If you own an Android phone, chances are you’ve enviously longed for an equivalent to the Apple Watch. A smartwatch with a robust app store, granular fitness and health-tracking features, and a snappy and intuitive interface—apparently, it’s too much to ask! Don’t worry, all hope is not lost. It may have taken a little more than seven years, but Google’s Wear OS smartwatch platform has lurched awake and is finally steaming forward to make a viable competitor.
The latest Wear OS 3 version was developed by Samsung, Google, and Fitbit (the latter is Google-owned). The first watch to run it is Samsung’s Galaxy Watch4 and Galaxy Watch4 Classic. Yes, you heard that right. Samsung, which has been honing its homegrown Tizen smartwatch operating system for several years—and producing a slew of well-made watches—has decided to try a different approach and throw its lot in with Google instead.
The idea is to pool Android phone owners to one smartwatch OS, thereby incentivizing app developers to build apps for the platform. Both Tizen and Wear OS have suffered from a dearth of apps on their respective stores—and we all know what happens when you don’t have enough of those (sorry, Windows Phone).
It will take time to see new apps on Wear OS, but the latest Watch4 range is already giving me hope. And if you’re a fan of Samsung’s previous Galaxy Watches, you’ll be happy to know that the software largely feels the same, with a few new improvements (and some regressions).
There are two models: the Watch4 ($250), which comes in 40- and 44-mm sizes, and the Watch4 Classic ($350), which you can get in 42 or 46 mm. Internally, they’re pretty similar and they both have bright OLED displays, but the designs are different. The Watch4 is minimalist, whereas the Classic is more traditional and sporty. All the sizes share 20-mm silicone straps, but it’s easy to swap out for a design of your own choosing.
The Classic is made of stainless steel, so it’s more durable than the aluminum Watch4. It also retains the popular mechanical rotating bezel, so you can physically move the edge around the screen to scroll through the interface on the watch. The Watch4 sticks with a digital bezel that accomplishes the same thing, like on the Galaxy Watch Active series, but it doesn’t have the satisfying, tactile click as you wheel through menus.
Both are attractive, round watches, and they sit comfortably on the wrist, but is a mechanical bezel and stainless steel worth $100 more? I don’t think so. You should worry more about choosing the right size, and whether you want LTE. Smaller wrists will gravitate to smaller watches, but beware: You’ll get a smaller battery.
I tested the 40-mm Watch4 and the 46-mm Watch4 Classic. The former barely lasted a full day, and that’s without the always-on display (AoD) sucking up power. It always required charging before bed if I wanted to track my sleep. The larger Classic, however, kept the lights on for a full day and a half, even after sleep tracking. It was slightly less with AoD, but not by much. Go for the bigger sizes if your wrist will allow it.
A Familiar Interface
If you told me this Galaxy Watch was running Wear OS, I would’ve said “liar, liar, pants on fire.” Run through the interface and it looks almost exactly like its Tizen predecessors. This is one of the new changes in Wear OS 3—manufacturers will be able to match the software to their own unique style. On the left are all your notifications, the right houses Tiles (a k a widgets), and a swipe down lets you access the watch’s settings.
Two new additions are a Recent Apps menu (tap the bottom button) and a swipe up from the Home Screen that will take you to all of your installed apps in an Apple Watch-like cluster. It’s easy to access the most important widgets and apps immediately. You can double-tap the top home button to go to your previous app too, or customize everything, including what happens when you long-press.
This is a Wear OS watch, so you finally get access to apps that have long been only pipe dreams on a Samsung watch. With Google Maps, for example, I can finally navigate on my bike rides without needing to take my phone out of my backpack. With Telegram, I can start messages directly from the watch. It’s wonderful.
Unfortunately, there are still so many apps missing compared to the Apple Watch. We’re still waiting for improved apps from Google itself, which helps manage the damn platform. For example, there’s no updated version of Google Pay (you can use Samsung Pay) and no YouTube Music. But with Samsung on board, and Google promising a wave of new apps coming this fall, I’m optimistic.
More apps means more choice. Take the keyboard, for example. To respond to notifications, you can scribble, use your voice, send emojis, or type with a keyboard. Samsung uses the ancient T9 typing system, which I totally nailed … in middle school. Quick, Samsung, what year is it? I quickly changed it to Google’s Gboard, since swipe typing is significantly faster. I can send full sentences in seconds, instead of minutes. Better yet, Google’s voice dictation is leagues faster and more accurate than Samsung’s. I highly suggest you swap.
Speaking of voice, I like the idea of using a voice assistant on a watch. It’s perfect for when you’re carrying groceries because you only wanted to make one trip from the car, but can’t access your phone to turn on all your kitchen smart lights. Disappointingly, you’re stuck with Samsung’s Bixby, which doesn’t always understand what you’re trying to say. Samsung says it’s working with Google to bring Google Assistant.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of the Watch4 series is the lack of support for iOS. If you’re an Apple user who doesn’t like the Apple Watch, look elsewhere. There’s zero compatibility here, which is odd considering Wear OS supports iPhones. Google says this is a limitation on Samsung’s part, though it didn’t share any details on future Wear OS 3 devices. It sounds as though other Wear OS 3 watches will support iPhones, just not Samsung’s.
Whatever Android phone you use, you need to download a few plugins to get the Watch4 fully working, like a Samsung Pay watch plugin. This all happens automatically with your approval; it just feels clunky. You also will need three apps to make the most of the features, which is annoying: Galaxy Wearable, Samsung Health, and Samsung Health Monitor. The latter, which is how you can measure your electrocardiogram, is not available on the Google Play Store, meaning the Watch4 series requires a Samsung phone to unlock its full suite of features. Boo.
Health and Fitness
If you do have a Samsung phone, you’re privy to the ECG, which checks for atrial fibrillation and works almost exactly like the ECG app on the Apple Watch (my results were the same on both). You also can access Samsung’s blood pressure monitoring … if you don’t live in the US. It’s only available in a few countries, though it might come later. Do not take your results as medical advice, and always consult a physician.
Everything else is available with almost any other Android phone. That includes standard heart rate monitoring, movement reminders, sleep tracking (with snore detection!), blood oxygen detection (SpO2), and a new metric called bioelectrical impedence analysis (BIA). It measures body fat, like smart scales, by moving an electrical signal throughout your body. I wasn’t able to measure its accuracy, but I also don’t think it’s going to prove useful for most people.
Samsung’s watches gave me identical heart rate results when compared with the Apple Watch (resting and active). The same was true with the SpO2 when measured alongside a pulse oximeter. Step counts and distance traveled were similar, but Samsung frequently delivered slightly higher numbers than it should have.
When I went cycling with the Watch4 and the Apple Watch, the results were nearly identical. I really like that Samsung paused the tracking when I stopped at traffic lights. It also reads out data after a mile, like your heart rate, and you get a GPS map of exactly where you traveled. Neither smartwatch automatically tracks cycling, but both successfully picked up my long dog walks.
Sleep data was also very accurate. The watch knew exactly when I woke up in the middle of the night for a bathroom break, and when I fell back asleep. You’ll get a sleep score the next morning, which essentially reaffirmed that I don’t sleep enough. I do like that if you have your Android phone next to your bed, you can opt-in to track your snoring. This might be helpful to see exactly how much you snore to diagnose other potential health issues, or it could be useful evidence when your significant other complains that you snored. Three minutes, OK? The phone says I snored for just three minutes!
All of this data is viewable in Samsung Health. I’m not a fan. The interface is really busy, but with some effort you can customize it into something a little more coherent.
I really liked the Galaxy Watch4 and Watch4 Classic. Just get the biggest size of whichever model you pick, since charging a watch more than once a day is annoying. The ECG is locked to Samsung phones, so it’s best if you have one. If you have another Android, I suggest waiting. Fitbit will release a premium Wear OS 3 smartwatch in the future, and you likely won’t have to deal with phone compatibility.
These are excellent and well-priced smartwatches, but you’ll start seeing greater benefits over the following year as more apps and features arrive to Wear OS 3. It’s not quite the Apple Watch alternative, but it’s getting really, really close. Finally.