Samsung has been making decent smartwatches for a long time, usually running their own software rather than Google’s Wear OS.  Last year though they partnered with Google to merge Tizen into Wear OS to bring Wear OS 3 to the world.  Their part of the deal was a time of exclusivity with Wear OS 3 and on the eve of the expected launch of the Galaxy Watch5 now might be a good time to see how well the Galaxy Watch4 plays with others.

No one else was allowed to use it on their own smartwatches and Samsung made the most of it.  They launched the Galaxy Watch4 line with Wear OS 3 and did some amazing things with it.  Unfortunately some of these amazing things were designed to work with Samsung phones – why not?  They had exclusive rights to it, where would anyone who didn’t want this limitation turn to?

They were right of course.  Wear OS 3 is meant to finally be the version of Wear OS that becomes usable on a daily basis without any lag in the user interface.  The enterprising folks at XDA Developers figured out how to get these Samsung-only features (ECG and Blood Pressure) working on any brand smartphone.   Trevor covered the Samsung experience in his review last year but I’m trying it without the Samsung smartphone. 

Galaxy Watch4 au naturel

I first used the Galaxy Watch4 without any hacks to enable the Samsung-only features for a few weeks.  The new interface – well, it’s new.  At this stage, given we are yet to see any other Wear OS 3-running smartwatches in hand, it is unclear whether this new interface is Samsung’s “skin” or whether it is Google’s new base user interface.

I didn’t mind it but it is different to previous versions of Wear OS.  Notifications do not pop up from the bottom anymore but instead from the left.  You swipe from the left to view the various notifications.  You can still top on a notification to expand it and reply.  Replying works well using either the keyboard or the voice typing – it would be better with Google’s new voice recognition voice assistant seen on the Pixel 6 phones though.

Widgets are again viewed from the right with the usual ability to choose which ones you show and what order you have them in.  Swiping from the top brings up the quick settings which are better than what was on the previous Wear OS version with the icons larger and easier to access.  You can decide what icons/settings to have here as well which is a nice addition.

Overall, Wear OS 3 is a massive upgrade in usability and smoothness over the previous Wear OS versions.  There is no more lag in the system and the usability just got a massive upgrade.

If this is all you need your smartwatch for – notifications, and widgets/apps – then the Galaxy Watch4 is perfect for you to use with any Android smartphone.  That isn’t the most advanced part of the Watch4 – that would be the ECG and Blood Pressure reading capabilities.

This new health sensor in the Watch4 brings the ability to measure your ECG and your blood pressure but unfortunately you do need to have a Samsung smartphone to be able to use this functionality.  Luckily the enterprising folks at XDA have come up with a relatively easy hack to allow you to trick your Watch4 into working with your current smartphone, no matter the brand (tested out on OPPO and Google Pixel smartphones).

ECG and Blood Pressure measuring on the Galaxy Watch4

There are actually two hacks to enable full operation of the Watch4 on any Android smartphone.  The first one enables ECG and blood pressure features on the watch and the second allows the blood pressure (BP) measurement to be synced with your smartphone.

Both are relatively easy to perform, all you have to do is follow the steps one by one.  No hacking knowledge is required, with the instructions step by step and if you get it wrong you cannot brick your watch- the ECG and blood pressure just won’t work.  For those not comfortable using ADB and command line on your PC/Mac the developer, XDA-Dante63, has also created a simple bat file that will install everything as required with a simple double click on the file.

Once installed you can open the Samsung Health Monitor app and start enjoying the ECG and BP monitoring.  When opening the app you need to make sure you are opening the correct app to perform the measurements.  The new modded app has a different icon to the non-modded app which will not work – the icon with the extra beat is the modded app icon – see image below.

The ECG is super simple to get working.  Sit down, put your arm down and rest it on a table and hit the measure button.  IT will then read your ECG and give a simple “Diagnosis” of whether you are in sinus rhythm or not.  Sinus rhythm is a stable heart beat.  The ECG looks for irregular heart beats which is usually atrial fibrillation and can be an indicator of something more serious occurring.

So how useful is the ECG measuring?  Not very for a vast majority of us in my opinion.  Sure, it can measure your ECG but how useful is that? It doesn’t help with training or fitness but as mentioned above it can be an indicator of something serious going on.  For someone having a serious cardiac event it could warn them of this – assuming they were wearing the watch and measuring the ECG at that time.  As someone who looks at ECGs most days of the week many people have some form of heartbeat irregularity, whether it be an occasional ectopic heartbeat or arrhythmia – so does the ECG measurement really make much difference?  I don’t think so.

If you are someone who has arrhythmia issues it may be able to help you determine when you enter atrial fibrillation but talking to a lot of folks who have atrial fibrillation issues, they can normally easily determine themselves when their heart is in atrial fibrillation.

Blood pressure on the other hand can be extremely useful.  Many of us in the general population of Aussies take medications for our hypertension (high blood pressure) as high blood pressure can lead to all sorts of cardiovascular issues.  Low blood pressure can also lead to issues such as light-headedness and fainting and should also be monitored for.  It is thus important that blood pressure is controlled and the Watch4’s BP monitoring can be used to do so.

First, you’ll need to calibrate the BP on your Watch4, which requires a BP monitoring machine – your local pharmacy should have one that you can use.  The app walks your thought the calibration, which does require the watch to be tight on your wrist — you don’t have to wear it like that 24/7, just whenever you want to measure your blood pressure.

Once calibrated the Watch4 can easily measure your BP and with my testing, seems accurate and consistent which is all you can ask for.  If only Samsung offered this feature to all users, no matter the smartphone they use.  Although the ECG is relatively gimmicky, the BP monitoring is likely to be much more useful, more often, and for more people.

What about the upcoming Galaxy Watch5?

There has recently been an update to the Watch4 software that may signal what is in store for the Watch5.  Firstly, it does not affect the mod mentioned above.  Secondly, the update added a new line to the Samsung Health Monitor app – Blood Glucose.  This will apparently be measured using third party medical equipment and possibly entered via Bluetooth or manually.  

It is unlikely that the Watch5 will be able to measure blood glucose given that non-invasive blood glucose monitoring devices are not widely available at this stage of their development and are extremely specific devices.  It seems unlikely that Samsung would be able to add this to their smartwatch – maybe in a few years but for now, I’d be very surprised (but happy and extremely impressed).

At this stage, all signs point to the mod for ECG and BP monitoring enabled on non-Samsung devices to be fully functional for the Galaxy Watch5.  I look forward to getting my hands on one and putting it through its paces.

The verdict for the non-Samsung user

If you’ve been holding off on buying a Samsung Galaxy Watch4 because you don’t own a Samsung smartphone you do not need to be. By itself, without the advanced health features it is still a great smartwatch. To add the ability to perform all functionality of the smartwatch may seem daunting but is actually super easy. The instructions are simple step by step instructions that are simple to follow.

If you have some form of tech ability and knowledge it will be a piece of cake for you. Head on over to the XDA webpages linked above for step by step instructions. If not, then you can still use the smartwatch with every other capabilities — and all of the capabilities that other Wear OS smartwatches have.

Samsung will be announcing the new version of the Samsung Galaxy Watch in the next couple of weeks and it will be interesting to see what Samsung bring this year. Hopefully they also bring cross-manufacturer compatibility to their smartwatches. It seems to be a very prohibitive way of doing things, turning people off buying their smartwatch. Come on Samsung, give us all the chance to use your smartwatch to its fullest. It’s a great smartwatch, if only we could all use it.