Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 is great but the Apple Watch Series 6 is still the best smartwatch
The Apple Watch is better than any smartwatches available for Android. It pains me to say this – my primary SIM card is in an Android phone far more often than it’s in an iPhone – but it’s true.
The good news for us is, Android smartwatches have improved significantly over the past year. The Oppo Watch has a gorgeous curved screen; the Huawei Watch GT 2 Pro has insane 14-day battery life and premium build quality, and the Fitbit Versa 2 spent months on my wrist in 2020. But of all these non-Apple offerings I’ve tested, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 is perhaps the best overall in terms of performance, software, and hardware — although I must mention that I have not tested the TicWatch Pro 3 yet, which we gave high praise.
While the Galaxy Watch 3 is very good, it still falls short of the Apple Watch Series 6 – and I’m not talking about subjective things like design, fit, and comfort, but rather crucial performance areas that aren’t as subjective.
Responding to notifications
We all have our reasons for wearing a smartwatch. Some people like the look; some want to track physical activities; others use it to tell time (crazy idea, I know). But for me, the biggest reason to wear a smartwatch is to save me from needing to pull out my phone every single time I have an incoming notification.
This means I don’t just want to be able to read my incoming text messages; I like the ability to respond to them as well. Unfortunately, this immediately disqualifies a chunk of Android smartwatches. Huawei’s proprietary OS running on its recent wearables does not let me respond to notifications at all. Fitbit’s OS only lets me respond with canned messages. The Oppo Watch running WearOS allows me to respond, but the methods to do so are not practical. Samsung’s TizenOS, almost by lack of competition, does the best job in the Android space — but the Apple Watch handles it better.
My preferred method to respond to text messages is by simply speaking to my watch, and the Apple Watch’s voice dictation tech is uncanny; it can pick up my words in real-time with 99% accuracy. I talk, and the Watch picks it up, even if it’s dozens of words spanning multiple sentences.
Voice dictation on the Galaxy Watch 3 is noticeably slower; it falls far behind my voice almost from the start, and while it does eventually catch up, it will usually have misheard a few words. If I have to guess, I’d say accuracy is around 75%.
Don’t believe me? I did a side-by-side test on video. Just as a test, I spoke the entire first verse of the iconic Fresh Prince of Bel-Air intro theme, and you can see that the Apple Watch Series 6 kept up with me almost word for word and came out with just a couple of mistakes. At the same time, the Galaxy Watch 3 fell behind early, and the finished text misheard/misinterpreted at least six words.
The Galaxy Watch 3’s mistakes are also non-sensical: what is “Delphia”? At least when the Apple Watch misheard, it still pushed out a word that makes sense grammatically.
Now here’s the thing: this is already a huge improvement for Samsung! I remember using an older Galaxy Gear watch around 2018 and was frustrated by its inability to keep up with even a five or six-word sentence.
Voice dictation is, of course, just one way to respond. Another method is to input words via an on-screen keyboard. WearOS shows a full QWERTY keyboard, which makes sense in theory but as soon as you begin pecking away at the tiny keys, you realize a smartwatch screen is far too cramped for a full keyboard.
Samsung and Apple understand this and have alternatives. Both offer a “scribble” mode that lets us use our finger to write out individual alphabets on the screen. But just like voice dictation, the Apple Watch 6 handles scribbling faster and more intelligently than the Galaxy Watch 3. WatchOS seems to have better autocorrect and response times compared to TizenOS. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the drastic difference in processing power, which I’ll cover in the next section.
The Apple Watch Series 6 runs on a brand new S6 chip based on the A13 Bionic chip used in the iPhone 11. Think about how crazy that is: that’s like an Android smartwatch today running on a Snapdragon 855.
The Galaxy Watch 3’s silicon, meanwhile, is the two-year-old Exynos 9110. There’s no real way to benchmark these two chips, but as I mentioned, the Apple Watch seems a far more capable at processing human speech, and apps launch noticeably faster on the Apple Watch 6 than on the Galaxy Watch 3 too.
The rest of the software outside of voice dictation also is a significant win for Apple’s WatchOS. The Watch app on iOS offers a more seamless experience than the Galaxy Wearable app. Both apps will redirect you to their native app store to download apps. Still, while iOS’s Watch app and App Store share the same design language and switch over immediately, Samsung’s Galaxy Wearable app looks nothing like its Galaxy App store, and switching over usually requires a few seconds of load times. It’s particularly jarring on my Fold 2 because the Galaxy Wearable app has a dark interface while the Galaxy App store has a white interface, so it’s a sharp jump to go from a pitch-black UI to a bright white one.
Software update for the Apple Watch is one single update always. On the Galaxy Wearable app, different apps and services within the watch each require a separate download. So instead of tapping install once, you may tap eight or nine times in a day.
The selection of third-party apps in the Galaxy app store is also anemic. Not that name recognition is everything, but in Apple’s Watch app store, there’s a familiar brand every other swipe — Nike, Starbucks, NBA, New York Times, SoundHound, ESPN, CNN, and so on — while on the Galaxy Watch, the only familiar third party app most will have heard of Flipboard.
This is a problem that also applies to WearOS watches or Huawei’s smartwatches, and it will likely never be fixed, as app developers have far more incentives to build for the Apple Watch platform since iOS users spend far more on apps than Android users and the number of Apple Watches (and hence the potential market size) in the wild outweigh every other brand by a large margin.
The Apple Watch also handles Spotify better, with a better-designed interface that shows more information, including all my playlists and album art. On the Galaxy Watch 3, it’s a bare-bones UI.
Watch faces and complications
The selection of watch faces and complications, like third-party app selection, is also a lop-sided affair. The Apple Watch not only has dozens more watch faces to choose from, but they’re also, in my opinion, better looking, have a far more comprehensive range of styles, and some support multiple complications that are customizable. Samsung’s watch face gallery, on the other hand, all look similar, and only the main five or six let you customize complications, and then only for Samsung’s first-party apps like Samsung Calendar, Samsung Email, etc. Watch faces on Apple’s wearable can support third-party apps — for example, I have complications for Spotify and Google Maps on one of them.
Apple’s Siri is by no means the best digital voice assistant – Google’s Assistant is almost objectively better at understanding context and finding the relevant information – but Siri is still far better than Samsung’s Bixby.
Siri can also automatically detect when I am speaking to it: anytime I bring the Apple Watch to my wrist and start speaking, Siri begins picking up my words. Even in a noisy environment like the middle of a busy street, it works well. To activate Bixby on the Galaxy Watch 3, you first have to say the trigger phrase “Hey Bixby,” and it doesn’t always work.
Fitness and health tracking
This part, thankfully for Samsung (and us Android users), is much closer. The most significant addition to the Apple Watch Series 6 this year is a blood-oxygen sensor to track oxygen saturation levels — this is something Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 and even the older Galaxy Watch Active 2 already offer. Likewise, for the Apple Watch’s ability to conduct an electrocardiogram (ECG) — Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 can do that too, having recently received FDA clearance to go live in the US. Both the blood-oxygen tracking and ECG are easy to activate on the Apple Watch and Galaxy Watch 3, but Apple’s wearable one-ups Samsung by being able to passively track blood-oxygen-level without prompt. This means the Apple Watch is more likely to notice irregular heart rhythm or blood-oxygen levels.
However, whether these wrist-worn wearables can provide accurate data for blood-oxygen saturation levels or heart rhythm remains to be seen, and the evidence seems iffy. Not only do I find the results inconsistent, but other reviewers, including our former colleague Max Weinbach, noticed the same.
Apple’s seems just as bad as Samsung’s, which often gave me readings that meant I should be at the hospital when actual medical equipment said I was in perfect health.
Basically, don’t trust these wearables for blood-oxygen quite yet. https://t.co/c0iM1iKDUu
— Max Weinbach (@MaxWinebach) September 23, 2020
For more simple health tracking, such as basic heart rate and step count, both do a great job and seem accurate enough. Both are smart enough to automatically begin tracking hikes (or fast walking for extended periods) and cycling as exercises.
More complicated exercises, like gym sessions, will require manually starting the tracking. It’s here where Samsung and Apple takes a different approach. Apple classifies weight lifting as one exercise; Samsung breaks the act of lifting weights into nearly a dozen specific activities, like “bench press,” “squats,” “deadlifts,” and even “curls.” Serious weightlifters or bodybuilders who spend entire gym sessions honing in on one exercise may appreciate Samsung’s approach. Still, for most regular users, a one-hour weight lifting session will see us doing five to six different activities, so Samsung expects us to switch manually every time.
Samsung is better at sleep tracking, however. I wore both watches to sleep for a couple of nights as a test, and the Galaxy Watch 3 consistently gave me a more accurate time that represents the actual time I was asleep.
Where the Galaxy Watch 3 wins
While the Apple Watch Series 6 is almost certainly better than the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 (and most other Android watches) in all the crucial areas like software, watch faces, third-party apps, and notification management, there are some areas the Galaxy Watch 3 wins.
The Galaxy Watch 3 has better battery life, for example. Samsung advertises two-day battery life, and I’ve been achieving that and more. After a full 24 hour period away from a charger, my Galaxy Watch 3 still has 65% battery right now. The Apple Watch, meanwhile, needs charging at least once a day.
I also love the rotatable bezel of the Galaxy Watch 3 — the tactile feedback makes navigating UI via rotating the bezel feels very satisfying. You also get stainless steel on all Galaxy Watch 3 models, whereas Apple Watch 6 starts with aluminum, and stainless steel costs extra.
There’s also the issue of eco-system and phone brand lock-in. If you’re getting an Apple Watch, you can only use it with an iPhone. The Galaxy Watch 3, meanwhile, will work with any phone, be it a Samsung or Apple, Huawei, or OnePlus. However, it’s still best to use with a Samsung phone, because if you use another Android, you’ll have to download the Galaxy Wearable app, as well as all the additional Samsung apps like Samsung Health, Samsung Email, and more, to be able to use the watch to its fullest capabilities.
I know this article may annoy some readers who think I’m using this article to prop up Apple. But as I’ve already explained at the beginning: I prefer Android to iOS, and my primary phone is Android more often than not. I’ve wished there was an Android option that worked as seamlessly and well as the Apple Watch. Two years ago, the gap was so huge it seemed like a pipe dream. But now? The Galaxy Watch 3 has closed the gap enough that I’m satisfied, but it can still get better.
If you're not already invested in the Android ecosystem, the Apple Watch Series 6 is the best smartwatch you should buy. It outweighs the Galaxy Watch 3 in many ways, but crucially, it doesn't work with Android devices and you'll need an iPhone to be able to use it.