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 wear the Q Explorist close to your hand, its case size and protruding center button can activate when you bend your wrist back, or if you’re wearing thicker gloves. The worst that happens is that Google Assistant is activated, and it either does nothing or tries to ask Google whatever nonsense the microphone picks up inadvertently. That can be annoying, and may cause you to size your watch band a bit larger, so the watch sits up your arm a bit more, clear of your wrist joint. Sadly, Wear OS lacks a “left-handed mode” to allow for turning the watch and its gestures the other direction.
On 9 September 2014, Apple Inc. announced its first smartwatch called Apple Watch to be released in early 2015. On 24 April 2015, Apple Watch began shipping across the world. Apple’s first try into wearable technology was met with considerable criticism during the pre-launch period, with many early technology reviews citing issues with battery life and hardware malfunctions. However, others praised Apple for creating a potentially fashionable device that can compete with "traditional watches," not just the smartwatch industry in general. The watch only turns on when activated (either by lifting one's wrist, touching the screen, or pressing a button). On 29 October 2014, Microsoft announced the Microsoft Band, a smart fitness tracker and the company's first venture into wrist-worn devices since SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) a decade earlier. The Microsoft Band was released at $199 the following day, on 30 October 2014.
Then your typical exercise activity will determine which model is the best fit. You can expect to pay $1500 - $350 for a fitness tracker. If you are simply interested in hitting your 10,000 steps a day, an entry-level Fitbit will do the trick for around $150. Garmin has fitness trackers designed specifically with runners and cyclists in mind, giving you accurate tracking of biking and cycling distance covered using GPS. They’ll cost more as a result - $350 - $800.
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.
Finally, Wear OS has a problem that’s seemingly random and hard to understand: “Can’t reach Google at the moment.” Having tested at least a dozen Wear OS watches, we can say that an unexplained failure when using voice commands is the most common negative trait for all of them. It’s impossible for the layperson to understand which part of the watch-to-phone-to-Internet relay is falling down, but it can happen at any time, even right after you’ve used the watch to do something else successfully. When Google Assistant is made the center of Android watches, not being able to reach Google Assistant lowers the value of that watch considerably.
The LG G Watch, Samsung Gear Live, and Motorola Moto 360—the Android Wear models—have intuitive color touchscreen interfaces and were judged easiest to interact with. The Martian Notifier, Cookoo 2, and MetaWatch M1, which have push-button navigation, were determined to be the most difficult to use. In particular, the Cookoo 2's buttons were very hard to press.
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.
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.
The build is fantastic with IP68 waterproof and Corning Gorilla Glass DX+, and the display looks great with a resolution up to 360 x 360 and Circular Super AMOLED tech. On the larger model, the battery sports a capacity of 472 mAh, which powers the snappy Exynos 9110 Dual core processor. You can choose between Silver, Midnight Black, or Rose Gold color options, and the bands are interchangeable to match your style. But most importantly, with the Tizen-Based Wearable OS 4.0 that Samsung has optimized to work with their proprietary controls and apps, this will be the perfect sidekick to your Samsung phone.
It has all the same core fitness and sports tracking as the Series 3, including built-in GPS and a swimproof design. You can also expect improvements in run tracking and new supported activities like yoga and hiking. It comes packing LTE once again so you can take it out sans iPhone and still make/receive calls, get texts and all other notifications you would on your phone. A new speaker should also make Siri chats and phone calls sound louder and clearer.
Like previous Gear watches, the Gear Sport uses a rotating bezel and two side buttons for most of its navigation. This works better than you’d think by looking at it, and it’s a boon to those who wear gloves for part of the year. In fact, we actually prefer this approach to Wear OS or the Apple Watch: Rotating through your home screens, notifications, lists of apps, or messages happens at remarkable speed for a tiny device. The screen is 1.2 inches and 360 pixels in diameter, but it’s brighter than our pick’s, and it looks decent enough while displaying most content, though text isn’t as sharp as on the Fossil screens. The watch itself is not small, at 43 and 44 millimeters wide and tall, respectively, and 11.6 mm thick, but it’s nowhere near as beefy as our prior pick, the Gear S3.
The Gear 2 also includes a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a heart-rate sensor. It also can control a TV or set-top box remotely using a built-in IR blaster, and it has the ability to function as a stand-alone music player. And its built-in camera—handily built into the watch itself rather than on the band, like the original Galaxy Gear—takes 2-megapixel stills and 720p video.
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The Asus ZenWatch 3 was a previous top pick for a Wear OS smartwatch. As of now, it has reached the end of its Wear OS updates (after a very long delay getting to Android Wear 2.0). Its rotating crown does not actually work to turn or scroll anything on the screen. Its proprietary watch band connections mean that your options are limited to what is available from third parties on Amazon. And the watch is hard to find new.
The Amazfit Bip is thin and light, looks like an Apple Watch, has a lot of sensors inside—GPS, heart rate, accelerometers, barometer, and compass—and can run for about 30 days (which we confirmed) between charges, all for around $100. Those facts are compelling, but actually using the watch is frustrating, and it doesn’t do any one thing well. The GPS and heart-rate monitors can be slow to start, sometimes drop out, occasionally have wild inaccuracies, and produce results notably different from those of running watches and dedicated fitness bands. The screen is also dim and noticeably low-resolution, and the phone software for managing the watch is dense and unintuitive on Android. (We didn’t test iOS, but the reviews imply that it’s not much different.) The watch materials are plastic and rubber, and look and feel like it. Those are all trade-offs you could reasonably make if you just wanted a Pebble-like smartwatch that tracked steps and showed notifications, but even there, the Bip does not succeed: It often dropped connectivity with my phone (a Pixel 2), and it cannot show emoji—getting a dozen blank squares when someone sends you a thumbs-up sign is not helpful. If all you care about is battery life, the Bip has that, but it lacks useful functions while it’s charged up.
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.