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Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Review: The Best Android Watch, For Now

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5 doesn’t break new ground in the world of smartwatches, but it is the best Android watch you can buy right now. It has a bigger battery compared to last year’s models, a more durable design and a new temperature sensor — but you can’t use it yet. It looks and feels much the same as last year’s Galaxy Watch 4, so it’s definitely an iterative update rather than a major overhaul.

This year’s watch comes in two variants: the $279 Galaxy Watch 5 and a slightly larger, more rugged $450 Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, which I have also reviewed. Apart from the construction, sports modes and battery capacity, they share most of the same features. If you own a Galaxy Watch 4, there’s no compelling reason to upgrade unless you want a bigger watch in the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, or slightly better battery life from both new variants. The software is largely unchanged from last year and, perhaps more importantly, you lose the fan-favorite rotating bezel present on the Galaxy Watch 4 Classic.

Like

  • Snappy performance
  • Better fit and more durable than the Galaxy Watch 4
  • Wide range of Google and third-party apps
  • Text input, keyboard and dictation work really well

Don’t Like

  • No more rotating bezel
  • Battery life only improved slightly on 40mm model
  • Temperature sensor not yet active

This is the best Android watch for now, but with the Pixel Watch on the horizon and a wave of Wear OS watches including the $1,290 Montblanc Summit 3, it faces some new competition. Also keep in mind some of Samsung’s key health features like the electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) require a Samsung phone to use.

Better fit on the wrist, but bye-bye rotating bezel

The Galaxy Watch 5 doesn’t look very different compared to last year’s regular Watch 4. But the watch’s underside now sits more snug against your wrist, which makes for a comfortable fit. It comes in a 40-millimeter and 44mm size, similar to last year.

The biggest physical change is the absence of a physical rotating bezel, a stalwart of the Galaxy Watch line ever since the original model came out in 2018. Instead, the Galaxy Watch 5 uses a software-based touch bezel that requires moving your finger around the edge of the display to navigate. It sits on top of the touchscreen itself, and the watch also has two physical buttons on the side. 

Move your finger on the edge of the display to use the touch bezel.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

Last year’s Galaxy Watch 4 model worked the same way, but it also came in a Classic edition with that physical bezel. Funnily enough, the older Galaxy Watch 4 Classic is still available to buy, but it actually costs more than this year’s model on Samsung’s website at the time of writing. The touch bezel is OK. It has haptic feedback so it “clicks” when you move your finger around the edge. But I’d rather see the space occupied by the new touch bezel be used to extend the size of the screen instead. Hopefully Samsung is saving that for the Galaxy Watch 6.  

The Galaxy Watch 5 uses the same processor as last year’s watches, rather than the new Qualcomm Snapdragon W5 chip. But like CNET’s Scott Stein wrote last year in his review of the Galaxy Watch 4, performance was never really an issue anyway. The Watch 5 series is responsive and loads apps quickly.

Galaxy Watch 5 and Galaxy Watch 5 Pro side by side

The Galaxy Watch 5 (left) and Pro (right).


Lexy Savvides/CNET

Wear OS feels great, but similar to last year

Design-wise, there’s really very little that separates the new watches from the Watch 4 series. They both run Samsung’s One UI on top of Wear OS 3, with Google apps like YouTube Music, Google Maps, Google Wallet and the Google Assistant available. 

But even though there are a suite of Google and third-party apps through the Play Store, the Galaxy Watch 5 series needs a Galaxy phone to use health sensors like the ECG. You’re also tied to Samsung Health for the most part, though you can sync to Google Fit with a little effort. It’s not yet compatible with the Fitbit app — Google bought Fitbit last year and some of its features are expected to eventually arrive in Wear OS. So the Galaxy Watch 5 is an Android watch, but it still feels most closely aligned with Samsung devices. That said, with the exception of the ECG, my experience using the watch on both a Galaxy phone and a Google Pixel phone felt very similar.

I’ve noticed some improvements to typing on the watch. The full keyboard is easy to swipe on when typing messages, and that even pertains to the smaller 40mm model. The dictation-to-text feature is also a little better at accurately translating my Australian accent. Phone calls I’ve taken on the watch sound clean and crisp, with the microphone picking up my voice well for callers on the other end. I only tested the Bluetooth and GPS edition, rather than the LTE version, so your phone needs to be within range to make and receive calls on the watch.

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

Although it’s a niche feature, you can play music from the speaker without Bluetooth headphones connected, as long as the music files are stored on the watch. I was able to play back Spotify from the speaker too with a Premium subscription when I downloaded songs to the watch.

The Galaxy Watch 5 has a couple of new watch faces, and all of them look great. One of my favorite new watch faces shows a live animation of a garden. My personal favorite is the Pro Classic, which includes  a compass that indicates the north point when you move your wrist around. It’s the default watch face on the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, but it’s also available on the smaller watches. Galaxy Watch 4 owners will also get the new watch faces in an upcoming Wear OS 3 update.

Galaxy Watch 5 battery life gets a little boost

The regular Galaxy Watch 5 lasts longer than the previous version, but not by a huge jump. I tested the 40mm version with its 284-mAh battery, and it lasts around 24 hours between charges with the always-on display turned off. This includes sleep tracking, a GPS workout for approximately one hour and notifications from my phone. 

With the always-on display active, that drops slightly to around 21 hours with the same usage. Usually I’ll need to give the watch a little bit of a top-up before bed if I want to track sleep. If you find yourself in the same boat, I’d recommend having at least 30% battery remaining, especially if you’re tracking blood oxygen, snoring levels and heart rate overnight. You can also give it a quick recharge before bed. Just 8 minutes of charge time will give you enough battery to last through the night. 

Samsung claims the regular Galaxy Watch 5 offers up to 40 hours of total battery life, but it feels almost impossible to hit that number without leaving it in airplane mode most of the time. That means I wouldn’t get notifications, calls or be able to use the watch for anything apart from telling the time, which kind of defeats the purpose.

The 44mm version that I haven’t tested yet comes with a larger capacity battery at 410 mAh, so I’d expect it to last longer. Samsung quotes 50 hours. 

Fast charging allows you to juice up the watch to 45% in 30 minutes. But you need a 25W USB-C charger to take advantage of this faster charge speed and, just like the Apple Watch, there’s no adapter included in the box. I was able to charge the Galaxy Watch 5 from flat to 45% in half an hour, with the rest of the battery filling to 100% in around 1.5 hours. The watch can also reverse wireless charge from certain Samsung phones.

Galaxy Watch 5 watch face showing icons including flashlight and battery power

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Skin temperature tracking has promise, but isn’t active yet

The infrared sensor sets the Galaxy Watch 5 series apart from last year’s models. But it’s not active yet and we don’t have an ETA on when it will get switched on via software update. Samsung says it will be used nightly while sleeping. Competitors like Fitbit and Oura use the infrared sensors on their devices for skin temperature tracking during sleep to provide more insight into whether you may be running a fever, or more data on menstrual cycles. 

Galaxy Watch 5 temperature sensor

That small circle is the temperature sensor on the back of the Galaxy Watch 5.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

Most of the other health features and sensors remain largely unchanged from the Galaxy Watch 4. You still get a bioimpedance sensor to measure body composition, plus a blood-oxygen sensor and an FDA-cleared ECG. There’s also a blood pressure sensor, but it is only available in certain markets and is not cleared in the US. Both the ECG and blood pressure features are locked to Samsung phones through the Samsung Health Monitor app, which is not available in the Play Store if you pair it with any other Android phone.

Unlike the Apple Watch and most of Fitbit’s watches, the Galaxy Watch 5 doesn’t check for irregular heart rate rhythms in the background. You have to take an ECG on-demand to check for signs of atrial fibrillation. The watch does have high and low heart rate alerts, plus fall detection that can also be activated during workouts.

The Galaxy Watch 5 can track up to 90 different workout types and has automatic workout detection for activities like walks and runs. I found it was really reliable in accurately detecting my walks when I forgot to start a workout manually.

When testing the heart rate sensor against a chest strap, the Galaxy Watch 5 did a good job overall when it came to accuracy for cardio workouts. It landed within 3 beats per minute of the strap for average heart rate during my workouts. The Galaxy Watch 5 Pro was a little more in lockstep with the strap overall. GPS accuracy is really good on both Galaxy Watch 5 models. I had no issues locking on to a signal within five seconds in San Francisco, either with or without a phone in range.

Sleep tracking on the Galaxy Watch 5 needs more finesse

Sleep tracking on Galaxy Watch 5

Screenshot by Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Galaxy Watch 5 is in the middle of the pack compared to other wearables I’ve tested when it comes to sleep tracking. After a full week of sleep tracking, it does a good job of picking up sleep stages and accurately calculates total sleep time, but its sleep score system confuses me. Even with an extensive 9- or 10-hour snooze (I know, I was really tired) the Watch 5 rarely gave me a sleep score above the high 70s. One night, it was a particularly dire 61/100 despite all my sleep scores hitting their targets; it seems that even any amount of awake time during the night significantly affects the score.

To compare, I wore the Fitbit Charge 5 during those same sleeps and it gave me a score almost in the 90s on that same night. Sleep scores are all proprietary calculations that every wearable does differently, but it’s kind of disheartening to see such a low score after what felt like a pretty restful night’s sleep.

There is a sleep coaching feature that’s similar to what’s on the Galaxy Watch 4. After a week’s worth of sleep tracking, you do a quick quiz and the watch will give you coaching to help improve your snooze. You also get a sleep animal that best represents the type of sleeper you are. I’m an unconcerned lion, whereas Fitbit says I’m a tortoise. Slow and steady wins the race I guess.

I’ve also had mixed results from the blood oxygen sensor, which tends to read a little lower than both a pulse oximeter and other wearables, especially at night. At times, I’ve had both the Galaxy Watch 5 and Watch 5 Pro say my lowest blood oxygen level was anywhere from 80 to 87%, which is particularly low and could indicate signs of sleep conditions like sleep apnea. No other wearable has ever given me such low readings, especially when I charted the same night’s sleep with both the Fitbit Charge 5 and Oura ring. Blood oxygen sensors are generally not medically cleared, so take their readings with a grain of salt and always consult a medical professional for proper guidance. I’ve reached out to Samsung about the low blood oxygen readings and will update when I hear back.

Still the best Android watch… for now

The Galaxy Watch 5 does a good job of straddling the middle ground between a standard smartwatch and a fitness watch. But battery life takes a hit because of all those smart features. If you push it to its limits with extended workouts, you’ll soon find yourself needing to charge more frequently than you might expect.

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