Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 review: A year later, the Active 2 is the smartwatch it promised it could be

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It took a year, but Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active 2 finally gets its long-awaited electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), just like the Apple Watch ($399 at Apple), the Fitbit Sense and Samsung’s latest Galaxy Watch 3. The $249 (£249, AU$549) Galaxy Watch Active 2 launched in 2019 but its flagship health feature wasn’t turned on yet. Now the ECG app has received FDA clearance in the US and you can expect it to roll out soon in the new Samsung Health Monitor app. I’ll update this review, originally published in September 2019, once I’ve had a chance to test the ECG.

The Active 2 has a bright, circular AMOLED touchscreen, comes in two sizes (40mm and 44mm) and has a Bluetooth or LTE option. It has improved heart-rate tracking over the original Galaxy Watch Active ($168 at Amazon) and is compatible with Android and iOS, although you don’t get all the features if you pair with an iPhone. The watch also has built-in GPS, so you won’t need to take your phone with you on runs to track distance and route details.

I’ve been wearing the smaller 40mm Bluetooth Active 2 to track my workouts and my sleep, and I’ve been impressed with the results. If you’ve just bought the original Galaxy Watch Active, there isn’t enough here to warrant an upgrade. But for anyone new to the world of Samsung smartwatches or coming from the first Galaxy Watch ($219 at Amazon) and looking for a slimmer alternative, it has plenty to offer. Thanks to the new aluminum and stainless-steel finishes, plus additional health-tracking features, the Active 2 is much more comparable to the Apple Watch Series 6 than earlier Samsung watches.

The bezel is back

The original Galaxy Watch, released in 2018, had a physical rotating bezel you could turn to change settings. I found it highly addictive because it gave a satisfying “click” when you turned it and it was a faster way to navigate than relying on the touchscreen alone. This year’s Galaxy Watch Active lost the bezel and you had to use the screen and buttons instead.

Samsung must have listened to my cries, as the Active 2 gives you the best of both worlds. Instead of a physical dial, you run your finger around the edge of the screen to scroll through menus with the touch bezel. Haptic feedback makes it (almost) feel like a real dial, although sometimes it took me an extra try or two to get it to register my touch. The Active 2 I received for review didn’t come with the touch bezel activated, so you may need to go into the settings, find the advanced section and switch it on.

The touch bezel lets you run your finger over the edge of the screen to simulate turning a wheel.

Angela Lang/CNET

After a few days of wear, I’m impressed with how Samsung has improved the fit and feel of the watch over previous generations. The 40mm version fits nicely on my smaller wrist and the metal finish looks premium compared with the first Galaxy Watch Active. The aluminum version is available in black, silver or pink gold with a synthetic rubber strap, while the stainless-steel version comes in a silver, black or gold finish, with a leather band. The LTE version is only available in stainless steel.

The color AMOLED screen is bright and easy to see in direct sun, as long as you have the brightness cranked up to its maximum. And now the Active 2 uses Gorilla Glass DX Plus instead of Gorilla Glass 3, which means it should stand up to more bumps and scratches than its predecessor. It’s rated IP68 or 5ATM for water resistance, the same as before.

The aluminum finish on the 40mm watch.

Angela Lang/CNET
Fitness tracking adds finesse, ECG is TBD

If you’ve used any previous Galaxy Watch there will be no surprises here when it comes to fitness tracking. You can still track over 39 workouts and see the breakdown of your data in the Samsung Health app or directly on the watch face itself. I still don’t think the Samsung Health app presents your data as nicely as competitors like Fitbit do (it’s just so much easier to visually interpret your workout data in the Fitbit app, for example).

The Active 2 gets an updated running coach, which gives you audio and visual cues through seven different running programs, from light jogging to endurance running.

It sounds great in theory. But on my run I was surprised at how well it worked, as long as you can get past hearing the robotic Bixby voice. Connect some Bluetooth earbuds and you’ll be able to hear the guide in your ear, alongside any music you might have playing, or you can use the watch speaker to hear the prompts.

The coach tells you to speed up or slow down based on your current pace and it even gives you semimotivational comments ranging from, “How are you feeling?” to, “Try to smile if you can,” which was equally infuriating and hilarious during the home stretch of my run.

Would I use it more than once or twice? Probably not in its current state. What I liked most was being able to hear my average heart rate and my pace after every mile, but I would want to be able to change the voice and customize the prompts it gave me to make it really helpful.

While the running coach may be a take-it-or-leave-it feature, I found the most useful fitness feature was actually the improved heart rate monitor. With a total of eight LEDs on the back to measure your pulse, the heart rate monitor is now more accurate during workouts than the original Galaxy Watch Active, which only had four LEDs. I’m a big fan of monitoring my heart rate during cardio-based exercises such as spin class or running and found the readings on the Active 2 updated much faster during a workout than the previous version. I haven’t yet tested the watch against a chest strap monitor to compare results.

As of September 2020, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 has received an update to give it some of the same features as the newer Galaxy Watch 3: advanced running metrics, a measure of VO2 max and trip detection.

The back of the Galaxy Watch Active 2.

Angela Lang/CNET

On top of the existing exercises the previous watch could autodetect, like running and cycling, the Active 2 adds swimming to the mix, bringing the total number of workouts it can autodetect to seven. Like the first Active, it does stress tracking and sleep tracking. The Active 2 also now has menstrual tracking and you can log your cycle from the Samsung Health app. And to help motivate you to meet your exercise goals each day, the Active 2 encourages you to close each segment of a heart graphic, like the ring-based system used on the Apple Watch.



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