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.
I've been pleased to see swim-tracking trickle down into more affordable devices over the past few years. Fitbit's Flex 2 remains its most affordable device with swim-tracking features, priced at $60. But the $150 Charge 3, with its big display and smattering of smartwatch capabilities, is for a different audience than those who would gravitate to the tiny, quasi-cylindrical Flex 2. Even if you don't swim often, water-resistance up to 50 meters means users don't have to worry about showering with the Charge 3 or dropping it in the pool by accident.
The Charge 2 was one of Fitbit's most popular trackers, so the company stuck with the winning formula with the Charge 3. If you're at all familiar with the Charge 2, you'll notice that not much has changed in the updated device—it's still a rectangular tracker hugged on its short edges by two parts of a band. Fitbit updated the connecting mechanism that lets you switch out the bands on the Charge 3, making it easier to press the black sliver of a button on either end to release the device's current band. The new band snaps right into place without any extra effort.
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.
There's now a heart rate monitor, as the name suggests, for tracking beats throughout the day and during exercise, a GPS monitor to keep up with your workouts and an NFC chip to enable Google Pay. Add to that the ability to take this underwater up to 50 metres, all on the top of the refreshed Wear OS, and it all rounds out as a very complete smartwatch experience.
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Why we like it: Fossil’s Q Explorist and Venture watches are good-looking watches with a decent range of case and band options, and decent responsiveness and battery life—this is high praise given the current state of Android smartwatches. They can track steps, control music playback, give you turn-by-turn directions on your wrist, and allow you to respond to messages with your voice or quick-reply taps. But these two models are not unique: The Fossil Group offers an array of more than 300 smartwatches under different fashion brands—including Diesel, Skagen, Tag Heuer, Kate Spade, and Movado—that have essentially the same internal components and software, so you can pick the watch design you like best.
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.
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.