Why we like it: Garmin’s Vívosport fitness band gives you more (and more-accurate) fitness tracking features than a smartwatch, though you won’t be able to respond to messages and notifications or use apps on your wrist. The Vívosport lasts up to a week on a single battery charge, while an Apple Watch or Android Wear device requires overnight charging. Its screen always shows stats during a workout, while smartwatches like the Apple Watch typically turn off when you’re not looking at them. And you can wear a Vívosport while you sleep to get at least a rough view of how restful your night was without having to worry about charging it every morning. All these things give you a better overall picture of how active and healthy you are, and make it more convenient to wear one smaller device all the time: You won’t have to grab a phone to track a run, you won’t have to wear a large, utilitarian-looking GPS watch to work, and you’ll rarely have to worry about battery life during a long workout. The Vívosport also tracks heart rates and GPS location nearly as well as a GPS watch (with some exceptions), but in a smaller and less noticeable package.
Speaking of music, that's what really sets this smartwatch apart (especially compared to Garmin's other wearables). The Vivoactive 3 Music has enough internal storage for 500 songs — and they're easy to download to your device using the Garmin Express software. Once your songs are downloaded, you can listen to music without a smartphone. Just connect some Bluetooth headphones to the watch and you're good to go. If streaming is more your game, then you can also download some popular media apps as well.
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.
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.
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.
In 2013, the claim to first ever smartwatch to capture the full capability of a smartphone was laid by startup Omate with the TrueSmart. The TrueSmart originated from a Kickstarter campaign which raised over 1 million dollars, making it the 5th most successful Kickstarter to date. The TrueSmart made its public debut in early 2014. Consumer device analyst Avi Greengart, from research firm Current Analysis, suggested that 2013 may be the "year of the smartwatch", as "the components have gotten small enough and cheap enough" and many consumers own smartphones that are compatible with a wearable device. Wearable technology, such as Google Glass, may evolve into a business worth US$6 billion annually and a July 2013 media report, revealed that the majority of major consumer electronics manufacturers were undertaking work on a smartwatch device at the time of publication. The retail price of a smartwatch could be over US$300, plus data charges, while the minimum cost of smartphone-linked devices may be US$100.
Many major phone apps have Wear OS counterparts, or at least most apps that make sense to have a dedicated watch app. You’ll likely find yourself using most watch apps less than you might think, but they are sometimes convenient for avoiding a phone retrieval. I use regularly use the Nest app for my home thermostat, Keep to take down a quick voice note, PocketCasts to control podcast episodes and playlists, and Stronglifts to time and track workouts. But I use these on my watch mostly when my phone is not at hand; none is easier to use than its phone version. As noted, most apps on your phone will provide notifications that can be acted upon through your watch. For the apps that you do use, the Q watches’ screen (identical to most of the Fossil group watches’ screens) is responsive enough to work with tiny buttons pressed by big fingers.
The Fitbit Ionic works fine as a Fitbit tracker, but despite being more expensive than our picks or the Apple Watch Series 1, it lacks many smartwatch functions you’d hope to have. It passes notifications from your phone to the watch, but you can only respond to some of them (with only five quick reply lines); and dismissing them (either one by one or as a group) involves annoyingly hard presses and long scrolls. Syncing music files and offline Pandora playlists requires you to use a desktop app, which is laborious. Two Wirecutter writers who tested the Ionic also had trouble setting it up to work with their Android phones (a 2015 Moto X Pure and a 2016 Samsung Galaxy S7) and had to perform significant troubleshooting to get their data to sync. The Ionic’s battery life, even while using GPS for outdoor exercise tracking, is its most impressive feature, lasting at least five days in one test and nearly seven days in another. The Ionic is most useful to Fitbit enthusiasts who want to track outdoor exercise without bringing a phone; it’s not a good option if you’re looking to deal with incoming information.
Waterproof to 165 feet and tested to military standards for durability, it includes features like a digital compass, altimeter, and barometer that you won’t find in most other smartwatches, as well as more standard tools such as GPS. The WSD-F20 can also function as a flashlight — handy in an emergency — and lets you download maps for offline navigation when you’re far from the nearest cell signal.
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
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.
When you do switch to the OLED display, you are in TicWatch Pro’s Smart Mode, and you can perform all of the features and functions that are available in the smartwatch. However, switching to the low-power FTSN LCD display puts the watch in its Essential Mode. The nice thing is that when you switch back to Smart Mode. all of the heart rate and steps info gathered by the watch’s Essential Mode are synced up and transferred to the onboard Wear OS. As you might expect, the battery life in Essential Mode can last up to 30 days, while using the smartwatch in Smart Mode cuts that battery life down to just two days.
Our 19 contenders all promised to give us some distance from our phones by notifying us of incoming calls and texts. But we found that some smart watches were much slower than others at letting us know we had a call. It turns out the quality of the bluetooth connection determines how quickly you’ll be notified, with our worst performers only registering the call with two seconds to spare before diverting to voicemail (yes you, Montblanc) while others simply failed to display any calls at all.