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.
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
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.
The Charge 2 was one of Fitbit's most popular trackers, so the company stuck with the winning formula with the Charge 3. If you're at all familiar with the Charge 2, you'll notice that not much has changed in the updated device—it's still a rectangular tracker hugged on its short edges by two parts of a band. Fitbit updated the connecting mechanism that lets you switch out the bands on the Charge 3, making it easier to press the black sliver of a button on either end to release the device's current band. The new band snaps right into place without any extra effort.
Unlike the Apple Series 3, you can get third-party watch faces along with the default options. Many of these third-party faces also come with customizable widgets so you can manage layout without cluttering up your watch. From the homepage (which displays the time and date), you can twist the bezel to access fitness tracking data, like steps taken and calories burned, check the weather, change the song you’re listening to, or use any number of custom widgets.
You can choose from five different watch faces for the Charge 3, making it less customizable than the Ionic or the Versa. Those smartwatches have the advantage of running Fitbit OS, which includes a library of many third-party-developed watch faces. The Charge 3 isn't a smartwatch, so its version of Fitbit's software isn't as robust as what we see on the Ionic and the Versa. It's not as critical for the Charge 3 since it isn't designed to run more than a few basic apps, but those looking for interesting watch faces will have to do with just a handful of options.
The new Diesel Full Guard 2.5 has a 47mmx56mm casing which is bigger than most Wear OS watches, and there’s a 1.39-inch display at the center of that. This new refresh of the watch also includes NFC for Google Pay support, a heart rate sensor, and built-in GPS. Diesel also says this watch will last two days on a charge from the 300mAh battery. The watch also has 3ATM water resistance.
The Amazfit Bip is thin and light, looks like an Apple Watch, has a lot of sensors inside—GPS, heart rate, accelerometers, barometer, and compass—and can run for about 30 days (which we confirmed) between charges, all for around $100. Those facts are compelling, but actually using the watch is frustrating, and it doesn’t do any one thing well. The GPS and heart-rate monitors can be slow to start, sometimes drop out, occasionally have wild inaccuracies, and produce results notably different from those of running watches and dedicated fitness bands. The screen is also dim and noticeably low-resolution, and the phone software for managing the watch is dense and unintuitive on Android. (We didn’t test iOS, but the reviews imply that it’s not much different.) The watch materials are plastic and rubber, and look and feel like it. Those are all trade-offs you could reasonably make if you just wanted a Pebble-like smartwatch that tracked steps and showed notifications, but even there, the Bip does not succeed: It often dropped connectivity with my phone (a Pixel 2), and it cannot show emoji—getting a dozen blank squares when someone sends you a thumbs-up sign is not helpful. If all you care about is battery life, the Bip has that, but it lacks useful functions while it’s charged up.
The Q watches do not have built-in GPS or heart-rate sensors, and aside from one model (the black silicone strap Explorist), they are not made for heavy exercise tracking. The watches’ IP67 rating means that they’re dustproof and ready for rain, and that they can survive a short dunk in water less than 3 feet deep. For tracking your walking, movement, light bike rides or occasional runs or hikes, though, the watch does fine.
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.
You’d be amazed how hard it is to text something as simple as “hi” on many smart watch interfaces. Still, most designs take this into consideration. We tested all kinds of watches from auto-scrolling screens where you drew the letters with your finger to pre-smartphone layouts more akin to the alphanumeric layout of a payphone keypad. While the drawing features were nice, we felt that the texting was a little more manageable on keyboards.