Smartwatches are relatively new gadgets, and their features are continuously improving. Each smartwatch needs to synch to your smartphone to get enhanced features. Once linked, depending on the model of smartwatch, you can forward emails, text messages, GPS directions and more to your wrist. Some smartwatches even have built-in microphones and speakers, allowing you to make phone calls. Calls are routed through your smartphone, just like when using a Bluetooth Headset. The Samsung watch—dubbed the Galaxy Gear—also has an integrated camera, so you can snap spontaneous photos without ever picking up your smartphone. Of course, ever smartwatch also functions as a traditional digital watch when not linked to a smart device. As the technology matures, expect to see more advanced features and perhaps even complete phone functionality built in.
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’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.
Smartwatches, like smart phones, can also run apps, via your smart phone or right on the watch. These include health and fitness apps (thus the comparison with activity trackers), apps that control functions such as music and the camera on your phone, navigation apps, and more. Because most smartwatches have open software platforms (at least so far), developers are coming up with new and innovative apps that can increase the functionality of the devices.
Some smartwatches have robust offerings of apps, either preinstalled on the watch or available for download in an app store. Apps can be as simple as a timer or stopwatch, or can control your smart-home devices, switch up your music, or provide turn-by-turn directions for walking or driving. In our testing and everyday use, however, these watch apps rarely offer a great experience. But there are some exceptions, including some fitness apps and apps that track things like water or food intake.
If you want a smart watch that uses cellular data without using up the battery, consider upgrading to the Samsung Gear S3. A close cousin to the Gear Sport, the S3 has all the perks of an LTE smart device (downloading apps, texting, checking email) and, unlike the Apple Series 3, it won’t quit after three hours. In fact, you could feasibly get 72 hours out of this LTE version of the Samsung Gear Sport.
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.
I’ve had the Samsung Gear S3 classic for a few months now. There are lots of apps now available including a music app which allows you to save and play as many tracks as the sizeable built in memory will allow you to save to the watch. The in-built speaker is high quality for making and receiving calls and of course listening to music, but a Bluetooth headset makes all the difference.
What’s on display?: Most smartwatches have full-colour displays, though the underlying technology will determine how good the screen looks. There has been a move towards AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) displays, as used in the Apple Watch which present a bright screen, crisp text and accurate colours. Fitness trackers tend to have lower-quality screens and may not present in full-colour, partly to save battery life.
The three buttons on the Q Explorist are useful and responsive, although the middle crown’s button action may be a bit too responsive. The newest versions of Wear OS allow you to set each of the two clicky side buttons (at the 2 and 4 o’clock positions) as a shortcut to any function on the watch when on the home screen. Clicking the center button wakes up the watch and brings you back to your “home” watch-face display, and holding it down activates Google Assistant. The Q Explorist’s center button has a mushier action to it than the Digital Crown on the Apple Watch, and its rotation is stiffer (more on that below), but it works, and turning a crown is easier to do in more situations than continually flicking upward on a touchscreen. The Venture lacks the two side buttons, and its crown cannot turn through lists. While the turning crown is a helpful upgrade, the the Venture’s push-button response is firmer and better than on the Explorist, and its screen response is fast enough to make the lack of physical input tolerable.
Dropping the phone: Some models of smartwatches in the Samsung and Apple line-ups feature a mobile network chip, allowing you to plug in a micro SIM card to make and receive calls, texts and emails and access the internet without being paired to your phone. It sounds great, but remember that the smartwatch has a very small battery, so relying on it for communications will drain the power quickly.
While you're not getting Spotify or Apple Music here, you are getting enough storage for 500 songs with a process that's fairly easy. You just boot up Garmin Express, select the Music tab and choose which of your own music you want to port over. If you do want to sync over playlists from a streaming service, your only options are iHeartRadio and Deezer.
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.
Smart watches are here to change the way you live. Now you can power through your workouts while the latest technology keeps track of your every move, check your calendar and keep an eye on the weather forecast wherever you are. You can also sync your smartphone with your watch, so you can check your texts, see who’s calling and receive notifications while keeping your iPhone 6 Plus safely tucked away.