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.
If you’d prefer your smartwatch looked more like a piece of jewelry than a small computer on your wrist, you’ll like Skagen’s Falster range. The straps of these slimline watches come in a few different leather or stainless steel options but coupled with the included minimalist watch face designs, they all look sleek and stylish in a way few other smartwatches manage.
As you’d expect, it has GPS and GLONASS alongside a heart rate monitor to bolster its fitness credentials. Other features include offline Spotify support, which is great for anyone who wants music without having to carry along their phone. Tizen is currently the only watch operating system to offer offline Spotify, too. Unfortunately, Tizen app support is otherwise lacking compared to rivals.
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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.
Wear OS’s chief problem, as we see it, is that it relies too much on input from swipes, taps, and other finger gestures. On a largish screen, such as on our top pick, this is less of a problem, but on smaller devices, trying to hit just the right button on the screen is like playing a very small version of Duck Hunt. The Apple Watch, by comparison, makes most of its buttons screen-wide rounded rectangles, which are easier to hit. On newer watches with three buttons, Wear OS also doesn’t utilize the physical controls beyond the home display (watch face), where they serve as shortcuts to apps or a list of apps.
Although rectangular is the most common design, there are smart watches that have a circular display similar to regular watches. The Apple Watch is only available in the rectangular design. The circular design is available in the Samsung Gear S2, Moto 360, and LG G Watch R models. Many models have changeable straps, so you can dress casual, sporty, and formal.
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.
The operating system you choose depends solely on the type of smartphone you have because the smart watch is paired with your smartphone. If you own an Android smartphone, your smart watch should have Android Wear or Tizen. If you own an iPhone, choose an Apple Watch. For example, the Samsung Gear S3 runs Tizen and is compatible with both the Android and iPhone.
The screen is great, and the pre-installed watch faces make it stand out from rivals. Android Wear feels very samey across all devices, but it's a well developed OS. It's reasonably intuitive and simple, but there's a little too much swiping and tapping on the small screen. It also works across both Android and iOS, although iPhone functionality is limited (no apps etc.)
Samsung treads between smartwatch and fitness tracker, also packing in a heart rate sensor along with that GPS and its much-improved Samsung Health software. There's also the option of LTE (coming soon), if you wish for an untethered connection, with a standalone speaker for taking calls on the watch. It's now waterproof, too, adding swim tracking skills that are on par with the Watch Series 4.
Plus, these smartwatches are made by Fitbit, so they’re incredible fitness and health trackers. They both offer 24/7 heart rate tracking, on-screen workouts with Fitbit Coach, over 15 exercise modes, GPS (Connected GPS in the Versa’s case), and swim tracking thanks to their 5ATM rating. There’s also room to store your music, as well as Fitbit Pay support (Ionic and Special Edition Versa only).
Being able to customize the watch faces and layouts, made the Series 3 a shoo-in for our list of best smart watches. Much like you can customize the homescreen on your iPhone, you can change the layout of apps and even display the weather. While you can’t opt for third-party designs, you do have 12 different watch faces to play with. Tinker with color schemes, add or remove widgets (called “complications” on the app), and decide whether you want to have all twelve faces available on your watch (we always like having options), or cut back.
All but the Martian Notifier claim some degree of water resistance: the LG, Samsung, and Motorola models can survive underwater up to 1 meter for 30 minutes, the Cookoo2 up to 100 meters, and the MetaWatch up to 3ATM, which is equivalent to 30 meters. Only the Martian and Motorola models claim to have scratch-resistant screens (the Martian has an anti-scratch acrylic crystal and the Moto 3 uses Gorilla Glass 3).
If you don’t need your smartwatch to look business-casual, you want more fitness and exercise features than our top pick, or you’re a Samsung loyalist, the Samsung Gear Sport is a better pick for you. (You can use the Gear Sport with non-Samsung phones, but doing so requires that you install at least four apps.) The Gear Sport handles all the casual notification and message-triage functions of a smartwatch about as well as our top pick—with the exception of voice transcription—but it adds heart-rate monitoring, GPS tracking, swim tracking, and built-in reminders to move throughout the day. It doesn’t do all of these things perfectly, but it does just enough to make for a generally useful smartwatch, with great battery life and a clever interface.
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 Galaxy Watch, a Tizen OS watch (starting at $329), is our favorite smartwatch for Android users. In addition to up to four days of battery life and a great design, the Galaxy Watch offers built-in GPS, heart rate sensor, water-resistance, Samsung Pay support, plus a nifty rotating bezel for navigating the interface. You can also download music from Spotify to the watch for offline listening. However, you get far fewer apps than you would with a Wear OS watch.