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.
Although rectangular is the most common design, there are smart watches that have a circular display similar to regular watches. The Apple Watch is only available in the rectangular design. The circular design is available in the Samsung Gear S2, Moto 360, and LG G Watch R models. Many models have changeable straps, so you can dress casual, sporty, and formal.
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.
If you’d prefer your smartwatch looked more like a piece of jewelry than a small computer on your wrist, you’ll like Skagen’s Falster range. The straps of these slimline watches come in a few different leather or stainless steel options but coupled with the included minimalist watch face designs, they all look sleek and stylish in a way few other smartwatches manage.
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.
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.
Like previous Gear watches, the Gear Sport uses a rotating bezel and two side buttons for most of its navigation. This works better than you’d think by looking at it, and it’s a boon to those who wear gloves for part of the year. In fact, we actually prefer this approach to Wear OS or the Apple Watch: Rotating through your home screens, notifications, lists of apps, or messages happens at remarkable speed for a tiny device. The screen is 1.2 inches and 360 pixels in diameter, but it’s brighter than our pick’s, and it looks decent enough while displaying most content, though text isn’t as sharp as on the Fossil screens. The watch itself is not small, at 43 and 44 millimeters wide and tall, respectively, and 11.6 mm thick, but it’s nowhere near as beefy as our prior pick, the Gear S3.
Then your typical exercise activity will determine which model is the best fit. You can expect to pay $1500 - $350 for a fitness tracker. If you are simply interested in hitting your 10,000 steps a day, an entry-level Fitbit will do the trick for around $150. Garmin has fitness trackers designed specifically with runners and cyclists in mind, giving you accurate tracking of biking and cycling distance covered using GPS. They’ll cost more as a result - $350 - $800.
Apple Watch Series 3: If you are an iPhone user and generally exist in Apple’s ecosystem, it makes sense to get an Apple Watch. The design quality is exceptional and the Watch makes a nice pairing with your iPhone as materials and design elements are common to both. Apple’s Health app covers most of the bases when it comes to tracking your essential fitness and activity indicators - nutrition, sleep, physical exercise, but Apple has gone further with HealthKit, which allows health and fitness apps downloaded from the App Store to share data with each other. Apple has committed to Watch, and its attention to practical and eye-pleasing design as well as useful tracking features is commendable. ($529)
The LG G Watch, Samsung Gear Live, and Motorola Moto 360—the Android Wear models—have intuitive color touchscreen interfaces and were judged easiest to interact with. The Martian Notifier, Cookoo 2, and MetaWatch M1, which have push-button navigation, were determined to be the most difficult to use. In particular, the Cookoo 2's buttons were very hard to press.
The headline features are the new ECG monitor that unlocks the ability for serious heart health monitoring. It's been FDA cleared, so the feature can be used to detect heart rhythm irregularities - however, it's only in the US only for now. There's also a new fall detection mode that can let users access Siri to contact emergency services or a emergency contact. Apple's new smartwatch offers groundbreaking features and an improved design that makes it the standout option for iPhone owners right now.
Qualcomm is preparing to launch a new generation of wearable processors at an event in September. That’s likely going to mean new hardware and maybe even new capabilities within wearable operating systems. So at least for the next few weeks, it might be best to hold off on buying any new smartwatches, at least those still rocking a Snapdragon Wear 2100…
Why we like it: Fossil’s Q Explorist and Venture watches are good-looking watches with a decent range of case and band options, and decent responsiveness and battery life—this is high praise given the current state of Android smartwatches. They can track steps, control music playback, give you turn-by-turn directions on your wrist, and allow you to respond to messages with your voice or quick-reply taps. But these two models are not unique: The Fossil Group offers an array of more than 300 smartwatches under different fashion brands—including Diesel, Skagen, Tag Heuer, Kate Spade, and Movado—that have essentially the same internal components and software, so you can pick the watch design you like best.
I’ve worn a smartwatch almost daily for nearly five years as of this writing. I often feel that it keeps me alert to what’s happening, especially for things like texts from my wife and close friends, alarms that a parking meter is nearly expired, or reminders that dinner needs to start marinating or roasting. It has also encouraged me to get moving and take a walk when I’d otherwise stay in place. Sometimes it has made me feel rude, distracted, or overly attached to whatever little blip comes next. It has come in handy on my bike, and it has distracted me when I’m driving my car. Some of this can be better handled through settings and filters, but some of it comes from human nature.
Waterproof to 165 feet, the Versa handles swimming as well as any other exercise, with the screen surprisingly visible underwater. As is standard with many other non-smartwatch Fitbit models, heart rate tracking is built in, which allows for detailed sleep tracking. There’s no GPS, though — if you want to track your running route, you’ll need to carry your phone or pay the extra for the Ionic model.
Our top pick for most people is the Apple Watch Series 4 with GPS (starting at $399), which has a huge display, ultra-fast processor, Raise to Speak Siri, fall detection and a built-in electrical heart rate sensor for taking on-the-go electrocardiograms. It also runs watchOS 5, which makes the watch even more useful with automatic workout-tracking, offline podcast playback and a Walkie-Talkie voice chat feature.