We pulled together a list of currently available smart watches that met these criteria from Apple, Android Wear, and Samsung. Our list included watches from tech brands like Apple, Asus, and Samsung, as well as fashion labels like Fossil, Nixon, and Tag Heuer. Then, we cross-checked with respected review sites, such as Tech Radar and PCMag, as well as tech retailer Best Buy, to make sure we weren’t leaving out any hidden gems.
But smartwatches have the innovation advantage these days as most companies making such devices try to develop features that competitors don't have. As a result, fitness trackers have become a bit stale. And after wearing the new Charge 3 for nearly two weeks to see how well Fitbit's gentle marriage of smartwatch and tracker features turned out, it seems the form factor remains radically unchanged—but that's not a bad thing in practice.
The Galaxy Watch comes in two sizes, 46mm and 42mm, both with an OLED display and an “optimized” chipset that extends battery life. For the larger model, you can squeeze 6 days out of a single charge while the smaller model still offers up to 4 days. As you’d expect, the Watch also includes features like GPS, water resistance, and there’s NFC for Samsung Pay.
The hardware is now “swimproof” with improved water resistance and there’s also now a heart rate sensor. Those work with the new Google Fit app to improve the fitness experience from your watch. Further, the Falster 2 has built-in GPS and NFC as well. This opens up Google Pay functionality for the watch for mobile payments in-store. Of course, Wear OS is still at the center of the experience, and the whole thing runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100.
The Charge 3 works continuously throughout the day to track steps, distance, calories, floors climbed, and heart rate—the standard array of activity data. Fitbit has been tracking these metrics for so long, without making many significant updates as of late, that they are business as usual on the Charge 3. I appreciated that most of the watch faces available for the Charge 3 show your real-time heart rate, either in a corner or at the bottom of the rectangular display. I like being able to glance down and know my pulse.
If you don’t need your smartwatch to look business-casual, you want more fitness and exercise features than our top pick, or you’re a Samsung loyalist, the Samsung Gear Sport is a better pick for you. (You can use the Gear Sport with non-Samsung phones, but doing so requires that you install at least four apps.) The Gear Sport handles all the casual notification and message-triage functions of a smartwatch about as well as our top pick—with the exception of voice transcription—but it adds heart-rate monitoring, GPS tracking, swim tracking, and built-in reminders to move throughout the day. It doesn’t do all of these things perfectly, but it does just enough to make for a generally useful smartwatch, with great battery life and a clever interface.
Smartwatches are still a very new thing to a lot of people, and for good reason. You don’t absolutely need one to get through the day, and some of the best smartwatches are much too expensive for many folks out there. With that said, they are good for a lot of things. They can provide you with an easy way to get information, allow you to dismiss or reply to new messages without having to pull out your phone, and much more.
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.
"Sport watch" functionality often includes activity tracker features (also known as "fitness tracker") as seen in GPS watches made for training, diving, and outdoor sports. Functions may include training programs (such as intervals), lap times, speed display, GPS tracking unit, Route tracking, dive computer, heart rate monitor compatibility, Cadence sensor compatibility, and compatibility with sport transitions (as in triathlons). Other watches can cooperate with an app in a smartphone to carry out their functions. They are paired usually by Bluetooth with a smartphone. Some of these only work with a phone that runs the same mobile operating system; others use a unique watch OS, or otherwise are able to work with most smartphones. Paired, the watch may function as a remote to the phone. This allows the watch to display data such as calls, SMS messages, emails, calendar invites, and any data that may be made available by relevant phone apps. Some fitness tracker watches give users reports on the number of kilometers they walked, hours they slept, and so on.
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier: Until we see what Google can pack into a smartwatch with its long-awaited Pixel Watch, the best smartwatch for Android users is the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier. It pretty much has everything a user with an Android phone needs in a smartwatch - GPS, heart rate monitor, water resistance, near field communications, an always-on digital display, messaging alerts and app support. I don’t see a real need to opt for the 3G version yet, which would untether you from your phone completely but adds around $100 to the price. ($549)
If you want a smart watch that uses cellular data without using up the battery, consider upgrading to the Samsung Gear S3. A close cousin to the Gear Sport, the S3 has all the perks of an LTE smart device (downloading apps, texting, checking email) and, unlike the Apple Series 3, it won’t quit after three hours. In fact, you could feasibly get 72 hours out of this LTE version of the Samsung Gear Sport.
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 touchscreen, button, and dial (what Apple calls the “crown”) help you zoom in and out and move between apps fairly effortlessly. With this easy navigation it’s easy to forget we’re typing on a screen slightly smaller than an Oreo. In particular, we loved Apple’s app homepage, which displays all of the apps as icons in a honeycomb-like display. You can use the touchscreen to move around, and the dial to zoom in or pan out, to precisely tap on the one you want.