If you want the app, notification, and style advantages of an Apple Watch but need better fitness tracking, you can upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 3 and get built-in GPS, as well as waterproofing that allows swim tracking. But the Series 3 costs more than a fitness tracker or even many running watches, and it still has compromises compared with a dedicated fitness tracker, such as a lack of dedicated physical buttons. We think serious athletes are better served by a fitness-specific device.
Basically, smartwatches are wearable-technology devices that maintain a relatively persistent wireless connection to your mobile device—usually a smart phone—and can receive notifications of incoming calls, texts, instant messages, social-network updates, and more, from that device. Some can also let you accept and conduct phone calls right on the watch. And even newer models (the Samsung Gear S, for one) can act as smart phones all on their own, without needing a paired phone nearby.
The Fitbit Ionic works fine as a Fitbit tracker, but despite being more expensive than our picks or the Apple Watch Series 1, it lacks many smartwatch functions you’d hope to have. It passes notifications from your phone to the watch, but you can only respond to some of them (with only five quick reply lines); and dismissing them (either one by one or as a group) involves annoyingly hard presses and long scrolls. Syncing music files and offline Pandora playlists requires you to use a desktop app, which is laborious. Two Wirecutter writers who tested the Ionic also had trouble setting it up to work with their Android phones (a 2015 Moto X Pure and a 2016 Samsung Galaxy S7) and had to perform significant troubleshooting to get their data to sync. The Ionic’s battery life, even while using GPS for outdoor exercise tracking, is its most impressive feature, lasting at least five days in one test and nearly seven days in another. The Ionic is most useful to Fitbit enthusiasts who want to track outdoor exercise without bringing a phone; it’s not a good option if you’re looking to deal with incoming information.
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The Samsung Gear S3 was our prior pick for Samsung phone owners because of its smooth dial rotation and interface. But it was notably large, with a 46 mm face, and the Frontier model was half an inch thick, notably bulky even for a smartwatch. The Gear Sport, our runner-up pick, is less bulky, less expensive, less overtly masculine-styled, and provides most of the same features, minus the LTE option.
The Gear 2 also includes a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a heart-rate sensor. It also can control a TV or set-top box remotely using a built-in IR blaster, and it has the ability to function as a stand-alone music player. And its built-in camera—handily built into the watch itself rather than on the band, like the original Galaxy Gear—takes 2-megapixel stills and 720p video.
The Fitbit Versa is nearly a full smartwatch, but the way it handles notifications prevents it from being a pick. Fitbit’s sleep, step, and workout tracking features beat our current picks’, and in our testing the Versa regularly lasted for four or more days between full charges. It lacks GPS, which the Ionic has, but it has a lower price as a result. You can choose from a decent variety of band types, although the bands are an odd 23 mm size (rather than a standard 22 mm), and slot in at an angle, making it hard to know if an unofficial band will fit. You can cache Deezer or Pandora radio stations to the Versa’s 2.5 GB of reserved space, control the music on your phone (after reconnecting your watch in “classic mode”), or transfer your own music to the watch, though it’s a tedious process involving a computer and cable. Where the Versa falls short is in working with notifications from your phone. The notifications pile up, and it can be a hassle to clear them; most notifications don’t expand to show more text; and though a software update has given you quick replies to select from, you’re limited to five of them. Like the Ionic, it’s more of a smartened-up fitness tracker than a fitness-savvy smartwatch.
Unfortunately, you won't be able to respond to alerts (like messages and emails) from the Charge 3. That's a feature sequestered to smartwatches, but you can see most of the content of an alert on the device's screen. Considering how narrow the device's screen is, reading through a long email won't be the most comfortable experience. But at least that message will be glanceable on your wrist, as will news headlines, text messages, and other alerts as well.
Finally, Wear OS has a problem that’s seemingly random and hard to understand: “Can’t reach Google at the moment.” Having tested at least a dozen Wear OS watches, we can say that an unexplained failure when using voice commands is the most common negative trait for all of them. It’s impossible for the layperson to understand which part of the watch-to-phone-to-Internet relay is falling down, but it can happen at any time, even right after you’ve used the watch to do something else successfully. When Google Assistant is made the center of Android watches, not being able to reach Google Assistant lowers the value of that watch considerably.
Battery life for the Q watches is unremarkably reliable, and that’s the best thing you can say about a touchscreen smartwatch. The Q Explorist never ran out of juice entirely while wearing it, even after having it be the primary turn-by-turn direction notifier on two 1-hour drives, followed by 30 minutes of actively tracked cycling and the usual all-day text/app notifications. While we didn’t wear the Venture for full days of testing, most reviews find no fault with the battery. The USB charger is a basic magnetic disc that slides onto the rounded back of the watch (though it could stand to stick onto the watch more strongly, like the Apple Watch’s similar disc).
Google confirmed to Tom's Guide that the company won't be releasing its own Wear OS smartwatch this year. The news comes after months of rumors that a Google-branded Pixel Watch running on Qualcomm's latest processor would be launched at Google's October hardware event. Instead, Google plans to focus on adding features to Wear OS on the software side and support the companies who are currently making Android smartwatches. Google's hardware event is Oct. 9.