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.
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.
The Martian Passport wants to give you the best of both watch worlds, by offering a mechanical, analog watch face and a small LCD. If you prefer a traditional-looking watch and want the “smart” component to be unobtrusive, this model may work for you. It comes in three varieties, all with silver bezels: a white face with a black or white band or a black face with a black band.
For most people, the most useful thing a smartwatch can do is relay phone notifications to your wrist so you can check them without having to pull out and wake up your handset. You can still be distracted by whatever is buzzing you, but it’s easier to quickly see whether something is important or not. Often you can interact with that notification—by acknowledging it, dismissing it, or replying to a message with voice dictation, a pre-written response, or (awkward) finger typing or swiping—right on the watch.
I visited the Fitbit app more than I usually do during the first day of wearing the Charge 3 so I could manage notifications. This device is the first tracker to go beyond the basic call, text, and calendar alerts that most Fitbit trackers can receive. The Charge 3 can alert you to any and all happenings on your smartphone if you want. In the notification panel in the Fitbit app, you can choose which apps you want to receive alerts from—turn on all of them so you never miss a beat, or only turn on the apps that are most important to you.
The Explorist and Venture cases are an average thickness for a round smartwatch (at 12.5 and 11.5 millimeters, respectively), with widths of 45 mm and 42 mm, respectively. Neither watch feels too heavy or awkward on a larger wrist, though even the smaller Venture watch is still quite chunky on a smaller wrist. Each model’s battery regularly lasted a whole day in our testing, and the voice-dictation functions are on a par with those of most smartwatches; the same goes for Google Assistant’s accuracy. Both watches and their Google Fit system track day-to-day activity, and although Wear OS apps don’t have quite the buy-in from app makers that the Apple Watch does, you can likely find your favorite apps in Google’s Play Store, and most phone apps provide rich notifications that you can interact with through the watch. Both show signs of good build quality, with thoughtful attention to detail on all surfaces and no cheap connectors or pieces.
The problem is that to monitor your sleeping patterns, a valuable feature most of these new smartwatches support, the watch needs to be on your wrist. So leaving your watch charging overnight while you slumber isn’t going to work. But smartwatches have small batteries compared to smartphones, so should only take 2 - 4 hours to fully charge, depending on the model.
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.
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.
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.
Fossil introduced its fourth generation of smartwatches, the Q Explorist HR and Q Venture HR, upgraded versions of our current picks at the same respective prices. These editions of the watches add untethered GPS, NFC for Google Pay purchases, and heart-rate monitoring. Fossil also claims that they’re waterproof enough for swimming. However, both use an aging Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip when a newer version is expected to arrive in September.
Bottom line: Some fitness trackers work equally well with an iPhone or Android device, but some smartwatches are built to pair with Android phones so you won’t enjoy full functionality and pairing on an iPhone. The Apple Watch only pairs with the iPhone so is off limits to Android users. Your existing phone choice will play an important part in choosing a smartwatch. You can check your smartphone’s compatibility with a range of Google Wear-powered smartwatches at g.co/WearCheck
Out of a vast field of similar watches, we picked the Q Explorist and Q Venture because of their middle-of-the-road prices, wide availability, and variety of styles. These two models are flagships for the Fossil Group’s collection of 14 style brands producing more than 300 planned smartwatches. This means that if you find a smartwatch from Diesel, Skagen, Tag Heuer, Kate Spade, Movado, or another Fossil-connected brand that fits your style better, you should feel free to buy it, because it will have roughly the same internal hardware as our picks.
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.
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