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 Watch Series 3: If you are an iPhone user and generally exist in Apple’s ecosystem, it makes sense to get an Apple Watch. The design quality is exceptional and the Watch makes a nice pairing with your iPhone as materials and design elements are common to both. Apple’s Health app covers most of the bases when it comes to tracking your essential fitness and activity indicators - nutrition, sleep, physical exercise, but Apple has gone further with HealthKit, which allows health and fitness apps downloaded from the App Store to share data with each other. Apple has committed to Watch, and its attention to practical and eye-pleasing design as well as useful tracking features is commendable. ($529)
The Samsung Gear Live is the first of the company’s smartwatches to be compatible with any Android phone running Android 4.3 or higher; other Gear models can be paired only with specific Samsung phones. Like the LG G Watch and Moto 360, it runs the Android Wear OS, allowing voice commands and pushing relevant information to the wearer. Compared with the LG G Watch, we prefer the style and fit of the Gear Live. The watch body is slightly curved, which made it more comfortable. The Gear Live also has a heart-rate monitor, which the G Watch lacks.
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.
The touchscreen, button, and dial (what Apple calls the “crown”) help you zoom in and out and move between apps fairly effortlessly. With this easy navigation it’s easy to forget we’re typing on a screen slightly smaller than an Oreo. In particular, we loved Apple’s app homepage, which displays all of the apps as icons in a honeycomb-like display. You can use the touchscreen to move around, and the dial to zoom in or pan out, to precisely tap on the one you want.
The SmartWatch 2 is a streamlined version of Sony's first smartwatch (which went on sale in 2013) with a number of new features. The SmartWatch 2 has a thin bezel; it's almost all screen, which gives it a modern, sleek look. You choose from one of two strap designs, black plastic or black stainless steel, or you can swap those out for a leather strap in one of seven colors ($20 each). We tested the model with the plastic strap, which is light and flexible and can fit close to your wrist.
Many major phone apps have Wear OS counterparts, or at least most apps that make sense to have a dedicated watch app. You’ll likely find yourself using most watch apps less than you might think, but they are sometimes convenient for avoiding a phone retrieval. I use regularly use the Nest app for my home thermostat, Keep to take down a quick voice note, PocketCasts to control podcast episodes and playlists, and Stronglifts to time and track workouts. But I use these on my watch mostly when my phone is not at hand; none is easier to use than its phone version. As noted, most apps on your phone will provide notifications that can be acted upon through your watch. For the apps that you do use, the Q watches’ screen (identical to most of the Fossil group watches’ screens) is responsive enough to work with tiny buttons pressed by big fingers.
I visited the Fitbit app more than I usually do during the first day of wearing the Charge 3 so I could manage notifications. This device is the first tracker to go beyond the basic call, text, and calendar alerts that most Fitbit trackers can receive. The Charge 3 can alert you to any and all happenings on your smartphone if you want. In the notification panel in the Fitbit app, you can choose which apps you want to receive alerts from—turn on all of them so you never miss a beat, or only turn on the apps that are most important to you.
Bottom line: Some fitness trackers work equally well with an iPhone or Android device, but some smartwatches are built to pair with Android phones so you won’t enjoy full functionality and pairing on an iPhone. The Apple Watch only pairs with the iPhone so is off limits to Android users. Your existing phone choice will play an important part in choosing a smartwatch. You can check your smartphone’s compatibility with a range of Google Wear-powered smartwatches at g.co/WearCheck
Fossil’s Q Explorist and its smaller-wrist counterpart the Q Venture are well-made, responsive, fashionable Wear OS smartwatches that offer a lot of color and band options, making them the best option around. They ably run Wear OS (more on the pros and cons of Wear OS itself in a bit) and convey your phone’s notifications to your wrist. Their buttons engage with clean clicks, the Explorist’s center crown moves through lists and notifications much more effectively than swiping, and both screens are responsive and clear.
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.
You can also use devices that support the Google Wear operating system in conjunction with an iPhone as well as a Samsung Gear device that runs Samsung’s own Tizen operating system. But Google Wear and Tizen devices are designed to pair with smartphones using the Android OS, so you won’t get full functionality when pairing with an iPhone. For instance, some Android smartwatches carry Samsung’s smartwatch line-up and naturally enough, work best with Samsung smartphones, but are still compatible with Android-powered Huawei or Nokia phones.
Google announced in late August a substantial new version of Wear OS, which should roll out to nearly every smartwatch running Android Wear 2.0 as of September 2018. The biggest changes are to the navigation of Wear OS’s homescreen, which means it could make these watches significantly easier to use. The updated UI will give you four primary places to go from your watch face: Swiping left gets you to the new Google Fit and its Heart Points and Move Minutes; swiping right brings you to a hopefully fast-loading, better-responding Google Assistant interface for asking questions or issuing commands; swipe up and you’ll see a long stream of all of your notifications, which you can interact with and respond to; swipe down, as with Wear 2.0, to access quick settings. Google told Engadget that the update focuses on reducing loading times and improving Assistant responsiveness, which addresses some of our major our misgivings about Wear OS. We’ll test this latest Wear OS and update this guide after we have a better sense of the changes.
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.