Samsung’s three second-generation smartwatches arrived with real improvements and refinements. At $300, the Gear 2 is the most sophisticated—and expensive—of the trio. The Gear 2 Neo is basically a less expensive version of the Gear 2: It has similar functionality, but it's housed in a plastic body instead of metal and has no built-in camera. And the slimmer Gear Fit is a hybrid smartwatch and activity tracker.
Even today, fitness trackers have a few advantages over smartwatches: they're easier to wear since they have slimmer, lighter profiles. They're less complicated because they're designed primarily to keep you fit (not necessarily for things like emailing on the go). And, perhaps the most important distinction of all, fitness trackers are generally less expensive than smartwatches.
Samsung released its Galaxy Watch, a follow-up to the Gear S3, a prior pick. The Galaxy Watch is available in 42 mm and 46 mm configurations, with either a Bluetooth-only connection or Bluetooth plus LTE from T-Mobile (at launch). The biggest update seems to be the battery life, which the company claims will last for days between charges. The Bluetooth version of the Galaxy Watch is available for $330 for the smaller version and $350 for the larger (46 mm) model; the 42 mm LTE version is available for $380 and the 46 mm is $400.
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
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier: Until we see what Google can pack into a smartwatch with its long-awaited Pixel Watch, the best smartwatch for Android users is the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier. It pretty much has everything a user with an Android phone needs in a smartwatch - GPS, heart rate monitor, water resistance, near field communications, an always-on digital display, messaging alerts and app support. I don’t see a real need to opt for the 3G version yet, which would untether you from your phone completely but adds around $100 to the price. ($549)
Of the three second-generation Samsung smartwatches, the Gear Fit is the most creative and stylish departure from the original Samsung Galaxy Gear. It's just as much an activity monitor as it is a smartwatch, and it has a markedly new look—slim, sleek, and light. It also has an unconventional sideways display that’s unlike any of the other tested watches; it takes a bit of wrist-twisting to view it. (You can opt to view your display vertically, but you'll be reading a lot of truncated words that way.)
Aside from its display, the Ticwatch Pro is a pretty standard offering in the Wear OS world. It’s powered by the same Snapdragon Wear 2100 chipset, has a 400×400 1.39-inch OLED display, and has a 45mm casing. There’s also a 415mAh battery inside which charges with a magnetic charger. There’s also IP68 water/dust protection, and NFC for use with Google Pay.
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Many of these smart watches work with your smartphone rather than just outright replacing it. Others, like the Samsung Gear Sports can work just as well solo. Do you stream music? Do you use your GPS for all your little excursions? While these are tasks easily handled by most modern smartphones, if you intend to use your smart watch in a similar fashion, you’ll want to make sure you choose one that can keep up with your phone.
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.
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 Samsung Gear S3 was our prior pick for Samsung phone owners because of its smooth dial rotation and interface. But it was notably large, with a 46 mm face, and the Frontier model was half an inch thick, notably bulky even for a smartwatch. The Gear Sport, our runner-up pick, is less bulky, less expensive, less overtly masculine-styled, and provides most of the same features, minus the LTE option.
For instance, I rarely use the touchscreen on my Fitbit Versa because the shortcuts to my most-used smartwatch features are available via the three physical buttons on the watch. Gesture recognition is hit and miss on smartphone screens, nowhere near as responsive and accurate as on your smartphone screen, so bear that in mind too. Force Touch is a useful feature that has come to smartwatches, notably the Apple Watch. Just press down or tap the screen to activate different features.
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.