Smartwatches are still a relatively new electronics category, but these devices are poised to hit the mainstream. This year we saw major players such as LG and Motorola throw their smartwatches in the ring, along with Samsung, Sony, and a host of smaller companies like Pebble and Martian. And Apple finally confirmed its entry, the innovative Apple Watch, expected to arrive early in 2015.
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.
Software may include digital maps, schedulers and personal organizers, calculators, and various kinds of watch faces. The watch may communicate with external devices such as sensors, wireless headsets, or a heads-up display. Like other computers, a smartwatch may collect information from internal or external sensors and it may control, or retrieve data from, other instruments or computers. It may support wireless technologies like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS. For many purposes, a "watch computer" serves as a front end for a remote system such as a smartphone, communicating with the smartphone using various wireless technologies. Smartwatches are advancing, especially their design, battery capacity, and health-related applications.
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier: Until we see what Google can pack into a smartwatch with its long-awaited Pixel Watch, the best smartwatch for Android users is the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier. It pretty much has everything a user with an Android phone needs in a smartwatch - GPS, heart rate monitor, water resistance, near field communications, an always-on digital display, messaging alerts and app support. I don’t see a real need to opt for the 3G version yet, which would untether you from your phone completely but adds around $100 to the price. ($549)
You’d be amazed how hard it is to text something as simple as “hi” on many smart watch interfaces. Still, most designs take this into consideration. We tested all kinds of watches from auto-scrolling screens where you drew the letters with your finger to pre-smartphone layouts more akin to the alphanumeric layout of a payphone keypad. While the drawing features were nice, we felt that the texting was a little more manageable on keyboards.
Most smartwatches have a fitness component for the very good reason that a watch is moving with you throughout the day. For counting steps, encouraging activity, and tracking occasional long walks, runs, or bike rides, most smartwatches will do fine. If you want a device to track your everyday runs or cycling sessions, you want a GPS running watch. If you’re serious about tracking and improving your movement and sleep, a fitness tracker will do that for less money and look more discrete doing so (and if you have health insurance, you may get a discount or incentives to use one). There are smartwatches that lean heavily toward sports and fitness in their marketing, but there are drawbacks to each of them not found in a dedicated device. At the other extreme, if you all you really need is step counting, a hybrid smartwatch—with an analog face like a traditional watch, but with built-in motion sensors and months-long battery life—may be a better option.
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You won’t get much use out of an Apple Watch if you don’t have an iPhone nor any other kind of iOS-enabled mobile device. The same thing goes for the Samsung Gear Sport. While the Q Venture does feature some compatibility with Android and iOS devices, it won’t mix well if you’re a Samsung customer. The smartphone you use will ultimately determine which smart watch you get the most value from.
Our top pick for most people is the Apple Watch Series 4 with GPS (starting at $399), which has a huge display, ultra-fast processor, Raise to Speak Siri, fall detection and a built-in electrical heart rate sensor for taking on-the-go electrocardiograms. It also runs watchOS 5, which makes the watch even more useful with automatic workout-tracking, offline podcast playback and a Walkie-Talkie voice chat feature.