(Pocket-lint) - The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the Samsung smartwatch that was unveiled just months after we were introduced to the first Watch Active.
Unlike the original, it now comes in two sizes, has the option of 4G/LTE wireless connectivity, will bring ECG (electrocardiogram) to the wrist later in 2020 – just like the Apple Watch offers right now – and the rotating bezel control is back (well, kind of).
That's all packaged in a similarly sleek, sporty design. Samsung has even partnered with Under Armour to make a special edition, mirroring the partnership Apple has with Nike for its smartwatch.
To own it you'll need to pay more than what it cost to own the first Active. So is this the smartwatch you should be buying right now? Here's our full review.
Return of the rotating bezel
- Aluminium models: Cloud Silver, Aqua Black, Pink Gold
- Stainless steel models: Silver, Black, Gold
- 40mm and 44mm case size options
- 20mm interchangeable straps
- Digital rotational bezel
- Waterproof (to 50m)
Put the two Galaxy Watch Active smartwatches side-by-side and you'd be forgiven for thinking they are the same watch. Get up a little closer, however, and you can see some small differences that don't necessarily make a huge difference from a usability point of view. The second-gen is still a really nice, comfortable smartwatch to live with, but it does introduce a few nice design flourishes.
Let's deal with the size options first though: you've got your pick of a 40mm (just like the first Active) and new larger 44mm case. We've seen both up close and the two size options still manage to maintain that compact, minimalist look that's a big departure from 2018's Galaxy Watch.
Whatever size model you opt for, you've got your pick of a stainless steel or aluminium case in various colour options. The pink gold options gives the Active 2 a more eye-catching look, while the black version we tested is the option to go for if you want something that lives more discreetly on your wrist.
You do still get that nice aluminium casing that's held in place by a silicone strap. That strap uses the same unlocking mechanism, letting you switch out those 20mm bands as well. The whole package is waterproof to 50 metres depth, matching the likes of the Apple Watch and the Fitbit Versa in letting you take the Active 2 for a dip in the pool.
There's still two physical buttons flanking the touchscreen display, with a speaker grille over on the side of the watch case. Around the back, you'll still find the heart-rate monitor, though it's a different layout to the original, which is likely to do with the new ECG sensor (that should be brought to life in 2020).
The big new hardware addition to the Active 2 is the touch bezel. After choosing to ditch the brilliant rotating bezel included on its previous watches, Samsung has decided to bring it back, abeit in a different form. So it's out with the physical rotating bezel and in with something that lives more discreetly.
It offers the same functionality, giving you another way to interact with Samsung's Tizen operating system, letting you scroll through screens and select apps. It's all done without eating into the screen real-estate, where the black bezel surrounding the display housing it has actually become noticeably skinnier.
Samsung has since issued an update that brings that touch bezel to the original Active, which means the key design difference for the second-gen model lies in the size options available. If you think the 40mm Active is too small, the Active 2's bigger model may just appeal.
- 40mm option: 1.2-inch AMOLED display
- 44mm option: 1.4-inch AMOLED display
- Both sizes: 360 x 360 resolution
The 40mm Watch Active 2 features a 1.2-inch AMOLED display, jumping up ever so slightly in size from the 1.1-inch screen packed into the 40mm Watch Active. When you opt for the 44mm model, there's unsurprisingly a larger 1.4-inch screen, though this comes with the same 360 x 360 screen resolution.
You can certainly find larger and more dominating screen sizes on other smartwatches, but you're not going to have a real issue tapping and selecting icons and settings on this Samsung. Bringing back the touch bezel helps matters too.
What hasn't changed is that Samsung makes some of the best smartwatch displays, as reaffirmed by the one found on the Watch Active 2. It's exceptionally bright, the colours are great, and the deep blacks make it a lovely place to view the time or some of its more advanced features. It's nicely responsive, offers strong viewing angles even in bright sunlight, and you do have the option of an always-display mode if you want the screen on 24/7.
While Samsung has focused on keeping the design package sleek and minimal, it is offering some display protection in the form of using Corning's Gorilla Glass DX+ to offer an layer of durability. We've not noticed any worrying scratches or damage to the display in our time with it, so it feels at least like a connected timepiece that's well built for a bit of rough and tumble.
Features and fitness tracking
- 39 workouts (7 automatic)
- Heart-rate monitor
- ECG (due 2020)
- Swim tracking
- Fall Detection
As the name suggests, the Active 2 is all about health and fitness – and there's no shortage of features to make sure it lives up to that. It tracks over 39 workouts, with some hit-and-miss automatic exercise recognition; for manual tracking, there's an optical heart-rate monitor, built-in GPS, and it does offer swim tracking (as first introduced on the Gear Sport).
In both water and when on land, the Active 2 performs well from an accuracy point of view, but is somewhat let down by clunky software on the watch and Samsung's companion Health app (in terms of the way it presents your data and how to find it). If you're happy to use one of the supported third-party fitness apps like Strava, you'll find the fitness tracking experience far more enjoyable and less frustrating.
Samsung has added a new running coach mode that delivers audio cues on your performance in real-time, which you can hear via the onboard speaker or when paired with Bluetooth headphones. It only appears to be compatible when your Watch is paired to an Android phone though, so that's worth keeping in mind for iPhone users.
Speaking of fitness tracking, the Active 2 covers the bases in terms of step tracking, automatic sleep monitoring, and you'll get stress tracking powered by heart rate-based measurements, too. There's also that Apple Watch rings-esque display of your daily activity exploits to get a quick glance at your progress. Accuracy seems largely reliable when compared to a Fitbit tracker, while there's some nice motivational features to keep you moving during the day.
On the health front, Samsung is matching Apple by introducing ECG to its smartwatch. That means you'll be able to take medical-grade heart-rate measurements that should open the door to offering serious health insights. The problem here is that it's not available at the time of writing. While the hardware is set up to do it, Samsung will need to go through a similar regulatory process just as Apple did before it can start letting people take those measurements.
The Active 2 isn't stopping on the Apple mirroring there either, adding a new Fall Detection that enables the watch to detect when the wearer has had a heavy fall and to send out an alert to preferred contacts. Like the ECG support, though, this is a feature you're going to have to wait on to put to use.
In terms of replacing your smartphone, you're getting the smartwatch staples on the Active 2 when paired with an Android phone or an iPhone. Notifications for native and third-party apps are handled well and easy to absorb when they filter through. Samsung Pay is on board for contactless payments and you can pile on your music including support for storing Spotify playlists (for premium subscription holders).
Samsung does also have its answer to Siri and Alexa voice control, here in the form of Bixby. It's reasonably adept at handling very simple queries, but you're not going to get a full flowing conversation as it's simply just not there yet.
Hardware and battery performance
- Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity
- 1.15GHz Exynos 9110 chip
- LTE models: 4GB storage, 1.5GB RAM
- Wi-Fi models: 4GB storage, 768MB RAM
- Battery: 247mAh in 40mm, 340mAh in 44mm
Powering the performance on the Active 2 is Samsung's dual-core Exynos 9110 processor with 1.5GB RAM. There's certainly no signs of sluggishness with day-to-day use. Pairing with a compatible phone is achieved via Bluetooth 5.0, there's Wi-Fi connectivity too, and now you do have the option of 4G/LTE. Those LTE models also give you a little extra RAM to keep that performance nice and slick.
In the UK, phone network EE can turn the feature on to let you take calls and receive phone notifications sans smartphone. If you want to live that untethered life, it does push the price up by more than £100 for the pleasure, so it's worth thinking about whether you're going to be making best use of those.
On the battery front, you can expect to find a slightly larger battery inside of the 44mm Active 2. That means battery life will vary across the models and if you're using a Bluetooth or 4G/LTE model. Samsung says you should be able to get anywhere from three to four days, which would be an improvement on the slightly disappointing battery life on the first Active.
In testing, when you factor in features like sports tracking, using the always-on display mode, and the smartwatch features like music streaming, we achieved around a couple of days on our 40mm Active 2 Bluetooth model. We imagine using LTE connectivity will impact on that performance, though we didn't get to test that model out.
Therefore the Samsung is a slightly better performer than an Apple Watch, but comes up short in terms of what you can get from the Fitbit Versa or the Garmin Venu.
One nice feature is the wireless charging support, meaning you can drop the watch onto the back of a Samsung Galaxy S10 or Note 10 smartphone to top up the battery when you can't find the small charging disc that comes bundled with the new Active.
- Samsung One UI user interface
- Tizen OS operating system
Samsung looks to its own in-house Tizen OS to run the software show, which also has the phone-centric One UI overlaid on top.
What you get is an operating system that's well optimised for those circular watch surroundings, with the capacitive touch bezel that's nicely integrated into the experience. From an ease-of-use point of view, it's more Apple WatchOS and less WearOS in the sense that there's no steep learning curve.
What the Samsung doesn't share with its Apple Watch rival is a storefront brimming with apps. It's been Samsung's achilles heel for years, though if you're not concerned all that much about apps, it's not going to impact on your daily encounters with the Watch Active 2.
Samsung has added some interesting software extras, like My Style mode to help your watch face look match your day's outfit. It's also bringing enhanced Twitter integration making it easier to tweet, retweet and like from the watch. It also supports the ability to watch YouTube videos, though quite why you'd want to do that from a screen that size we are not so sure.
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 takes everything that impressed on the first-gen model and crams in even more features into its attractive, sporty design. It's also nice to have another size option to choose from for those that thought the original was too small.
It's a great smartwatch to use with the arrival of the touch bezel bringing back a much-loved feature from previous Samsung smartwatches. Bringing back a bezel you can use to navigate the UI is definitely a welcome addition. It's still got a top-notch display, too, alongside software that's easy to use, LTE support, and battery life that has been improved as well.
Fitness tracking features do a solid job, if not slightly let down by Samsung's own clunky software, while core smartwatch features impress too, offering a much better alternative to what Google's WearOS has to offer. Throw in the option of LTE, and Samsung has managed to cram a whole lot into a smartwatch that's still manages to maintain its slender frame.
Samsung has since rolled out some of the features that were unique to the Active 2 to the original model – including the touch bezel – which may have owners of the original wondering whether to upgrade. But if you want some future features, like ECG and Fall Detection, then this is the one to pick.
This article was originally published 6 September 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status
Fitbit Versa 2
It's the software that really makes Fitbit's second-gen Versa smartwatch a great one to use. It's cheaper, too, making it highly appealing as an alternative.