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Five years since the first Apple Watch and a full seven years on from Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, we know what a smartwatch is. We know that it’s not going to replace your smartphone anytime soon, that it will need to be charged every day or two, and that its best functions are for fitness tracking and seeing notifications when your phone isn’t in your hand.
Samsung’s latest smartwatch, the $399-and-up Galaxy Watch 3, does not do anything to change those expectations. In fact, there isn’t much difference between the Galaxy Watch 3 and any smartwatch that’s come out in the past few years — at least in terms of core functionality. If you’ve managed to ignore or avoid smartwatches for the past half-decade, the Watch 3 isn’t going to change your mind or win you over.
None of that is to say the Galaxy Watch 3 is a bad smartwatch or even a bad product. On the contrary, the Watch 3 fulfills the definition and expectations that we’ve accepted for smartwatches perfectly adequately. It does the things we expect a smartwatch to do — track your activity and provide quick access to notifications — just fine. And if you’re an Android (or even better, a Samsung) phone owner looking for a new smartwatch, the Galaxy Watch 3 is a fine pick.
Design and hardware
The Galaxy Watch 3 follows Samsung’s tradition of making a smartwatch look similar to a traditional watch, complete with a round face. In fact, the design is almost identical to the Gear S3 Classic from 2016: a round face with two round pushers on the side. Compared to the Galaxy Watch, its closest predecessor, the Watch 3 has a less sporty, dressier design that seems to be meant for more everyday wear as opposed to a dedicated running watch.
The Watch 3 is also slightly smaller and lighter than the Galaxy Watch. But make no mistake, this is not a small watch. I’ve been testing the larger 45mm variant, and it’s big and thick on my average-sized wrists. Those with small wrists will also likely find the 41mm version too big to wear. If you like big watches, you’ll be happy here, but if you’re looking for something sleeker and smaller, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a better choice.
Samsung did increase the size of the display on the 45mm version to 1.4 inches, which is actually quite large and makes the watch look even bigger on the wrist. (The 41mm version has the same 1.2-inch screen as the 40mm Watch Active 2 and 42mm Galaxy Watch.) It’s a bright, colorful display with a sharp resolution that’s easy to see both indoors and out. My only issue is that it can be hard to see the screen through polarized sunglasses, requiring me to turn my arm awkwardly or lift my shades to check the time. It also has a full-color always-on function so you can read the time without touching the watch or waving your arm around, as all smartwatches should.
You can get either size watch in Bluetooth-only or LTE-equipped versions for a reasonable $50 more; I’ve been testing the Bluetooth model and haven’t had any major issues with it staying connected to my Galaxy S20.
Perhaps the best advantage of the Watch 3 over the Active line is its physically rotating bezel, which you can use to scroll through the interface. It’s extremely satisfying and easy to use, and it’s the best way to navigate a smartwatch that I’ve tried. I much prefer it to the touch-sensitive bezel on the Active and Active 2.
The face of the watch isn’t flush like on the Active models, however. Its bezel is raised, which makes it harder to easily swipe through the interface on the screen. It does provide a bit of protection from bumps and dings on the screen, but it also makes the watch thicker overall.
As Samsung’s most expensive smartwatch, the Watch 3 has nicer materials and build quality than the Active line. It features stainless steel instead of aluminum, metal pushers instead of plastic, Gorilla Glass DX on top of the display, an 810G mil spec durability rating, and 5ATM of water resistance. Tolerances are tight, the buttons are satisfying, and the overall construction befits the Watch 3’s higher price tag. An even more expensive titanium model will also be available in the future.
In the box is a leather strap instead of the usual rubber options, which further indicates that this watch is meant for everyday use more than at the gym. The strap isn’t particularly high-quality leather, but it’s comfortable to wear. You can easily change it out to a rubber one (20mm for the smaller version, 22mm for the larger model) for more active uses.
An area that Samsung could certainly improve is the vibration motor. Unlike the Apple Watch’s informative clicks and taps, the Watch 3’s vibrations are buzzy and annoying, with little variance to differentiate a new message from an incoming call or hourly chime. Samsung’s phones have gotten much better haptics in recent years; it really should bring that system to the wearables, too.
Like the last few generations of Samsung smartwatches, the Galaxy Watch 3 has a fast interface that’s easy to quickly swipe or scroll through. The Watch 3 has the same processor as the Active 2, but the RAM has been slightly increased to 1GB total. It also has twice as much storage (8GB) for saving music playlists directly to the watch.
Compared to a Wear OS watch, the Galaxy Watch 3 is much faster and easier to use, with performance on par with recent Apple Watch models. It still can take a few beats to launch a third-party app (which you probably won’t be doing often; more on that later), but Samsung’s own apps and the widgets load quickly and provide most of the info you’re likely to need.
Samsung claims “up to two days” of battery life, but in my tests, it was kicking the bucket at around a day and a half, sooner if it was a particularly active day with workout tracking. You can extend the battery life by disabling the always-on display and enabling battery-saving modes that dumb down the features, but doing that also defeats the purpose of wearing a smartwatch.
Overall, this is a watch that you’ll still be charging every day or so. That makes it hard to use for sleep tracking since the most convenient time to charge it is when you’re sleeping. Charging the watch is also still a slow process, taking up to two hours to fully fill the battery. Fast charging is a feature that’s been game-changing on smartphones for years, but it hasn’t yet come to smartwatches.
Samsung’s watches all use its in-house Tizen operating system, which hasn’t changed much in the past few years. Not that it’s really had to — its design works well on the constrained size of a smartwatch screen, and the layout of widgets and notifications is easy to parse. The messaging app will now display pictures and emoji as well as the conversation history on incoming messages. There are also a couple of new gesture controls: silencing alarms or incoming calls with a shake of your wrist or opening and closing your fist to answer a call. Both worked in my tests, surprisingly.
Where Samsung continues to struggle is in app support. There’s no native mapping app on the Watch 3, and the options available in Samsung’s app store are terrible. If you don’t keep all of your to-dos in Samsung’s Reminders app and instead use another service, you won’t likely find an app to manage them on the Watch 3. I could keep going, but the point is that if you’re looking for a specific app, chances are you won’t find it for the Watch 3, and you’ll spend most of your time using the apps that are preloaded on the watch.
On the positive side, those apps are mostly comprehensive (outside of the lack of a mapping app, as mentioned). There’s calendar, weather, Outlook for email, messages, Spotify (including the ability to download playlists offline), Samsung Health for fitness tracking, timer, stopwatch, alarms, world clock, voice recorder, Samsung Pay for mobile payments, and so on.
If you are using a Samsung phone, you likely have all of the necessary phone apps to make the Watch 3 work out of the box. If you’re using any other Android phone, be prepared to install about half a dozen apps and services to use all of the features on the Watch 3, including fitness tracking and mobile payments. It’s a hassle, and Samsung really should consolidate these down to a single app. (If you’re hoping to use the Watch 3 with an iPhone, my suggestion is: don’t. The messaging experience is poor, and the watch will just do fewer things than when it’s connected to an Android device. Just get an Apple Watch.)
In terms of watchface options, Samsung does a number of things well and falls short in others. There are a few good options on the Watch 3 out of the box, including new riffs on Apple’s Infograph face that lets you customize an analog or digital face with a bunch of informational complications, and there’s a new animated weather face that automatically updates itself based on the time and your location. The Galaxy Apps store also has thousands of third-party watchfaces you can download and install.
But the vast majority of those third-party watchfaces are low quality — I spent the better part of an hour just scrolling through the store’s options to find something that matched my tastes — and the customization options on Samsung’s own watchfaces are limited to predetermined complications. Inexplicably, some faces give you more complication options than others, and there’s no support for third-party complications, so it’s tough to find an option that matches both your aesthetic preferences and what information you want it to display.
Finally, while both Google’s Wear OS and the Apple Watch have relatively fast and competent voice assistants built in, which are useful for transcribing messages, setting timers, controlling smart home gadgets, and so on without having to touch the watch, the Galaxy Watch 3 relies on Samsung’s Bixby assistant. Bixby, in case you somehow haven’t heard, is terrible, with slow, inconsistent responses and limited capabilities. An example: I often use voice commands to set timers on my smartwatch when cooking, but when I ask Bixby to set a two-minute timer, it often takes 20 seconds to process the request and start the timer, which doesn’t help when I need precise timing. It’s often just faster and easier to skip the voice commands on the Watch 3 entirely.
Though the Watch 3 is clearly designed for more everyday use as opposed to the fitness-focused Active line, it still comes with a handful of new fitness tracking features. In addition to the usual activity tracking, automatic workout detection, and heart rate monitoring, the Watch 3 now has enhanced sleep tracking, blood oxygen (SpO2) monitoring, and VO2 Max reporting. It also has a feature to automatically call an emergency contact when a fall is detected, like the Apple Watch.
I am not a fitness guru, so I am not the best judge of how reliable Samsung’s fitness tracking is, but prior models have been widely criticized for inaccurate reporting. I did have some trouble getting the blood oxygen monitoring function to work — it failed to get a reading on my SpO2 levels about 50 percent of the time — and the step counting was consistently 20 to 25 percent lower than the Fitbit Inspire HR I wore at the same time.The back of the Watch 3 has a heart rate sensor.
The updated sleep tracking features were also less than helpful. Samsung now tries to provide a “score” to better judge how effective your sleep was, based on how much time it detects you were in each sleep stage. In my tests, it did a mostly good job at automatically determining when I went to sleep and when I woke up, but my sleep quality was never rated above a 50, despite the Inspire HR I wore on the opposite wrist consistently scoring my sleep in the high 80s. Sleep tracking is far from an exact science, and wearable devices like this are missing a lot of the necessary context for what impacts the quality of your sleep, which means they shouldn’t really be relied on for any serious diagnosing. And finally, the Watch 3 is just too big and cumbersome for me to sleep comfortably with it on. I’m sure there are some people who will be fine with it, but I much prefer a smaller bracelet or ring device for this purpose.
If it feels like I spent the majority of this review comparing how the Galaxy Watch 3 is different or the same as prior watches. That’s because there really isn’t that much new to cover here. Samsung has refined some aspects of its smartwatches, and the Watch 3 is nicer to wear and a better device than the Galaxy Watch it replaces. But it still falls short in a handful of areas and doesn’t really change the smartwatch experience. This isn’t a generational leap forward by any means.
The other thing you have to consider is the price: at $399 to start, the Watch 3 is a full $150 more expensive than the Active 2 for what amounts to largely the same functionality. It does have the stainless steel body and rotating bezels, but those may or may not be worth the extra expense for you.
Hopefully, Samsung’s next watch will provide a more substantial improvement over what we experience now, whether that’s through significantly better battery life, additional capabilities, or something else that I haven’t even thought of. But until that arrives, Samsung makes fine smartwatches, and the Galaxy Watch 3 is the finest of them all.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge