We test every new smartwatch to gauge its design and comfort. If it’s not stylish and comfortable enough to get you from an early morning workout to the office to a night out, you probably won’t wear it every day. Most smartwatches are also fitness trackers, so we put all of its sensors to the test, from step counts to heart rate to GPS (when applicable).
As of July 2013, the list of companies that were engaged in smartwatch development activities consists of Acer, Apple, BlackBerry, Foxconn/Hon Hai, Google, LG, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, VESAG and Toshiba. Some notable omissions from this list include HP, HTC, Lenovo, and Nokia. Science and technology journalist Christopher Mims identified the following points in relation to the future of smartwatches:
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.
Garmin, known primarily for its GPS and fitness devices, has taken one step closer to full-featured smartwatches with their Vivoactive 3 Music. This model doesn't run on Wear OS (Google's increasingly-popular OS for wearables), but it does offer thousands of free apps, watch faces, and more via Garmin’s ConnectIQ store. The Vivoactive 3 Music also comes preloaded with 15 sports apps to monitor your progress whether you're running, swimming, lifting, or doing yoga — because, at its core, Garmin is still all about fitness tracking
As a piece of hardware, the Gear Sport is probably the best smartwatch we’ve used. It’s not stylish, it has deep flaws in its voice software, and it’s only a beginner-level fitness tracker. But if you want a smartwatch that has a bit of fitness motivation—and if you also happen to have a Samsung phone, or might get a deal on a bundle of phone and watch—the Gear Sport is a good option.
Using your voice with the Google Assistant function built into the Q watches (and every modern Wear OS watch) is generally okay, though only roughly 80 percent reliable. The combination of a microphone on the side of your watch, a Bluetooth connection to your phone when you’re away from Wi-Fi, your phone’s cellular Web connection, and the imperfect acknowledgement of human speech by Google Assistant do not make for anything near a 100 percent success rate. When it works, Google Assistant makes you feel connected and advanced; when it fails, you can be seen as a person who asks their wrist about the capital of Malaysia. This is more a reflection of the state of connectivity and digital assistants than of the Q watches themselves—or any Wear OS watch, for that matter—although in our experience Wear OS watches fail on voice queries more often than Siri on the Apple Watch. That said, voice dictation on the Q watches is far more reliable, at least when it comes to recognizing words and phrases, than Google Assistant. If transcription fails, it’s more likely to be because of the watch/phone connection than the watch mishearing your words.
We loved Samsung’s characteristic bezel navigation. Instead of having to swipe your finger across the touchscreen repeatedly, all you have to do is gently twist the bezel. It’s a much smoother way of scrolling through your list and it just feels more natural. The are other side buttons which lie almost flush with the side of the watch, making it difficult for them to catch on sleeves.
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.
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If fitness is your top priority, the Apple Watch Series 1 has a good number of shortcomings compared with a dedicated fitness tracker. It doesn’t have onboard GPS, so you’ll need to carry your iPhone to accurately track outdoor activities, like running or cycling, and it’s not waterproof enough for swimming. And unlike a dedicated fitness tracker, the Apple Watch can’t automatically detect and track workouts—you have to manually start it—though this feature is coming with new Watch software this fall. And Apple’s built-in Activity app doesn’t provide much detail, so if you want to dig into your fitness data, or access sleep tracking at all, you have to download third-party apps.
The Fitbit Ionic works fine as a Fitbit tracker, but despite being more expensive than our picks or the Apple Watch Series 1, it lacks many smartwatch functions you’d hope to have. It passes notifications from your phone to the watch, but you can only respond to some of them (with only five quick reply lines); and dismissing them (either one by one or as a group) involves annoyingly hard presses and long scrolls. Syncing music files and offline Pandora playlists requires you to use a desktop app, which is laborious. Two Wirecutter writers who tested the Ionic also had trouble setting it up to work with their Android phones (a 2015 Moto X Pure and a 2016 Samsung Galaxy S7) and had to perform significant troubleshooting to get their data to sync. The Ionic’s battery life, even while using GPS for outdoor exercise tracking, is its most impressive feature, lasting at least five days in one test and nearly seven days in another. The Ionic is most useful to Fitbit enthusiasts who want to track outdoor exercise without bringing a phone; it’s not a good option if you’re looking to deal with incoming information.
Out of a vast field of similar watches, we picked the Q Explorist and Q Venture because of their middle-of-the-road prices, wide availability, and variety of styles. These two models are flagships for the Fossil Group’s collection of 14 style brands producing more than 300 planned smartwatches. This means that if you find a smartwatch from Diesel, Skagen, Tag Heuer, Kate Spade, Movado, or another Fossil-connected brand that fits your style better, you should feel free to buy it, because it will have roughly the same internal hardware as our picks.
Fitbit OS 2.0 brings a new-look UI that offers more insights into your daily data and quick reply support for messages for Android phone users (iOS support coming at a later date). You can still download apps and a whole lot of watch faces, pay from your wrist using Fitbit Pay and tap into Fitbit Coach, while new women's health tracking has also been introduced for the first time, which is also available for the Ionic, too.
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.
The operating system you choose depends solely on the type of smartphone you have because the smart watch is paired with your smartphone. If you own an Android smartphone, your smart watch should have Android Wear or Tizen. If you own an iPhone, choose an Apple Watch. For example, the Samsung Gear S3 runs Tizen and is compatible with both the Android and iPhone.
All but the Martian Notifier claim some degree of water resistance: the LG, Samsung, and Motorola models can survive underwater up to 1 meter for 30 minutes, the Cookoo2 up to 100 meters, and the MetaWatch up to 3ATM, which is equivalent to 30 meters. Only the Martian and Motorola models claim to have scratch-resistant screens (the Martian has an anti-scratch acrylic crystal and the Moto 3 uses Gorilla Glass 3).
They include a heart rate monitor, pedometer and altimeter to track steps taken and stairs climbed and often a GPS chip to record your distance covered. They will sync with your smartphone to give you a suite of tools to monitor your exercise progress. Many of them will offer notifications of incoming phone calls, text and email alerts as well. But they are designed with fitness tracking in mind. If you are happy using your smartphone for your day to day messaging, calendar, apps and music, a fitness tracker will suffice.
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.