It’s actually quite remarkable how much Samsung’s first smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, got wrong. The accessory was ugly, limited to Samsung phones, cost £300 and had a creepy camera on the front. That was 2013, though, and six years on, Samsung has finally got it right. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a well designed, feature-packed watch that will work with any phone. It’s also cheaper than the Apple Watch, starting at $280 – there’s no official UK pricing yet.
There are a few more ways in which Samsung either matches or beats the bestselling smartwatch. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 comes in a now standard 44mm size as well as a more compact 40mm model, as does the Apple Watch Series 4. The aluminium and stainless steel watches are lighter than the Apple Watch, starting at just 26g, and well, the Apple Watch is iconic but don’t forget Samsung smartwatches are round. This Active line looks simple but polished, rather than trying to mimic sports watches, and at 10.9mm thick it’s similar to Apple’s 10.7mm watch.
As for features, the Galaxy Watch Active 2, which runs on Samsung’s own Tizen OS, offers native sleep tracking, official offline Spotify with 4GB of storage, wireless charging and a third-party watch face store. You won’t find any of those on the current Apple Watch though some are expected on a Series 5 in September. LTE is available on the stainless steel watch, there’s touch bezel controls, to replace the Galaxy Watch’s rotating bezel, and there’s NFC payments too. The spec sheet lists ‘A-GPS’ – we’ll confirm with Samsung whether this is proper built-in GPS or requires your phone. (It’s built in on the Galaxy Watch Active).
It’s no coincidence that Samsung has announced its new smartwatch in August, just six months after the good-value Galaxy Watch Active, when it won’t actually be available until 27 September. Pre-orders start on 6 September and by our calculations, that’s four days before the day we’ve tentatively pencilled in for Apple’s next big iPhone and Watch launch event.
This year the threat is particularly acute because at WWDC, Apple announced that when watchOS 6 arrives this autumn, the Apple Watch will have a standalone app store and workouts that don’t require an iPhone. If Apple also opens it further so that you don’t need an iPhone to set up its smartwatch, that could expose the Apple Watch to Android users for the first time. Samsung’s smartwatches, incidentally, already work with iOS, aside from – in this case – the new My Style outfit and watch face matching feature on the Watch Active 2. It’s a nice play to the fashion crowd, similar to Fossil’s efforts, but iPhone owners will live without it.
Samsung has missed a trick in not making the battery life substantially better, particularly as it does do native sleep tracking. Samsung’s official line on the Watch Active 2 is ‘power that lasts the day’ i.e no better than an Apple Watch. The battery capacity is bigger – 247mAh (40mm) and 340mAh (44mm) versus the Galaxy Watch Active’s 230mAh – but with bigger screens and more features to power, there’s no real-world boost.
Everyone from Fitbit and Garmin to Huawei and Fossil, with its extended battery mode on its new Gen 5 Wear OS smartwatches, has been experimenting with time-only and low-power modes and it’s a shame not to see something similar here. Elsewhere, the 1.2-inch and 1.4-inch, Gorilla Glass DX+-protected 360 x 360 Super AMOLED displays are no surprise.
Battery disappointments aside, Samsung’s dogged persistence might well pay off. There’s a sense that the general public is much more receptive to wearable tech than six years ago. Smartwatches are now useful enough to drive real sales and that means they’re finally in business. In Apple’s Q3 earnings call last week, Tim Cook said that “accelerating growth in wearables” means that its wearable tech, home and accessories division is now the size of a Fortune 50 company.
We still, frustratingly, don’t know the breakdown product by product here, and the assumption is that the now ubiquitous AirPods account for much of that category’s revenue. But analyst estimates also point to the success of the more expensive Apple Watch Series 4 with smartwatch sales overall growing 48 per cent in the year to Q1 of 2019. Fully a third of those smartwatches sold were made by Apple. Apple has proven that wearable tech can act as both a tool and a status symbol, something that Samsung (and anyone else except perhaps Fitbit) has failed to recreate.
Still, people are ready for a great Samsung smartwatch. In October 2018, 24 per cent of people surveyed by Counterpoint Research said Samsung would be the brand of smartwatch they would buy next, second only to Apple’s formidable 42 per cent and way ahead of Fitbit’s 14. The fact that Samsung made up only 11.1 per cent of all smartwatches sold in the first three months of this year suggests that the customers were ready but the hardware just wasn’t there yet.
Where Samsung’s intentions seem confused is health. One of the big rumoured features for this device was that Samsung would match Apple with not only the improved optical heart rate tracker – now with eight LED sensors – but more advanced ECG (electrocardiogram) heart monitoring. This does appear in the spec sheet for the Watch Active 2 but it hasn’t been a focal point of the announcement, far from it, and a Samsung rep told Gizmodo that while it should work similarly to ECG on the Apple Watch Series 4, which is now live in the UK, it won’t be available at launch and Samsung needs to “run more studies”.
This follows a bit of a snafu regarding blood pressure monitoring on the first Galaxy Watch Active. Samsung announced the advanced health feature for the device but only after it was widely reported did it clarify that it would only be made available to a small number of users who opted into a trial with UCSF and downloaded the My BP Lab app. Even reviewers trying to test it struggled to access the app, which was only available for recent Samsung phones, the Galaxy S9 and above.
Interestingly, blood pressure, which FDA-cleared health startup Omron has succeeded in getting into a watch strap form factor, is nowhere to be seen on the Watch Active 2 press materials. We may get more details at the Galaxy Unpacked event in New York this Wednesday August 7, when Samsung execs get on stage to talk about the Galaxy Note 10. But Samsung’s clinical health ambitions appear to be six to 12 months behind Apple’s.
Before the launch, it was reported that Samsung expected FDA clearance for ECG in the first half of 2020 and in the UK it will have the MHDA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) to contend with. There is also a chance the Watch Active 2 could become more capable with time: fall detection was rumoured and has not yet confirmed though Samsung says the new smartwatch’s accelerometer can measure up to 32G of force, double the previous model.
Samsung could easily sell tens of millions of smartwatches without ECG and health tracking is not the kind of thing that technology companies could, or should, rush out to keep up with the Tim Cooks. That said, for those looking to lock themselves into Samsung wearables and the Samsung Health ecosystem, rather than Apple Health, a little more clarity on how mainstream and ambitious Samsung intends its health tracking to be wouldn’t go amiss.