You'll never have paid as much attention to doorknobs in your life as you will when you start wearing a smartwatch. All of a sudden, every door feels like an assault waiting to happen. A casual swing of the arm is all that stands between you and a seriously dinged-up multi-hundred-dollar device. Vigilance is exhausting, and not even the best smartwatches are immune. Samsung seems to appreciate this predicament, and its new Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 series feels like it could be just the response shoppers need — if somewhat less than an obvious upgrade for Watch 4 owners.
At first glance, the Watch 5 looks practically identical to the Watch 4 — at least for the standard model. There's no spinning-bezel Classic edition this time; instead, we get the Samsung Watch 5 Pro, a hulk of a device with a huge 590mAh battery and a big, chamfered bezel to match. Performance doesn't feel hugely different compared with the prior gen, and the software is basically the same. So why even think about upgrading? One word: sapphire.
The 45mm Samsung Watch 5 Pro replaces the Classic in Samsung's lineup — no turning bezel this time
Rumors clued us in months ago to the possibility of Samsung offering a fantastically robust sapphire crystal for the face of its new Pro edition, but instead the company is going all-in with this change, and every Galaxy Watch 5 model will be similarly equipped. That's a tricky thing for a company to invest a lot of money implementing across its product line, as this isn't the kind of upgrade that's instantly easy for shoppers to appreciate. Instead, the dividends come weeks and months later, not for what the watch does, but for what it won't do — get scratched.
Both the 40mm and 44mm standard Watch 5 models now offer sapphire screens
Bringing that kind of upgrade to the base Watch 5 is a huge coup for Samsung, and immediately elevates this entire wearable line to a new, even more premium space. The protection is further pronounced on the Watch 5 Pro, with the sapphire itself significantly recessed in a beefy bezel. That seems a tad unnecessary for material this strong (and more than a little backwards), but if you'd rather beat up on the wearable's titanium frame (an upgrade over the Classic's steel) it's ready for what you can dish out.
At 10.5mm thick, the Watch 5 Pro is noticeably bulky
Admittedly, the material-robustness conversation is a little more fraught for the standard Watch 5. While that sapphire screen might shake off minor damage, the return of an aluminum body will be just as vulnerable as ever. I imagine that most users are more afraid of a scratched screen than a ding on the bezel, so this is probably still a move in the right direction.
Samsung's Galaxy Watch 4 (left) can be easily mistaken for the Watch 5 (right)
For as much as I like this choice from Samsung, I have to admit that it's a bit of an "invisible" upgrade — and the new Pro model aside, that's pretty much the refrain for the improvements we're getting in the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5. Some, like sapphire and higher-speed wireless charging, are precious improvements, even if they're not changes you can readily spot. We'll have to wait and see on some others, like the skin temperature sensor Samsung's being suspiciously quiet about, but so many tweaks like this all seem to take on a "behind the scenes" vibe.
I don't love everything about the changes Samsung is making here. Some of its software decisions seem needlessly restrictive, like limiting a cool-sounding "find your way back" hiking guidance feature to the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro. When I pressed the company on this, the explanation I got basically boiled down to "because battery capacity." Still, it's not like even the smallest Watch 4 had any issue tracking GPS. You need to differentiate your models somehow, but I think the Pro's materials, design, and internal components would suffice.
This makes the Galaxy Watch 5 a tricky upgrade prospect from the Watch 4, which looks and feels so much like its successor. The new hardware is still my obvious recommendation if you're starting fresh, but if you haven't already scratched up your existing model to hell and back, I don't know that it makes a lot of sense to pounce on one of these new watches — not right now, anyway.
Samsung has cleverly refined what I think was already a pretty successful design, and it's hard to fault the company for not doing even more. Instead, it took what was already last year's best smartwatch for Android users and made it even better. It's now more robust, more colorful, and, dare I say: more fun. This still may not make a wearable convert out of anyone scoffing at the idea of charging a watch every night (or even every other). Still, for those already on board, Samsung again looks like it's got the best wearable options.