Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active2 proves the second time's a charm

Jason Cipriani, CNN Underscored
Fri September 27, 2019

The smartwatch market suddenly feels crowded, but in a good way. Fitbit's Versa 2 is a straightforward watch that functions as a minimal smartwatch. The Apple Watch does it all, as long as you're an iPhone user. And Samsung's Galaxy Watch line fills the gap that Android users have felt from Google's floundering Wear OS smartwatch platform.

I've been using the 44mm version of Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active2 for just under a week, and in a lot of ways, it feels like what Samsung should have released back in April, instead of the original Galaxy Watch Active. The Active2 has a more elegant look to it, comes in two sizes, and brings back a staple of Samsung's smartwatch line -- the rotating bezel -- albeit in digital form.

First announced in August, the Galaxy Watch Active2 goes on sale Friday at Samsung.com, with a starting price of $279 for the 40mm or $299 for the 44mm.

Design

The Active2 has a premium design compared with the original Active. The first-generation version was unapologetically small -- and to be honest, it looked cheap -- but the Active2 has an aluminum housing with a refined look that looks much cleaner, more like something you'd want to wear on a night out, not just in the gym. I tried out the silver version, but you can also get the Active2 in black or pink gold.

On the right side is a back button and a home button, used for navigating and interacting with the watch, and a speaker grille is on the left side of the round housing.

The Active2 uses 20mm watchbands, opening up the possibility of fully customizing the look without having to find custom watchbands.

On the bottom of the Active2 is the heart rate sensor. As with the original Active, the Active2 doesn't have charging pins or use a connector. There's a cable with a small wireless charging pad included in the box that magnetically attaches to the bottom of the watch. Alternatively, you can use Samsung's wireless charger duo, or even the back of the Galaxy S10 or Note10, thanks to their Wireless PowerShare feature.

Looking at the top of the Active2, you'd assume that like its predecessor, it lacked a rotating bezel. Samsung has used physical rotating bezels on its Galaxy Watch line for the past few years, and it's a feature that Active sorely missed. But this time, instead of adding a physical bezel that you can turn to scroll through your apps or read a message, Samsung added an option to turn the edge of the Active2's screen into a digital bezel.

It's an optional feature that has to be turned on in settings, but don't write off the Active2 on account of its being bezel-free (more on this soon).

Overall, the Active2 is one of the better-looking smartwatches I've worn. The silver aluminum model looks sharp.

Performance

The first thing I noticed after powering up the Active2 was its large, bright and colorful display. The difference between the Active's 1.1-inch display and the Active2's 1.4-inch screen is drastic -- and for the better. Even comparing the smaller Active2 (1.2-inch display) with the original Active, you're going to notice that text is easier to read and more information is displayed on the screen.

Navigating the Active2 with touch gestures or the side buttons is smooth and free of any hiccups. The only time I noticed the watch hesitate a bit is when I would feel a notification, lift my wrist to view it, and then wait for it to load. Often the app's icon -- Outlook, for example -- would appear, and then there would be a brief pause before the icon would move to the top of the screen and display the message.

That may not seem like a huge deal, and in the grand scheme of things it's not, but the entire point of a watch is to provide information in a quick, glanceable way. The small delay, over the course of a day and the countless messages I looked at, grew to be annoying at times.

Once the message did display, I was able to scroll down and read it using the digital bezel. It took a couple of tries to get the hang of it, since it lacks a physical ring to hold, but the key is to keep your finger on the black border that surrounds the display. After I figured that out, the digital bezel was intuitive and easy to use. Seriously, it's well done.

Samsung's smartwatches aren't restricted to Samsung's smartphones or even Android phones -- I've been testing the Galaxy Watch Active2 paired to Apple's iPhone 11. Using it with the iPhone versus the Galaxy Note 10+, the overall experience isn't drastically different, with the main differences related to how notifications are handled.

On Android, you're able to reply to text messages and use the actions that accompany alerts from various apps. For example, you could archive an email in Gmail after viewing it on the watch. On iOS, I could only view the notification and clear it.

The Active2 accesses Samsung's Galaxy Store for apps and watchfaces, of which there are plenty. There are big-name apps from Spotify and Under Armour, along with countless apps from third-party developers and Samsung.

Battery life is my biggest concern with the Active2, especially for those who frequently use it to keep track of workouts through Samsung Health. The original Active had enough battery to get through two days of use, which isn't a lot, but it's more than the single day of charge I've been getting from the Active2.

I was able to squeeze 36 hours out of the battery, which sounds like a decent amount of time. But the reality is that you're going to have to charge it every day. Complicating the matter is that if you want to use it to track your sleep, you're going to have to charge it during the day.

With a bigger housing, and despite a larger display, I was really hoping for longer battery life. Right now, it matches the Apple Watch, but Apple's wearable doesn't track sleep. And the Active2 falls well short of the Versa 2's battery.

Who is this for?

I wore the Galaxy Watch Active for several weeks earlier this year and very much enjoyed it. But after using the Galaxy Watch Active2 for the past few days, there's no comparison. The Active2 is an improvement in nearly all aspects, save for battery life.

I'd be hard-pressed to recommend it to an iPhone user, simply because Apple just announced the Apple Watch Series 3 is now $199, and it's hard to beat the Apple Watch experience at that price.

But for Samsung Galaxy owners, or even those who have an Android device made by someone else, the Active2 is a compelling option. It's slightly more expensive than the Versa 2, but it also looks better. It can't match the Versa 2's battery life, but no other smartwatch can.

It really comes down to how much you want your smartwatch to do. If the answer is more than count steps and a handful of tasks, then the Active2 is worth a closer look.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.