Hands on: Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 review

Same watch, new digital haptic dial

What is a hands on review?

Early Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a mid-year upgrade on its predecessor adding its most-missed feature: a rotating dial. It's digital, not analog, but the new feature alone might push this smartwatch to the top of our list - if we can stomach the bumped-up price.

For

  • Rotating digital dial is great
  • ECG included
  • LTE version

Against

  • Still similar to original Active
  • Notably pricier

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the result of crude arithmetic: take the slim Samsung Galaxy Watch Active and add the best part of the beefier Samsung Galaxy Watch - its rotating dial - and you get the best of both worlds.

Note that it’s not an actual mechanical dial - it’s touch-based, with haptic feedback buzzing when you’ve slid your finger around the edge enough to 'rotate' it. Still, that functionality might be enough to sway folks who are looking for a sporty, unisex smartwatch but want a bit more tangible control. 

It’s not tactile enough to supersede the satisfying 'click' of the solid bezel on the Galaxy Watch, but it’s a step ahead of control schemes on other smartwatches. Yes, we’d argue, even beyond crowns like those on the Apple Watch 4. It just seems easier to slide a finger around the outside of a watch while jogging or have our hands full than fiddle with a tiny physical dial.

Or so we estimate, given our limited time with the watch - which didn't include rigorous exercise, which might affect how easy it is to operate the digital dial. Not much else has changed from the first Watch Active other than the inclusion of an ECG as well - but perhaps these two upgrades are enough to justify a successor. 

After all, it’s only been a few months since the first Watch Active hit stores in April 2019, and the dial was the thing we missed most in Samsung’s sportier smartwatch.

The haptic touch dial in action - note the small arc at the top, where each node is a different app

The haptic touch dial in action - note the small arc at the top, where each node is a different app

(Image credit: Future)

Price analysis

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 will go on sale on in the US on September 27, 2019 starting at $279.99 (around £230) for the 40mm or $299 (around £250) for the 44mm version. The Australian launch is set for October 8, but antipodeans won't get the cheapest 40mm model, with prices starting at AU$549 for the 44mm. 

That base price includes an aluminum body and rubberized wristband in Cloud Silver, Aqua Black and Pink Gold colors. The watch will also come in a conceivably pricier model with stainless steel body in Silver, Black and Gold colors with leather strap, but Samsung hasn’t announced how much this will cost. 

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 will also be available in an LTE model, also from September 27 in the US. Samsung hasn't yet specified how much it will cost in the US or UK, but in Australia the 40mm size is priced at AU$749, with the 44mm models set to cost AU$799.

You can pre-order the Galaxy Watch Active 2 from September 6 in the US and those who pre-order on Samsung.com can get a Wireless Charger Portable Battery as a bonus.

Those higher prices might soothe anyone who ponied up for the original Samsung Galaxy Watch Active, which launched earlier this year with a base price of $199.99 / £229 / AU$348. 

If the rotating dial and handful of extra features aren’t exciting enough, the original Watch Active is better value, as we’re already seeing it discounted.

Samsung has separately announced the Galaxy Tab S6 tablet a few days before this smartwatch, and it's also expected to bring a new smartphone called the Galaxy Note 10 on August 7. If you want the full Samsung suite of gadgets, you should hear about all of them very soon.

(Image credit: Future)

Design and display

If you were hoping for drastic changes from the original Watch Active, you’ll be disappointed - but you shouldn’t be. We liked the lighter feel of the Watch Active compared to the heavier Galaxy Watch, and the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is just a (slightly) refined version of that vision.

The Watch Active 2 does come in a 44mm version, good for those who have larger wrists but don’t want the bulk of the Galaxy Watch’s bigger 46mm model. This seems like Samsung’s play to make its sportier watch appealing to a wider audience.

Otherwise, the physical differences are minute: the watch screen has been enlarged 0.1 inches over its predecessor for a 1.2-inch display on the 40mm model and a 1.4-inch display on the 44mm version. The right-side buttons have a color outline in some body hues. 

On the smartwatch’s wrist-facing bottom, Samsung has doubled the amount of photodiodes to eight. In theory, this enables even more precise heart rate monitoring, something we’ll have to test out in our full review. 

(Image credit: Future)

The phone also packs the usual array of accelerometer, gyroscope, and barometer found in most smartwatches, along with a new electrocardiogram (ECG), the flagship feature trumpeted in the Apple Watch 4

The watch retains the IP68 water- and dust-resistant rating and 5ATM resistance as the original Watch Active.

Display-wise, the Watch Active 2 seems identical to its predecessor, with a rounded Super AMOLED display (360 x 360 resolution). It fits any interchangeable 20mm watch band.

The aforementioned haptic dial works fairly well for a non-analog solution. It was sensitive enough to either slowly sift from one app to another or breeze through them en masse, with a satisfying vibrational 'tick' with every switch. 

Haptics are key here: the distinctive buzz makes the digital rotation feel tactile but not obtrusive. 

(Image credit: Future)

Performance and software

Specs-wise, nothing has changed. The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 runs the same dual-core 1.15GHz Exynos 9110 chipset as its predecessor (and the Galaxy Watch, for that matter). It packs the same 4GB of storage and 768 RAM, though the LTE models boost that up to 1.5GB of RAM.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as we’ve just as easily zipped around the Active 2’s interface as we did with the older Samsung watches. We wish Samsung had been able to squeeze in more storage, as the 4GB is reduced to 1.5GB of free space after the operating system has been loaded up.

Samsung’s One UI returns here on top of the Tizen operating system, and it looks largely unchanged with a few tweaks. You can still pop open a radial arc of apps by pressing the bottom button, but the inclusion of the digital rotating dial is a much easier way to switch between them than swiping across the watch face.

Image 1 of 2

(Image credit: Future)

Take a photo through the Wearables app using your phone's camera, and the algorithm will create a color-and-pattern that matches.

Image 2 of 2

(Image credit: Future)

Ta-da!

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is even more integrated with the Samsung Wearables mobile app with a new feature: take a photo with your linked phone, and an algorithm will craft a color-matching, patterned digital watch face for your Active 2.

The intended purpose is to swap in a new design for every outfit (fashion synergy, brought to you by Samsung), but you could also snap a photo of the sky on a cloudy (or cloudless!) day to match your mood. 

(Image credit: Future)

Fitness

As expected, the Watch Active 2’s fitness apps and features haven’t changed much: there’s still 39 workout-tracking modes, like running, walking, cycling and swimming. The Running Coach has been refined to monitor your pace real-time, offering mid-route feedback by tracking location through GPS and accelerometer. 

Those extra photodiodes on the back should take in readings faster, according to Samsung’s press release - another claim we’ll test out in our full review. 

The extra sensors should also help with another returning wellness feature: managing your ‘real-time stress levels’ via the Samsung Health suite, including guided meditation and sleep tracking through the Calm app.

(Image credit: Future)

Battery life

The 40mm Watch Active 2 retains the 230mAh battery of its predecessor, though Samsung claims the average user should be able to last up to 2 days without the need to recharge - assuming you aren’t doing a lot of battery-draining tasks, like running hours of tasks requiring GPS tracking.

This is a bit disappointing, if understandable given the watch’s small size. We nearly reached 5 days on a single charge with the hefty 46mm Galaxy Watch, for instance. But for those who absolutely need the most capacity, the 44mm Watch Active2 has a 340mAh battery, a 37% increase on the smaller model.

Of course, you can stretch out the time between charges with various battery-saving techniques and settings, which we will fully test in our review.

(Image credit: Future)

Early verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 might only differ on its predecessor in a couple of ways, but with a rotating digital bezel, ECG and a LTE connectivity option, they are arguably big differences, at least in the incrementally-changing world of smartwatches. 

Given how little time passed between the original Watch Active and this new version, it seems likely that the haptic dial was supposed to be included in the original, but needed more time to develop.

On the other hand, the price bump pushes the Watch Active 2 closer to the price range of the Apple Watch - perhaps not the still-costly Apple Watch 4, but around the window of the Apple Watch 3, which has been discounted for a while now. 

Thus the Watch Active 2 is less of a value buy compared to its predecessor, and a bit harder to recommend - but it’s still a quality smartwatch that we’re excited to test out further. 

Given how long we’ve waited to hear about a Samsung Galaxy Watch 2, the Active 2 might be the only heir to the ‘rotating dial’ throne - and a watch that could end up high on our best smartwatch list.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.