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.
I visited the Fitbit app more than I usually do during the first day of wearing the Charge 3 so I could manage notifications. This device is the first tracker to go beyond the basic call, text, and calendar alerts that most Fitbit trackers can receive. The Charge 3 can alert you to any and all happenings on your smartphone if you want. In the notification panel in the Fitbit app, you can choose which apps you want to receive alerts from—turn on all of them so you never miss a beat, or only turn on the apps that are most important to you.
The LTE connection will cost you about $10 a month at most carriers, and the LTE model does cost more. There's a non-LTE version, too, if you're not interested in the new feature. Most people probably don't need LTE, frankly, unless you regularly go on hikes or long runs and you don't want to be weighed down with your phone. Still, it's a nice option to have.
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.
Some smartwatches have robust offerings of apps, either preinstalled on the watch or available for download in an app store. Apps can be as simple as a timer or stopwatch, or can control your smart-home devices, switch up your music, or provide turn-by-turn directions for walking or driving. In our testing and everyday use, however, these watch apps rarely offer a great experience. But there are some exceptions, including some fitness apps and apps that track things like water or food intake.
First, there’s now an option of an LTE-capable model allowing for always-on connectivity. This is through the use of an eSIM inside and an antenna cleverly hidden behind the display. The great news is that your Apple Watch 3 will share the same phone number as your iPhone, whereas other LTE-capable smartwatches have required you to juggle two phone numbers. You’ll need to pay for an additional smartwatch plan for the functionality, however.
While testing the Q Venture, we found the response time to be pretty solid when it came to calls and notifications. The typical response time for a notification was somewhere around 10 seconds. We were, however, able to immediately ignore calls. This quick response time should give you plenty of time to retrieve your phone from your pocket or fish it out of your purse.
The Charge 2 was one of Fitbit's most popular trackers, so the company stuck with the winning formula with the Charge 3. If you're at all familiar with the Charge 2, you'll notice that not much has changed in the updated device—it's still a rectangular tracker hugged on its short edges by two parts of a band. Fitbit updated the connecting mechanism that lets you switch out the bands on the Charge 3, making it easier to press the black sliver of a button on either end to release the device's current band. The new band snaps right into place without any extra effort.
Pebble (watch) was an innovative smartwatch that raised the most money at the time on Kickstarter reaching $10.3 Million between April 12 and May 18, 2012. The watch has a 32-millimetre (1.26 in) 144 × 168 pixel black and white memory LCD using an ultra low-power "transflective LCD" manufactured by Sharp with a backlight, a vibrating motor, a magnetometer, ambient light sensors, and a three-axis accelerometer. It can communicate with an Android or iOS device using both Bluetooth 2.1 and Bluetooth 4.0 (Bluetooth Low Energy) using Stonestreet One's Bluetopia+MFi software stack. Bluetooth 4.0 with low energy (LE) support was not initially enabled, but a firmware update in November 2013 enabled it. The watch is charged using a modified USB-cable that attaches magnetically to the watch to maintain water resistance capability. The battery was reported in April 2012 to last seven days. Based on feedback from Kickstarter backers, the developers added water-resistance to the list of features. The Pebble has a waterproof rating of 5 atm, which means it can be submerged down to 40 metres (130 ft) and has been tested in both fresh and salt water, allowing one to shower, dive or swim while wearing the watch.
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.
Fossil’s Q Explorist and its smaller-wrist counterpart the Q Venture are well-made, responsive, fashionable Wear OS smartwatches that offer a lot of color and band options, making them the best option around. They ably run Wear OS (more on the pros and cons of Wear OS itself in a bit) and convey your phone’s notifications to your wrist. Their buttons engage with clean clicks, the Explorist’s center crown moves through lists and notifications much more effectively than swiping, and both screens are responsive and clear.
The Samsung Gear Live is the first of the company’s smartwatches to be compatible with any Android phone running Android 4.3 or higher; other Gear models can be paired only with specific Samsung phones. Like the LG G Watch and Moto 360, it runs the Android Wear OS, allowing voice commands and pushing relevant information to the wearer. Compared with the LG G Watch, we prefer the style and fit of the Gear Live. The watch body is slightly curved, which made it more comfortable. The Gear Live also has a heart-rate monitor, which the G Watch lacks.
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.
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.