Samsung Galaxy Watch5 Pro

Since my second Sony SmartWatch 3 has died (my Sony SmartWatch 2 is still trucking), I found it necessary to get another watch to alternate charging with. As far as battery goes, the Samsung Galaxy Watch5 Pro is the only one on the market not advertised to last "until supper, maybe, if you leave it on a shelf." Which, I’m old enough to remember when detractors were quick to say you ­"only" got a week out of one of these things. How hard they would be laughing now, honestly, but the Watch5 Pro is an okay unit! Mostly. It’s certainly a better unit than I was expecting, which is a good thing.

The first thing I did was turn off all the health tracking stuff with extreme prejudice. "But Bluesey, that’s 90% of the functionality!" Yes. And that’s 90% of what I don’t want in a watch because 1) all and I mean all of the health apps have security like a screen door on a submarine, ii) your health data is the #1 thing insurance companies want that HIPAA keeps them from getting unless they trick you into volunteering it elsewhere, and c) the only time I want something strapped to my arm taking my every last vital sign is in the event I’m in a hospital bed. Seriously, that’s just creepy. I do not need someone selling my bathroom break schedule to every insurance company in the world in bulk for fractions of a penny per person that would make a particle physicist wince.

So the first thing you’ll notice doing that is the sheer amount of bloatware on the thing, because there are no less than 4 health apps and related services that you simply cannot uninstall and that immediately prompt you to connect them to the mothership if you accidentally open them. Luckily, you can cripple them all by way of permissions and turn your watch settings to just never poll your health data, but frankly I trust THAT as far as I can throw it, because the watch very much knows whether you’re wearing it or not, which means it’s checking 100% of the time and simply not telling you.

There’s also just a ton of "standard" stuff like a stopwatch, alarm, timer, calendar, world clock, and reminder app which have an unhealthy amount of overlap; a media controller and separate music app; a compass app that’s also a widget that’s also a "complication" (read "widget on your watch face"), which is completely redundant with Google Maps present; the Bixby search assistant AND Google assistant; your phone Messages app and a separate built-in Messages app; Phone and Contacts; a Weather app; the actually ever-useful Find My Phone; a Gallery app (as if there weren’t already a million of those available, but it’s not a bad one); a voice recorder; a calculator; and branded Samsung apps for Buds, Samsung Pay, and some affirmational garbage about their goals in the world that has some frankly predictable and yet vomit-inducing priorities and is just corporate greenwashing. Oh, and Outlook for some reason. Of the 32 apps on this thing, I have only intentionally installed 1 and only 2 additional ones have piggybacked onto it from my phone, only 1 of which is not a default app on my phone. Yes, this thing comes with 29 mostly redundant apps you didn’t ask for and can’t get rid of! And none of them can be removed from the interface because God help Samsung if you could put a single one of them out of sight and out of mind. No, you can rearrange the order to your heart’s content, but all 29 of them will be there waiting for a stray finger to brush them so they can unleash their Aladdin‘s "Friend Like Me (Monkey Paw Remix)" musical number trying to force you to set them up that immediately has me silencing them with the Home button.

Complicating matters is one of those apps is Google Play, which it expects you to use to install apps on it, unlike older versions of Android Wear where you could do that from your phone. And this is the point where you start to realize that this is not a watch: this thing is a fully-functional phone with ambitions to usurp your actual phone by latching onto your wrist like a lamprey with a literal taste for your blood and only keeping the thinnest veil of pretense by offering to show you notifications, which you have to manually turn on one by one unlike older Wear OS units that, bless them, showed you everything whether you liked it or not. The thing pesters you to set it up with its own number until you hit the ever-revolting "Not Now" option that says tech folks are all that creepy guy at a bar who doesn’t understand how consent works and doesn’t take "no" for an answer and in fact I had to commit a data mule line I just so happened to have to this thing or else I would have had to purchase a brand new one despite setup not actually requiring it, though it certainly pouts manipulatively when you don’t.

In short, this thing has the gall to cost you money every month for a phone line it doesn’t actually need under Verizon and that alone had me almost throwing the thing in frustration along with other things during setup because I ended up having to factory reset it after it got huffy with me denying the heart rate and body sensor permissions to the wrong underlying service and just not working properly even after I allowed them again.

The thing that most almost turned it into a projectile during this process is that scrolling through the various watch menus has an edge-on ferris wheel effect that made me increasingly motion sick because while that might have played nice on a square face, something about the way it interacted with the edges of the round one made me feel like I had tunnel vision, which is a problem I just personally have. Like, some people benefit from that in VR, but I always have to turn it off because my brain just needs to see as much as possible at all times. No, I can’t properly use binoculars, either. At least not for extended periods. So really my first experience with the watch was turning off a mountain of crap and getting physically ill from the effort, which is really why I was just short of physically chucking the thing, and I did throw it on my bed with enough force it bounced. It got to a point where I just powered through it figuring it would be worth it to handle the last 3 apps of the second round and never have to deal with it again or have much reason to interact with the menus ever again, and it was only my sheer contempt that kept me going through the nausea.

The thing is, the bugger still managed to win me over. But more on that in a bit.

Before the positives, I’m going to continue griping that the apps desperately needed a clarity pass, because there is no text on the watch itself, only on the Wear app that lets you arrange them, and of all the million menstural cycle apps that are pink with some variation of a flower on them, somehow that was what they chose for the gallery app, which is ridiculous seeing as the monthly cycle is the one thing this watch DOESN’T have a default app for and one can only guess that they decided to swap it out and not toss a perfectly good icon. The voice recorder really could have used a more standard microphone icon than something that looks more like a podcast one. And the Find My Phone icon has little to define itself as a phone finder rather than a more general search given the very stout, un-phonelike profile of the rounded rectangle that serves as the positive space of the icon. Otherwise, most of the apps are so simple it’s basically impossible to screw up icons anything but intentionally, but even then, the world clock being a wireframe globe with a clock icon over the bottom corner reads more like something is loading and probably should have been reversed and of the 2 health apps that aren’t baked into the OS itself or every. single. watch face have a running person and a heart rate monitor blip, but in their case the names are meaningless as "Samsung Health" and "Samsung Health Monitor" and I can only imagine the effective difference is the former is a workout app while the other one just creepily watches passively and cannot fathom why both or frankly either was necessary when the watch OS or at least one of the mandatory auxiliary services already detects your physical activity and can take an educated guess on what that is based on your movements alone. Because that’s not creepy! And I don’t mean "running" or "doing stairs." I mean as advanced as "rowing a freaking boat." Don’t get me wrong; my own ideas include some means of detecting repetitive motion for a mini workout as a minigame, but that idea is more about judging you on the consistency of your Macarena without actually having a whole category for The Macarena to feed into God knows what. The OS itself is there to pick up when you do literally anything for at least a minute and determine what that is so it can count every Calorie you burn and send it to the waiting data centers for sale. Yes, I keep coming back to that and yes, it is really that dystopian. My GOD, I really wish people understood how literally every "fun" or "convenient" thing you offer is used against you by insurance companies, from all those Ancestry sites selling them your DNA so they can check for genetic disease markers to "Wellness" at work encouraging you to sell your legally off-limits health data and commit to making yourself individually cheaper for a few bucks off your rate that will be hilariously flooded out by the spike you’ll actually get if you’re not freaking Clark Kent. I wouldn’t be surprised if the morning news announced DoorDash started selling your order history to them. There’s a reason Amazon keeps buying out hospital systems. Your medical data is literally the most valuable thing about you because insurance is a racket that judges you by how much more valuable you are alive than dead and will pull the plug the second you’re not a profit center. And I might add that this data is sold to them in bulk for next to nothing. Ultimately any and all information on you is very, very cheap, but it costs you several orders of magnitude more in the end.

But I digress.

Reviews also indicate that the sound quality for using it as a phone is so good people might not even notice and those reviewers need to equip their noses with blinking lights for passing jet engines at night, because unless you’re talking into it like the Power Rangers’ communicator watches, people are going to get a garbled mess and the sound quality coming out is tinny and a bit quiet, so just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

But getting back to my story of setting the thing up, while holding the completed effort in my hand and seriously considering whether impact with a wall would affect the returns process, a little magical thought entered my head: "you already spent the effort; may as well give it a chance for a day." And my finger fell on the Back button and something just tripped in my head somehow to start futzing with it, scrolling through the top icon menu to see what else was in there because there was no way it was only 6 options and not even the most important ones. And I started finding things to like. I decided to play with my digital pet a bit and got the hit of music and realized it was coming from the watch and that got my brain going in the direction of what I could do with the sound because little bits of sound and music were always part of my plans for watch apps all the way back to the Sony SmartWatch 2 and the Sony Smart Handset, thinking about vibration substitutions if no sound device was available, thinking about how the Smart Handset could connect to the SmartWatch 3, all that sort of stuff. And just poking around literally anything but the settings I started almost immediately falling in love with it. That effort expended, the bad parts all out of the way, I hit the Gallery app and threw a mock-up I already had prepared into it and started poking around the lifeless buttons just to feel what it would be like and found it didn’t conflict with the rim tracing, and that the app let me poke more than once in a spot without immediately doing a zoom like they knew people like me would do that and it just started to feel like the whole thing was actually a good idea. That people like me had seen all the problems with earlier watches and fixed it as much as they could.

The best things about the watch aren’t even in the apps screen. Honestly, the feature that turned it around in that curious foray was the water lock, as in, you know how all these Wear OS watches really could have learned from the Sony SmartWatch 2 and just not had a screen that was always listening for touch input until you pushed a physical button, but they didn’t and always wig out in the shower or if you’re not careful washing your hands, and just are always dead by morning because your arms brush each other in the night and that’s enough to kick them on full blast? Well, this doesn’t actually change that behavior, but it DOES put a manual lock on it so if you know you’re going to be a living person doing living person things around the endless sources of electroconductivity in the world, you can go into the settings, swipe once, and turn on something that’s going to make the watch sit down and wait for you to hold the power button for a full 2 seconds to reactivate touch controls, and then prompts you to shake the water out of the few external ports that recess various electronics into safer cavities where they won’t get poked. And I really have to say if you can’t change how Google specified their ill-conceived standards, this is certainly the next best thing. It’s satisfying to give the screen a few pokes on the way to the bathroom or bedroom and see the blue raindrop overlay slide in from the top as an assurance that the thing is going to just behave.

The fact it has sound at all and can actually sound halfway decent for on-board software like the cute digital pet I found is also a plus. Sure, said pet intentionally uses chiptunes, but as someone who knows his chiptunes, I know when chiptunes sound good or not, and it’s decent here if not audiophile astounding.

The interface for moving files in and out of the various media apps is simple and functional and I already have found the gallery interface and actual app to my liking.

The arrangement of the icons also is a step up from older Wear watches where it was all in a single-column list. You can fit a honeycomb of apps onto the screen and it’s overall a pleasant experience.

There is one final thing of note and that’s the "digital dial" I briefly mentioned that’s replaced a physical one around the outer rim of the watch screen. And, ehh, I can take it or leave it since swiping works just as well and is just more natural to me, but it’s also very rare for it to feel like it’s getting in the way with the raised outer rim protecting the screen preventing it from being swiped around by whatever might brush it in daily life. If it was in any way necessary I’d say it shouldn’t require you to dial it quite so much since it quickly has you dialing your finger over the face to get anywhere, but I honestly don’t care enough to see if there’s any kind of sensitivity setting. There’s also a physical Back button that’s actually subtly differentiated from the Home button by black rather than red rubber around the bottom, but the uses for it are limited at best since apps always have some other way of going back without it and Home kills apps much more effectively. Maybe I’m just spoiled, and maybe I just don’t properly appreciate it given Back is one of the three touch buttons on the Sony SmartWatch 2, but thinking back, I never actually used it much there, either, and far less than the meatball menu button, which would be really nice to have, but I assume is against Wear OS spec. It’s nice to dream, though, and I won’t say having a Back button is a bad thing and maybe people who aren’t me will think it’s a Godsend. As far as Back buttons go, it’s certainly well thought out. Little touches like this are what tell you someone cared at some point in production. It would have been cheaper and easier and more professional to just use black rubber for both, you know? But using "black" for "back" is really clever and charming in its own way without being so blatant it looks unprofessional.

Oh, and the on-screen keyboard is suprisingly easy to use. The response is exactly the right kind of forgiving despite the size and while you can’t simply slap your way through it like a trained seal, if you’re at all careful with your pokes it seems to turn out just fine!

Beyond that, it’s… a watch. I still haven’t gotten all my old games and stuff back on it because browsing Google Play on the watch itself to see which ones are and aren’t compatible frankly just isn’t worth it to me because if I’m really as desperate as it takes to play any of that stuff, I’m probably just going to futz with my Pokéwalker or check my Google newsfeed on my phone, but one of the default watch faces is similar enough to Omega Engine (which is not compatible, which I am NOT happy about after having paid for the dang thing) to get a pass, and I’m not 100% sold on the strong magnetic clasp given I just happen to be lucky enough that it doesn’t trip my work laptop’s lid close sensor (which is a problem on some laptops), but ultimately it does the most important thing a smart watch could do: take a seat and be a watch. I can’t overstate how at a premium that feels these days, but it’s why I took a chance on this one. It may have been 90% nothing I wanted, but everything else was 100% not what I wanted and out of any of the models, I’m glad this one lasts a couple days so it feels like it’s not going to be garbage in a year. It by no means lasts the promised 80 hours even with light use and is ready to go back on the charger after a couple days despite the sheer amount of crap I turned off, but given that its own non-Pro version wouldn’t even last a full day at that rate, I’m glad I got the one I did.

Would I recommend it? No. Frankly if there had been an option without any of the health tracking garbage and a decent battery life that played my Wear apps that wasn’t this one, I would have gotten that. The thing is chock full of bloatware, I have grown to tolerate rather than love the round face, the price is atrocious and only soothed by the fact that I’m paying a tolerable monthly amount over the course of 3 years, and the fact I was required by Verizon to give it its own phone line and extra-special attach that number to a number of an actual parent phone that it seems to think is redundant for all but courtesy purposes while I stand in the right that it’s unnecessary and could stand to learn its place, it’s not something I would wish on anyone, and the fact this represents the general trajectory of the things leaves me sick to my stomach. I will not be giving it its own data plan because I don’t go anywhere without my phone and I’m guessing that most other people won’t, either, because your phone is basically your lifeline these days and generally speaking you don’t want to leave it behind and still get hassled with calls and texts. The whole point of leaving your always-on availability at home is to unplug from the always-on capitalist nightmare we call the modern world. Maybe if you’re the outdoorsy type and want to escape social media and nothing else for a weekend, the compass and phone service will keep you from dying alone in the woods, but for anyone else who wants a watch that’s clearly marketed for the businesslike type with color options of charcoal black and cubicle wall beige for those who either wear a suit or need the camoflage lest a middle manager think they have too much disposable income, the service is unnecessary and just an additional drain on your data plan.

But I managed to find more redeeming qualities than I expected and beat everything else into submission, so, as far as options go, it’s the only one that actually remembers it’s a freaking watch at the end of the day and lasts long enough on its own charge for my Sony SmartWatch 2 to charge back to full. And ultimately that’s the best service of anything left on the market.

My rating to you is a blackened lead seal of "it’s a watch despite its best efforts if you try hard and believe in yourself, which is at least more than any of the others can say." If you’re lucky enough to either have a dead phone line lying around or somehow don’t have to shell out for one, that jumps considerably to a bronze "it made me violently ill breaking it in the specific ways I wanted, but after that I actually mostly like it." If you actually want everything short of your brain activity sent directly to your insurance company to discriminate against you, you can consider this a platinum "everything I love about the hospital except for the Jell-O®."