Wear OS’s chief problem, as we see it, is that it relies too much on input from swipes, taps, and other finger gestures. On a largish screen, such as on our top pick, this is less of a problem, but on smaller devices, trying to hit just the right button on the screen is like playing a very small version of Duck Hunt. The Apple Watch, by comparison, makes most of its buttons screen-wide rounded rectangles, which are easier to hit. On newer watches with three buttons, Wear OS also doesn’t utilize the physical controls beyond the home display (watch face), where they serve as shortcuts to apps or a list of apps.
The Samsung Gear S3 was our prior pick for Samsung phone owners because of its smooth dial rotation and interface. But it was notably large, with a 46 mm face, and the Frontier model was half an inch thick, notably bulky even for a smartwatch. The Gear Sport, our runner-up pick, is less bulky, less expensive, less overtly masculine-styled, and provides most of the same features, minus the LTE option.
The Charge 3 works continuously throughout the day to track steps, distance, calories, floors climbed, and heart rate—the standard array of activity data. Fitbit has been tracking these metrics for so long, without making many significant updates as of late, that they are business as usual on the Charge 3. I appreciated that most of the watch faces available for the Charge 3 show your real-time heart rate, either in a corner or at the bottom of the rectangular display. I like being able to glance down and know my pulse.
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.
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.
Many major phone apps have Wear OS counterparts, or at least most apps that make sense to have a dedicated watch app. You’ll likely find yourself using most watch apps less than you might think, but they are sometimes convenient for avoiding a phone retrieval. I use regularly use the Nest app for my home thermostat, Keep to take down a quick voice note, PocketCasts to control podcast episodes and playlists, and Stronglifts to time and track workouts. But I use these on my watch mostly when my phone is not at hand; none is easier to use than its phone version. As noted, most apps on your phone will provide notifications that can be acted upon through your watch. For the apps that you do use, the Q watches’ screen (identical to most of the Fossil group watches’ screens) is responsive enough to work with tiny buttons pressed by big fingers.
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.
Finding and installing apps is another sore point. Android Wear 2.0 has two ways of installing apps: On the watch directly, which is woefully awkward, or through the Play Store on the Web, which is okay. Watch faces for Wear OS exist in the kind of state Android phone apps were in during their earliest days—all over the place, so good luck searching. Watch makers would do well to include some sensible, category-spanning offerings by default in their devices.
I’ve worn a smartwatch almost daily for nearly five years as of this writing. I often feel that it keeps me alert to what’s happening, especially for things like texts from my wife and close friends, alarms that a parking meter is nearly expired, or reminders that dinner needs to start marinating or roasting. It has also encouraged me to get moving and take a walk when I’d otherwise stay in place. Sometimes it has made me feel rude, distracted, or overly attached to whatever little blip comes next. It has come in handy on my bike, and it has distracted me when I’m driving my car. Some of this can be better handled through settings and filters, but some of it comes from human nature.
We pulled together a list of currently available smart watches that met these criteria from Apple, Android Wear, and Samsung. Our list included watches from tech brands like Apple, Asus, and Samsung, as well as fashion labels like Fossil, Nixon, and Tag Heuer. Then, we cross-checked with respected review sites, such as Tech Radar and PCMag, as well as tech retailer Best Buy, to make sure we weren’t leaving out any hidden gems.