Galaxy Watch Active review: One step forward, two steps back

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
  • Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
  • Samsung Galaxy Watch Active
  • Expert Rating

    3.75 / 5

Pros

  • Great aesthetics
  • Cheaper price-point

Cons

  • Battery life
  • No rotating bezel

Bottom Line

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active does more with less but, at the end of the day, you’re still left with less.

Would you buy this?

The Pitch

In some ways, the new Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active is the company’s most radical smartwatch in quite a while. In others, it feels like one of their safest bets yet. Yet, in the moments when it all comes together, the Galaxy Watch Active feels like the smartwatch I’ve been wanting Samsung to make for years now.  

At a glance, it’s the closest that Samsung have gotten to its ultra-sleek Apple-branded competition. Unfortunately, not all of the ways in which it breaks from tradition make for a better product and experience for the user. It ticks most of the same boxes as its namesake but most isn’t all.

And, ultimately, the Galaxy Watch Active lives or dies on its looks. No matter how you slice it, that’s a dicey way to go and the dazzle factor here is nothing if not fleeting.

Specs

Display Type:  1.1-inch OLED

Dimensions: 39.5mm x 39.5mm x 10.5mm

Weight: 25g

Touch Sensitive: Yes

Processor: Exynos 9110

Storage: 4GB

RAM: 750MB

Heart-Rate Monitor: Yes

Durability: 5ATM + IP68 + MIL-STD-810G

Connectivity:  Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, GPS

Battery: 230mAh

Color: Silver

Price: AU$349

Available from: Amazon, JB Hi-Fi, Harvey-Norman, Samsung

Design

Apple Watch-like aesthetics aside, the easiest way to break down the design of the Galaxy Watch Active is into additions and subtractions.

This time around, the idea of making a smaller and lighter smartwatch has played second-fiddle to the idea of making a better one. The Galaxy Watch Active has a fitness-friendly look and a reworked software interface that does its best to compensate for the absence of the Galaxy Watch’s unique swivel-bezel controller.

And, unfortunately, while that distinct difference in design is only the most visually-noticeable thing that’s been cut, it’s far from the only thing.

Credit: Samsung

The Galaxy Watch Active features a smaller display (though the absence of the bezel controller does sometimes make it feels bigger than it actually is), a smaller battery and no cellular connectivity. None of these subtractions alone are deal-breakers but together their impact on what you can actually do with the Galaxy Watch Active is felt rather fast.

The previous Galaxy Watch was a smartwatch that got most of the way there when it came to matching the Apple Watch for functionality but fell short on aesthetics. By contrast, the Active looks the part but isn't nearly as versatile.

Of course, it should be said that the side-effect of these subtractions is a much lower price-tag. The Galaxy Watch Active comes in about $150 cheaper than its predecessor - which is going to make it a lot more affordable (and appealing) to a lot more people who couldn't afford its pricier predecessor.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

Performance

While the Galaxy Watch Active does lack the rotating bezel that was the primary method of interacting with the previous Galaxy Watch, the overall experience here isn’t that different. The menus and UI of the software here has been given a tune-up to line up with the One UI rework that hit Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones earlier in the year.

It looks and feels really nice. In fact, as much as I bemoan that absence of the regular Galaxy Watch’s rotating bezel, my overall level of satisfaction with what the Galaxy Watch Active offers wasn’t that disturbed. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the fitness tracking experience: the Galaxy Watch Active hits all the right bases.

You’re getting the same step, activity, heart-rate and GPS tracking found in the Galaxy Watch. You’re getting the same Samsung Pay, Bixby Voice integration and support for (so far as I’ve been able to tell) almost all the same apps via the Samsung Gear app.

Credit: Samsung

You're also getting a lot of the same limitations. When it comes to third-party software, the Galaxy App store remains an empty spectacle. You've some big names like Spotify and Uber but it feels like they're only there because Samsung inked deals with them a few years back. if you're any other ride-sharing or music streaming service, you're out of luck. And beyond the basics, things don't get much better.

If you're looking at the Galaxy Watch Active as a premium fitness tracker with a few smartwatch features, you might be able to get away with it. If you're imagining something more ambitious, you're probably going to end up a little frustrated.

Worse still, battery life seems to have taken a major hit. Where the Galaxy Watch lived up to Samsung’s promise of four-day battery life with clockwork regularity, the Galaxy Watch Active often only managed two days. On this front, it feels like a really disappointing step backwards.

The Bottom Line

Credit where it’s due, the aesthetics of the Galaxy Watch Active leave an incredible first impression.

Credit: Samsung

As a gadget showpiece, it’s gorgeous to behold and it does deliver on that ever-alluring tagline of being thinner and lighter than its predecessor. It does more with less but, at the end of the day, you’re still left with less. Tally together the additions and subtractions and the sum total here ends up moving backwards more than it does forwards.

I can easily imagine a lot of people who come away satisfied by what the Galaxy Watch Active does do (and does well) but I can just as easily imagine someone strapping this thing on, using it for a couple of hours and coming away with a lingering thought:

"That's it?"

If you’re more of an over the long-run kind of person, you’re probably going better served by the mainline Galaxy Watch or - better yet - whatever comes next. But if the compromises that the Galaxy Watch Active asks for are ones you’re willing to make (and you’re not an iPhone user), it’s still (easily) one of the most polished smartwatch experiences you’ll be able to find for the price.

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