None of the newly tested models’ time displays time out when the watches are inactive, which we’ve seen happen on previously tested smartwatches. The time displays of the LG, Samsung, and Motorola models have a setting to keep them always on, though they dim after a little while. The Martian Notifier and Cookoo2 have traditional analog watch faces.
Most smartwatches have a fitness component for the very good reason that a watch is moving with you throughout the day. For counting steps, encouraging activity, and tracking occasional long walks, runs, or bike rides, most smartwatches will do fine. If you want a device to track your everyday runs or cycling sessions, you want a GPS running watch. If you’re serious about tracking and improving your movement and sleep, a fitness tracker will do that for less money and look more discrete doing so (and if you have health insurance, you may get a discount or incentives to use one). There are smartwatches that lean heavily toward sports and fitness in their marketing, but there are drawbacks to each of them not found in a dedicated device. At the other extreme, if you all you really need is step counting, a hybrid smartwatch—with an analog face like a traditional watch, but with built-in motion sensors and months-long battery life—may be a better option.
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For instance, I rarely use the touchscreen on my Fitbit Versa because the shortcuts to my most-used smartwatch features are available via the three physical buttons on the watch. Gesture recognition is hit and miss on smartphone screens, nowhere near as responsive and accurate as on your smartphone screen, so bear that in mind too. Force Touch is a useful feature that has come to smartwatches, notably the Apple Watch. Just press down or tap the screen to activate different features.
Aside from its jack-of-all-fitness-trades, master-of-none nature, the Gear Sport has other drawbacks. Chief among them is that voice dictation is significantly less reliable than on the Apple Watch or Wear OS and is best used for short phrases and quick replies. Then there’s S Voice, the digital assistant that can’t do much—and you probably don’t have time to learn how to make it do the few things it can do. And major apps still do not have a presence in Samsung’s marketplace—the Sport runs Samsung’s Tizen operating system instead of Wear OS—so any app or device you want to control directly on your phone is a gamble on an indie developer having the same need.
If you want the app, notification, and style advantages of an Apple Watch but need better fitness tracking, you can upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 3 and get built-in GPS, as well as waterproofing that allows swim tracking. But the Series 3 costs more than a fitness tracker or even many running watches, and it still has compromises compared with a dedicated fitness tracker, such as a lack of dedicated physical buttons. We think serious athletes are better served by a fitness-specific device.
In order to find the best smart watch, we looked at text and call features and, of course, design. We dug into tech reviews to separate must-haves from perks. Then, we brought in 19 smart watches to test for call responsiveness, text-ability, app accessibility, and general ease of us. In the end, three watches stood out for their reliable connectivity, gorgeous interfaces, and easy navigation.
The screen is great, and the pre-installed watch faces make it stand out from rivals. Android Wear feels very samey across all devices, but it's a well developed OS. It's reasonably intuitive and simple, but there's a little too much swiping and tapping on the small screen. It also works across both Android and iOS, although iPhone functionality is limited (no apps etc.)
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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.
You won’t get much use out of an Apple Watch if you don’t have an iPhone nor any other kind of iOS-enabled mobile device. The same thing goes for the Samsung Gear Sport. While the Q Venture does feature some compatibility with Android and iOS devices, it won’t mix well if you’re a Samsung customer. The smartphone you use will ultimately determine which smart watch you get the most value from.
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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.
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.
Samsung's Galaxy Watch, a Tizen OS watch (starting at $329), is our favorite smartwatch for Android users. In addition to up to four days of battery life and a great design, the Galaxy Watch offers built-in GPS, heart rate sensor, water-resistance, Samsung Pay support, plus a nifty rotating bezel for navigating the interface. You can also download music from Spotify to the watch for offline listening. However, you get far fewer apps than you would with a Wear OS watch.
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