For the longest time, Samsung reigned supreme when it came to flagship Android smartwatches. Year after year, it was the easy recommendation for people looking for an Android analog to the Apple Watch. That’s still true with the Galaxy Watch 6 series, but I’m unsure how secure Samsung’s status is heading into the fall product season and beyond.
It’s not because they’re bad devices. Both the Galaxy Watch 6 (starts at $299.99) and the Galaxy Watch 6 Classic (starts at $399.99) are great Android smartwatches. But things have shifted a lot in the past two years. Fitbit has been increasingly absorbed by Google, and the Pixel Watch not only exists, but a second one is expected this fall. Mobvoi just put out a good Wear OS watch featuring Qualcomm’s Snapdragon W5 Plus chip, and it’s likely Fossil will do the same. And yet, the past 10 days or so with the Galaxy Watch 6 series have felt like I was frozen in time.
In almost every way, these are watches you’ve seen before. Depending on your perspective, that could be a good or bad thing. On the one hand, you know what you’re getting. On the other, not much has changed.
What’s new… and what isn’t
The updates this time around reminded me of Vincent Adultman from Bojack Horseman. You’re getting a bunch of tiny updates that add up to one big one, except something doesn’t feel right. Kind of like three kids stacked up under a trenchcoat, pretending to be an adult. I know this isn’t the same exact watch as last year or the year before. And yet… we have the same 40mm and 44mm sizes for the basic Galaxy Watch 6 in familiar colors like black, silver, and gold. The Classic is slightly bigger at 43 and 47mm, but not noticeably so, and it still comes in silver and black. As far as materials go, the base model is still aluminum, while the Classic remains stainless steel.
Visually, the most noticeable thing is the thinner bezels. When you just look at the regular Galaxy Watch 6, however, it’s hard to see the difference. It was only when I fired up my Watch 5 and looked at them side by side that I really appreciated them. Because the bezels are 30 percent slimmer and the display is larger, you get this neat optical illusion that the Watch 6 is significantly bigger than the Watch 5 — even though they both have the same 40mm and 44mm cases.
On the Classic, the rotating bezel itself is 15 percent thinner, and it gives the Classic a sleeker feel despite the bigger size. The effect is more pronounced on the 47mm version, which helps mitigate the fact that this is the biggest smartwatch Samsung’s ever made. I was a little wary of that at first, but to my surprise, it wears much smaller. (Samsung has pulled this off before: last year’s Watch 5 Pro was also comfy for a big watch.) It didn’t catch on my clothes, the weight wasn’t distracting on runs, and I had no issues wearing it to sleep. Still, it is noticeably heavier than the standard Galaxy Watch 6 due to its use of stainless steel over aluminum.
As an aside, I’m happy to see that Samsung managed to get a bigger display and battery into these watches without turning these into hockey puck-sized behemoths. It often feels like I have to choose between readability on a bigger display or comfort — and I didn’t have to do that here.
The internal hardware hasn’t changed from last year, aside from the slightly larger batteries and the new Exynos W930 chipset. Samsung says it’s 18 percent faster, but functionally, you’re not going to notice a huge difference. You still have the 3-in-1 Biosensor that enables heart rate, EKGs, and body composition analysis. There’s built-in GPS — though multiband isn’t an option yet. There’s a bigger difference coming from the fourth-gen watches (or older). For example, all watches now feature sapphire crystal for extra durability and temperature sensors. The battery size on the smaller watches jumps from 241mAh to 300mAh and from 361mAh to 425mAh on the larger sizes.
Speaking of the temperature sensor, Samsung finally does things with it now. Like the Apple Watch and Oura Ring, temperature data now feeds into advanced cycle tracking. This isn’t exclusive to the Galaxy Watch 6 series; it was actually announced a while back for the Galaxy Watch 5. Skin temperature data is also a metric you can enable during sleep. Perhaps the most novel use case is the third-party Thermo Check app, which allows you to use the sensor to check how hot or cold objects are in your environment. I wrote about what it’s like to use it in more detail here, but the short of it is it’s fun, silly, and not very practical.
For software, the Watch 6 series runs Google’s Wear OS 4 and Samsung’s One UI 5 Watch on top of that. When I first booted up the watches, there were some minor differences I noticed. The Sleep widget, for example, holds more on-wrist data than it used to. There are new watchfaces. When I paired the watches for the first time, I noticed a new prompt for transferring your watch’s data to a new phone. And then, a few days later, I promptly forgot this was new. The bottom line is that so far, Wear OS 4 and One UI 5 Watch feel a lot like Wear OS 3 and One UI Watch 4.5.
This is a running theme with all of Samsung’s software updates this year. Either it’s minor improvements to things that were already there, or Samsung’s catching up by adding features already have. For example, the main new sports profile is a Track Run, where you get more accurate GPS data when at a standard 400m track. If you menstruate, you can opt into temperature-based Cycle Tracking. After a 10-minute run, you can now view and customize heart rate zones. You can also create custom workouts.
These are all things Apple added last year with watchOS 9. Garmin’s had track runs and heart rate zones for ages, too. The Pixel Watch also already supports heart rate zones, though the first-gen device is a bit behind as far as track runs, custom workouts, and temperature data. Fitbit, which powers the Pixel Watch’s health features, does have temperature tracking on its Versa and Sense smartwatches — so it’s possible we may see these on a next-gen Pixel Watch.
I would’ve liked to see improved accuracy on the fitness tracking front, but it’s still roughly the same as last year: mostly great as far as steps and heart rate go, with the occasional wonkiness with regard to GPS distance. I highly recommend disabling the auto countdown in workout settings. A manual start lets you ensure the watch gets a secure GPS lock before you run, which greatly reduced inaccuracies for me. For sleep tracking, I noticed that overnight SpO2 readings were a little better than last year, but I still got the occasional reading of 72 percent… which, again, is cause to visit the hospital.
Samsung Pay is now Samsung Wallet. Emergency SOS has been slightly improved, so now your contacts can be alerted to your exact location. The Galaxy Watch 6 series can now passively monitor for irregular heart rhythm notifications in the background — a feature that was recently cleared by the FDA. Apple and Fitbit also have this feature already.
Catching up to your rivals is objectively good. It ensures these watches remain a competitive option in the market. They’re just not that exciting. In a race, it’s eye-catching to see someone at the back of the pack creep up on the frontrunner. But people don’t get out of their seats until it looks like the frontrunner might get overtaken. With these updates, Samsung’s leveling the playing field, but it’s not making anyone nervous.
Let’s talk about battery life
Last year, I wasn’t too happy with Samsung on this front. Battery life was crap with the Galaxy Watch 4 series, and in the lead-up to the Watch 5 series, Samsung touted bigger batteries and 40 hours of battery life. For the Watch 5 Pro, it promised 80 hours of battery life. When I reviewed these, I got nowhere near 40 hours on the Watch 5 and maxed out at around 50-60 hours on the Pro.
This year, the smaller Watch 6 and Classic have been bumped up to a 300mAh battery. The larger models now have a 425mAh battery. This is slightly larger than last year, but Samsung’s battery estimates are modest — all four watches have an estimated 30 hours with the always-on display, 40 hours without, and eight minutes of fast charging delivers eight hours of battery. Wear OS 4 is still a new thing, but the one thing we know for sure is it brings cloud backups and supposedly extends battery life.
The result is an overall slight improvement in battery life.
I was taken aback when, on day one of a full charge, the 40mm still had 78 percent battery by 5PM. I had a similar result with the Classic. This time last year, under the same scenario, the Watch 5 couldn’t last the whole day. It sparked hope that Samsung had finally fixed its battery issue.
The thing about Samsung smartwatches is your mileage with battery life is going to vary based on the settings you choose. If you disable the always-on display, enable bedtime mode, limit notifications to the essentials, and sparingly use LTE, GPS, or continuous health monitoring? I maxed out at around 32 on both watches. But that’s kind of like not using the watch to do much more than tell time. With AOD on, I topped out around 25 hours.
Once you turn on more power-intensive settings, the battery life takes a hit, particularly with continuous SpO2, snore detection, and skin temperature readings during sleep. Thankfully, the new bedtime mode, which dims the display and switches to the invisible infrared sensors, helps mitigate that. I went from 25–30 percent battery drain overnight to 10-15 percent, similar to the Apple Watch’s battery loss when overnight sleep tracking. As for GPS — another battery-intensive feature — both watches drained about 3–4 percent per mile with AOD across three runs ranging from 30–45 minutes on each watch. That’s a significant improvement over last year, especially since the screen is now a brighter 2,000 nits.
You’re gonna get a little extra from the larger watches just because they have the bigger batteries. On a typical usage day, the 47mm had 88 percent battery when I woke up. I went for a 30-minute run, ran a few tests, had a lot of notifications, and by 5PM, I still had 59 percent battery. I went out for dinner and a show and had 40 percent by bedtime. After enabling bedtime mode, I woke up around 7AM the next day with 28 percent battery left. Not too shabby.
Because I was constantly experimenting with settings, I never got the same battery life day in and day out. But having tried so many scenarios, the bottom line is you’re still going to be charging daily or, at least, every other day. For true multiday battery life, you’re gonna have to get the Watch 5 Pro (or a Garmin).
What’s more important to me is I feel confident these watches can last a whole workday. I haven’t felt that since Samsung switched to Wear OS two years ago — and that’s good enough for me.
Still Samsung’s garden
Like Apple, Samsung products work best within its own ecosystem. This isn’t anything new. In the past, I’ve always paired Galaxy Watches with Samsung phones because most Android users in the US have Samsung phones and because that’s how Samsung intends you to use them. But considering how the Android wearable landscape is changing, I decided to pair the Galaxy Watch 6 series with the Pixel 7 Pro for the majority of my testing. (I also borrowed a colleague’s Samsung Galaxy S9 for a more direct comparison.)
For the most part, the experience is the same, but there’s no doubt this is still Samsung’s garden. Take setup. On the S9, all the Samsung apps were already installed, and it almost instantaneously detected the Galaxy Watch 6 was nearby for pairing. On my Pixel 7 Pro, I had to go download, at minimum, the Samsung Galaxy Wearable app, Samsung Health, and Samsung Pay / Wallet — and all related plugins. That saves a good chunk of time, especially since if you already have a Samsung phone, you likely don’t need to make a Samsung account. I tried the setup process multiple times, and it was always faster on the Samsung phone — though it didn’t take that much longer on the Pixel.
There are also some apps that are exclusive to Samsung phones — like the Samsung Health Monitor app and the Camera Controller app. The Health Monitor app is what you use to take EKG readings, and it’s also necessary for the new passive irregular heart rhythm notifications. If you’re gadget savvy, there are ways to sideload it onto a non-Samsung phone, but that’s an extra hassle that’s just not required with a Pixel Watch.
With the Camera Controller app, it automatically appears in your watch’s app menu if you pair it with a Samsung phone. It’s missing if you pair it with a non-Samsung phone like I did. That’s a shame since I really enjoyed using the Camera Controller app during my hands-on to zoom in and out, as well as switch between photo / video modes.
(Quick note: initially, Samsung told us the Camera Controller updates were limited to foldables but has since clarified that zoom capabilities are available on any Samsung phone running One UI 5.1, and switching modes will be available on any Galaxy S9 or later phone provided it’s running One UI 5.1.1.)
My other pet peeve is that pressing and holding the bottom button is still hard-coded to Samsung Wallet. (You may have to update your version of One UI if you’re still seeing Samsung Pay.) While you can now reprogram the top button to launch Google Assistant instead of Bixby, there’s no way to do that with Samsung Wallet if Google Wallet is your preference. You can program a shortcut with the top button to launch Google Wallet, but it’d be much easier if you could just switch out Samsung Wallet.
Ultimately, these are minor bugaboos. Setup is generally a one-time thing, and with cloud backups, it’s less painful to switch to a new phone. If you don’t care about EKGs or aFib monitoring, you won’t miss the Health Monitor app. There are even third-party camera controller apps in the Play Store, so you don’t necessarily need Samsung’s.
Should you upgrade?
The Galaxy Watch 6 series isn’t the most exciting update, but these are among the best smartwatches you can buy. If you’ve been holding on to a Tizen OS smartwatch, now is a good time to upgrade, as support for the Galaxy Watch 3 is only guaranteed through this month. The same is true if you’ve been holding out for a smoother overall Wear OS experience or better battery life.
What I don’t love is that the price of these watches has gone up. (Thanks inflation!) The base Galaxy Watch 6 starts at $299.99, compared to $279.99 for the Watch 5. The Watch 6 Classic now starts at $399.99 for the 43mm, up from $349.99 for the Watch 4 Classic. Add $30 if you want the 44mm Watch 6 or the 47mm Classic, and another $50 for LTE. Technically, this makes these smartwatches more on par with the Apple Watch and Google Pixel Watch — but who on Earth likes to pay more for the same thing?
That said, if you’ve got a Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic, I think you’ll be very happy with the current Classic’s extra screen estate, sleeker look, and longer battery life. Especially since it seems like Samsung is updating the Classic on a two-year cycle, it may be a couple of years before we get another one. If you’re on a regular Watch 4 or Watch 5… eh. You could with the Watch 4 if you find a good trade-in deal, but I don’t think it’s worth it for the 5. All you’re really getting is the bigger screen size. Everything else is effectively the same, and you should see further battery-setting improvements once One UI 5 Watch officially trickles down to older models.
Taking a step back, iteration was truly the theme of this summer’s Unpacked announcements. And while I am so, so, so happy the rotating bezel is back, there’s only so many times you can take what’s old and make it seem new. Just as there are now more players in the foldables space, there are more Wear OS watches now, too. At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world that Samsung chose to stick to what’s tried and true this year. But this time next year? I’m not sure Samsung can afford to coast.