Smartwatches on Android are in a weird place. There are essentially two options if you want an all in one smartwatch and fitness tracker; a watch from the likes of Fossil, Skagen or Mobvoi that run Google Wear OS, or a watch from Samsung that runs Tizen OS. There are other brands such as Fitbit and Garmin which run their own OS, but these are geared more towards fitness.
Wear OS has gotten better recently, but still has its issues. Many of the watches are sluggish, the fitness tracking is average at best and you are lucky to get more than a days worth of battery life off internal hardware that hasn’t been updated in many years. The long rumoured Google Pixel Watch is still just a myth at this point.
Tizen on the other hand has a really poor app ecosystem, no support for Google apps and services, and, for better or for worse, you’re stuck with the Bixby voice assistant.
So the question remains, if you really want a smartwatch on Android, what option do you go for?
The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the follow up to the Galaxy Watch Active, which was only released around 6 months ago. That came in one size, 40mm. The Active 2 comes in selection of sizes and finishes, 40mm and 44mm, as well as aluminium and stainless steel. You can also choose from Bluetooth or 4G models in black, pink and gold in the UK. I’m testing the 44mm Bluetooth version.
In terms of looks, the Watch Active 2 is sleek, minimal, and fits in with any outfit or activity. There is a 1.4 inch touch sensitive Super AMOLED display which looks great, as you’d expect from Samsung. It has good visibility in direct sunlight and the colours are deep and vibrant.
Around the edge of the display is a touch sensitive bezel, which replaces the physical bezel that was on the Galaxy Watch and Gear S3. This allows you to simply move your finger along the bezel to find your way through the OS. It gives you some haptic feedback which makes navigating a breeze. Some people may not like it compared to the physical bezel but I had no issues here.
The customisation options on the Active 2 are impressive. There are plenty of high quality watch faces pre-installed and most of them can be customised further so each section will show specific information such as steps walked, floors climbed, battery life, weather and more. As well as this, you can change the colours, style of clock hands and even backgrounds in the menus.
There is also a nice feature that allows you to take a picture of a portion of your outfit and it will automatically generate a custom watch face to match. Perfect for a more formal affair.
The Active 2’s strap can be easily be swapped out, as it takes a standard 22mm fitting (20mm on the 40mm model). A quick look on Amazon or eBay can you get something stylish for next to nothing. The Bluetooth model comes with a sweat resistant rubber strap, while the stainless steel 4G model has a premium leather strap.
Fitness tracking is a key component of any smartwatch, and the Watch Active 2 excels here. I found it to measure steps, floors climbed and heart rate accurately. It has auto detection of various activities such as walking, running, cycling, swimming and others, and manual logging of over 30 others such as weightlifting, crunches and yoga.
The Watch Active 2 has built in GPS support so you can use this to map your runs without taking your phone with you. Its also water resistant up to 50 metres, perfect for those trips to the swimming pool, a quick wash in the shower or when you need to do the washing up.
The Watch Active 2 will also keep track of your sleep, and tell you what quality of sleep you have had throughout the night. All this activity feeds back into the Samsung Health app on your phone, where you can view a number of different charts and graphs to track your progress.
There are a few new features that were not available on the original Watch Active, namely ECG, which can check the rhythm of your heart as well as detect any irregular patterns. The second is fall detection, which can be set up to automatically notify a contact if the watch thinks you’ve taken a hard fall, especially useful for the older generation. Unfortunately however both of these features won’t be available till early 2020.
There is 4GB of onboard storage on the Active 2, this can be used to store apps, photos and music. It also supports Spotify with offline playback. You can pair up some Bluetooth headphones directly to the watch. I found myself doing this more often than not for some phone-less, distraction free workouts at the gym.
Smartwatches have always struggled when it comes to battery, but this is where the Watch Active 2 shines. I was easily able to get at least 3 days with some juice left over, and thats with what I would consider standard usage. Plenty of notifications, some auto-detected workouts and continuous heart rate monitoring.
Charging the Watch Active 2 is great too, as it supports Qi charging rather than its own bespoke method like the Apple Watch or many other Wear OS based alternatives. There is a charging puck included in the box (no plug however). You can also charge the Watch Active 2 on a Qi charger (the smaller type work best) or you can use the Wireless Power Share feature of any of the new Samsung flagships (S10, Note 10, Fold) to keep the battery topped up. I found this to be a useful feature when travelling as its one less thing to carry.
So this all sounds positive so far right, so what are the hang ups? It’s the apps. Or should I say, lack of. The Galaxy Store is barren when it comes to useful apps on the Active 2. There are only handful of apps that you’d actually want to install, Spotify, HERE Maps and a few others. Curiously enough, you have to download some apps you’d expect to be pre-installed, such as calculator, voice memo and stopwatch (this is a watch after all). Everything else is either half baked or costs money. On the flip side there are hundreds, if not thousands of watch faces available on the store.
The lack of Google support is the Watch Active 2’s main pain point. There is no native Google Assistant, instead you have Bixby, Samsung’s own digital assistant. It’s simply not very good. It struggles to understand the most basic of commands, and when it does, it’s slow to respond. Its disappointing, especially if you’re fully integrated into the Google ecosystem.
The Watch Active 2 has an NFC chip for mobile payments, but rather then Google Pay you are forced to use Samsung Pay, which is fine really, but the amount of banks supported is minimal compared to Google’s alternative. So if yours isn’t one of the lucky ones, you can either change your bank, or go without. I chose the latter.
Then theres the notification support, which in itself is fine. You can choose what apps you get notifications from in the Galaxy Wearable companion app. My main complaint is that a lot of these will simply tell you to view the relevant notification on your phone. WhatsApp is probably the most frustrating, with no way to view the thread or conversation outside of the new messages received.
You do have a choice on how to reply to messages, using either preset phases, voice input, emojis, or the classic T9 keyboard, all of which work well. It was nice to see that T9 was still ingrained in my skill set after my Nokia 3310 teenage years.
I also found myself accidentally dismissing notifications every so often with no way to undo or retrieve them. It would be great if this feature was added via an update.
I’ll admit i have a soft spot for the Watch Active 2, long battery, good fitness and wellness tracking features, and it looks beautiful, but the lack of Google apps and inconsistent notification support still has me leaning my head towards a Wear OS alternatives at times. But then I remember the poor battery life and sluggish performance and smile at my wrist again.
As an Android user, I’m still waiting for someone to come along and deliver a smartwatch that ticks all the boxes, but for now, this is the best you can get.
Pricing starts from £269 for the aluminium 40mm Bluetooth model, going all the way up to £419 for the stainless steel 44mm 4G model.