Samsung Galaxy Watch 3: Finally, a great smartwatch from someone other than Apple

Apple has mastered making excellent smartwatches, but its rivals haven't been up to its challenge. Until now.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Image: Samsung

A couple of years ago, ZDNet writer Jason Perlow wrote about how his Apple Watch literally saved his life. The watch had detected that he was suffering from atrial fibrillation (AFib). This caught my attention. I suffer from serious panic attacks, which mimic heart attacks. So, I tried out an Apple Watch, only to discover that to use one you must have an iPhone. Bad news. I'm not an iPhone user. But, now the new Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 is out and works with any smartphone, including my Android-powered Google Pixel 3.

While there are plenty of smartwatches out there, most of them are about fitness first. And, frankly, that's not my first priority. I wanted a watch with great health-monitoring sensors and health apps. That's exactly what Samsung's latest smartwatch gives me.

Thanks to its photoplethysmography (PPG) sensor with 8 pulse-reading optical photodiodes, the Galaxy Watch can monitor your pulse and much more. It works as a single-lead electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG); as an oximeter to measure your oxygen level; and as a sphygmomanometer to track your blood pressure.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved its EKG functionality for Class II use, which is as a non-critical medical device, it hasn't released the application in the US yet. It is already available in South Korea. The EKG app is expected to be available in the States later this year.

The oximeter functionality is now being rolled out to American customers. I have it on my watch. It, and the heart-rate monitor, both work well.

It comes out of the box with an excellent sleep monitoring app. It gives a comprehensive look at your time in bed. It provides a full breakdown of your night's sleep: Light, REM, deep, and when you're awake it also gives you a handy sleep score, so you have some context on how well -- or not -- you're sleeping 

The watch also comes with a trip monitor. It detects if you've taken a nasty fall. If you have, and you don't start moving again, it will also automatically send an SOS message to a friend or family member.

While the watch isn't as fully-functional as I want it to be, it's on its way. Let's move on to its other features.

There are two basic kinds of Galaxy Watch 3s: A larger one, with a 1.4-inch (45mm) display and a smaller model with a 1.2" (41mm) diameter display. The important difference is what's inside. The larger model boasts a 340mAh battery, while the smaller one has only a 247mAh. In practical terms, you can expect to get two days of working life from the more powerful battery and about a day and a half from it's smaller brother. 

Lots of reviews harp on the disappointing battery life, but I don't get why they're disappointed. The new Galaxy Watch's direct rival, the Apple Watch Series 5, only has an 18-hour battery life. Most smartwatches are hard-pressed to match the Galaxy's 48 hours of useful life. True, if all you want from a smartwatch is fitness tracking and a long battery life, then check out a Fitbit watch, like the Fitbit Versa 2, which can work up to four days. I wanted a different kind of smartwatch and that's what I got from the Galaxy Watch 3.

Of course, you can get better battery life by turning off its built-in GPS and with other battery-saving measures. I was happy with the battery life I got just by running it on its default settings.

To charge the Galaxy Watch 3 you'll need its included wireless charger. While this is a Qi-compatible, I'm told by other Galaxy owners that not all Qi chargers will work with their watch.

The watch's display is first-rate. It's 1.4-inch 360 x 360 AMOLED screen is bright enough to read in full daylight. It's also colorful and easy to use. With its Corning Gorilla Glass face and ISO standard 22810:2010 water resistance, it's also sturdy enough to be recognized as a MIL-STD-810G compliant device. In short, it can take a beating and keep on ticking.

Besides using its touch screen to navigate, it also comes with a handy, movable bezel. I find it with its firm feel to be a real pleasure to use.

All of this is powered by a 1.15GHz Exynos 9110 Dual-core ARM processor. This runs the Tizen Based Wearable OS 5.5. Tizen is a Linux-based mobile operating system. While it doesn't have as many apps as the Apple Watch family, it does have a fair number of useful and entertaining programs. For example, it comes with a built-in Spotify music app.

The only contactless payment system it supports out of the box, however, is Samsung Pay with NFC. It, however, doesn't support the older, but still common, Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) standard. It also won't let you use Apple or Google Pay. For those, you'll need to use your phone.

For networking, the Watch supports 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi, NFC, and Bluetooth 5.0. It primarily uses Bluetooth to connect with your smartphone. You can also get a Galaxy Watch 3 with 4G LTE for about $50 more.

One interesting, and surprisingly useful, feature is the watch also comes with a microphone. That means, as I found to my surprise, you can use it to make or answer phone calls. Shades of Dick Tracy's wrist-watch radio!

If you're like me, and always wandering away from your phone just when it rings, this is a really nice feature. With the LTE model, you could even use it as a smartphone replacement.

Overall, I like this watch a lot. It looks good with its circular face and it runs quickly and smoothly. Sure, I wish it had all its health features today, but they are coming. When the ability to sense AFib and do EKGs are present, I'll be completely satisfied. 

Still, I'm pleased as punch today with my 45mm Galaxy Watch 3 with its list price-tag of $430. Its little brother will cost you $400. Unless you're a huge Apple fan, I think you will like it too.

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