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).
This watch won’t work unless you have an iPhone. However, it is hands-down the best smart watch for an iPhone. Other watches (including the Fossil Q Venture) will work with an iPhone, but won’t be able to answer calls or respond to texts, and if you want to customize the apps on your watch, you’ll need to navigate the Google Play store through the watch screen.
In order to find the best smart watch, we looked at text and call features and, of course, design. We dug into tech reviews to separate must-haves from perks. Then, we brought in 19 smart watches to test for call responsiveness, text-ability, app accessibility, and general ease of us. In the end, three watches stood out for their reliable connectivity, gorgeous interfaces, and easy navigation.
Samsung’s Gear Sport is not as stylish as Fossil’s Q watches, and because it runs Samsung’s Tizen operating system instead of Wear OS, it has nowhere near the app support of Wear OS. But as a smartwatch that shows your phone notifications and lets you respond to them, lasts all day, and tracks your recreational workouts, it is a great device. It’s not meant for competitive speed training, but it has built-in GPS and heart-rate sensing, offline Spotify storage, and a rotating bezel that’s much easier to use while exercising than a touchscreen. It does suffer from weak voice transcription and a barely-there S Voice “assistant,” but it fits a lot of core smartwatch functions into a relatively smart-looking package that’s better for fitness-minded wearers than our top picks.
Other reviewers also like the Q watches. Simon Hill at Digital Trends writes that the Q Explorist is “an attractive smartwatch to use with an Android phone that will blend in at work or play at an affordable price,” and that, aside from the Apple Watch and the Gear Sport (for Samsung phone owners), the Q Explorist “compares favorably with the rest of the field.” Gerald Lynch at TechRadar summarizes the Venture as “a sharp-looking, comfortable smartwatch with a great display and responsive processor,” but knocks it for lacking GPS and a heart-rate monitor. Matthew Miller at ZDNet believes the Explorist and Venture are “priced fairly for nice looking fashion watches that also serve as smartwatches.”
The LTE connection will cost you about $10 a month at most carriers, and the LTE model does cost more. There's a non-LTE version, too, if you're not interested in the new feature. Most people probably don't need LTE, frankly, unless you regularly go on hikes or long runs and you don't want to be weighed down with your phone. Still, it's a nice option to have.
Wear OS comes with a focus on fitness features, but unfortunately Huawei managed to simultaneously move too far in this direction and also fall short of it. It doesn’t come with a rotating side button for navigation, which is a shame as we really love the button on the LG Watch Sport. It does, however, come with great battery life and a stellar feature set otherwise.
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.
When we compared the storage space of the Samsung Gear Sport with the other contenders, it didn’t have the most. With 4 GB — only a quarter of what you’ll get with the Apple Watch Series 3 GPS — you will have to manage your apps so you don’t run out of room. If you like to carry all of your music with you and you have an extensive library, you might run out of space with the Gear Sport.
Being able to customize the watch faces and layouts, made the Series 3 a shoo-in for our list of best smart watches. Much like you can customize the homescreen on your iPhone, you can change the layout of apps and even display the weather. While you can’t opt for third-party designs, you do have 12 different watch faces to play with. Tinker with color schemes, add or remove widgets (called “complications” on the app), and decide whether you want to have all twelve faces available on your watch (we always like having options), or cut back.
But your phone will play an important part if you do get a Fitbit or Garmin device with the aim of tracking your activity. It will be the place where your health data is synced to, you can tinker with your tracking settings and review your progress. There’s also a whole ecosystem of health apps that plug into tracking devices, combining them with exercise and diet advice - MyFitnessPal, Runtastic and Strava are three of the most popular ones worth checking out.
They include a heart rate monitor, pedometer and altimeter to track steps taken and stairs climbed and often a GPS chip to record your distance covered. They will sync with your smartphone to give you a suite of tools to monitor your exercise progress. Many of them will offer notifications of incoming phone calls, text and email alerts as well. But they are designed with fitness tracking in mind. If you are happy using your smartphone for your day to day messaging, calendar, apps and music, a fitness tracker will suffice.
These new smartwatches build on a pretty familiar package. Both are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor and run on Wear OS. Both also get GPS, NFC for Google Pay, and heart rate sensors as well. The Venture is the smaller of the two, measuring in at 40mm with an 18mm band. The Explorist, on the other hand, is a 45mm watch with a 22mm band.
If you wear the Q Explorist close to your hand, its case size and protruding center button can activate when you bend your wrist back, or if you’re wearing thicker gloves. The worst that happens is that Google Assistant is activated, and it either does nothing or tries to ask Google whatever nonsense the microphone picks up inadvertently. That can be annoying, and may cause you to size your watch band a bit larger, so the watch sits up your arm a bit more, clear of your wrist joint. Sadly, Wear OS lacks a “left-handed mode” to allow for turning the watch and its gestures the other direction.
The Sport’s built-in fitness features do a decent job of motivating you to move more, tracking a Fitbit-like set of metrics: Stairs climbed, steps taken, and minutes active. It reminds you to get up every hour or so and suggests stretches and movements you can do at your desk if you’re stuck there. While the Sport can track your movement and exercise, and start doing so automatically, it is not accurate enough for dedicated runners or cyclists (who should get a GPS running watch instead): Influential fitness gear tester Ray Maker (aka DC Rainmaker) clocked “the worst GPS track accuracy I’ve ever seen on a run” wearing the Gear Sport. We didn’t see quite the same entirely-different-street discrepancies in biking tests, but the Sport is nevertheless not a competitive training tool, providing only a rough guide to distance and speed.
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.
We test every new smartwatch to gauge its design and comfort. If it’s not stylish and comfortable enough to get you from an early morning workout to the office to a night out, you probably won’t wear it every day. Most smartwatches are also fitness trackers, so we put all of its sensors to the test, from step counts to heart rate to GPS (when applicable).