Meet the Gear Sport’s slim successor

After leak upon leak, it’s finally here: We finally have our first proper look at the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active.

What isn’t here on this new Samsung smartwatch is that signature rotating bezel. Samsung’s ditched it in favour of just touchscreen navigation. The follow up to the Gear Sport is also a slimmer than its predecessor and adds a pretty big serious health tracking feature.

I got some hands on time with the Galaxy Watch Active to see whether that bezel would be missed and find out what new features Samsung has brought to the smartwatch party.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Design

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: A slimmer Samsung smartwatch

It’s gone. Samsung’s rotating bezel, one of our favorite features on any smartwatch, has bit the dust. The explanation for it’s omission? We didn’t really get a clear cut answer, but it seems that it’s down to reducing some of the bulk and to keep things slender on the Active. So, you’re stuck with swiping on that touchscreen and while it’s not as satisfying as using the rotating bezel, it works well enough.

Speaking of physical bezels, the Galaxy Watch Active still has a sizeable one. I wish they had made it a touch-sensitive rotating bezel because it is significant enough to make the watch display look a bit on the small side. You can tell that Tizen is built with a rotating bezel in mind though, because there are still some oddities here.

For instance, when you’re looking to open an app you have to press twice. You tap on it to select it, and then you tap again to open it. That’s definitely more cumbersome than rotating the bezel and clicking. Elsewhere, there are two buttons. One goes back, and one goes to your watch face. There are 14 of those, and they look brilliant on the 1.1-inch 360 x 360 full color display.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: A slimmer Samsung smartwatch

Side by side: Apple Watch Series 4 and Samsung Galaxy Watch Active

Other than the lack of a sizeable display, the biggest takeaway from the Galaxy Watch Active is that it is extremely light. It weighs in at 25g, and it’s a breeze to wear on your wrist. It’s so light that it’s easy to forget you’re wearing it, which is a far cry from the bulkiness of the Galaxy Watch.

The Active is also sporting new bands that are more Apple Watch-like than on previous Samsung watches. They even have a little cutout that lets you loop your strap through, just like the Apple Watch Sport band. The bands feel good and it works well enough, but it’s hard not to draw the Apple Watch comparisons here.

As far as design goes, it’s not as memorable looking as the Galaxy Watch. It’s got curved sides and looks sleek, but it would look rather generic if not for Tizen’s signature looks on the display. It looks fine and it’s nice to wear, but it’s no Apple Watch or Fitbit Versa.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: Features and fitness

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: A slimmer Samsung smartwatch

For the most part, the Galaxy Watch Active is bringing the same features and fitness that were included on the Galaxy Watch. The biggest differences between the two are the lack of rotating bezel and the Active’s slimmer size.

However, there is now blood pressure tracking. This is done via the My BP Lab app, a join effort between Samsung and University of California, San Francisco. This app isn’t FDA cleared and is still in beta, and the Active unit we used did not have it to test out. So we’ll have to wait until it’s available to put it to the test. Samsung did tell us that you will need to know your blood pressure beforehand as a baseline, so it’s not clear how effective this blood pressure tracking can be – especially when put up against the Omron HeartGuide, which has an actual cuff to measure your blood pressure.

Otherwise, there isn’t too much new on the feature and fitness side of the equation. Samsung went ahead and tweaked a lot of the UI so that you can see more fitness metrics at a glance. It can still auto-detect running, cycling and dynamic workouts. There’s still GPS and 5ATM water resistance too. There’s also still guided breathing features and plenty of tracked activities to choose from.

One neat thing is that it uses Qi wireless charging. If you happen to have a new Galaxy S10, you can use Wireless PowerShare to charge your Galaxy Watch Active without having to carry around a charger (Samsung says the Active’s 230mAh battery will get you two days of battery life, but still).

While it’s a cool idea to use your phone to boost up your wearable’s battery life, in practice it was a bit frustrating. That’s because the wireless charging pad on the back of the phone is pretty small. It works well for big things, like my iPhone XS or even the Galaxy Buds, but it’s a mission to line up the Active in just the right place.

Oh yeah, Bixby is still around – but Samsung isn’t making a big fuss about it this time around. It does understand British English now, and it can also speak Italian and German. We’ll have to put it to the test to see whether it works better.

Initial verdict

So is the smaller and sleeker Samsung smartwatch better than what’s out there? Well, we’re going to need some extended hands-on time to figure that out. What I can say is that it’s much lighter and easier to wear than the Galaxy Watch. That makes the Active feel like the wearable Samsung has always wanted to make.

We’re a little skeptical of the My BP Lab app, especially as it doesn’t have FDA clearance, but there is still a chance Samsung and UC San Francisco pull that off. Otherwise, at $199.99 – $130 less than the Galaxy Watch – the Active feels like it could turn out to be a well rounded and affordable wearable package.

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