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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 ongoing review: It’s almost there


Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 has a lot working in its favor. It’s one of the best-looking smartwatches, with a bright, circular AMOLED display, new fitness aids like a running coach feature and the option to sync workouts from your TV to your wrist, better sleep tracking than earlier models and advanced health tools like an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) app to monitor your vitals. But for now, it seems like there’s a lot of unfinished business. By trying to take on so much, the Galaxy Watch 3 misses the mark on everything that could make it stand out from other smartwatches, because its most impressive health features won’t be available at launch.

Betting on a promise

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When Samsung first announced the Galaxy Watch 3, I was blown away by the exhaustive list of health features. It has an EKG feature like the Apple Watch ($399 at Apple), blood pressure monitoring from your wrist and an SPO2 tracker that can detect blood oxygen levels on command. But that’s a far cry from what actually arrived at my doorstep as the features are nowhere to be found. 

Samsung recently received FDA clearance for its EKG app, but hasn’t disclosed when that will roll out to the Watch 3 ($199 at Apple), or the Active 2 watch from 2019 (which also launched with EKG on the spec sheet). Blood pressure monitoring on the Watch 3 is still pending FDA clearance and SPO2 tracking is set to roll out via software update later this year. 

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If you’re buying the Galaxy Watch 3 for one of these features, $400 seems like a steep price to pay for a promise. 

Looks go a long way with this watch 

Once I got past the pending health features, I discovered there was a lot more to like about this watch. I was already a fan of the original Galaxy Watch ($219 at Amazon) with its round face and physical rotating bezel — the Watch 3 looks even nicer. It has a bright, beautiful AMOLED screen that’s easy to read even in broad daylight, useful if you’re on a run and need to quickly check your stats during a workout. The screen can stay always on if you need it, although it’ll cost you in the battery department (more on that later). I like navigating the interface with the rotating bezel instead of smudging the screen with my fingers. 

Gazing at the Watch 3 on my wrist, I think it could almost pass for a traditional analog watch thanks to its classic design. The smaller bezels mean the screen is slightly bigger than the original’s even though the body of the watch has gotten smaller. Although it still bulges out from under the stainless-steel frame, making it thicker than I’d like and not as comfortable to wear at night as the Galaxy Watch Active ($169 at Amazon)

I tried out the bronze 41mm version (the watch also comes in a 45mm size), with the tan-pink leather straps — a welcome step up from the silicone straps on the original Galaxy Watch and Galaxy Watch Active series. The bronze is a lot less flashy than the gold of the original Galaxy Watch and looks softer and more flattering on my wrist. If you’re planning on using it for working out or swimming (or in my case, bathing small children), you may want to invest in a sports strap as well. I can see the leather getting worn after a while with frequent contact with water.

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screenshot/Samsung

New ways to work out with the Galaxy Watch 3 

Despite its dressed-up exterior, the Galaxy Watch 3 can double as a fitness tracker. It tracks 40 different workouts, including swimming (both indoors and outdoors) and will automatically detect and track seven of those workouts. Within about 10 minutes of my starting my walk, I received a notification to start a workout and it gave me credit for the 10 minutes prior. 

A heart-shaped dashboard shows you a breakdown of your active minutes, calories burned and stand time during the day compared with your target. 

I took it on my usual 3-mile run alongside the San Francisco Bay without my phone in tow, and I found it to be fairly accurate at displaying my distance, pace and heart rate. 

You’ll have to tweak the settings to display the information you want at a glance during your run, because the default doesn’t include heart rate, which I personally like to have on hand. But I liked that it showed me a map of my run and a breakdown of my heart rate zones at the end of the run. It told me I had sustained my maximum heart rate for 2 minutes during the uphill portion of my run. You can also access this data after the fact on the Samsung Health app.

I was especially curious to try the new running coach feature on the Watch 3, which guides you through a run by providing real-time feedback on pace and form. Instead of starting a normal run, I selected the running coach on the watch, and plugged in my earbuds. A robotic female voice told me to start my warmup. The voice gave me pace alerts throughout the run and generic tips about lengthening my stride and landing on the front of my feet instead of the heel.

In the future, Samsung says the watch is also going to provide a post-workout analysis of your run that will include information like flight and contact time and asymmetry to tell you whether you’re favoring one side or another. It will also be able to tell you your VO2 max, or maximum oxygen consumption during exercise to give a sense of your overall fitness.

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CNET screenshot/Samsung

I can see how the running coach and post-run assessment could be helpful if you’re training for a race, or just looking to get more out of your usual route. But on its own, as is, I don’t think I’d use the running coach on a regular basis and it’s one of the many features I’ll have to revisit later on. Samsung says it’s coming via software update in the third quarter of this year. 

The Galaxy Watch 3 also debuts a feature that lets you sync it with home workout videos you can control from your wrist. Before the pandemic hit, I wasn’t really a home workout videos kind of person, but I think the global pandemic has made us all rethink how we work out and I’ve since been doing a lot of Pilates and yoga classes on my TV. Having the workout on my wrist was a big step up from my usual routine. 

I selected an abs program on the Health app which consisted of three 15-minute workouts during the week and was able to cast the first of the series on my Samsung TV and and follow along with my watch. The watch vibrated to let me know when it was time to move on to the next exercise and let me pause with a press of the button when I had to readjust my position. Plus it gave me the appropriate calorie credit at the end of it (or at least what I think is appropriate). 

This is not the first watch to offer something like this, but it’s nice that it offers it natively and for free. My one complaint is that the workout I chose also had robotic woman’s voice guiding you through the workouts, and let’s just say she’s not the most motivating when you’re trying to hold a plank for 60 seconds. 

The health features you’ll get out of the box

The Galaxy Watch 3 may not have the features I really wanted to test out, like the EKG, SPO2 tracker and blood pressure monitor, but there are a few other extras that are worth mentioning.  

Like its predecessor, the Watch 3 can monitor stress levels on demand using your heart rate data. The test takes a few seconds and requires you to keep your arm still. Once it has the information it needs, it’ll grade levels on the stress spectrum and give you the option to go through a minute of breathing exercises to help get your rating down.

I took my stress test while on deadline writing this review, and it detected very low levels, so I’m a bit skeptical about its accuracy. 

It’s also added menstrual cycle tracking: You enter the data in your watch and it syncs with the Samsung Health app, which can give you information about your next period and predicted fertility window. The feature is not native to Samsung and is powered by the Glow app, which was already a relatively established name in the menstrual health tracking category and one that I’d used before. 

The other big health feature exclusive to the Galaxy Watch 3 is the trip detection feature, which I hope I’ll never need. If the watch detects that you’re not moving after a fall, it should immediately contact your emergency contact and share location. I tried activating it by falling on my bed a few times but was unsuccessful. The Apple Watch (Series 4 and later) has a similar feature called fall detection that’s actually saved lives.  

Sleep tracking finally makes sense to me on the Galaxy Watch 3

One of my biggest complaints about the sleep tracking feature on the original Galaxy Watch was that it provided little context about your sleep habits, especially for someone who didn’t know much about sleep to begin with. 

The Watch 3 has learned a lot from the mistakes of its predecessors, and now gives a more comprehensive look at your night with a full breakdown of the stages of sleep (light, REM, deep), and compares yours with a normal range. It also gives you a score based on these factors. 

I’ve never found the score to be very helpful, but having the context of seeing my data compared with a normal range helped me figure out how to get the most out of my sleep. While my total sleep time was good, I found I wasn’t spending much time in “deep” sleep compared with what’s typical. I tried going to bed an hour earlier, and though my total sleep time didn’t change I was able to extend my deep sleep time and felt more rested in the morning. 

The basic smartwatch features, but no MST 

I tested the Galaxy Watch 3 with an iPhone 11 Pro and a Galaxy S20 Ultra, and while it worked well on both, some of its features, like text responses and mobile payments, are only available for Android users.

You can type, scribble, dictate or doodle a response, take calls and receive notification from most of your apps, including CNET’s. 

The Galaxy Watch 3 has Samsung Pay, but sadly it’s NFC-only and the feature will only work at NFC-enabled terminals. The Galaxy phones and Gear S3 ($330 at Amazon) have MST technology so you can use them for contactless payment at nearly all credit card terminals with a magnetic strip. 

The Watch 3 doesn’t have that many third-party apps to choose from, but it has some of the basics like Strava and Spotify, along with the native Samsung app for weather, timer and health.

With Spotify you get full music control and streaming over LTE (you’ll pay about $50 more for the cellular version of the Watch 3). 

The watch also gives you a level of customization rarely found on competitors like the Apple Watch or Fitbit Versa ($192 at Amazon), with the ability to set widgets and rearrange apps right on the watch screen.

Battery life pending further testing

Samsung says the battery will hold up to about two days of normal use, but if that’s the case I’m a power user because the most I’ve been able to get are about 24 hours. Thats with the always-on display at medium brightness, at least 30 minutes of outdoor exercise (without my phone), music streaming and one full night of sleep. 

The watch has offered some battery-saving tips like turning off the always-on feature, limiting the screen timeout and turning off location, but I feel like I shouldn’t have to compromise those features to reach the two days.  

After some digging, I realized I didn’t have the latest version of the Watch app on my S20 Ultra, so I’ve updated to see if I can get closer and will report back once I’ve tested again. 

I was a bit disappointed that the watch doesn’t come with its own USB wall adapter, just the cable with the magnetic puck. The upside is you can charge it on any wireless charger, or even get a quick boost on the go if you have a Galaxy phone (S10 or above). Those phones have the Power Share feature that allow you to charge devices on the back of the phone. 

A good-looking smartwatch with great potential

The Galaxy Watch 3 has the potential to be great if and when it delivers on its health promises. It looks great and can finally keep up as a fitness tracker, but lacks the substance to back up some of its most important claims. Until it does, you might consider the Galaxy Watch Active 2 ($365 at Amazon), which, though not as pretty, has the same features for about $200 less.

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