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Samsung Galaxy Watch review: An improvement on the Gear S3, but is it enough?

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
279
inc VAT

The 4G Galaxy Watch is now widely available on UK mobile networks

Pros 
Superb battery life
Great display
Good price
Cons 
Bulky
Few new features
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It might have been nearly two years since Samsung unveiled a new flagship smartwatch – the Gear S3 – but nobody quite anticipated the company would launch the all-new Galaxy Watch alongside the Note9 at its recent “Galaxy Unpacked” conference.

It’s the first time Samsung has used the “Galaxy” name in conjunction with a wearable since its early Galaxy Gear watches, but what does the departure from the Gear moniker entail, and how does the new device compare to its predecessors (and rivals) in terms of its design, specifications and performance?


Update: When the 4G Samsung Galaxy Watch was first released, it was available exclusively on exlclusively on EE from £20 a month on a 24-month contract. However, you can now get the watch on a number of other mobile networks, including O2 and Vodafone.

Our original review of the Galaxy Watch continues below.


Samsung Galaxy Watch review: What you need to know

Like all recent Samsung smartwatches, the Galaxy Watch runs Samsung’s Tizen OS, not Wear OS. However, where the Gear S3 was only available in 46mm (with Classic and Frontier designs), the Galaxy Watch can be bought in either 42mm or 46mm sizes. The 42mm model, available in black and gold, is Bluetooth-equipped and the larger, silver version has both Bluetooth and 4G variants. Unlike previous Samsung watches, this cellular model will be offered in the UK and EE will be the first network to support it.

Long gone are the days of only being able to use a Samsung watch with a Samsung smartphone, so regardless of which model you choose, you’ll be able to use it with both Android and iOS devices.

Otherwise, the Galaxy Watch has all the bells and whistles you’d expect of a flagship smartwatch. There’s an accelerometer for counting steps and detecting workouts, a barometric altimeter for monitoring stairs climbed, GPS for tracking speed and distance more accurately and an optical heart-rate sensor for keeping tabs on your pulse.

The watch is waterproof to 50m so you can use it to track your swims and there’s also NFC for making contactless payments via Samsung Pay. Finally, the watch has a speaker and microphone, enabling you to make calls and interact with Samsung’s personal assistant, Bixby.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review: Price and competition

The 42mm Bluetooth Galaxy Watch can be picked up for £279, which is £70 cheaper than the Gear S3 when it first appeared. The larger 46mm Bluetooth-only model costs £299.

Alternatively, if you're an EE customer you can pre-order the 4G-enabled 46mm watch exclusively from EE for £20 a month on a 24-month contract. That's £480 over the full term, but you share your minutes and texts from your smartphone, and you benefit from unlimited data usage on the watch itself. Note that the 4G version of the watch is only compatible with select Galaxy smartphones, however.

The Galaxy Watch’s main rival, the Apple Watch 4, is £120 more expensive, with prices starting at £399 for the smaller, GPS-only model. Having had a £50 price cut, the older Apple Watch 3 is much more competitively priced at £280 for the 38mm, GPS-only model.

Of course, the Apple Watch only works with iPhones, so if you’re an Android user, you’ll have to consider one of Samsung’s older devices such as the Gear S3 (£260) or Gear Sport (£230) if you want to save a bit of money. The Mobvoi TicWatch E and S remain two of our favourite budget Wear OS wearables (from £130), but now the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 3100 has been announced, there will likely be a new generation of faster Android watches in the very near future. Finally, the Fitbit Ionic is another great smartwatch that works with both iOS and Android phones, although its notification handling and syncing can be flakey with some Android devices.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review: Design

From a design point of view, there’s nothing especially new about the Samsung Galaxy Watch. I was sent the large 46mm silver model for this review, which is the same size as the Gear S3 and from afar resembles a chunky diver’s watch.

Up close, it looks highly reminiscent of the Gear S3 Classic, except for a few elements that have been borrowed from the more rugged S3 Frontier model. Two flat, grippy buttons are used, for example, instead of the more traditional-looking crown-style buttons of the S3 Classic and there are also numbers around the edge of the bezel to help you read the second and minute hands.

The rotating bezel that’s become synonymous with Samsung wearables is still here and still works brilliantly. It’s used to scroll through menus and lists of items on-screen without your fingers getting in the way. And the screen is still a superb 360 x 360 1.3in AMOLED effort.

However, there’s now a 42mm Galaxy Watch too, so if you were previously put off by the chunkiness of the Gear S3, this could be the flagship Samsung watch for you. As well as being 14g lighter (49g versus 62g without a strap), it’s more than 3mm shorter and narrower, and around 1mm thinner, too. It’s by no means svelte, though. The watch is bigger than the Gear Sport in every measurable way, so you’ll be disappointed if you’re looking for something akin to the 40mm Apple Watch 4 but for an Android phone.

As with previous models, the Galaxy Watch has standard strap lugs so you can use it with any standard 20mm or 22mm band to achieve the look you want. The charger is essentially the same as that of the Gear S3, too: a magnetic dock that holds the watch on its side as it charges.

This system works well, so it’s not surprising that it remains unchanged. Perhaps the best thing about it is that the watch face automatically rotates when the watch is charging so you can use it as a tiny desk or bedside clock while it charges.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review: Features and performance

One key feature missing from the Samsung Gear S3 was swim tracking, but that’s been rectified with the Galaxy Watch, as it was with the Gear Sport. Having said that, although it’s waterproof to 50m, Samsung says it should only be used for shallow-water activities such as pool swimming and not for scuba diving or other extreme water sports such as waterskiing.

Elsewhere, not a huge amount is new about the Galaxy Watch in terms of what you can do with it. Automatic activity detection, stress tracking and sleep tracking are all features we’ve seen in Samsung wearables before and they’ve been included again here.

Sadly, sleep tracking is limited to summarising the time you spend motionless, restless and sleeping lightly, and it also gives you an efficiency score. However, I was disappointed to find that it often failed to measure different sleep stages citing saying it “couldn’t get a consistent heart rate reading” while I slept.

The stress-tracking feature is more at the forefront than before for the reason that it now automatically detects when you’re too stressed and invites you to carry out breathing exercises to combat your high stress levels. Sadly, this never happened during testing, even at times of moderately high stress and when I manually ran a test my levels were always in the lower half of the scale.

Thanks to its new dual-core 1.15GHz Exynos 9110 processor, the Galaxy Watch is sufficiently zippy and feels quicker than all the Wear OS watches I’ve tried recently, which are limited by the dated Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip. Now that Qualcomm has announced the Snapdragon Wear 3100, however, the next generation of Wear OS watches should be able to compete with Samsung devices in terms of performance.

Another area where Samsung has a huge advantage over the majority of its rivals is battery life. The manufacturer claims the larger 46mm device can last for up to seven days between charges, while the 46mm model will keep going for up to four days. I was hugely impressed by the Gear S3’s four-day battery life, so for Samsung to have nearly doubled that is truly staggering, especially for a wearable that has such a large, vibrant display.

In practice, I comfortably achieved a full working week’s worth of battery life, which is streets ahead of the Apple Watch’s miserly two-day performance.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review: Apps and Samsung Health app

As with previous Samsung wearables, the Galaxy Watch runs Samsung’s own Tizen operating system and interfaces with the Samsung Galaxy Wearable and Health apps on your smartphone so you can customise its settings, and keep tabs on all your stats and information about your workouts. Both work well enough and the Tizen platform is clearly very power efficient.

However, the downside of Tizen is that it doesn’t offer a huge selection of third-party apps. Spotify is the one major exception to this rule – unlike Wear OS and Apple’s Watch OS, which only let you store music offline in Google Play Music and Apple Music respectively, the Spotify app for Tizen is the perfect companion for runners who want to leave the house without their phone but still accompanied by their favourite soundtrack.

The only significant limitation is that the Galaxy Watch still has a mere 4GB of storage, which means there’s enough space to save your favourite playlists, but you’ll need to perform more regular housekeeping of what’s stored offline than you might on the Apple Watch, which now has 16GB of storage as standard.

One noteworthy software change on the Galaxy Watch’s software is the addition of the Bixby voice assistant, which replaces S Voice. Although I’ve only had the watch a short time, my first impressions of Bixby aren’t positive. While you can launch Siri on the Apple Watch by simply lifting the device to your mouth, Bixby needs the screen to be turned on before it’ll recognise its wake word and, even then, it can be a little flakey. What’s more, practically every command you use requires permissions the first time you use it.

Bixby isn’t totally useless, but it’s nothing like as fluid as using as using Siri or Google Assistant. The voice-recognition engine seems less sophisticated, too, with Bixby sometimes requiring me to say a name several times and tap it on screen before it would send a message or start a call. When this happened, it usually left me feeling it would have been easier just to pick up my phone.

The Tizen UI is largely unchanged, however. You still access the watch’s various widgets by turning the bezel or swiping across the screen left to right, and the watch’s apps list can be opened by pressing the bottom-right button. Although this is all perfectly functional, I still can’t help but feel it comes up short when compared with Apple’s brilliantly streamlined WatchOS UI, where you can now display multiple complications – up to eight on a single watch face – and open any app in a second or two via the handy grid view.

It’s not that Tizen doesn’t work well. On the contrary, it’s mostly highly intuitive but with anything that’s more than a couple of taps or swipes away, I end up forgetting it exists and simply not using it at all.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review: 4G cellular version

One of the main headlines surrounding the Galaxy Watch at its launch was that it would also be available with 4G connectivity. Exclusively available on EE, the smartwatch costs £20 a month on a 24 month contract. This entitles you to unlimited data usage on the watch itself, but call and text allowances must be shared from your smartphone plan. As another sweetener, EE is also adding an additional 1GB of data to customers' phone tariffs.

The main benefit to the 4G-enabled smartwatch is of course that you can leave the house without your smartphone and still receive calls and messages and, once it’s set up, it uses the same number as your phone. Crucially, though, it’s only compatible with recent Samsung Galaxy smartphones and not other Android devices.

Costing £480 in total over the full term of the contract, the question is whether it’s worth paying the extra £180 compared to the regular 46mm model (£300). It might sound like a bit of a cop out, but that’s a decision only you can really make. And it’s because it fundamentally comes down to how much you value being able to leave your smartphone behind while remaining connected to the outside world.

Having got my hands on the cellular version of the watch, I can confirm it works every bit as well as I had hoped. Indeed, for the most part, it’s no different to using the non-cellular version. That is to say you can receive notifications, make calls, sends texts, and use apps such as Spotify without needing to be within range of your phone or a Wi-Fi network. It’s undoubtedly liberating if you want to be able to go for a run and still accept that important call you’ve been waiting for. There are some caveats, however.

The main problem is that battery life takes a major hit when you use the mobile network connection. After setting the watch’s cellular connection to “always-on”, the watch didn’t ever last more than a day and a half between charges (with display set to tilt-to-wake), which is considerably worse than the week-long stamina of the Wi-Fi only model. In reality, if you use the watch’s “auto” mode, which switches between connections automatically, you’ll probably achieve somewhere between those two numbers but be aware that if you use the 4G intensively at any point (to stream Spotify playlists, for instance) it’ll be towards the lower end.

The other important thing to point out is that because of its limited app store, the Galaxy Watch will never be a true replacement for your phone. Although you’ll still receive notifications from WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook Messenger, for example, you can only respond to messages you receive, with no option to start a conversation. Nor is there a Gmail app, so you’ll have to make do with the Samsung Email app if you want to be able to browse your inbox. These aren’t huge drawbacks but you shouldn’t buy the Galaxy Watch 4G expecting to be able to ditch your phone altogether.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review: Verdict

Overall, the Samsung Galaxy Watch improves on the Gear S3 in every conceivable way. Battery life, in particular, is stellar and the watch also fills adds the only significant hole in the Gear S3’s feature set – swim tracking. Bar a few annoying bugs, there’s very little reason not to buy the Galaxy Watch. It’s excellent.

However, and forgive me for sounding like a jaded hack, there’s not quite enough to get properly excited about here. The design is more subtle refinement than dramatic overhaul and there isn’t a huge selection of new features.

The truth is, you might be just as happy with the Gear S3 or Gear Sport, both of which are now available for less.

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