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(Pocket-lint) - When Google first launched its smartwatch platform, Samsung was one of its first manufacturer partners. In the years since, Google was slow to update its operating system and several manufacturers opted to go their own way and build their own software. One of the first to do that was Samsung. 

In 2021 both companies seemingly realised their respective software systems haven't been up to market-leader Apple's standards. So Samsung and Google joined forces, delivering the first watch running this new platform: the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4. The big question is whether it can compete with the Apple Watch, or does it still fall short? 

Watch 4 vs Classic: What's different?

  • Watch 4 from £249/€269 / Classic from £349/€369
  • Watch 4: 40mm & 44mm / Classic: 42mm & 46mm
  • Watch 4: Aluminium / Classic: Stainless steel
  • Classic adds rotational bezel control
  • Same features & sensors in both

The Watch 4 and Watch 4 Classic are fundamentally the same from a capability point of view: whichever you pick there's no difference to power, to sensors, or to tracking options in any regard.

Instead it's all about the materials, finish, style and size. The Watch 4 (embedded in the gallery below) is more sporty, with an aluminium case and sweat-proof band. 

The Watch 4 Classic (embedded below) is, you guessed it, more 'classic'. It features a stainless steel case, more traditional strap fastening, a rotational bezel dial control (which lacks in the sportier watch), and the two case sizes are a little larger.

Those differences inevitably bring price variances, with the Classic commanding a higher asking price than the sportier Watch 4. This will depend on which size you choose and whether it's Bluetooth only or eSIM 4G capable.

Design and Display

  • 1.2-inch or 1.4-inch colour AMOLED display
  • Touchscreen and two physical buttons
  • IP68 + 5ATM water resistance

Samsung's standard Galaxy Watch 4 is quite a plain looking device, at least when compared to traditional watches or even the Watch 4 Classic (which has a much nicer looking bezel). 

The case is made using a form of aluminium, and features a subtle angled chamfered edge around the completely flat, round glass on top of the display. There are two buttons on the right side and you can customise what they do (to an extent). 

The top button, with the red accent, is the 'home' button that takes you back to the watch face with a single click. A long-press defaults to opening Samsung's Bixby assistant, but can be used as a power menu launcher instead. Double-clicking takes you to your last app, or you can programme it to do any number of other functions, like launching a timer. 

Long-pressing the bottom button launches Samsung Pay by default, enabling contactless wrist payments. Otherwise, it's a 'back' button. Confusingly, neither of the buttons is defaulted to launching into a workout. Instead, you need to swipe on the touchscreen to get to that option. 

The strap is a simple affair, but it's one that we really like. Similar to Apple's standard silicone bands, it loops in underneath itself, so you don't get any part of it sticking out or flapping about.

Wearing it day-in and day-out is comfortable. It's a lightweight watch, with the silicone strap fitting snugly around the wrist. Despite being a 44mm case, we didn't find that it seemed all that large. Smaller wrists might find it dominates a little though.

The underside of the watch looks very similar to other recent watches, with the optical sensors surrounded by shiny, reflective panels. It's not flat, but its curve is subtle enough that it can be rested on the back of a phone to charge, but by default it snaps magnetically on to its own charging cradle.   

As for the screen, that's a bright, colourful and completely round. Ideal for the colourful and interactive interface that's loaded onto the watch. 

A new Wear OS era? 

  • Compatible with Android only
  • Wear OS "powered by Samsung"

There's no denying that Google's Wear OS has had its share of issues. Mainly, it was lacking any decent built-in fitness tracking. It also lacked properly customisable watch faces. That's changed with the new version of Wear OS on Samsung's latest watch though.

In a lot of ways though, it feels a lot more like a 'Googlified' version of Samsung's previous Tizen platform than a new version of Wear OS. Samsung's influence is heavy. 

Pocket-lintGalaxy Watch 4 photo 8

Being a Samsung watch, it defaults to Samsung Health for its fitness and wellness tracking. But because it's Wear OS, you also have the option to download third-party apps from the Play Store - like Strava or Google Fit, or whichever takes your fancy. It also defaults to Samsung Pay rather than GPay for contactless payments. 

The one feature that really ups the experience is being able to customise the installed watch faces. There's far more granular control over the elements that make up the design. You can choose the index style, change the complications (there are dozens to choose from), plus change the accent colours and hand styles. In this regard, Samsung's effort virtually matches the Apple Watch. 

You do get the choice to enable an always-on display, too, so if you want to see the time all the time then you can. That will drain the battery a little more though. 

When messages come through, whether in SMS form or through a messaging app like Telegram or WhatsApp, you can reply to it from your screen using a selection of quick replies, or using your voice, or even typing on a little fiddly keyboard on the screen. The last of those is a great way to get flustered, and often, it makes more sense just to open the app on your phone. 

The one thing you will notice coming from older Wear OS watches is how different the interface is. For instance, swiping up from the bottom of the screen reveals the app grid, which we think will divide opinion. Still, we're fans of the new arrangement. It's quicker to find the app you're looking for than the old style method of having to scroll through a long list of icons and text. 

Swiping down from the watch face reveals the quick settings shade (as it does with most smart watches) while swiping right to left gets you to widgets. (and there are a lot more of them than what is usual for Wear OS). The mains widgets, however, are the daily activity tracker which shows your progress 'rings' in a heart shape, steps, calories burned, and active time. 

To get to notifications - now that swiping up has been changed - you have to swipe from left to right. It's similar to how Samsung has done it for a while, and seems a consistent method among other manufacturers with their own interfaces too. That means there's no Google Discover screen anymore. At least not on Samsung's flavour of Wear OS. 

Despite the changes for anyone coming from older Wear OS versions, it doesn't take at all long to get used to it. And if you're coming from older Samsung watches, it'll feel very familiar. There's just a little more meat on the bones this time around. 

Battery and performance 

  • Exynos W920 processor
  • 1.5GB RAM and 16GB storage
  • 247mAh or 361mAh battery
  • Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi and NFC
  • LTE on specific model

In our daily testing of the 44mm Galaxy Watch 4 we found the battery would comfortably make it through two days on a full charge. Sometimes a little more. It's worth noting this is with the always-on display switched off. It's also worth noting this is the larger model of the two sizes, and features a considerably larger battery capacity. You may struggle to get the same results if you opt for the 40mm model. 

Regardless, it never gave us the battery anxiety we'd experience on some previous Wear OS watch models. Two days per charge is comfortable, which it could live up to even if we used it to track sleep at night. 

Its standard method for refilling is a magnetic disc that easily snaps on to the back of the watch, but if you want then you can use your phone's reverse wireless charging feature to charge it (well, if you have a phone with that feature). As an example, we were able to charge the Watch 4 off the back of our Galaxy S21 Ultra

Fitness and health tracking

  • Heart rate and motion sensors
  • ECG and body composition measuring 
  • GPS, Glonass, Beidou, Galileo
  • Fitness plans and workouts
  • Sleep and stress tracking

When it comes to tracking your daily movements, sleep, workouts and overall health, the Watch 4 is very accomplished. It has all the sensors you need, and more that you don't but are nice-to-haves anyway.

For overall health and movement it has the usual tracking capabilities. It can measure how much you move during the day and - like any good fitness tracker - incentivises you by offering 'visual rings' to close, almost like a mini-game that you'll need to use your body to complete. These are for steps, calories burned and active time. Each time you close one, you get a colourful and vibrant animation to tell you so. If you sit still for too long it'll also encourage you to get up and do some stretches or squats. 

Samsung is attempting to be more holistic in its approach to health by offering more advanced sensors for your heart health. As you'd expect, the Watch 4 will track your heart rate throughout the day, measuring your averages. But - like Apple Watch - it has a built-in ECG feature designed to look out for irregularities that could indicate health issues. With the right accessories you can even get it to measure your blood pressure. 

It's no replacement for going to the doctor and getting yourself checked out properly, but it's a useful feature that could help spot the signs of something that you do need to be investigated. 

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What is an interesting feature is the new body measurement tool. So rather than just use the app to ask you how much you weigh and how tall you are, it also has a feature that measures your body composition. By launching the feature then holding your middle and ring fingers on the buttons it sends a signal through your body and attempts to workout how much fat, water and muscle you are made up of. 

Of course, again, a wrist worn device this small isn't likely to be super accurate, but we did find it to be consistent. We measured a few times and the results were similar each time. So chances are, if you're working to decrease the amount of body fat you have or increase your muscle mass, the watch will be able to pick up on improvements. 

Samsung's holistic approach even spreads to sleep and stress tracking. You can wear it at night to track the quality of your sleep. Sadly though, we found it about as accurate as most other wrist-worn sleep trackers. If you're still - either in bed watching a movie or reading - it might track that as sleep, even through you're not asleep. This leads to quite badly skewed results. 

It's strength, we think, is actually as a workout tracking watch. Or more specifically, as a running watch. For that, it's superb. 

We tested it on a number of different running sessions alongside our trusty Garmin Fenix 6 Sapphire and found it was pretty much bang-on with that. In one quite long 80-minute session it measured almost exactly the same distance using its GPS sensor as the Fenix did. It was within 10 metres. On a session over 10km, that's pretty impressive. 

Comparing cadence, the average was with two to three steps per minute of the Garmin, and it was a similar story with heart rate. That, also, was about two to three beats per minute different. Elevation, likewise, was a metre or two out. And this was the same on all the run sessions we wore it on. It compared well enough to the Fenix that we'd have no problem recommending the Samsung as a smartwatch for runners. 

It even adopts some of the more experimental running features from the previous generation Galaxy Watch model. As well as your usual pace, distance, cadence, and so on, the watch tracks what it calls "advanced running metrics". These include things like asymmetry - to make sure you're not landing heavier on one foot than the other - contact time, flight time, regularity, vertical movement and stiffness. All of these to help you improve your running form to become a more efficient runner and reduce the chance of injury. 

It's hard to tell how accurate it is compared to using shoe-based sensors, but it's still an interesting set of metrics to have, especially if you feel yourself aching after a run more than usual. You can check those metrics and see, perhaps, whether you were bouncing up and down too much, or landing too heavily on one foot. 

While experienced runners might find that all they need is to track and log data, others might not know where to start and Samsung Health has those people covered too. The 'Fitness' section of the Samsung Health app has a load of video guides and training plans to choose from. So whether you want to find a quick workout to improve your core strength or start a 5K training plan, you can do. 

Verdict

Whether you're looking for an all-singing, all-dancing smartwatch or just a smart-looking fitness tracker, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 series seemingly does it all. These watches are slimmer and more powerful than their predecessors - and more affordable too. It's quite the showcase for how far Wear OS has come in a short period of time.

That doesn't mean it's a perfect watch though. The regular model is quite dull-looking with its flat, featureless design and the lack of iPhone compatibility means it's really only for Android users - but it's the most complete package in terms of features that we've seen yet.

As it stands the Galaxy Watch 4 is probably the best smartwatch for Android users now. It's got pretty much everything you could ask for. Whether you need customisable watch faces, great fitness tracking, interactive notifications, wrist-based payments or music, this Samsung does all of it. And does it well. 

Also consider

Huawei Watch 3

What it lacks in interactivity and features, the Huawei more than makes up for in style and battery longevity. It's a great fitness watch, and it'll last for days. 

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Apple Watch SE

If you're an iPhone user, the Galaxy Watch 4 isn't available to you yet, but your best device is always going to be one of Apple's own. It offers the most complete experience for iOS users. 

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Writing by Cam Bunton and Mike Lowe. Originally published on 11 August 2021.