For most people, the most useful thing a smartwatch can do is relay phone notifications to your wrist so you can check them without having to pull out and wake up your handset. You can still be distracted by whatever is buzzing you, but it’s easier to quickly see whether something is important or not. Often you can interact with that notification—by acknowledging it, dismissing it, or replying to a message with voice dictation, a pre-written response, or (awkward) finger typing or swiping—right on the watch.
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Smartwatches are relatively new gadgets, and their features are continuously improving. Each smartwatch needs to synch to your smartphone to get enhanced features. Once linked, depending on the model of smartwatch, you can forward emails, text messages, GPS directions and more to your wrist. Some smartwatches even have built-in microphones and speakers, allowing you to make phone calls. Calls are routed through your smartphone, just like when using a Bluetooth Headset. The Samsung watch—dubbed the Galaxy Gear—also has an integrated camera, so you can snap spontaneous photos without ever picking up your smartphone. Of course, ever smartwatch also functions as a traditional digital watch when not linked to a smart device. As the technology matures, expect to see more advanced features and perhaps even complete phone functionality built in.
The launch of Samsung's Gear S smartwatch was covered by the media in late August 2014. The model features a curved Super AMOLED display and a built-in 3G modem, with technology writer Darrell Etherington stating on the TechCrunch website, "we’re finally starting to see displays that wrap around the contours of the wrist, rather than sticking out as a traditional flat surface." The corporation commenced selling the Gear S smartwatch in October 2014, alongside the Gear Circle headset accessory. At IFA 2014 Sony Mobile announced the third generation of its smartwatch series, the Sony Smartwatch 3 powered by Android Wear. Also, the Fashion Entertainments' e-paper watch was announced.
Finally, Wear OS has a problem that’s seemingly random and hard to understand: “Can’t reach Google at the moment.” Having tested at least a dozen Wear OS watches, we can say that an unexplained failure when using voice commands is the most common negative trait for all of them. It’s impossible for the layperson to understand which part of the watch-to-phone-to-Internet relay is falling down, but it can happen at any time, even right after you’ve used the watch to do something else successfully. When Google Assistant is made the center of Android watches, not being able to reach Google Assistant lowers the value of that watch considerably.
The era of the smartwatch is upon us – just look at the multitude of colourful straps and elongated or squarish screens people are wearing. From fitness trackers like the Fitbit and Garmin to the Samsung Gear and Apple Watch, there are a host of great options to combine fitness and activity tracking and message alerts on your watch, which incidentally will still tell you the time, along with the weather and even play your favourite music.
Other reviewers also like the Q watches. Simon Hill at Digital Trends writes that the Q Explorist is “an attractive smartwatch to use with an Android phone that will blend in at work or play at an affordable price,” and that, aside from the Apple Watch and the Gear Sport (for Samsung phone owners), the Q Explorist “compares favorably with the rest of the field.” Gerald Lynch at TechRadar summarizes the Venture as “a sharp-looking, comfortable smartwatch with a great display and responsive processor,” but knocks it for lacking GPS and a heart-rate monitor. Matthew Miller at ZDNet believes the Explorist and Venture are “priced fairly for nice looking fashion watches that also serve as smartwatches.”
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.
Bottom line: Some fitness trackers work equally well with an iPhone or Android device, but some smartwatches are built to pair with Android phones so you won’t enjoy full functionality and pairing on an iPhone. The Apple Watch only pairs with the iPhone so is off limits to Android users. Your existing phone choice will play an important part in choosing a smartwatch. You can check your smartphone’s compatibility with a range of Google Wear-powered smartwatches at g.co/WearCheck
The Huawei Watch 2 comes into its own if you’re looking for a smartwatch that can double as a sports watch, thanks to built-in GPS and a heart rate monitor on its rear. Use the 4GB of built-in storage to save your Google Play Music playlists offline and you can pair Bluetooth headphones for a phone-free experience. The Huawei Watch 2 will work with Huawei’s own suite of fitness apps, Google Fit, or other third-party apps such as Strava, offering excellent choice.
The TicWatch E uses outdated processors and arrives very late in the lifespan of this version of Wear OS—with a new Qualcomm chip arriving in early September, there’s not a compelling reason to invest in an Android smartwatch from a lesser-known vendor right now. Beyond that, although it packs in a lot of features for less than $150, including onboard GPS, a heart-rate monitor, and a light-adjusting display, the TicWatch E looks and feels toylike, with an all-plastic body, matte silicone strap, and undistinguished look. It also has a single, non-turning button, which makes it less usable with the latest Wear OS interface. It runs Wear OS fairly well on its budget-minded processor, but Wear OS running even at its intended responsiveness is still not that exciting. The TicWatch E is not a bad budget entry as far as Android Wear watches go, but a better budget smartwatch, probably from the TicWatch’s own maker, is likely in the making.
Having a miniature computer strapped around your wrist is no longer a pipe dream. The Apple Watch and other options from popular manufacturers, like Fitbit, Samsung, LG, and Fossil, have been gunning to craft the best smartwatch. Now a few years more mature, the smartwatch market offers more than ever, whether you’re after a particular style, iOS and Android phone compatibility, or just a bunch of features.
Why we like it: Fossil’s Q Explorist and Venture watches are good-looking watches with a decent range of case and band options, and decent responsiveness and battery life—this is high praise given the current state of Android smartwatches. They can track steps, control music playback, give you turn-by-turn directions on your wrist, and allow you to respond to messages with your voice or quick-reply taps. But these two models are not unique: The Fossil Group offers an array of more than 300 smartwatches under different fashion brands—including Diesel, Skagen, Tag Heuer, Kate Spade, and Movado—that have essentially the same internal components and software, so you can pick the watch design you like best.
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.)
Smartwatches are still a relatively new electronics category, but these devices are poised to hit the mainstream. This year we saw major players such as LG and Motorola throw their smartwatches in the ring, along with Samsung, Sony, and a host of smaller companies like Pebble and Martian. And Apple finally confirmed its entry, the innovative Apple Watch, expected to arrive early in 2015.
Outside of the Fossil Group, we're waiting for the Casio Pro Trek WSD-F30 and Montblanc Summit 2. The Summit 2 will be the first smartwatch to run on Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 3100 processor, which aims to make a raft of improvements including beefing up the battery life. It's also expected to be joined by a new Louis Vuitton smartwatch, which will run on that new Snapdragon chip.
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
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.