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How Samsung leapfrogged the Apple Watch, with a little help from Google

In an interview with ZDNet, the head of Samsung's health R&D team revealed how its BioActive sensor let it race ahead of Apple.
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Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief on
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Samsung Galaxy Watch 4

Samsung

Samsung's BioActive chip has quietly given its smartwatch more sensors and better battery life than the market-leading Apple Watch. That will be a surprise to some, since Apple has been a pioneer in putting advanced health tech on the wrist with breakthroughs like the first FDA-approved EKG sensor on a watch in 2018.

The Apple Watch still dominates the smartwatch market with 36% market share, while Samsung operates in a respectable-but-distant second place at 10%, according to Counterpoint Research. But, in Q1 2022, Samsung grew its market share by over 20% year-over-year while Apple's share remained stagnant.

One of the reasons for Samsung's progress may be the fact that its latest wearable technology, the Galaxy Watch 4, measures more aspects of health and has features that the Apple Watch doesn't yet include. Meanwhile, both companies are on course to launch their next generation devices over the next couple months -- the Galaxy Watch 5 is expected at the August 10 Samsung Unpacked event and the Apple Watch Series 8 is expected at Apple's annual fall event in September. 

ZDNet caught up with TJ Yang, the head of Samsung's research & development team for health, to talk about how Samsung has come so far so quickly in smartwatches and health tracking. 

Yang highlighted that, for years, Samsung had been putting a lot of its focus on improving sleep tracking. Then, it made its big move in health with the new 3-in-1 sensor it unveiled in the Galaxy Watch 4, which was its first device to transition to Google's Wear OS from Samsung's Tizen software, which had run its previous smartwatches. 

Both Google and Samsung have struggled to keep up with the Apple Watch in recent years, but the tide may be starting to turn.

Sleep: Samsung's first big move

Samsung has been working on sleep tracking going all the way back to 2014 on the early Galaxy Gear smartwatch. By 2018, the Galaxy Watch was tracking sleep cycles and REM sleep a full two years before sleep tracking officially came to the Apple Watch and four years before sleep cycles were introduced in WatchOS 9, which officially arrives this fall. 

In spring 2020, I wrote about how Apple Watch helped me uncover unhealthy levels of stress in my life by using the SleepWatch app to check my sleep. A newer algorithm called Heart Rate Variability was what helped me identify the problem. Before Apple Watch introduced basic sleep tracking, third-party apps like SleepWatch and Pillow pioneered it.

Meanwhile in 2020, Samsung's smartwatch introduced sleep scores and automatic insights about your sleep patterns. The following year, Samsung added blood oxygen tracking while you sleep, more advanced sleep scores and snoring detection. 

But, 2022 has been the biggest leap. Samsung's latest watch started including free AI-based sleep coaching that gives tips and checklists to help make your sleep quality better. This brings a lot of content, including eight different sleep animals to characterize your sleep and make interpreting the sleep data a lot more user friendly. 

"We've made a lot of progress in sleep technology," said Yang. 

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Galaxy Watch 4 can track sleep stages.

Samsung

BioActive chip: Samsung's breakthrough

But where Samsung made the most progress was with the launch of the 3-in-1 BioActive sensor last August in the Galaxy Watch 4. Combining Optical Heart Rate, Electrical Heart and Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis in one chip, the BioActive sensor not only detects irregular heartbeats and measures blood oxygen levels, but it can also check blood pressure (a feature not available in the US yet) and measure body composition. Those last two capabilities have come to Samsung's device before arriving on the Apple Watch.

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Samsung

"One of the sensors in the BioActive is called BIA, and it measures body composition. It measures muscle mass and body fat," said Yang. "That technology didn't exist a couple of years ago. You had to go to the gym and hold a kind of handle for 30 seconds to a minute to measure your body composition. Now it's on your wrist and you can measure it whenever you want."

BioActive also allows people to check HRV continuously (under its "Stress" feature), which the Apple Watch doesn't do yet. While BioActive pioneered these new features, the way they were implemented was also key.

"We developed this BioActive chip that combines multiple sensors into one, making it more efficient and effective," said Yang. "And you have a longer battery because it is [so] energy efficient."

The Apple Watch Series 7 can easily last 24 hours on a full charge, but the Galaxy Watch 4 goes roughly 50% longer at a day-and-a-half. 

The next sensors

With Samsung joining forces with Google on wearables and now relying on the Wear OS platform for software, it seems to have cleared a path for Samsung's health and wearables team to pour its energy and resources into hardware design and sensors – and not just for smartwatches.

"We are looking at other form factors (for sensors). Earbuds is one of them. We are also looking at other kinds of devices," said Yang. "When those other devices are combined and connected then we can use the most appropriate device and leverage that capability across different devices."

Whether or not all of those devices are wearables is yet to be seen. But, it's clear that Samsung thinks it has finally found a path to success in smartwatches and there's plenty of work still to do. It needs to work with the FDA to get its blood pressure sensor on BioActive approved in the US. And of course, there's still the matter of blood glucose tracking, which would not only affect over 400 million people around the world who suffer from diabetes, but could also help many others better understand and regulate their diet and nutrition.

Also: I wore a continuous glucose monitor for a month. Here's what I learned

Yang added, "We are heavily investing in developing additional biometrics. We will prioritize them based on consumer needs and impacts."

Smarter watches to come

Both the upcoming Galaxy Watch 5 and Apple Watch Series 8 are reported to be adding a Pro model to the lineup. Those models could be more rugged versions or they could feature higher-end materials. But, it's also possible that they'll be the first models to add the most advanced features and sensors. 

Whatever happens with the Pro models, both devices are likely to continue the trend of putting health scans that previously cost thousands of dollars and required a trip to a clinic into devices that typically cost less than $500 and are often continuously monitoring your health. 

Let's also keep in mind that the Apple Watch doesn't work on Android phones and Samsung's Galaxy Watch doesn't pair with the iPhone. So, this sensor race between the two probably won't inspire many ecosystem switchers. But, the competition for the best features and the most advanced sensors is excellent for pushing both companies forward, and even better for consumers.

ZDNet reached out to Apple for comment on this story, and will update the article if there is a response.

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