Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 review: A bite out of Apple
“With LTE, an ECG sensor, and more apps and sensors, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is among the best smartwatches you can buy.”
- Comprehensive and expansive exercise tracking
- Stainless-steel version looks watch-like
- Easy-to-read display in all lighting
- Two-day battery with light usage
- You can scroll Twitter on a watch
- Still limited third-party app support
- ECG monitoring still not live
- Incremental performance over old model
The wearable space is a tough place to make a name with heavyweights like Fitbit and Apple crowding the area, but Samsung’s managed to do so with its ever-improving and oft-expanding Galaxy Watch lineup. The original Galaxy Watch Active rounded out the roster as a sleek wearable that was stylish, fitness-focused, and inexpensive. Barely six months later, we have the Galaxy Watch Active 2.
Samsung’s latest wearable hits all of those same notes, except it now costs $280, because it adds features such as LTE and a digital rotating bezel for easier navigation.
But the spotlight is the ECG monitor. Unfortunately, it’s still in clinical trials, and there’s no timeline for when this feature will become available. Nevertheless, the Active 2 firmly remains the best smartwatch for those using Android phones, and it narrows the gap between the stellar Apple Watch Series 5.
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a fitness wearable, yet it doesn’t look sporty. It’s minimalist, but it’s easy to tell this is a smartwatch. Unlike the flagship Galaxy Watch or some Wear OS by Google devices, the Active 2 won’t be mistaken for a traditional watch, even from afar. This isn’t a knock against it, though. The Apple Watch doesn’t look like a watch in any universe.
The black aluminum body of the Watch Active 2 gives an understated look, while the stainless-steel versions class things up a bit with their shiny metal and leather straps.
I’m testing the 44mm model, which has a 1.4-inch screen with a 360 x 360 resolution. If you have a smaller wrist, then you may want to go for the 40mm model, which has a 1.2-inch screen. The screen looks great in almost any lighting situation. The blacks are deep, colors pop, and text is plenty sharp. In fact, I set the brightness to three (on scale of 1 to 10) and left it there, never having to think about it again. Even the slightly dimmed always-on display was quite easy to read in direct sunlight.
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is slim, comfortable on the wrist, and attractive.
There are two buttons on the right edge of the watch, and they don’t stick out too much but are still easy to press. The default 20mm silicone strap is nice, but they’re interchangeable too so you can easily swap it out for something else. The Active 2 also has the requisite water and dust resistance ratings for any proper fitness wearable, meeting IP68 and 5-ATM standards, which enables features like swim tracking.
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is slim, comfortable on the wrist, and attractive — what more could you want?
Tizen OS is slick
The introduction of the digital rotating bezel is one of the hottest features added to the Active 2, and it’s a welcome one, but it also makes me long for the mechanical rotating bezel found on the more robust Galaxy Watch. It essentially allows you to scroll through lists and navigate screens on the operating system instead of swiping around on the screen and leaving fingerprint marks. It doesn’t feel as satisfying as the mechanical bezel on the Galaxy Watch.
The first thing you’ll likely do if you’ve used Tizen-powered watches before is scrolling the rotating bezel to wake up the device, which now does nothing if the screen’s not already awake. You’ll also have to dial in the sensitivity with which you move your finger around the bezel to make it scroll. A slower, more creeping scroll is necessary to not accidentally skip through a bunch of screens when navigating. It comes in handy when scrolling through lists, but I typically found myself just swiping on the screen to navigate the OS, as it felt more intuitive and easier to control.
The Active 2 handles notifications well, as they are grouped by the app into screens for you to swipe or scroll through; tap into them for more notifications from a particular app. I prefer Wear OS’s single-file list of notifications, which has a chronological order, particularly on Fossil watches that feature a rotating crown for scrolling, but Samsung’s approach gets the job done.
I also can’t help but feel like I’d enjoy interacting with notifications on the Active 2 more with a physical rotating bezel, as I have with other Galaxy Watches, and wish that Samsung would add a list view option for notifications, as it does with the watch’s apps. This would help make the absence of a proper rotating bezel less obvious in an OS that still very much begs for it.
I would also appreciate a last app shortcut on the top physical button, which has no other function besides going home. This way wouldn’t have to choose between an app shortcut, Samsung Pay, or a last app function (among many other choices) all for just the bottom button.
Using the Watch Active 2 throughout the day, you’ll find nothing but smooth and fluid performance.
It’d be nice to have a way to connect the watch to a computer as well, specifically to transfer music onto the device. Right now, you need to do this over Wi-FI via a web app interface, which can take some time depending on your internet connection speeds and the size of your music library. It is nice to be able to store your own music on the device’s 4 GB internal storage though, so this is a relatively small annoyance.
Using the Watch Active 2 throughout the day, you’ll find nothing but smooth and fluid performance. It also offers more third-party app support than Google’s Wear OS, but it still can’t hold a candle to the Apple Watch’s vast, growing, and now stand-alone app ecosystem. You’ll still find popular staples like Spotify Premium, which allows you to play music directly from your wrist or to earphones (an especially nice perk on the LTE version) and fitness apps like MyFitness Pal and Strava, but even fitness app selection is rather limited, and you won’t find any navigation apps.
Ready to scroll through Twitter on your wrist?
Samsung does have a few new app integrations on the Watch Active 2, though. On the first-party apps front, the Active 2 continues to offer a variety of good-looking watch faces with different functions and styles, but also adds a feature called My Style. It’s a fun and unique way to match your watch face to your outfit. Just take a photo of your outfit in the Galaxy Watch app and a few patterned backgrounds will be generated for you to choose from.
In regards to third-party apps, Twitter, YouTube, and Google Translate are on-board. You can scroll through your Twitter feed, liking and retweeting Tweets (but not replying or commenting), watch trending YouTube videos, and translate languages quickly via voice input. Scrolling through Twitter is predictably a bit cramped, as it cuts off the edges of Tweets requiring you to open it to view the Tweet properly. It’s still a neat mini time-waster, though. I wasn’t able to find the YouTube player Samsung showed us on my Active 2, though other third-party options exist for this in the Galaxy Watch App Store. I also didn’t miss it, as I have no desire to watch a video on my watch.
The Google Translate integration is easily my favorite of the bunch, as it translates quickly and (hopefully) accurately. The translation is presented via text on-screen and an audible readout. You can also flip the translated text on-screen so you can show it easily to another person without having to turn your wrist. Intuitive.
Working out with the Active 2
Although it’s easy to get caught up in the smartwatch functionality of the Galaxy Watch Active 2, it is, above all, a fitness wearable, and this is an area where the Active 2 shows some distinct advantages.
Wellness starts with mindfulness, and the Active 2 always keeps you mindful of your health with a variety of reminders and notifications. You can measure your stress levels with heart rate data and choose to receive reminders to stand, stretch, or go for a quick stroll; it’ll even guide you through a stretching session if you so choose. You can mute these alerts on a day-to-day basis or set them to always be on or off. Samsung Health, the secondary companion app to the watch (second to the Galaxy Watch app used for settings and setup), can also send weekly summaries of your wellness trends. These include your sleep patterns, activity levels, and heart rate information.
Apart from lacking integration with third-party fitness programs, the Watch Active 2 has a solid foundation of built-in exercise tracking. This includes seven automatically tracked exercises (walking, running, swimming, cycling, rowing, elliptical training, and dynamic workouts) and dozens more which can be tracked manually.
I particularly appreciate the granular tracking you can do for the multiple stages in a typical gym routine. This is thanks to the watch being able to track sets and reps of particular exercises. It’s super simple and accurate. I had the watch count each burpee I did, giving a sound and vibration for every one completed, guiding me at halfway points, and telling me when my set was complete. This works well across all of the exercises I tested, be it tricep extensions, bicep curls, bench presses, or other arm-related exercises – just don’t raise your wrist to check the count (stay focused!) or it will get the counter off rhythm. Unfortunately, rep counting won’t work for leg exercises.
Hearing that “ding” every time I completed a rep was quite satisfying.
Hearing that “ding” every time I completed a rep was quite satisfying, though; it helped to keep me focused on the task at hand. It’s built-in functions like these that set the Galaxy Watch Active 2 apart from the Apple Watch, Wear OS devices, and even Fitbits when it comes to fitness tracking. My only qualm here is that the always-on display doesn’t show workout information while tracking exercises, a sort of no-brainer feature that’s somehow missing. I certainly hope to see this in a future software update.
The biggest glaring omission holding it back from Apple Watch (as it relates to wellness features, at least) is a functional electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor. It’s on there, which is a tantalizing step in the right direction, but it’s not yet cleared for use by the FDA and is therefore non-functional. There’s no set date for this feature’s launch either but having a function ECG sensor would certainly help to make the Watch Active 2 a compelling device.
Battery king with lower usage
The Watch Active 2 can easily last two days with light usage, meaning no workouts and just taking notifications. Throw in 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and you’ll likely be charging before bed or early the next morning. Compared to the Apple Watch Series 5 and Fossil Gen 5, it lasted about three hours longer than the Apple Watch and about six hours more than the Fossil going into day two.
The Active 2 is battery king among smartwatches when paired with lower usage, but you’ll get about the same one-day battery with consistent workout tracking.
Price, availability, and warranty
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 comes in a few configurations, including pink, black, and silver aluminum colorways. Prices start at $280 for the 40mm and $300 for the 44mm aluminum versions. LTE-capable Active 2’s come in three stainless steel colors (gold, silver, and black) and it starts at $430 for the 40mm and $450 for the 44mm. Remember, for the LTE models you’ll need to pay a monthly fee to your carrier for a data plan.
Samsung includes a one-year warranty against defects but doesn’t offer any extended plan for prolonged coverage or accidental damage.
The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the best smartwatch you can buy for Android phones. Fitness tracking is more extensive, granular, and insightful than Fitbits, and Tizen is the best you can do for third-party app support in the Android ecosystem.
Are there any alternatives?
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is compatible with both iPhones and Android devices, though features like replying to text messages, scrolling through Twitter, and watching YouTube, won’t work with iPhones. If you’re an iPhone user, and you need a device that you can run out of the house listening to music on without needing cellular connection (though an LTE version is an option), then the Active Watch 2 can still be a worthwhile option for you.
But iPhone owners should first and foremost always consider the Apple Watch (Series 3, Series 4, and Series 5), as they surpass the Active Watch 2 in just about every way, thanks to unparalleled third-party support and you can even buy the Series 3 for $200 — $80 less than the least-expensive Watch Active 2.
As for Android users, Samsung’s mostly competing with itself here. Android Wear watches like the Fossil Gen 5 have more robust, traditional watch styling but lag behind in third-party app support – though not by much – and battery life. Furthermore, they’re deficient in first-party fitness features, lacking sleep tracking, as well as the broader and more specific exercise tracking and training the Active 2 offers.
It even offers more than the latest Fitbit Versa 2 in this regard. The only other device that you should consider is the previous Galaxy Watch Active, which is only seven months old, $80 less, and offers most everything the Active 2 does, minus the digital rotating bezel and potential to give ECG readings.
Want even more options? Check our favorite smartwatches of 2019.
How long will it last?
Two to three years is a reasonable life expectancy. You may be able to hang onto it for even longer thanks to its solid construction and IP68water resistance. Samsung’s three-year-old Gear S3 watch is still receiving major updates in 2019, so updates shouldn’t be a concern.
Should you buy one?
Yes. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 gives you everything you could want in a fitness wearable and smartwatch.