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

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

The Active 2 has a bright circular AMOLED touchscreen, is available 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 ($ 198 on Amazon) and is compatible with Android and iOS, although you don’t get all the features if you pair with a file i phone. The watch also has built-in GPS, so you won’t have to carry your phone with you on runs to keep track of distance and route details.

I wore the smaller 40mm Bluetooth Active 2 to track my workouts and sleep and was impressed with the results. If you’ve just bought the original Galaxy Watch Active, there isn’t enough here to warrant an update. But for anyone new to the world of Samsung smartwatches or from the first Galaxy Watch ($ 273 on Amazon) and looking for a leaner alternative, it has a lot to offer. Thanks to the new aluminum and stainless steel finishes, as well as additional health monitoring features, the Active 2 is much more comparable to the Apple Watch Series 6 compared to previous Samsung watches.

The bezel is back

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

Samsung must have heard my shouts, as the Active 2 gives you the best of both worlds. Instead of a physical watch face, slide your finger along the edge of the screen to scroll through menus with the touch bezel. The haptic feedback makes it look (almost) like a real watch face, although it sometimes took me an extra try or two to get it to register my touch. The Active 2 I received for review didn’t arrive with the touch frame turned on, so you may have to go into settings, find the advanced section, and turn it on.

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The touch frame allows you to slide your finger over the edge of the screen to simulate the rotation of a wheel.

Angela Lang / HDOT

After a few days of use, I am impressed with how Samsung has improved the fit and feel of the watch over previous generations. The 40mm version fits perfectly on my smaller wrist and the metal finish feels premium compared to the first Galaxy Watch Active. The aluminum version is available in black, silver or rose gold with a synthetic rubber strap, while the stainless steel version is available in a silver, black or gold finish with a leather strap. The LTE version is only available in stainless steel.

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

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The aluminum finish of the 40mm watch.

Angela Lang / HDOT

Fitness monitoring adds finesse, ECG is to be defined

If you’ve used a previous Galaxy Watch, there won’t be any surprises here when it comes to fitness tracking. You can still track over 39 workouts and see your data breakdown 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 well as competitors like Fitbit do (it’s much easier to visually interpret your training data in the Fitbit app, for example).

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

Sounds great in theory. But during my run I was surprised at how well it worked, as long as you can get past Bixby’s robotic voice. Plug in a few Bluetooth headsets and you’ll be able to hear the guide in your ear, along with any music you might hear, or you can use the watch’s speaker to hear instructions.

The coach tells you to speed up or slow down based on your current pace and also gives you semi-motivational comments ranging from “How are you feeling?” to “Try to smile if you can,” which was just as maddening and exhilarating on the return leg of my run.

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

While the running trainer may be a take or leave feature, I found that 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 when training than the original Galaxy Watch Active, which only had four LEDs. I’m a big fan of tracking my heart rate during cardio exercises like the spin class or running and found the Active 2’s readings updated much faster during a workout than the previous version. I have not yet tested the watch on a chest strap monitor to compare the results.

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

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The back of the Galaxy Watch Active 2.

Angela Lang / HDOT

In addition to existing exercises, the previous watch could auto-detect, such as running and cycling, Active 2 adds swimming to the mix, bringing the total number of workouts it can auto-detect to seven. Like the first Active, it monitors stress and sleep. The Active 2 now also has menstrual tracking and you can log your cycle from the Samsung Health app. And to help motivate you to reach your exercise goals each day, Active 2 encourages you to close each segment of a heart chart, such as the ring system used on the Apple Watch.

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