Dropping the phone: Some models of smartwatches in the Samsung and Apple line-ups feature a mobile network chip, allowing you to plug in a micro SIM card to make and receive calls, texts and emails and access the internet without being paired to your phone. It sounds great, but remember that the smartwatch has a very small battery, so relying on it for communications will drain the power quickly.
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At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, Razer released the Nabu Watch, a dual-screen smartwatch: integrates an always-on illuminated backlit display, that takes care of some pretty standard features as date and time, and a second OLED screen, which is activated by raising your wrist, allows access to extra smart features. Luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer released TAG Heuer Connected, a smartwatch powered by Android Wear.
Unfortunately, you won't be able to respond to alerts (like messages and emails) from the Charge 3. That's a feature sequestered to smartwatches, but you can see most of the content of an alert on the device's screen. Considering how narrow the device's screen is, reading through a long email won't be the most comfortable experience. But at least that message will be glanceable on your wrist, as will news headlines, text messages, and other alerts as well.
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)
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.
While you're not getting Spotify or Apple Music here, you are getting enough storage for 500 songs with a process that's fairly easy. You just boot up Garmin Express, select the Music tab and choose which of your own music you want to port over. If you do want to sync over playlists from a streaming service, your only options are iHeartRadio and Deezer.
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 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.
For a device that gives you more of the functionality you enjoy with your smartphone, you’ll want to opt for a dedicated smartwatch. The leading players at the moment are the Apple Watch for iPhone users and the Samsung Gear S3 for those with Android phones. Apple Watch has its own operating system, Samsung employs its Tizen OS, and a host of other smartwatches use the Google Wear operating system.
But your phone will play an important part if you do get a Fitbit or Garmin device with the aim of tracking your activity. It will be the place where your health data is synced to, you can tinker with your tracking settings and review your progress. There’s also a whole ecosystem of health apps that plug into tracking devices, combining them with exercise and diet advice - MyFitnessPal, Runtastic and Strava are three of the most popular ones worth checking out.
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.
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.
Apple is back with the Apple Watch Series 4, the latest in the smartwatch game that's focused on helping wearers live a healthier lifestyle. Running on Apple’s S4 64-bit dual-core processor and the new WatchOS 5 operating system, it’s twice as fast as its predecessor. Available in two sizes — 40 mm and 44mm — it has a 30 percent larger display than the Series 3 and comes in six different aluminum and stainless steel finishes. New improvements include Walkie Talkie mode and a speaker that is 50% louder than in the Series 3. The microphone has been moved to the watch’s opposite side to reduce noise and create clearer phone calls. The bottom, now made from black ceramic and sapphire crystal for better radio wave transmission, is intended to help with cellular reception and call quality.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Wear OS, Google’s name for Android for smartwatches, still feels like a work in progress, and in our testing, the Google Assistant voice feature frequently dropped responses—though that could improve via software updates. The Q line’s button at the 3 o’clock position is easy to accidentally trigger, bringing up Google Assistant and sometimes sending it nonsense questions. Wear OS also lacks a left-handed mode to allow you to switch the watch around. On the workout front, Fossil Q watches lack a heart rate monitor, so they’re not able to detect workouts or help with pacing; and the size of these models—and most Android smartwatches, really—and the touchscreen interface make workouts more difficult to monitor and pause than with a dedicated fitness tracker.
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.