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Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 hands-on: Finally, a serious Apple Watch challenger

The Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 appears to have finally given the Apple Watch a real challenger. That’s a big statement from me. I consider the Apple Watch by far the best smartwatch available and in my review of the Series 4, I gave it 5 stars — the one and only time I’ve ever done so. It’s really that good.

What makes the Galaxy Watch 3 special enough to take on the might of the Apple Watch? Two things: The rotating bezel, and the software.

It sounds silly, but outside of the Apple Watch, very few other smartwatch makers ever get the software and the way we interact with it right. Samsung seems to have nailed it, based on my short time with the Galaxy Watch 3, and that instantly rockets it into contention with Apple’s excellent wearable.

Design

Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, 45mm (left) and 41mm (right). Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Samsung actually took a big step towards challenging the Apple Watch in 2018 with the original Galaxy Watch, a capable competitor with lots of potential. A proper sequel never came, though. Samsung seemed to forget about high-end smartwatches altogether, preferring to release the capable but dull-looking Galaxy Watch Active series.

Since then, the Apple Watch has gone from strength to strength, leaving Samsung playing catch-up.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 41mm Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Until now. Samsung has skipped the Galaxy Watch 2 and leaped forward with the Galaxy Watch 3. It’s a thinner and lighter smartwatch with a less obtrusive but still functional bezel. The design is spot-on, and it has real style.

The circular case makes the Galaxy Watch 3 more traditionally “watch-like” than the Apple Watch, and ensures it’s not mistaken for it either. Slimming the bezel down balances the design nicely, especially on the 41mm model.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 45mm Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Galaxy Watch 3 comes in two sizes, 45mm and 41mm, both made from stainless steel, and with the larger having a busier design compared to the slightly daintier 41mm model. I tried both versions on, and both had black leather straps with white stitching. The 41mm Galaxy Watch 3 has a shorter strap but the body didn’t look too small on my 6.5-inch wrist, while the 45mm Galaxy Watch 3 did look quite big. See how the lugs extend to the edge of my wrist in the photos for evidence.

The larger 1.4-inch screen on the 45mm Galaxy Watch made navigation easier and text clearer at a glance, but the more I wore it, the more I thought the 1.2-inch 41mm looked better on my wrist. I like big watches, but the design has to be just right for them to feel comfortable and not look out of place.

My opinion could change when I wear them for longer, but initially, I’d be tempted to choose the 41mm version over the 45mm, just as I did in the past with the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 41mm.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 41mm Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

On both, there are two side buttons separated by a guard, but no crown or additional controls. The screen is a touchscreen, but you won’t always need to interact with it to navigate the software. This is where the Galaxy Watch 3 really comes alive.

Like the original Galaxy Watch, the bezel can be physically rotated to navigate through the circular menus or vertical lists. It’s incredibly intuitive to do when the watch is on your wrist. Yes, you still have to tap to confirm, but it’s not awkward, and far more preferable to always tapping and swiping on a tiny screen. Manufacturers making WearOS watches haven’t all adopted the rotating crown feature, which does alleviate some of the problems and gives Samsung a chance to leap ahead of the competition.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The more defined texture on the 45mm Galaxy Watch 3’s bezel looks sporty and also helps with the rotating action too. It takes a different motion to rotate the smoother, smaller bezel on the 41mm model, with my finger resting on the surface instead of the side.

There’s a smooth, satisfying click with every turn, complete with some haptic feedback for confirmation of movement. If you own a traditional dive watch and rotate the bezel, the Galaxy Watch 3’s motion is easier but just as pleasurable to do. Both have chronograph markings on the inside of the bezel, and the touchscreen is bright and attractive.

Watches need to feel right if you’re going to wear them every day. The Galaxy Watch 3’s attractive design and wonderful control system instantly attracts, the rotating bezel’s high-quality motion is satisfying and precise, and provided you get the right size, the watch looks damn good on your wrist.

Software and features

The Galaxy Watch 3 has a newly invigorated user interface, although there’s not a great deal of difference in the way it operates. The menu systems are now circular, like the dial on an old phone, and are easily scrolled through using the bezel. Everything is clearly labeled and selecting options is quick and easy. Notifications, appointments, and other options are presented in vertically scrolling lists.


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samsung galaxy watch 3 hands on features price photos release date weather appAndy Boxall/Digital Trends

samsung galaxy watch 3 hands on features price photos release date appsAndy Boxall/Digital Trends

samsung galaxy watch 3 hands on features price photos release date 45mm bezelAndy Boxall/Digital Trends

The versions I tried were not connected to a phone, so I couldn’t test all the connected features. On the back of the Galaxy Watch 3 is a heart rate sensor, and the software now allows for blood oxygen saturation measurement, plus the watch has fall detection too. It’s difficult to assess the software and functionality in a short time, especially as it wasn’t linked to my phone, but performance was speedy.

Both the Galaxy Watch 3 models have 50-meter water resistance, an IP68 rating, and Military Standard (MIL-Spec) toughness meaning they’ll withstand the rigors of normal life without a problem. Performance is enhanced by 1GB of RAM in both, but the battery size differs slightly. Both come in either Wi-Fi or LTE versions. Samsung has got the design and control system right, but the software is crucial to the Galaxy Watch 3’s overall success and its chance of coming close to challenging the Apple Watch’s supremacy. I’ll know more when I test one out in the real world.

Price and availability

The LTE versions of the 41mm Galaxy Watch 3 costs $449 and the 45mm model costs $479. Verizon will sell them both from August 6, with 24 month device plans priced at $18.75 per month for the 41mm or $19.99 per month for the 45mm. In the U.K., the Wi-Fi 41mm model costs from 399 British pounds, and the 45mm version from 420 pounds. Both are available from August 21 with orders starting earlier.

Conclusion

The Galaxy Watch 3 can challenge the Apple Watch because it’s as simple to use, effortlessly stylish, and just as feature-packed. The rotating bezel continues to be an inspired control method, and the Tizen software is refined and mature.

It’ll be fascinating to use it with an iPhone (the Galaxy Wear app that connects it to the watch is available for iOS) to understand if it’s a true alternative. For Android owners wanting a smartwatch, the Galaxy Watch 3 is shaping up to be a top choice, even with a price tag that exceeds most WearOS models.

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