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Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 LTE review: The best smartwatch for Android users, maybe for iPhone users too

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Written by Matthew Miller on
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9.1

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 - black stainless steel - smart watch with band - black - 4 GB - AT&T

Spectacular
Like
  • Improved sleek design and high quality materials
  • Stand-alone LTE functionality (when it works)
  • Packed with fitness features
  • Virtual rotating bezel and UI is flawless
  • Integrated music storage with Spotify support
  • 2-3 day battery life when always-on watch face disabled
Don't Like
  • ECG and fall detection update still not yet released
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

After using the Galaxy Note 10 Plus for a couple of months and then getting the chance to try out the new Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, I figured I should try out Samsung's latest smartwatch. The new Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 was released late last year and after a week with the LTE model, I can't believe I waited so long to test one out.

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 was released about six months after the Galaxy Watch Active, but several improvements made it clear the Watch Active 2 was the only version Samsung should have released in 2019. Improvements included two size options, an LTE variant, improved sensors, slightly larger display, newer version of Bluetooth, audio Running Coach, and touch-based rotating bezel navigation option.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus Star Wars Special Edition hands-on: The dark side of the force is strong

I never tried out the Galaxy Watch Active so I cannot offer any personal experiences with the improvements, but as I understand it the software has been updated on the original model to match the Active 2 user experience so hardware is the defining improvement. I purchased the 44mm variant with LTE support in stainless steel black. There was a $30 discount on the Samsung website, making the price $419.99. The WiFi model is available for $269.99 with different color options and an aluminum watch body.

Hardware

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 LTE model is composed of stainless steel, glass, and high-quality plastic. It is much sleeker than the Galaxy Watch with a glass display that curves down into the sides of the watch. There is no spinning bezel on the Watch Active 2 as that is mimicked with a digital bezel that you activate by rotating your finger around the outside of the display.

In the past, the Galaxy Watch and Gear Frontier S3 were pretty chunky big watches so it is awesome to have a large brilliant display in a body that is comfortable to wear for long periods and looks great. It's much easier to sleep with the Watch Active 2, even the larger 44mm stainless steel model.

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There are two physical buttons on the right side with the upper button serving as a back button and the lower one as a home button. There are mic openings on the right and top with a speaker opening on the left side. While you won't want to listen to music for long periods on the speaker, it is great for phone calls and for those times when you don't have headphones around.

There is a comfortable optical heart rate monitor on the back that seems to do well when compared to GPS sports watches. Standard 20mm bands can be used with the Galaxy Watch Active 2. A black leather band was included in the box, but there was no silicone band. Since the watch is focused on serious activity, I'm not sure why there wasn't also a silicone band in the box. I had a couple of 20mm bands lying around so I've been using them when running with the Watch Active 2. It's quick and easy to swap out the band.

Specifications of the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 with LTE include:

  • Processor: Samsung Exynos 9110 1.15GHz dual-core/li>
  • Display: 1.35 inch 360x360 pixels resolution Super AMOLED, Gorilla Glass DX+
  • Operating system: Tizen OS 4.0 and OneUI Watch version 1.5
  • RAM: 1.5GB for the LTE model
  • Storage: 4 GB of internal storage
  • Wireless technology: LTE, NFC, 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 5.0, and GPS/Glonass
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, barometer, gyro, heart rate, ambient light
  • Other features: IP68 and 5 ATM dust and water-resistant, MIL-STD-810G rated, integrated microphone and speaker
  • Battery: 340 mAh battery with wireless charging dock
  • Dimensions: 44 x 44 x 10.9 mm and 44 grams (44mm stainless steel model)

The last Samsung watch I wore was the Galaxy Watch (see our full review), so it has been a real joy to carry around a smaller watch that is 2.1mm thinner and 19 grams lighter. The smooth, elegant design also makes it a much more comfortable watch to wear and it is still large enough to give me a wonderful big screen watch experience.

Since I've been testing the larger 44mm with LTE radio inside, it is expected I can go two days before charging. I've been able to charge it up, track six to seven hours of sleep, go for a 45-minute run, wear the watch all day, and then track another night of sleep. Using Spotify to play music, keeping the display always on, and heavy use of LTE in stand-alone mode will chew up battery too. I typically keep the watch face always on during my working day and then tap to turn it off to the lift-and-twist mode activation.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 review: Everything the original Active should have been

The Watch Active 2 comes with a wireless charging cable, but you can also use a Galaxy phone with Wireless Powershare to top it off if needed. I typically charge it up when writing ZDNet articles at night since I'm just sitting at my desk and there is no activity to track at the time.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 LTE review: in pictures

Watch software

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 continues to run Tizen and it is fully optimized for the round wearable experience. Buttons, screen swipes and taps, and the digital rotating bezel are all used to navigate around on the watch. The top back button can be pressed and held to open Samsung Pay. A double-press of the bottom home button can launch Bixby, or be set by you for another function, in the settings. A press and hold of the home button lets you power off the watch or turn on touch sensitivity.

Swipe down from the watch face to see your basic connection status and battery life with access to six quick controls. By default these include toggles for power saving mode, airplane mode, ringtone management, do not disturb, always-on display, and brightness levels. Swipe over to view more control buttons, including one to access all the settings.

Settings are available for the watch faces, sound and vibration, display, advanced options, connections, apps, security, account, accessibility, general, battery, and about. You can also scroll to the bottom to connect to another phone, including an iPhone.

Swipe from left to right to see your notifications from the watch face. Go from right to left to start viewing all of the widgets you select and setup. You can also slide your finger around the outer edge of the display to activate the digital rotating bezel to scroll. It takes a bit of practice but is fun to navigate too.

There is an incredible number of optional watch faces included in the Galaxy Store. Watch faces are one area of the Galaxy Watch Active 2 that beats all other smartwatches I have ever tested and honestly people do use their watch for the time so having custom options is a great thing.

The automatic activity tracking is another area that I enjoy on the Galaxy Watch Active 2. I walk about a mile between my office and the train station and usually, these walks are never tracked, except for the steps. The Watch Active 2 categorizes these as walk so I can easily see and track the efforts there in Samsung Health. I know that Apple now has this capability for some activities as well, but Samsung continues to improve its tracking.

Many people give Samsung flack for Bixby, but the more I use it on Samsung devices the more useful I find it. It has been accurate for me and answers most of my queries in a timely fashion, even over an LTE connection in standalone mode.

The Galaxy Watch options are often overlooked because there are not as many apps available as there are on the Apple Watch. Over the years I have discovered I use very few additional apps on my watches as they are used for essential functions. Apps I have installed on the Galaxy Watch Active 2 include Arccos Golf, Strava, MS Outlook, camera controller, and Uber. Samsung Health, Spotify, and other apps are loaded by default and the only apps I would like to see are Nest and OneNote/Evernote.

Smartphone software

The Galaxy Wearable application has undergone some major improvements since I last used it. You can fully set up and manage your Galaxy Watch Active 2 on the phone and then have those settings, apps, watch faces, and more sync to the watch. You can set up Samsung Pay, Bixby, LTE service, and more using the smartphone application. You can even reorder the widgets that appear next to the watch face.

If you are interested in the fitness aspects of the Watch Active 2 then you should also have the Samsung Health application that shows you all of the data captured by the Watch Active 2. There are items to show your steps, hydration, exercise, sleep details, heart rate, stress, and more. You can view trends over time in Samsung Health and even sync the data to Strava or Technogym.

How is the Galaxy Watch Active 2 different than the Apple Watch 5?

Now that I've used both watches (see Jason Cipriani's Apple Watch Series 5 review), I prefer the Watch Active 2 for the following reasons:

  • LTE without limits: Unlike the Apple Watch, the Galaxy Watch Active is fully standalone for LTE capability so you do not need a phone at all to use it for calls, texting, or other internet services such as streaming Spotify music directly to the watch via cellular networks.
  • Sleep tracking
  • Stress tracking
  • User interface with digital rotating bezel
  • A vast number of watch face options in the Galaxy Store

Two things the Apple Watch Series 5 has that are missing on the Watch Active 2 are ECG and fall detection. However, the Watch Active 2 hardware is capable of both and these features are slated to come in a software update that could be released at any time.

Daily usage experiences and conclusions

I ran with the Galaxy Watch Active 2, Polar Vantage V, and Garmin Forerunner 945. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 did not have all of the custom data options as the dedicated GPS watches, but it tracked GPS and heart rate well. It is good for the casual athlete who wants a great smartwatch and I may keep wearing it while using my GPS sports watches just for workouts.

I like hearing the status of my progress on my Bluetooth earbuds while running but found the coaching options too limited to help me out much. Again, a casual athlete may find the coaching options for about six different types of running to be useful.

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 may not be returned because I love being able to use it for quick calls and texts without having to pull out my phone. Unlike other watches, I can scroll and view entire long messages and emails all on this big, gorgeous Super AMOLED display.

However, I currently have a major issue with LTE on T-Mobile. The watch works fine for outgoing calls and texts or incoming calls and texts when paired to my phone. However, incoming calls and texts with a DIGITS line on T-Mobile is broken. I've been troubleshooting this with T-Mobile for more than three days and am ready to give up and forget the Watch Active 2. It really shouldn't be this hard, but apparently T-Mobile has problems provisioning things properly. I'm not blaming Samsung for this failure since I had this working before on my Gear S3 Frontier, but T-Mobile needs to be better if it wants to sell the LTE version of this watch.

The smartphone app has been very useful in setting up the watch how I like and in helping me explore apps and watch faces. Samsung has created a great ecosystem here with Galaxy phones and extremely capable watch options with the Galaxy Watch Active 2 being my favorite watch from Samsung.

The hardware is stunning and I love the look and feel of the 44mm black stainless steel model on my wrist. It is easy to swap out bands and it is very comfortable for me to wear all the time. The watch faces are also fun to change daily and you can spend years trying them all out.

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