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.
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).
The Gear 2 also includes a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a heart-rate sensor. It also can control a TV or set-top box remotely using a built-in IR blaster, and it has the ability to function as a stand-alone music player. And its built-in camera—handily built into the watch itself rather than on the band, like the original Galaxy Gear—takes 2-megapixel stills and 720p video.
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But the Ionic, the first of Fitbit's devices to include an SpO2 monitor, came out more than one year ago. It's frustrating to hear about exciting features that are "coming soon," when "soon" ultimately means not weeks or months, but years. While I understand it takes time and effort to develop features like this (especially if Fitbit hopes to pursue medical device clearance or approval from the FDA in the future), I don't think Fitbit should hype features that it isn't ready to let users put to the test.
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 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 Apple Watch Series 4 is now on sale, and it's the best smartwatch you can buy right now. The redesigned device, which starts at $399 for the GPS model and $499 for the cellular version, is the best smartwatch you can buy. It has a larger display and slightly bigger case size while retaining the same rounded square design the watch is known for. Even more importantly, Apple received FDA clearance for a new electrocardiogram feature that can take a 30-second EKG and diagnose atrial fibrillation.