.

Samsung also introduced a new stress tracking feature on the Galaxy Watch, but I’m not sure you’ll find it useful. It’s great in theory, but all the watch does is guess how stressed you are based on how fast your heart is beating at any given moment. Now, you’ll obviously know when you’re freaking out better than your wearable, but the Galaxy Watch is supposed to pick up on when you start to feel nervous and walk you through some breathing exercises to relax. Despite having a week that was a bit more stressful than usual, which the stress data on S Health confirmed, Watch never caught on and tried to help.

The competition

The Galaxy Watch technically works with iPhones, but if you’re an Apple devotee looking for a smartwatch, you don’t need to look far from home. The Apple Watch Series 3 ($329) doesn’t last as long as the Galaxy Watch and isn’t as waterproof, but it provides rock-solid activity tracking and the best wearable app ecosystem out there right now. We haven’t seen too much movement on the Wear OS side, but Google has just unveiled a big new redesign – we’re expecting the search giant’s partners to show off some impressive new wearables soon.

And if you really care about logging miles or tracking your workouts, you’re probably still better off with a more purpose-built wearable. Fitbit’s Ionic ($299) is a pretty unorthodox-looking option, but it has impeccable training credentials, plus built-in GPS and integrations with a handful of popular fitness-tracking apps. And then there are more demanding fare like Garmin’s Fenix ​​5 series: Prices start at $549, but you’ll get great battery life, support for GPS and GLONASS navigation, and even more nuanced built-in fitness tools.

Wrap-up

The Galaxy Watch is Samsung’s most developed smartwatch yet, and fans of the company won’t find a better wearable. That said, the new things Samsung added to its smartwatch formula, especially Bixby and stress tracking, fell short of their potential. When I first tried the watch a few weeks ago, I casually said that the Galaxy Watch had few thrills. After more than a week of testing and searching for those thrills, I came away with little. It’s a good smartwatch and I enjoyed using it, but it still leaves me wondering if Samsung can figure out how to make an unabashedly cool wearable.

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