Samsung's slim $199 Galaxy Watch Active doubles down on fitness

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Thu March 14, 2019

At $199, Samsung's new Galaxy Watch Active manages to undercut the consumer favorite Apple Watch, Fossil's sport entry, and the original Galaxy Watch. It's sleeker, slimmer and lighter and runs the same operating system as other Galaxy Watch models.

Samsung has stripped out some features, but that's all right. The Galaxy Watch Active ($199.99; samsung.com) is mostly a fitness tracker with light smartwatch features thrown in. After a week with the Galaxy Watch Active, I'm pretty confident that this is the go-to watch companion device for Galaxy owners.

A straightforward design that's really simple

Samsung took a step back with the Galaxy Watch Active. It's a super slim and lightweight, mostly bland smartwatch. You can get it in your choice of black, green, silver or rose gold (although the green looks more like a blue). Either way, you'll get a smaller 28.1-millimeter display that retains a wide bezel around it, but the physical rotating bezel of the old Galaxy Watch is gone with the wind.

More importantly, though, the display is beautiful. Samsung has managed to pack in a Super AMOLED panel with a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass for durability, so it should be able to handle a few dings. In my testing, it was easy to read in sunlight (even on a very bright day) and got bright.

The Watch Active is just 10.8 millimeters thick and weighs in at a light 25 grams. One of my complaints with the old Galaxy Watch was its size. It was tremendous and could get in the way with some activities. For instance, I would never try sleeping with it on or bringing it to the gym. This model, however, is sleek and comfortable on the arm. It feels like a Fossil Spot or Apple Watch model.

The primary control will be with your finger as you swipe, tap and flick your way through Tizen OS. There are two physical buttons on the side for power control and Samsung Pay access. Inside, the watch only has NFC or near field communications, so it only works with select payment machines. On the back, you'll find some regulatory information and a heart rate sensor.

Full-throttle fitness

As the name suggests, the focus of the Galaxy Watch Active is fitness. This really can be seen as a successor to the Gear Fit 2. It's more powerful in every way, and cheaper. It's running the same Tizen OS (version 4) as other Galaxy Watch models, and it performs well here.

Swiping to the right of the watch face will bring you to the health screen, showing you three core trackers. You get Activity (calories burned), Workout (active minutes), and Move Hourly, which aims to get you up and moving every hour. It's very similar to the rings on the Apple Watch, but it gamifies the experience of getting fit,so chances are it will help you to be a bit more active.

I like the fact that it doesn't just remind you to stand -- it gets you to do a different quick activity. For instance, the Galaxy Watch Active had me doing torso twists, which, believe it or not, is a great way to break up writing on a laptop at my desk.

Another neat feature of the Galaxy Watch Active, thanks to Tizen and Samsung Health updates, is that it can pick up and automatically start tracking activities like running or using the elliptical. It comes in handy if you tend to forget to turn tracking on. GPS is on board as well, for easy route tracking while running or biking.

You can track about 39 different activities ranging from biking to running, so it's an impressive array. Samsung is trying to build out its tracking options so you won't need to go to a third party.

Basic heart rate tracking is here

If you're looking to be able to do an electrocardiogram on your wrist or be warned about irregular heart rate, then the Galaxy Watch Active is not for you. You're better off looking at an Apple Watch Series 4 in that case.

The Galaxy Watch Active can handle basic heart rate tracking, both when you ask it to check and with background readings. It's generally on par with my Apple Watch and manual testing, but at times can register one or two beats higher than the reality.

The Tizen OS experience

I was a little skeptical of a Galaxy Watch without the physical bezel, but after a few hours of use I really didn't miss it, and after several days I like the finger swiping method better. If anything it feels like I have more control over the experience.

Tizen OS on the Galaxy Watch Active is nice, and it's a piece of software that Samsung will keep investing in. Out of the box you have several watch face displays to choose from, and via the companion app for Android or iOS, you can add additional faces. Keep in mind though that similar to Galaxy Themes, not all of these will be free.

Swiping to the right will show you all the notifications the watch has backlogged. Many of these you'll likely find are not actionable, and the ones that are will be a pleasant surprise. For instance, you can reply with voice dictation to a text. However, you can't interact with an Instagram or Twitter notification. A majority of these notifications are meant to be quick ways to see what is incoming on your connected device. If you're pairing the Watch Active with an iPhone, this experience will be even more limited.

Swiping to the left will bring you to many app experiences, like the health tracker or the heart rate tracker. You can also glance at your calendar or pump up the jams with Spotify. The latter is a nice experience to have on your wrist, and yep, it works with the Galaxy Buds. Pulling down from the top of the watch face will pull down a mini settings panel, which lets you quickly toggle on or off different features.

Overall, it's a pleasant experience that is smooth and well thought out.

Battery life is long and charging is easy

Smaller and sleeker might have you thinking that battery life might be short, but I've consistently gotten around a day and a half with the Galaxy Watch Active.

I think even with a few workouts, several texts, music streaming and sleep tracking, it should last the day and likely through the night. Samsung includes a wireless charger in the box, but you can also charge the Galaxy Watch Active with Wireless Power Share on the Galaxy S10e, S10 and S10+.

A perfect companion for your Galaxy phone

For what you're getting, the $199 price point of the Galaxy Watch Active brings a lot of value when paired with a Galaxy phone. It integrates quite well with Samsung's One UI and natively will work with the Galaxy Store for extra apps and watch faces. You'll be able to see notifications on your wrist, control music playback through Spotify and maybe even get a little more active. The biggest surprise will be how you may not even notice it on your wrist, thanks to it being so slim.

Samsung did an excellent job with the Galaxy Watch Active ($199.99; samsung.com), and I think it's a great companion for your Galaxy smartphone.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.