Basically, smartwatches are wearable-technology devices that maintain a relatively persistent wireless connection to your mobile device—usually a smart phone—and can receive notifications of incoming calls, texts, instant messages, social-network updates, and more, from that device. Some can also let you accept and conduct phone calls right on the watch. And even newer models (the Samsung Gear S, for one) can act as smart phones all on their own, without needing a paired phone nearby.
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.
If you wear the Q Explorist close to your hand, its case size and protruding center button can activate when you bend your wrist back, or if you’re wearing thicker gloves. The worst that happens is that Google Assistant is activated, and it either does nothing or tries to ask Google whatever nonsense the microphone picks up inadvertently. That can be annoying, and may cause you to size your watch band a bit larger, so the watch sits up your arm a bit more, clear of your wrist joint. Sadly, Wear OS lacks a “left-handed mode” to allow for turning the watch and its gestures the other direction.
If you like traditional analog watches and want just a few smart features, the Cookoo 2 might be more appealing than its more full-featured rectangular competitors. Behind its hands is a monochrome display that delivers basic notifications: incoming calls (with Caller ID), missed calls, texts, e-mail, social media alerts (for WhatsApp, Line, QQ, WeChat, Skype, Facebook, Twitter), and calendar alerts. Just bear in mind that it's a very basic smartwatch, with little configurability.
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.
Of the three second-generation Samsung smartwatches, the Gear Fit is the most creative and stylish departure from the original Samsung Galaxy Gear. It's just as much an activity monitor as it is a smartwatch, and it has a markedly new look—slim, sleek, and light. It also has an unconventional sideways display that’s unlike any of the other tested watches; it takes a bit of wrist-twisting to view it. (You can opt to view your display vertically, but you'll be reading a lot of truncated words that way.)
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 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.
Samsung’s three second-generation smartwatches arrived with real improvements and refinements. At $300, the Gear 2 is the most sophisticated—and expensive—of the trio. The Gear 2 Neo is basically a less expensive version of the Gear 2: It has similar functionality, but it's housed in a plastic body instead of metal and has no built-in camera. And the slimmer Gear Fit is a hybrid smartwatch and activity tracker.
The claim to fame on the Ticwatch Pro is battery life. The Pro offers up to 30 days of battery on a single charge. Of course, that all depends on how you use it. Mobvoi’s trick to improve battery life comes with the addition of a layered screen that acts as two displays. One is designed for use when the watch is idle, only showing crucial information such as the time to sip power. Under that is a standard OLED display that delivers the full Wear OS experience.
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.
Google announced in late August a substantial new version of Wear OS, which should roll out to nearly every smartwatch running Android Wear 2.0 as of September 2018. The biggest changes are to the navigation of Wear OS’s homescreen, which means it could make these watches significantly easier to use. The updated UI will give you four primary places to go from your watch face: Swiping left gets you to the new Google Fit and its Heart Points and Move Minutes; swiping right brings you to a hopefully fast-loading, better-responding Google Assistant interface for asking questions or issuing commands; swipe up and you’ll see a long stream of all of your notifications, which you can interact with and respond to; swipe down, as with Wear 2.0, to access quick settings. Google told Engadget that the update focuses on reducing loading times and improving Assistant responsiveness, which addresses some of our major our misgivings about Wear OS. We’ll test this latest Wear OS and update this guide after we have a better sense of the changes.
The style offerings for smartwatches have improved dramatically, and your options are no longer limited to “large, nerdy and round” or “large, nerdy and square.” Still, even with more than 300 Fossil-branded watches planned across 14 major watch and fashion brands, smartwatches are generally much wider and chunkier than standard watches, as the size needed to accommodate the electronics and battery lends itself to bolder, more pronounced styles.
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.
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.
The Martian Passport wants to give you the best of both watch worlds, by offering a mechanical, analog watch face and a small LCD. If you prefer a traditional-looking watch and want the “smart” component to be unobtrusive, this model may work for you. It comes in three varieties, all with silver bezels: a white face with a black or white band or a black face with a black band.
The problem is that to monitor your sleeping patterns, a valuable feature most of these new smartwatches support, the watch needs to be on your wrist. So leaving your watch charging overnight while you slumber isn’t going to work. But smartwatches have small batteries compared to smartphones, so should only take 2 - 4 hours to fully charge, depending on the model.
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.