Galaxy Watch 5 and Watch 5 Pro hands-on: Barely-there updates (and one new design)

Besides the debut of the larger Pro edition, little about the Galaxy Watch 5 line feels new.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The big theme for Samsung’s August Unpacked event this year seems to be refinement. Across the devices it’s launching today, the company is bringing minor tweaks and improvements to increasingly mature products. On last year’s Galaxy Watch 4 and Watch 4 Classic, the company ditched its own Tizen OS in favor of a version of Wear OS that it co-engineered with Google, and brought a new BioActive sensor that combined three biometric sensors in one. It also introduced a body composition scanner using bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) for more comprehensive health insights.

Compared to last year’s model, the Galaxy Watch 5 seems a little boring. The biggest change this time is a new skin temperature sensor that isn’t going to be active at launch, while the other upgrades, like improved durability and curvature, aren’t immediately obvious either. I can’t blame Samsung for an unexciting generation of smartwatches, though, since the Galaxy Watch line is already arguably the best wearable for Android users. After all, it’s hard to keep surprising the industry with breakthrough features.

Samsung did launch a new Pro variant designed for people who want a hardier option for outdoor adventures. It has a larger 45mm titanium case and a bigger battery, making it a compelling alternative to some Garmin sports watches. But more on that in a bit. I spent more time with a 40mm Galaxy Watch 5 than any of the other watches at a recent hands-on event in New York and, despite being underwhelmed by the lack of new features, I still dig Samsung’s latest smartwatches.

At first glance, the Galaxy Watch 5 doesn’t appear to be much different from the Watch 4. They come in the same 40mm and 44mm sizes, though the new ones feature technically larger screens that measure 1.2 inches and 1.4 inches (up from 1.19 and 1.36 inches, respectively). One of the changes this year isn’t visible — the watches now use Sapphire Crystal glass that Samsung said makes their displays 60 percent stronger against scratches than their predecessors.

The company also redesigned the underside of the watch case, tweaking the curvature to increase the surface area that would be in contact with your wrist. This should lead to more reliable and accurate biometric readings from the sensors, even as you flail your hands about. Without a side-by-side comparison, I wasn’t able to tell if the Watch 5 felt more snug on my wrist than the Watch 4, but it did seem to stay in place better than the Apple Watch Series 7 I wore to the demo event.

This design improvement is in service of more reliable sensor performance, but Samsung says its three-in-one BioActive sensor has also been upgraded, although it didn’t clarify what changed.

Side view of a purple Galaxy Watch 5 on a wrist, showing its profile and redesigned underside.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Having the Watch 5’s sensors sit snugly in place even when you’re unconscious should also help the device glean more accurate data while you’re asleep. Samsung monitors your breathing and heart rate to detect not only how long you’ve slept, but also the stages you’re in, like REM, deep or light sleep. It also monitors whether you snore, and uses all that information to assign you a score. This year, Samsung is introducing a Sleep Coaching feature that’s supposed to learn from your patterns and build a personalized plan to help you get better rest.

Samsung also added a new skin temperature sensor to the Galaxy Watch 5, but it won’t be activated until some indeterminate date post launch. I wasn’t able to use the watch to take a temperature reading, though I did measure my body fat with the onboard BIA tool. I was not only happy to see that my body fat percentage dropped a whole two percent since I took the same test at last year’s launch event, but I was also impressed that the reading took noticeably less time than the previous version.

I thought that this might be thanks to the dual-core Exynos W920 chip powering the Galaxy Watch 5, but Samsung said that aside from some algorithmic changes, the processor in the new Watch is the same as last year’s model. Still, in my brief time with the device, it was snappy and responsive. Whether I was swiping through the Wear OS tiles or choosing a new watch face, the Watch 5 never felt sluggish. Colors and text looked vibrant and crisp on the Super AMOLED panel, too. Oh, and in case you were worried, you can still use the bezel around the screen to navigate the system.

A red 44mm Galaxy Watch 5 and pink 40mm Galaxy Watch 5 next to each other on a table.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Like some earlier versions of the Galaxy Watch, the Watch 5 features a touch-sensitive bezel that you can drag your finger along to scroll through apps and notifications. I found myself accidentally triggering onscreen elements while I was trying to use the bezel to scroll through some workouts, though. If you miss Samsung’s physical rotating bezel, by the way, you can still buy the Watch 4 Classic, which the company will continue to sell alongside the Watch 5 series.

Though I couldn’t verify this during my demo, Samsung says the Galaxy Watch 5 is rated IP68 for water and dust resistance, as well as 5 ATM for underwater use. It also equipped the devices with larger batteries: The 40mm variant has a 276mAh cell compared to last year’s 247 mAh, while the 44mm version now has a 397mAh battery, up from 361 mAh. They’ll also charge faster, with Samsung promising you’ll add a 45 percent charge in 30 minutes. Samsung went as far as to say that an eight-minute charge can provide eight hours of sleep tracking, and that the Watch 5 can last up to 50 hours.

On the larger Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, Samsung included a 590mAh battery. Since the Pro edition’s 1.4-inch screen is the same size and resolution as the 44mm Watch 5, this bigger battery should deliver longer runtime. The Pro’s screen is also covered with a 29GPa Sapphire Crystal glass on the Pro that’s harder than the Watch 5’s 24GPa glass, making the former a bit more scratch-resistant.

A black Galaxy Watch 5 Pro on a woman's wrist.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

If most of your workouts take place outdoors, you’ll likely appreciate the new route-based activity tracking features on the Pro, too. Samsung added support for the GPX format for route tracking, which is available for the first time on a Galaxy Watch. You can log the paths you traveled during your hikes and share it with others in the Samsung Health app with a new Route Workout feature. The company says you’ll also be able to download hiking and cycling maps, and after you start your journey the system will provide turn-by-turn directions. The Watch 5 Pro can also help you get home with peace of mind through its new Track Back feature that Samsung says in its press release “takes you back the way you came.”

As someone with fairly small wrists, I found the Watch 5 Pro a tad overwhelming and heavy, but people who find a larger screen easier to read might appreciate it. The larger watch uses a D-buckle closure that folds and snaps into place on your wrist, and Samsung said this “offers rugged durability with a sleek and clean fit.”

I’m fully aware what I’m about to describe is not the best durability test but it was the best I could do at the hands-on event without outrightly breaking a demo unit: I punched the face of the Watch 5 Pro somewhat halfheartedly a few times and, to no one’s surprise, it did not break. Since the biggest difference between the Watch 5 Pro and the regular version is durability and battery life, it’s hard to tell from a brief hands-on whether the new model is worth the extra $170.

A trio of Galaxy Watch 5 units on a table, with purple, blue and red straps from left to right.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

For that, and other real-world performance testing, I’ll have to get a hold of a review unit to know for sure. If you can’t wait till reviews are out, you can already pre-order the Galaxy Watch 5 for a starting price of $280 (Bluetooth only; $330 for LTE) or the Pro for $450 and up from Samsung, Amazon and other retailers.

Samsung is also launching a Golf Edition of the Watch 5, which comes with exclusive watch faces, a two-tone strap and an unlimited membership to the Smart Caddie app, along with other software preloaded. You can get the Golf variant of the Watch 5 in 40mm or 44mm, as well as in the 45mm Pro model. All of the things Samsung launched today will be available on August 26th, though, as always, I’d recommend waiting till we can test them out to find out more about battery life and overall performance before you spend your money.

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