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Samsung Galaxy Watch Active review: essentially perfect

Samsung jumped the WearOS ship years ago and began building smartwatches running its own proprietary software. In spite of early skepticisms, Samsung’s Galaxy (formally Gear) line of wearables have emerged as one of the more dependable options in the market. While competitors like Google and Fitbit are still busy trying to figure out smartwatches, Samsung has steadily inched closer to perfecting its formula with each generation. 

No more evident is that than in the latest Galaxy Watch Active smartwatch for India. It manages to strike just the right balance between being a watch and a smart device for most people. At Rs 19,999, it houses nearly every component you would need in a form factor that weighs only 25 grams. 

But how well do those features fare in real-life usage and are those enough to justify the price tag? After spending about three weeks with the smartwatch which also includes a 10-day holiday, I have the answer.  

Display and Design

One of the biggest highlights of the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active hits you as soon as you take it out of the box. Even though it packs high-end hardware inside, it’s astonishingly light and compact. At 25 grams, it’s about 15 grams lighter than the Fitbit Versa and Apple Watch Series 4. 

The Watch Active also doesn’t have a flashy design, nor does it look like a little computer strapped on your wrist. Both of them, I believe, are positive traits. Although you can certainly add a little pizzazz by opting for the Rose Gold or Green (which is more of an aqua-ish shade) colour variants.  

The Galaxy Watch Active’s simple aesthetic and elegant curves lead to a charming, pragmatic exterior. More importantly, it rests comfortably on your wrist and I tended to forget it was there until it buzzed with a notification. These qualities especially prove valuable when you’re working out or sleeping with the smartwatch on. While Samsung only offers silicon straps, you can swap it out yourself for when you feel like wearing a leather one. 

On the front, you’ll find a 1.1-inch circular OLED always-on screen which is shielded by a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass. And as you’d expect from a Samsung display, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s sharp, vivid, and can be easily viewed outdoors. The software’s default black background (which can be customised) compliments that further. The size is certainly on the smaller end of the spectrum but in my use, it didn’t seem that way. I was able to effortlessly view and navigate the screen’s content without ever trying too hard. 

You do have a little bezel around the edges but unlike other Samsung watches, this one is not rotatable. To compress the form factor as much as it can, Samsung had to compromise the iconic and clever bezel which you could rotate to browse menus. 

However, I’m glad to report it doesn’t affect your experience all that much. Through updates, Samsung has been gradually revamping a bunch of the software’s elements to work better without that bezel. There are also two physical buttons to return to the home screen and go back. You can personalise the former’s double-tap shortcut to launch any app of your choice. 

Software

The software is the crux of any wearable, and Samsung took a gamble a few years ago by shifting to its in-house Tizen operating system. And that bet has largely paid off. The Galaxy Watch Active’s software is responsive, well thought out, and its app store offers hundreds of watch faces. Swiping right on the home screen takes you to your unread notifications, swiping down reveals the quick settings, and swiping left lets you scroll through the widgets and apps. You can long-press the home screen to browse all the installed watch faces. 

 

Like most smartwatches, the Watch Active allows you to respond to your notifications. You can either dictate your message, send a canned response, or scribble each letter to compose a custom one. You have the option to browse your SMS messages and call logs right on the watch. For the latter, if you call a contact, the watch just dials the number on your phone.

 

In addition, the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active is loaded to the brim with fitness features too. Apart from the usual functions, it can track your swims in deep water, automatically detect when you begin working out even if you’re on a machine, ask you to take a deep breath when your heart rate rises to an abnormal level, and much more. Except for one instance where it didn’t register the distance on a hike, I found the smartwatch to be accurate whether for sleep or running sessions. 

Plus, you can download offline music on Spotify (something which even the Apple Watch lacks) or upload local tracks from your phone. Since there’s GPS and the watch can be paired with Bluetooth headphones for listening, you can leave your phone at home while going for runs. 

The Galaxy Watch app store houses loads of watch faces, a lot of which are customisable. But there’s a chance you won’t have to install a third-party watch face, as Samsung bundles a bunch of excellent designs. In the always-on mode, you will see a trimmed down version of a watch face so that it doesn’t constantly distract you.

But there are downsides to skipping Google’s WearOS. First, third-party app support is crummy for now. There are a few decent apps available like Spotify, Starva, and Endomondo but it’s nowhere close to what Apple and Google offer. 

Second and the one which bothered me the most is Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby. It’s simply unreliable and doesn’t fetch what you want in the majority of scenarios. I would have been okay with a sub-par voice assistant, but this also affects text-to-speech. Therefore, dictating replies on WhatsApp or any other platform can often be frustrating. 

The good news is that Samsung has nailed the essential apps like Samsung Health. Therefore, as long as you’re not looking to perform tasks like hail a Uber cab on your watch, you should be fine. 

The presence of NFC enables the smartwatch to be compatible with Samsung Pay. However, the Galaxy Active doesn’t have the MST technology that can replicate the magnetic stripe on credit/debit cards. Hence, you will only be able to pay at NFC-based terminals which are a rarity in India. 

Performance and Battery Life 

Plus, the performance has been splendid. I didn’t encounter any lags or crashes whatsoever. That’s primarily because it’s powered by the same Exynos 9110 processor found on the more expensive Galaxy Watch. On top of that, there’s 4GB of local storage and 0.75GB RAM. 

In my tests, the 230mAh lasted a little over two days. But if you’re a heavy fitness user and want the screen to stay always-on as well, you will get around a day and a half. The wireless charger takes roughly 2-3 hours to completely top up the Watch Active’s battery. 

Unfortunately, you can’t charge this smartwatch through any wireless charger. You either need the bundled one or a Samsung flagship phone that supports reverse wireless charging. If you do run out of juice in the middle of the day, there’s an ultra-battery saving mode which only shows the time and stretches the battery to an additional two days. 

Verdict

I’ll cut to the chase for you. The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active is the best cross-platform smartwatch you can buy today. Especially if you’re an Android user, this is a no-brainer. It’s also about half the price of an Apple Watch Series 4 and a stupendous alternative for iOS users. It’s responsive, gets all the essentials right in spades, looks nice, lasts two days, and except for LTE, has every connectivity option. The only significant flaws for me were the apps selection and voice input. So unless those two are a dealbreaker for you, the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active won’t let you down.

Pricebaba’s rating: 8/ 10

What works:

  • Lightweight and compact design
  • Good battery life
  • Offline music playback

What doesn’t:

  • No third-party wireless charging support
  • Bixby and app store are not up to the mark
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Shubham Agarwal

The author is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad. He tweets from @phonesoldier.