Since the early days of modern smartwatches, we’ve sought to test as many relevant models as we can and recommend the watches that do the best job of making a smartwatch convenient and useful. We test Wear OS watches by wearing them while they’re connected to Android phones. Whenever possible, we ask other people to try out our potential picks to get an idea of how others react to a watch’s size, style, interface, and other features.
Why we like it: Compared with a smartwatch or fitness tracker, a dedicated GPS running watch is focused on one category of exercise: outdoor movement. GPS watches offer the fastest GPS signal lock-on and more-precise maps, while also showing up to the second details on your pace, heart rate, mile split times, and a host of other stats on an always-on display. The physical buttons on a GPS watch are easier to use while moving (and without looking), rather than having to swipe or tap on a tiny glass screen. A GPS watch’s longer battery life can better handle endurance events than a smartwatch. And the software and apps behind a good GPS watch provide more statistics and training programs to improve your efficiency. While GPS watches can show notifications, the weather, and a few other smartwatch-like conveniences, they’re much more limited in what can be done from a wrist than a smartwatch—or even a fitness tracker like the Vívosmart.
In China, since around 2015, smartwatches have become widely used by schoolchildren. They are advertised on television throughout the country as a safety device whereby the child can call in case of emergency. The devices are commonly colorful and made of plastic. They normally have no display unless a button is pushed. These smartwatches have limited capability compared to other smartwatches; their main functions consist of being able to conduct calls, displaying of time, and sometimes have air temperature sensitivity. They cost around $100 to $200 USD.
Finding and installing apps is another sore point. Android Wear 2.0 has two ways of installing apps: On the watch directly, which is woefully awkward, or through the Play Store on the Web, which is okay. Watch faces for Wear OS exist in the kind of state Android phone apps were in during their earliest days—all over the place, so good luck searching. Watch makers would do well to include some sensible, category-spanning offerings by default in their devices.
Why we like it: Fossil’s Q Explorist and Venture watches are good-looking watches with a decent range of case and band options, and decent responsiveness and battery life—this is high praise given the current state of Android smartwatches. They can track steps, control music playback, give you turn-by-turn directions on your wrist, and allow you to respond to messages with your voice or quick-reply taps. But these two models are not unique: The Fossil Group offers an array of more than 300 smartwatches under different fashion brands—including Diesel, Skagen, Tag Heuer, Kate Spade, and Movado—that have essentially the same internal components and software, so you can pick the watch design you like best.
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).
Fitbit OS 2.0 brings a new-look UI that offers more insights into your daily data and quick reply support for messages for Android phone users (iOS support coming at a later date). You can still download apps and a whole lot of watch faces, pay from your wrist using Fitbit Pay and tap into Fitbit Coach, while new women's health tracking has also been introduced for the first time, which is also available for the Ionic, too.
To charge the watch, you have to clip on the charger and align it with contacts that you can't see when you're clipping. Why make it so complicated? There's no NFC for easy pairing, and you have to find the smartwatch app in the app market, download it, and install it on your mobile device. The Frame's display readability in bright sunlight was judged to be only good. It's relatively heavy, at 2.7 ounces (only the Toq is heavier).
The Sport’s built-in fitness features do a decent job of motivating you to move more, tracking a Fitbit-like set of metrics: Stairs climbed, steps taken, and minutes active. It reminds you to get up every hour or so and suggests stretches and movements you can do at your desk if you’re stuck there. While the Sport can track your movement and exercise, and start doing so automatically, it is not accurate enough for dedicated runners or cyclists (who should get a GPS running watch instead): Influential fitness gear tester Ray Maker (aka DC Rainmaker) clocked “the worst GPS track accuracy I’ve ever seen on a run” wearing the Gear Sport. We didn’t see quite the same entirely-different-street discrepancies in biking tests, but the Sport is nevertheless not a competitive training tool, providing only a rough guide to distance and speed.
"Sport watch" functionality often includes activity tracker features (also known as "fitness tracker") as seen in GPS watches made for training, diving, and outdoor sports. Functions may include training programs (such as intervals), lap times, speed display, GPS tracking unit, Route tracking, dive computer, heart rate monitor compatibility, Cadence sensor compatibility, and compatibility with sport transitions (as in triathlons). Other watches can cooperate with an app in a smartphone to carry out their functions. They are paired usually by Bluetooth with a smartphone. Some of these only work with a phone that runs the same mobile operating system; others use a unique watch OS, or otherwise are able to work with most smartphones. Paired, the watch may function as a remote to the phone. This allows the watch to display data such as calls, SMS messages, emails, calendar invites, and any data that may be made available by relevant phone apps. Some fitness tracker watches give users reports on the number of kilometers they walked, hours they slept, and so on.
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.
These new smartwatches build on a pretty familiar package. Both are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor and run on Wear OS. Both also get GPS, NFC for Google Pay, and heart rate sensors as well. The Venture is the smaller of the two, measuring in at 40mm with an 18mm band. The Explorist, on the other hand, is a 45mm watch with a 22mm band.
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.