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.
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.
The Q watches do not have built-in GPS or heart-rate sensors, and aside from one model (the black silicone strap Explorist), they are not made for heavy exercise tracking. The watches’ IP67 rating means that they’re dustproof and ready for rain, and that they can survive a short dunk in water less than 3 feet deep. For tracking your walking, movement, light bike rides or occasional runs or hikes, though, the watch does fine.
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Flaws but not dealbreakers: Wear OS, Google’s name for Android for smartwatches, still feels like a work in progress, and in our testing, the Google Assistant voice feature frequently dropped responses—though that could improve via software updates. The Q line’s button at the 3 o’clock position is easy to accidentally trigger, bringing up Google Assistant and sometimes sending it nonsense questions. Wear OS also lacks a left-handed mode to allow you to switch the watch around. On the workout front, Fossil Q watches lack a heart rate monitor, so they’re not able to detect workouts or help with pacing; and the size of these models—and most Android smartwatches, really—and the touchscreen interface make workouts more difficult to monitor and pause than with a dedicated fitness tracker.
I go for a middle-of-the-road approach—I enable alerts for most of my installed apps, save for ones that are niche (mostly shopping apps that alert me to coupons) or ones I don't use regularly. All alerts make the Charge 3 vibrate and show the message on its screen, and all past alerts live in the notification drawer that you can access by swiping down from the top of the Charge 3's display.
A smart watch is nice to have and it can be a neat buffer when deciding if you want to answer an incoming call or let it go to voicemail. Smart watches with apps for fitness and travel are also a lot more convenient in some cases than having your smartphone. However, if you prefer to use your iPhone for these and other activities, you probably won’t get much more out of a smart watch.
Samsung’s new Galaxy Watch is the one to get if you need a smartwatch that can do it all. In our full review, we mentioned that it’s a fantastic all-around smartwatch, fitness, and health tracker. It has a great display, solid build, comes with Samsung Pay support, and offers wireless charging. Plus, the Tizen operating system has tons of great apps and watch faces.
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.
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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.
How frustrating. I really -like- the idea of a smart watch... but it's so hard to find the right one. I'm not an exercise freak so heartrate monitors etc are useless to me. I really like the design of the Samsung watches with their bezels to control it, but the Tizen OS with it's limited apps puts me right off. The Access Grayson watch is beautiful, but the lack of NFC is a deal breaker for me - Google Pay with the convenience of a watch is part of the reason I'd buy one. I don't need to be able to put a sim in it... that's what my phone's for, but GOS would be nice for when I travel, and as a motorbike rider some level of waterproofing is a must. Guess I'm waiting for the next round of watches to see what's on offer.
Basically, smartwatches are wearable-technology devices that maintain a relatively persistent wireless connection to your mobile device—usually a smart phone—and can receive notifications of incoming calls, texts, instant messages, social-network updates, and more, from that device. Some can also let you accept and conduct phone calls right on the watch. And even newer models (the Samsung Gear S, for one) can act as smart phones all on their own, without needing a paired phone nearby.
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.
Apple Watch (1st generation and Series 1) Apple watchOS No 8.2+ (1st generation) 10.0+ (Series 1) Apple S1 (1st generation) Apple S1P 4.0 LE ] From paired iPhone No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes IPX7 Digital 1.7 / 1.5 319x390 / 272x340 AMOLED 1.5 250 / 205 Lithium-ion 42 mm / 38 mm 12.46 / 12.3 36.2 / 32.9 Varies Yes Yes No
For deeper integration with your Android phone, you can give Google's Wear OS platform a try with Fossil's $275 Q Control touchscreen smartwatch. It lacks GPS and support for NFC payments, which is why the Gear Sport is a better fitness-focused smartwatch for Android users, but Fossil's Google Assistant integration and stylish design make it a solid contender. However, smartwatches with Qualcomm's new Snapdragon Wear 3100 processor start shipping in October, so you may want to hold off until we put them to the test.