Finally, An Android Watch As Good As The Apple Watch

Even though I have the privilege and luxury of testing all the latest Apple products, I have been quite vocal about my preference for using Android phones, and by extension, Google’s ecosystem. However, there are some Apple products that are (or were), just clear cut better than any rival counterparts: the iPad and the Apple Watch.

And so I use the former daily. Unless I have to edit videos, my preferred stationary computing machine is the 2021 M1 iPad Pro. It doesn’t matter that my main phone is usually an Android, or that all the cloud and productivity services I use are Google’s, the iPad works fine with them.

But the Apple Watch, sadly, doesn’t work with Android at all. It must be used with an iPhone. And so I can only wear it when I am using an iPhone as my main phone, which is like maybe two months of the year. The other 10 months I am usually wearing a competing device like the Fitbit Sense or a smartwatch from an Android phone brand and I am always reminded of their inferiority to the Apple Watch—until now.

Samsung’s just-released Galaxy Watch 4 Classic is the first smartwatch I’ve tested that almost meets all my wearable needs the way an Apple Watch can. There is still one major flaw, but Samsung promises a fix for that is coming, too.

A quick note before we begin the review: Samsung actually released two new smartwatches in its Watch 4 series: a $350 “Classic” edition that’s larger, has a rotatable bezel, and a stainless steel body; and a smaller standard Watch 4 that doesn’t have a bezel, is made out of aluminum, and costs $250. Although I only tested the Classic model, the majority of things I cover in this review apply to both watches unless specifically stated otherwise.

Responding to messages work well on an Android wearable, finally

In my opinion, with fitness bands being so much more compact and affordable, a smartwatch is only worth wearing if it allows me to check my smartphone less. And the reason most of us check our phones so often is to check, and respond, to notifications, which are often chat messages.

The Apple Watch does this well: I can read entire WhatsApp or WeChat messages directly on the watch. And I can respond directly on my wrist via excellent voice dictation or “scribbling” text input. I don’t have to take out the iPhone just to answer a simple question.

Most Android smartwatches cannot do this. Huawei’s and Xiaomi’s wearables only allow me to read messages but not interact with them. Fitbit lets me respond by selecting from some pre-set canned responses like “yes” and “Sorry I’m busy right now.”

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch series has been one of the few, along with obscure WearOS devices like the Oppo Watch, to offer the ability to send real responses to notifications. But because most of these existing smartwatches run on an old, outdated smartwatch processors or run on lackluster software, it’s a frustrating experience. Last year’s Galaxy Watch 3 did indeed support voice dictation, but it lagged so much, and made so many mistakes along the way, it was borderline unusable.

The new Galaxy Watch 4 series fixes this because it runs on a new processor, the Exynos W920. This is a 5nm SoC (systems-on-chip), and the performance boost is immediately noticeable, as the Watch 4 Classic can load apps without the one-to-two second load times like last year’s Galaxy Watch 3, and it can actually keep up with my voice when I’m using voice dictation.

Throughout my week of using the Watch 4 Classic (paired with the Galaxy Fold 3), I responded to dozens of WhatsApp, WeChat, Slack, Telegram messages by just talking back to the watch. And the responses I sent via dictation had roughly a 95% accuracy rate.

This means Samsung’s new watch has saved me from needing to pull my phone out of my pocket dozens of times over the past week.

No Google Assistant, for now

The other thing the Apple Watch can do for me that most non-Apple smartwatches usually cannot get right is easy access to digital assistant. On the Apple Watch, I can trigger Siri (Apple’s digital voice assistant) by saying the key phrase “Hey Siri” or simply by bringing my wrist up to my mouth. Once Siri is listening, I can ask for weather forecast, directions to nearby shops, set a reminder, etc.

When I’m wearing an Apple Watch, I use this feature often to navigate when I’m cycling, or set a timer when I’m cooking.

The Galaxy Watch 4 Classic, unfortunately, can’t match this yet. There is a digital voice assistant on this watch, but it’s Samsung’s Bixby, which is simply not as good as Apple’s Siri or Google’s own Assistant. However, Samsung says Google Assistant support will come later via software updates.

I’m confident this update will come through, because the Galaxy Watch 4 is the first Samsung watch to run Google’s WearOS software in a while—this development was announced earlier this year as Samsung and Google have officially teamed up to try to take on the Apple Watch.

But as of right now, not having Google Assistant is a flaw and keeps the experience from matching the Apple Watch completely.

Galaxy Watch 4 hardware

It is unusual for a review to not mention a device’s hardware and design until this far down the review, but I feel the improved functionality of the watch was more important for those seeking an Apple Watch alternative. Plus, the Galaxy Watch 4 Classic for the most part look very similar to the Galaxy Watch 3.

The Watch 4 Classic comes in two sizes: 46mm and 42mm. I tested the latter. The Classic’s circular shape with a raised bezel gives it the feel of a traditional watch, and the two buttons on the right side are clicky and responsive.

The bezel, as mentioned, can be rotated as a means to navigate the UI. While the UI can also be navigated via swipes and taps like any smart device, rotating the bezel brings particular satisfaction as the action brings a satisfying tactile feedback.

On the side of the Watch 4 Classic are speaker grilles, and they pump out loud enough sound for me to take phone calls out on Hong Kong’s notoriously loud streets without issues. The other party said they heard me fine, too.

Around the back of the Watch 4 Classic is a new three-in-one sensor that Samsung calls “BioActive Sensor.” It is a single sensor that tracks three metrics: optical heart rate, electrical heart and bioelectrical impedance analysis. These three sensors are used to monitor blood pressure, detect irregular heartbeat, blood-oxygen levels, and even body composition (like fat percentage). The latter is a first for any smartwatch.

The OLED screen, covered by Gorilla Glass DX, looks great, and because of the new Exynos W920 5nm chip, the UX feels faster than before. There’s 1.5GB of RAM for memory and 16GB of storage.

The Watch 4 Classic is rated IP68 water and dust resistance—I took it for a swim at the beach this past weekend without issues.

If I have to nitpick, I’d say the Watch 4 Classic’s design isn’t as elegant as the Huawei Watch GT2, and the included rubber straps feel cheap and boring.

Software and fitness tracking

As mentioned earlier, the Galaxy Watch 4 series are the first Samsung smartwatches in years to run Google’s WearOS (the South Korean tech giant had used Google’s wearable software early on, but quickly moved to its own TizenOS). The decision to go back to Google is great news for many, as Samsung’s TizenOS had always been lacking in apps.

Now that the Watch 4 Classic runs WearOS, it has access to Google’s apps such as Google Maps, as well as a much better selection of third party apps like Spotify. Having Google Maps, in particular, is very useful for a smartwatch. Too bad the watch did not come with Google Assistant availability yet.

I wore the Watch 4 Classic for a week and found its fitness tracking to be excellent. It’s smart enough to automatically detect some workouts, like bicycle rides or fast walks. And while its sleep tracking is not as good as Fitbit’s, its heart rate tracking is as accurate as the Apple Watch. As someone who used to take fitness seriously (before age and work derailed those plans), I am happy to see the addition of body composition analysis, because fat percentage is a far better indicator of whether one is overweight more than the number on the scale, or BMI (body mass index). The results I got from my body composition test seemed fairly accurate.

Overall, I have no complaints with the fitness tracking capabilities of the Galaxy Watch 4 Classic.

Battery life is a bit disappointing, at only about a day and a half. Basically this is a phone that requires charging either every night, or by lunch time the second day.

Conclusion

I already spoiled my conclusion in the intro, but I cannot overstate how happy I am to finally have a functional smartwatch for Android that lets me respond to notifications. While I do find the $350 price to be a bit steep, the existence of a cheaper standard model makes the series more appealing.

Ultimately, the Galaxy Watch 4 series wins because it doesn’t have much competition in the Android space. Most iPhone users, if they’re looking for a smartwatch, will get the Apple Watch. Samsung’s wearables are really competing against the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi, Fitbit and Motorola. And the Galaxy Watch 4 series, with a new chip, actually usable voice dictation, and Google software support, is far ahead of the pack right now.