Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Apple Watch requires an iPhone—if you have another kind of phone, you’re out of luck. While good Apple Watch apps are better than what you get for Android smartwatches, many are still very limited compared with their phone counterparts. And it can get annoying how aggressively the Apple Watch turns off its screen (to save energy) whenever it senses you’ve put your arm down.
Fossil introduced its fourth generation of smartwatches, the Q Explorist HR and Q Venture HR, upgraded versions of our current picks at the same respective prices. These editions of the watches add untethered GPS, NFC for Google Pay purchases, and heart-rate monitoring. Fossil also claims that they’re waterproof enough for swimming. However, both use an aging Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip when a newer version is expected to arrive in September.
Huawei’s Watch 2 looks like a logical follow-up to the original Huawei Watch, a former pick in this guide. It adds built-in GPS capability, plus NFC for mobile payments, and it ships with Android Wear 2.0. The problem is that the Huawei Watch 2’s bezel does not rotate, and it has no rotating crown to take advantage of Android Wear 2.0’s scrolling interfaces. That wouldn’t be so bad if the thick, notched bezel weren’t significantly raised around the screen, making it more difficult than it should be to swipe between screens, scroll through apps, or perform pinpoint taps near the edge of the screen. Beyond that, the watch is thick (12.6 millimeters, or 2.6 mm more than the ZenWatch 3, though that’s still slightly thinner than the original Huawei Watch), and it seems slower to respond to input and to launch apps than other modern Wear OS watches. It doesn’t seem worth its price for most people.
The Series 4 now has several new health-focused features, which are very intriguing, including the ability to detect when you fall and even alert emergency contacts if need be, as well as an electrical heart rate sensor that works with an app to alert you to heart health issues. The electrocardiogram (ECG) app has been certified by the Food & Drug Administration, but it's not out yet.
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.
Our 19 contenders all promised to give us some distance from our phones by notifying us of incoming calls and texts. But we found that some smart watches were much slower than others at letting us know we had a call. It turns out the quality of the bluetooth connection determines how quickly you’ll be notified, with our worst performers only registering the call with two seconds to spare before diverting to voicemail (yes you, Montblanc) while others simply failed to display any calls at all.
Samsung’s Gear Sport is not as stylish as Fossil’s Q watches, and because it runs Samsung’s Tizen operating system instead of Wear OS, it has nowhere near the app support of Wear OS. But as a smartwatch that shows your phone notifications and lets you respond to them, lasts all day, and tracks your recreational workouts, it is a great device. It’s not meant for competitive speed training, but it has built-in GPS and heart-rate sensing, offline Spotify storage, and a rotating bezel that’s much easier to use while exercising than a touchscreen. It does suffer from weak voice transcription and a barely-there S Voice “assistant,” but it fits a lot of core smartwatch functions into a relatively smart-looking package that’s better for fitness-minded wearers than our top picks.
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.
Our top pick for most people is the Apple Watch Series 4 with GPS (starting at $399), which has a huge display, ultra-fast processor, Raise to Speak Siri, fall detection and a built-in electrical heart rate sensor for taking on-the-go electrocardiograms. It also runs watchOS 5, which makes the watch even more useful with automatic workout-tracking, offline podcast playback and a Walkie-Talkie voice chat feature.
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