Since the early days of modern smartwatches, we’ve sought to test as many relevant models as we can and recommend the watches that do the best job of making a smartwatch convenient and useful. We test Wear OS watches by wearing them while they’re connected to Android phones. Whenever possible, we ask other people to try out our potential picks to get an idea of how others react to a watch’s size, style, interface, and other features.
If you’d prefer your smartwatch looked more like a piece of jewelry than a small computer on your wrist, you’ll like Skagen’s Falster range. The straps of these slimline watches come in a few different leather or stainless steel options but coupled with the included minimalist watch face designs, they all look sleek and stylish in a way few other smartwatches manage.
We actually got our hands on over a dozen of these smart watches just to get a feel for what it was like to use them. While all of them came with at least one main button (or a home button if you’re an iPhone-user), the ones that stood out had scrolling down to a science. On such a small screen, swiping isn’t always the most ideal form of navigation. Some of the best smart watches for navigation, we found, had twistable dials or bezels you could turn.
Why we like it: Compared with a smartwatch or fitness tracker, a dedicated GPS running watch is focused on one category of exercise: outdoor movement. GPS watches offer the fastest GPS signal lock-on and more-precise maps, while also showing up to the second details on your pace, heart rate, mile split times, and a host of other stats on an always-on display. The physical buttons on a GPS watch are easier to use while moving (and without looking), rather than having to swipe or tap on a tiny glass screen. A GPS watch’s longer battery life can better handle endurance events than a smartwatch. And the software and apps behind a good GPS watch provide more statistics and training programs to improve your efficiency. While GPS watches can show notifications, the weather, and a few other smartwatch-like conveniences, they’re much more limited in what can be done from a wrist than a smartwatch—or even a fitness tracker like the Vívosmart.
The LG G Watch was the first one we tried that uses Google’s Android Wear OS (the Moto 360 and Samsung Gear Live do as well). It includes Google Now, the company's Siri-like "intelligent personal assistant." Say “OK Google,” and you can do Google searches, compose texts, and make requests of your watch (“Show me my steps” or “Set an alarm”). Google Now also offers up a stream of "cards" on the watch's face, with information it determines is relevant to you. If, for example, the card tells you how many minutes it would take you to get home from your current location, you can click on the card and get specific traffic and navigation information.
The hardware is now “swimproof” with improved water resistance and there’s also now a heart rate sensor. Those work with the new Google Fit app to improve the fitness experience from your watch. Further, the Falster 2 has built-in GPS and NFC as well. This opens up Google Pay functionality for the watch for mobile payments in-store. Of course, Wear OS is still at the center of the experience, and the whole thing runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100.
Battery life and charging options: Charging your smartwatch is a hassle and the biggest downside to trading in your manually-wound or button battery-powered watch. A Fitbit Versa might last 3 - 4 days between charges, but a smartwatch like the Samsung Gear Sport or Apple Watch will need recharging every couple of days and sometimes every night if you are tapping on the screen regularly and using its apps.
The Explorist and Venture cases are an average thickness for a round smartwatch (at 12.5 and 11.5 millimeters, respectively), with widths of 45 mm and 42 mm, respectively. Neither watch feels too heavy or awkward on a larger wrist, though even the smaller Venture watch is still quite chunky on a smaller wrist. Each model’s battery regularly lasted a whole day in our testing, and the voice-dictation functions are on a par with those of most smartwatches; the same goes for Google Assistant’s accuracy. Both watches and their Google Fit system track day-to-day activity, and although Wear OS apps don’t have quite the buy-in from app makers that the Apple Watch does, you can likely find your favorite apps in Google’s Play Store, and most phone apps provide rich notifications that you can interact with through the watch. Both show signs of good build quality, with thoughtful attention to detail on all surfaces and no cheap connectors or pieces.
None of the newly tested models’ time displays time out when the watches are inactive, which we’ve seen happen on previously tested smartwatches. The time displays of the LG, Samsung, and Motorola models have a setting to keep them always on, though they dim after a little while. The Martian Notifier and Cookoo2 have traditional analog watch faces.
Apple has continued its focus on its health focus with the Series 4. In addition to being able to detect a fall, this new Apple Watch introduces three heart-rate tracking features that will be available later this year. It lets you know if your heart rate is too low, it can detect irregular rhythms (which may indicate atrial fibrillation), and most impressively, it serves as an FDA-cleared electrocardiogram.
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.