Most smartwatches have a fitness component for the very good reason that a watch is moving with you throughout the day. For counting steps, encouraging activity, and tracking occasional long walks, runs, or bike rides, most smartwatches will do fine. If you want a device to track your everyday runs or cycling sessions, you want a GPS running watch. If you’re serious about tracking and improving your movement and sleep, a fitness tracker will do that for less money and look more discrete doing so (and if you have health insurance, you may get a discount or incentives to use one). There are smartwatches that lean heavily toward sports and fitness in their marketing, but there are drawbacks to each of them not found in a dedicated device. At the other extreme, if you all you really need is step counting, a hybrid smartwatch—with an analog face like a traditional watch, but with built-in motion sensors and months-long battery life—may be a better option.
Garmin has been putting out go-to smartwatches for sports lovers for a while now. Running, cycling, swimming, golf - Garmin has had us well and truly covered. Despite the Forerunner name, the 645 Music is more in the mould of the Vivoactive 3 Music. It's got a similar look and also brings the music this time. This helps make the Garmin more of a smartwatch rival to the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear or Fitbit Ionic than before.
Apple has continued its focus on its health focus with the Series 4. In addition to being able to detect a fall, this new Apple Watch introduces three heart-rate tracking features that will be available later this year. It lets you know if your heart rate is too low, it can detect irregular rhythms (which may indicate atrial fibrillation), and most impressively, it serves as an FDA-cleared electrocardiogram.
As a piece of hardware, the Gear Sport is probably the best smartwatch we’ve used. It’s not stylish, it has deep flaws in its voice software, and it’s only a beginner-level fitness tracker. But if you want a smartwatch that has a bit of fitness motivation—and if you also happen to have a Samsung phone, or might get a deal on a bundle of phone and watch—the Gear Sport is a good option.
Why we like it: Apple Watches are the best smartwatches overall because they make it easier than any other wearable device to interact with the messages and notifications relayed from your iPhone. The Series 1, specifically, has all the features most people need at a reasonable price. It looks better than most smartwatches and fitness trackers, on wrists both large and small, thanks to two sizes and an array of finishes and bands (both official and third party). While not every major iPhone app has an Apple Watch partner app, many do, and most respond quickly and are optimized for the watch’s small screen, unlike many of the apps available for Android watches. And the Series 1 Apple Watch does a good job of independently tracking most kinds of workouts where accurate distance tracking isn’t vital,1 and encourages non-workout fitness (like standing and moving every hour). We also like that the Apple Watch lets you easily make contactless payments using Apple Pay, and if you own a Mac, you can unlock it by just getting close to it with your Apple Watch.
Battery life for the Q watches is unremarkably reliable, and that’s the best thing you can say about a touchscreen smartwatch. The Q Explorist never ran out of juice entirely while wearing it, even after having it be the primary turn-by-turn direction notifier on two 1-hour drives, followed by 30 minutes of actively tracked cycling and the usual all-day text/app notifications. While we didn’t wear the Venture for full days of testing, most reviews find no fault with the battery. The USB charger is a basic magnetic disc that slides onto the rounded back of the watch (though it could stand to stick onto the watch more strongly, like the Apple Watch’s similar disc).
For all of you outdoorsmen, Casio returned to IFA this year with its latest Pro Trek watch. The Casio WSD-F30 takes the same great features of previous generations and slaps them inside of a slightly slimmer body. The 60.5mm × 53.8mm × 14.9mm body is still pretty huge, but it’s considerably smaller than what came before it and still maintains 5ATM water resistance, MIL-STD-810, and even low-temperature resistance.
The Passport is versatile in that it works with Android and iOS mobile devices. And it features the ability to make phone calls with its built-in microphone and speaker. You can use voice commands (the Passport leverages your phone's voice recognition system; such as Apple's Siri for iOS devices or Google Now for Android) to control the mobile device from the watch. And because of the analog watch face, you can easily see the time in bright sunlight.
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.
The Watch 2 comes in two varieties, Sports and Classic. The former is a little cheaper, looking unsurprisingly much like a standard sports watch. The Classic is noticeably more attractive, with a premium-looking shell and included leather band. If you’re after something that’s appropriate at a nice restaurant as well as the gym, you may want to pay the extra money, but all features are otherwise the same.
What’s on display?: Most smartwatches have full-colour displays, though the underlying technology will determine how good the screen looks. There has been a move towards AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) displays, as used in the Apple Watch which present a bright screen, crisp text and accurate colours. Fitness trackers tend to have lower-quality screens and may not present in full-colour, partly to save battery life.
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.
Outside of the Fossil Group, we're waiting for the Casio Pro Trek WSD-F30 and Montblanc Summit 2. The Summit 2 will be the first smartwatch to run on Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 3100 processor, which aims to make a raft of improvements including beefing up the battery life. It's also expected to be joined by a new Louis Vuitton smartwatch, which will run on that new Snapdragon chip.
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.
The Fitbit Versa is nearly a full smartwatch, but the way it handles notifications prevents it from being a pick. Fitbit’s sleep, step, and workout tracking features beat our current picks’, and in our testing the Versa regularly lasted for four or more days between full charges. It lacks GPS, which the Ionic has, but it has a lower price as a result. You can choose from a decent variety of band types, although the bands are an odd 23 mm size (rather than a standard 22 mm), and slot in at an angle, making it hard to know if an unofficial band will fit. You can cache Deezer or Pandora radio stations to the Versa’s 2.5 GB of reserved space, control the music on your phone (after reconnecting your watch in “classic mode”), or transfer your own music to the watch, though it’s a tedious process involving a computer and cable. Where the Versa falls short is in working with notifications from your phone. The notifications pile up, and it can be a hassle to clear them; most notifications don’t expand to show more text; and though a software update has given you quick replies to select from, you’re limited to five of them. Like the Ionic, it’s more of a smartened-up fitness tracker than a fitness-savvy smartwatch.
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.
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.
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