Sunday 30 July 2023

Samsung Galaxy Watch

This is a running commentary piece as I invite you to join me as I set up my first SmartWatch, work out what it does, how to do it and what I initially conclude about the whole concept. I have recently been playing with Samsung phones, for which I endure a love/hate relationship and have done for years. Loving the oodles of bells and whistles that the Samsung World offers users of their gear, but hating the way that it's not the same clean, AOSP-based experience which others get close to, such as Sony, Motorola, Fairphone, Nokia and (to some degree still) Pixel.

So the best place to start (maybe) is with a Galaxy Watch. I have an S23, S22 Ultra and Z Flip4 here to test it with, so thought I'd get stuck in. Before I do, however, I do also acknowledge that there are other, simpler smartwatches out there which might, given what I have said about love/hate, ultimately suit me better as I switch between devices ad infinitum!

The first hurdle for me is having a watch on my wrist at all. I used to love wearing watches when I was a kid back in the 60's/70's as I viewed them as a (relatively) cheap way to get some interesting tech to play with (and stopped me unscrewing transistor radios to see how they worked)! Remember those red-display LED watches? The Casio calculator watches? I loved them - alongside my film cameras. Stuff to fiddle with! Since about the time that I got into Psion Organisers, I ditched the watch, so my wrist has been free of restrictions for now about half my life, 30 years.

I did struggle with it at first, but a watch strap which arrived with my loan Galaxy Watch4 made the transition and re-introduction to the tethering surprisingly tolerable. I amazed myself at how quickly I got used to it and how comfortable it is. The silicone strap which comes in the box, incidentally, is nasty and intolerable to my skin (as I understand it to be for many, many people). These straps are also too short for me. I'm a big bloke with big everything(!) including wrists - and they simply don't go round it. The cheap and cheerful strap from Amazon in question is elasticated, made from some cloth material and is just excellent. Recommended. Many thanks, incidentally, to Tim Evans of our Phones Show Chat Podcast supporting MeWe Group for the loan of watch/strap for testing.

Please remember that this is a running commentary of my thoughts and findings as I launch into this. It's not a review and my thoughts and recordings of findings may, because of this, be disjointed. I say here what I find, in the order I find it!

First things first, then, and install Samsung's 'Wear' app on the phone. Turn the watch on and let them start talking to each other. You can sign into your Samsung account (if you want to and are not already) to get various backup/restore functions and some other 'joined up' data-sharing stuff. But you don't have to. It nags me to buy an eSIM contract from my cellular provider (EE) a couple of times, but eventually stops and lets me use it just via the phone. If you want to, you can use the watch away from the phone and this is how you'd do it. Essentially, another SIM contract. I didn't want to as I couldn't see that I'd likely be separated from my phone at any point (and certainly don't want the financial burden of another contract)!

I initially connected the watch to the Galaxy S23. As an aside, I was able to use DeX on my PC to open the app and make it easier to set-up, using big screen, keyboard and mouse. From watch, to phone to computer! Here, I was able to learn about how the UI works, what services I can add, which functions to choose, which I have no interest in - and to get things going. It is clear that Samsung want users to have their own software installed, which is obvious I guess, as that's how users will get the most from the watch/phone combination.

I tried to install various Google apps and use them instead of Samsung's and some play ball, some don't. Some pre-installed apps of Samsung's can be uninstalled, some disabled, some only force-stopped. The following is a list of my findings detailing which you can do what with!

The Apps that you can’t uninstall (but bold ones in my list here can be Disabled, the rest only Force-stopped) - Accessibility, Alarm, Bixby, Calendar, Compass, Samsung Contacts, Customisation Service, Find my Mobile, Find my Phone, Gallery, Health Platform, Google Maps, Media Controller, Google Messages, Outlook, Samsung Global Goals, Buds Controller, Calculator, Samsung music, Voice recorder, Samsung Messages, Samsung Phone, Google Play Store, Recent Apps, Reminder, Samsung Health, Samsung Health Monitor, Samsung Keyboard, Samsung Pay, Samsung Text-to-speech engine, Settings, Stopwatch, Timer, Samsung Weather and World Clock.

You can't install Google's Phone app but when making or receiving calls it uses the Samsung Phone app on the watch. However, I was using the Google Phone App on the phone and it all seemed to work fine, apps talking to apps while humans talk to humans! On my test calls, both parties could hear each other well and the distance away from the phone seemed like a good range. You can install Google's Contacts App but Samsung's own one sits there on the watch anyway. Some of the time I wasn't 100% sure which of these apps the watch was actually using but the handshaking all seems to work fine, whatever it's up to!

The 'puck' charger in the box has a concave magnetic disk at one end and a USB-C plug on the other. This can be plugged into any outlet to charge and the watch 'sits' on the 'puck' to do so 'wirelessly'. You can also plug the USB-C end into a phone (at least, you can with a Galaxy phone - not tested others) and draw power to charge the watch from there. In my tests here it seemed to take about 90 minutes to charge from a mains charger, but as it seems to last through the day (with a normal pattern of 'companion-device' activity) most people will just charge overnight and start afresh in the morning. Those who don't want to do sleep-tracking, that is! For those folk, you'd better enjoy a long shower and leisurely breakfast while it catches up! Worth noting also that you can charge it with a Galaxy phone's Reverse Wireless charging if you don't have the 'puck' with you. In general use with me, even with tinkering around and testing, it’s no problem lasting a day. The series-5 is tempting me now though as it has an even bigger battery! And better glass for less scratching etc. on the front.

There was a system update waiting, so I allowed it to continue. This can be controlled by the app on the phone, though I'm still not quite sure which device does what in the loop/stages. I'm assuming that the phone downloads the update via wifi and then transfers the update file to the watch by bluetooth (as that part of the process seems to take a long time). It works itself out though, turns the watch off and on a couple of times, then all done. It's slow, but works fine.

If I lift up my arm sharply, the screen goes on, otherwise it seems to be off. I did read somewhere that it knows if you're looking at it and it stays on, but that doesn't seem to be the case for me as, after a few seconds, it goes off again. The time-out period can be set, but there's probably an even deeper-buried setting which I have not found yet which controls the stay-on-if-looking bit. You can set the watch screen to be always-on (if you want to charge it back up multiple times a day).

The heart rate monitor seems to be pretty accurate. I know very well how to take my heart rate reading manually, so have been able to check this. You can set it to check every 10 minutes, manually or constantly, depending on how you get on with battery. I'm not really in this project for the health stuff, but it does seem to do stuff that (even) the Apple Watch doesn't (as I understand it) like measuring Blood Pressure (although I read that the initial set-up needs to be calibrated by the use of 'proper' BP monitoring apparatus). Then there's all the exercise stuff which, again, I'm really not interested in and one reason why I think ultimately, a simpler smartwatch which is more about notifications and communication might end up being my preferred route. But each to their own and as I understand it from 'proper' reviews, the fitness stuff is smart and clever, with extensive useful data for those who want to launch into a life full of monitoring their fitness, body health, sleeping patterns and so forth. Check out reviews on YouTube for oodles of stuff about that.

I didn't try using the watch to pay for stuff, but ignoring Samsung Pay, I installed Google Wallet on the watch, using Play Store on the watch and others report that yes, you can then use it on a till at Tesco like you can a phone. For me, I'll just use my phone. Which will be in my pocket anyway! I guess that if I buy a ‘mobile plan’ from EE I could do this with the phone left at home. The watch let me add my Debit Card but only after contacting my bank, like it would for a new phone - so the bank is considering the watch a separate device from the phone it seems.

I’m really not sure that I understand what all this is doing, with particular regard to Play Stores and Apps, between ‘linked’ phone and on-watch. I decided that gBoard was a bit pointless on the watch with tiny, weeny QWERTY keyboard, so went to uninstall it from (what I thought was) the 'Watch' area on the phone but it then uninstalled it on the phone as well as the watch! So that all seems a bit lost on me. I do get the impression that I'm just misunderstanding though and more time with this would no doubt open my eyes as to what's what.

Incidentally, I switched phones to the S22 Ultra in the middle of all the above and it seemed to get very confused. First thing to say is that every time you switch phones you have to factory reset the watch, which is really annoying as I didn’t realise (I thought it was only Pixel Watch that did this) and set up banking on the watch first time. So then I had to do all the banking again - and my bank complains when I get to 9 registrations and I have to call them. (I thought this was one of the advantages Samsung had, not to do this reset. I know it won’t impact most people with one phone, but still.) I also know that there’s a Samsung ‘backup/restore’ function, but that doesn’t cover banking apps. Then, when I get to the second phone, it tells me that a bunch of (in my case Google) apps are installed already, but actually they are not and I have to go to each one and reinstall. So why is it telling me that they are already installed? The system does seem to get very confused when switching between phones. I guess they don’t want people to.

I am finding lots of buried settings as usual with Samsung, for example, under Advanced Features>Custom Keys - to change the long-press on the Home Button to be Google Assistant (instead of Bixby) after it has been installed of course. What is able to use the watch’s own speaker is a bit hit and miss, too. So for example, Samsung Music can, YouTube Music can’t, Pocket Casts can’t, Amazon Music can’t - those which can’t simply route the output to the phone (or connected bluetooth device, headphones, speaker or whatever).

There’s no sign of the Galaxy Store (that I can see) and (unlike Samsung usually) it’s routing all the watch stuff through Google’s Play Store - even the watch faces. I’m guessing this must be something to do with them having adopted WearOS and trying to get into bed with Google more? Talking of Watch Faces, there's thousands of them, many free! They have opened this up to anyone to develop (and charge if they like) in the Play Store. An unfathomable amount of choice which you could spend weeks negotiating!

I really quite like the notifications - a quick chirp (or vibrate or silent), glance down at the wrist, see what it is, take action or ignore and move on. I have the screen-off set to the maximum of 1 minute, so not enough time to get glasses, but I can usually work out what it says. There is a font option in settings to make it all bigger, but of course if you do this, there’s less on the screen without scrolling. Notification sounds and vibration patterns can be adjusted from a bunch of choices, too, which is great that users are not just stuck with one.

I’m trying to work out whether having this wrist-based notification facility encourages me to then have a dinky phone linked (S23, Flip4) tucked away in the pocket, accessed less - or that it gives me permission to have a BIG phone linked (S22U), so that it, too, can be tucked away, but when it’s out and in use, one has all the advantages of a big screen, S-Pen, more power etc. I guess part of that depends on size of pocket and if one wants one-handed use!

So laying aside all the biometrics, fitness and exercise, the benefits for me seem to be firstly the fun-factor - it’s another gadget to tinker with and explore - and a very useful echo for Notifications and telling the time! I have got used to using it quickly - and setting up efficiently - with Tiles etc. It will also save getting the phone out to control Home devices (SmartThings), control music playback on the phone, a remote control for the TV, quick check on the weather, appointments - certainly time and date.

What would be interesting, given that I really don’t need to use all the fancy biometrics, is to see what kind of functionality one would get with, say, a Sony or Moto phone. Trouble is, that to test that, I’d have to (yet again) factory reset it! “Advanced health and fitness tracking features, including ECG and blood pressure monitoring, tracking your heart rate and blood pressure on demand are exclusive to Samsung phones. Also remote camera control and AR Emoji watch faces. But you'll still be able to receive notifications, track your workouts and sleep, and more.”

Using with a Non-Galaxy Phone involves the following, which I did... Watch factory reset. Motorola Edge 30 Ultra on. I did not sign into my Samsung account, just skipped it. Skipped offer for eSIM again. Skipped offer to install their suggested apps. Had to install the Wear app on the Moto in order to make it do anything, even pair up, so now have the UI as-if it’s a Galaxy on the phone. I was able to use the same ‘Digital Dashboard’ Watch Face. The Health monitor (for BP and ECG) seem to work. The Heart Rate monitor seems to work.

My first observation is that it’s much faster doing stuff around the UI, like installing apps, for example - is all that Samsung bloat slowing it down horribly when using a Samsung phone? Checking everything through Knox? I can’t really see anything on the Moto that I want and is missing, which goes to show that it works fine (for me at least) with any Android phone with the only tedious caveat being that it has to be set up from scratch each time.

I tried all this again using the Samsung Cloud and a backup I made from the previously used watch. The restore, though it seemed to go through the procedure, did not restore the apps that I had installed, like YouTube Music for example amongst a list of others, and I had to go through to the Play Store on the watch and install them all again. Maybe this is a Galaxy-only feature - so I tried again with a Galaxy phone but the same thing happened. All those apps that should have been a part of the backup were simply not restored and I had to start again - even though, as I say, the restore process seemed to go through the paces.

You can invert the watch display for use on the other arm, to make the buttons on the ‘outside’ nearest to hand. There is a setting to control gestures (Quick Launch) - one of which is to double-dip a clenched fist to launch whatever app you like. If you set it to Torch, you can also tap it to get an SOS sequence when lit.

The physically rotating bezel from the 4 Classic (not this standard one) has gone in the 5-series (but has now returned with the 6 Pro after much complaint, it seems). The way that those without do navigation, is by swipes on the screen and a ‘virtual’ bezel around the circumference - so part of the OLED - which works OK but I can see how a physical bezel would be better for moving between menus and reducing screen-swiping which makes one clean it often.

The Super AMOLED screen is bright, colourful and sharp enough for my eyes! 1.4” and 450x450 pixels. I thought I preferred the oblong shape of the Apple watch but now, on reflection, I’m not so sure. This feels more like a real watch, being round. IP6/8 is present and MIL-grade aluminium build. There’s only 16GB storage here - but then I guess the question is, apart from apps, what is one likely to want to store on a watch? Or maybe I’m missing the point? You can download music to it, but if you have your phone handy anyway, might as well use that and control it from the watch? Perhaps greater impact on those who use it away from the phone with an eSIM.

The Samsung Camera app is really an echo for the phone’s camera app so you can see on the watch screen what the phone is seeing, fire the shutter, timer (or instant), start video recording and (with nimble-enough fingers on the watch screen) zoom in and out by pinch/splay. There is a very slight delay between the two, but nothing unusable - it’s not for panning at F1 meets!

Here’s a scenario I’m been complaining about for aeons - lovely Sony headphones on head, YouTube Music playing a playlist of stuff (I do this a lot to let it introduce me to stuff I don’t know), the only way to check to see what the unknown track is - look at the phone (which could be in another room, if busy with chores). Now, a quick look at the wrist will tell me (if using the Media Playback app) what's playing. Also full control for skipping etc. (which I know you can do with the controls on the Sony headphones, but this is arguably quicker/easier). It seems happy to pair with the phone and headphones at the same time - due to the multi-connect of the Sony headphones, perhaps - or maybe that's Samsung's doing too.

It's been great playing with the watch and seeing what it can do. I've been very surprised at how comfortable it has been on my arm (with that strap) but I think that you need to have a reason for wanting the burden/lump on your arm at all times (and thinking about something else to charge every bleedin’ day) - or more likely for me, it becomes an interesting tech-toy.

I’m sure others will say how incredibly productive it is for them in terms of notifications and not having to get their phone out for quick-checking (and probably 101 other reasons), but even back in the day when I was working, I really don’t see that it would have helped me much. I really don’t need (or want) the exercise and health stuff (interesting as it is to see in passing), but can’t deny that it would be useful to have in the drawer, set up with a phone, for bouts of illness. It would have been really useful, for example, when I had Covid, though having said that, an £8 pulse/BP monitor thingie from Amazon did all I ended up needing.

The whole thing feels a bit like a toy to me, yes. Great fun to play with but as with most toys, the novelty wears off - and for me at least, comfortable as Tim’s strap made the experience beyond what I had feared, I’m done with it. After all this Samsung stuff, it's been a great ride but is a relief to get back to Moto, Sony, Nokia, Pixel, Fairphone - and the simpler life! Maybe what I need to do is explore a non-Samsung Galaxy SmartWatch so as to get the stuff I want to use but not feel hemmed-in by stuff I don't. Funnily enough, the exact same place I end up at with Galaxy Phones!

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