Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 review: ‘good’ is as good as it gets

have been using the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 for about a week now, and it has accomplished something remarkable: it’s made me decide to stop saying there are no good smartwatch options for Android users.

Released just six months after its predecessor, the Active 2 is a reasonably good option. Some software issues keep it from being great, though. And if your phone isn’t made by Samsung, plan on some software annoyances.

The obvious and clear success of the Apple Watch for iPhone owners has made the dearth of quality options for Android phones feel that much more acute. But Samsung has been quietly plugging away at improving the Galaxy Watch and the software that runs it. The result is a watch that checks off most of the boxes smartwatch buyers should care about.

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a round smartwatch that starts at $279, though you can pay higher prices depending on the size and LTE. It comes in 40 and 44mm sizes, has a few different finishes, and the watch bands can be easily swapped out. (The original Active is still available and slightly less expensive. The original Galaxy Watch with a physical rotating bezel is also sticking around for a higher price.)

I like how unassuming the Active 2 looks. I have the basic black model, and its matte finish and slightly curved glass give it simple, clean lines. In a world where most Android smartwatches either look explicitly like fitness bands (the Fitbit) or emulate big, expensive watches (hiding how big they need to be), the Active 2 just looks like a simple watch.

It is not a watch I expected to exist because its predecessor is barely six months old. The main problem with the last one is that Samsung whiffed on supporting the very best feature of the Galaxy Watch lineup: a rotating bezel for scrolling through the software.

The Active 2 doesn’t fully bring that back, but it now has a touch-sensitive capacitive ring around the screen. Dragging your finger around it to scroll through various screens feels much more intuitive than just swiping because the Active 2’s interface is mostly built on circles.

More specifically, the software works by presenting you with a lot of screens you can quickly scroll through. In one direction, you have notifications. In the other, there are a bunch of widgets with discrete pieces of information. I enjoy jamming through these screens more with a physical bezel, but the touch-sensitive one isn’t terrible and much better than not having this kind of control at all.

One of the reasons this interface works is that it’s fast. Especially if you go with a simple watchface that doesn’t have a bunch of information in complications, it’s convenient to just rotate through your weather, calendar, and fitness. (It’s such a good idea that Google lifted it wholesale for Wear OS.) That would never work if the watch were slow. You will have some delays when launching full apps, but the widget system means you don’t have to that often.

I also like that it has Spotify on it, and it’s relatively easy to download Spotify playlists directly to the watch. But the quality of third-party apps drops off steeply from there. There’s no built-in mapping or directions app, and the app store doesn’t have anything good to fill the gap. The third-party app situation isn’t very good at all, but then again, it’s not great on any platform.

Some reviewers have pointed out that there are YouTube and Twitter apps, but the YouTube one never worked for me, and the Twitter client involved an insecure signup process. Avoid them. Besides, there’s a whole damn web browser built into the watch if you really want to access those sites. And yes, trying to navigate the web on a watch is as hilariously bad as you think.

There is a huge selection of third-party watchfaces to back up the many preinstalled faces from Samsung. I love having these options, but I feel like a little more curation could go a long way. I had to wade through a lot of gaudy watchfaces to find something I liked.

The Active 2 also does some things that other smartwatches (like the Apple Watch) can’t pull off, like a built-in sleep tracker and a very clever “goodnight” mode that turns off the always-on screen and notifications.

Oh, right: it has an always-on screen option, as all watches should. The screen looks great to me, even when viewing it outdoors in bright sunlight. I left it on and regularly got two full days of battery life, sometimes a little more if I didn’t exercise.

Speaking of exercise, you should think of this as a smartwatch first and a fitness tracker second. Samsung does have a lot of tracking options and Samsung Health is actually better than you might expect, but overall accuracy in terms of steps and distance has been problematic.

The other hassle with the Active 2 is, well, Samsung. If you’re using an iPhone, just move on and buy an Apple Watch. If you’re using a Samsung phone, you likely have everything you need to pair up with this watch. If you’re not, you will need to install several pieces of helper software, and it gets really onerous.

If you can get past all that, you need to contend with the voice assistant on the watch: Bixby.

Bixby is better than it gets credit for, but it doesn’t get much credit from anybody. Using it to transcribe short bits of texts works. But anytime you aim for something more ambitious, you’re in for a delay at best or a sad message that it can’t do it at worst. Since the third-party app situation on the Active 2 is so poor, you end up having to go to Bixby to do things like control smart home gadgets.

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the best* smartwatch for Android users. (The * isn’t a typo; it’s the indicator that there are some big caveats.) The Active 2 gets the basics right: it looks good, lasts at least a couple of days on a charge, has an always-on screen, and runs software that’s fast and easy to use.

That is more than I can say for any other Android-compatible smartwatch. But the thin third-party app support, iffy fitness tracking accuracy, and sometimes onerous Samsung software keep it from being great. Still, I think it’s a good smartwatch.

For Android users, “good” is as good as it gets. I’ll take it.

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