The Apple Watch Series 3 is a really nice smartwatch that does exactly what it should. This is easily one of the best smartwatches on the market. It’ll give you quick access to notifications, allow you to pay with your wrist, give you turn-by-turn directions, and it’s a decent fitness tracker. In terms of design, it doesn’t feel like Apple cut too many corners with the overall look and feel of the device. Even the Sport model (the cheapest one of the bunch) feels like a well-built piece of hardware.
The TicWatch Pro shares the TicWatch E model’s older processor and late arrival, and it would be just another big (45 mm case), thick (12.6 mm) Android smartwatch, if not for its trick of having an old-fashioned-looking LCD screen that the watch switches to when you’re not actively looking at it or using it. This feature extends battery life significantly, especially if you go for periods in Essential Mode, where you see only the LCD screen showing the time, date, and your step count. But the transition from the LCD screen back to a “smart” OLED screen is not smooth or quick, and if you switch the watch to Essential Mode, you have to reboot it to get back to regular smartwatch functions.
Dealing with notifications on a Wear OS watch has gotten better as the phone version of Android has improved its already impressive notification system and as phone app developers have taken advantage of new interactions. Many apps now send notifications with action options: For example, you can check a to-do as done, approve a payment, respond to a message, or, most often, just acknowledge something. The Q Explorist and Venture are no different than most Wear OS watches in relaying notifications, but in our testing they rarely showed lag in processing them, nor was either watch’s screen unresponsive to swiping or tapping options. Each watch’s vibration motor provides just enough buzz and movement to avoid missing things while not feeling like electric collar training for humans.
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.
You can choose from five different watch faces for the Charge 3, making it less customizable than the Ionic or the Versa. Those smartwatches have the advantage of running Fitbit OS, which includes a library of many third-party-developed watch faces. The Charge 3 isn't a smartwatch, so its version of Fitbit's software isn't as robust as what we see on the Ionic and the Versa. It's not as critical for the Charge 3 since it isn't designed to run more than a few basic apps, but those looking for interesting watch faces will have to do with just a handful of options.
If you want the app, notification, and style advantages of an Apple Watch but need better fitness tracking, you can upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 3 and get built-in GPS, as well as waterproofing that allows swim tracking. But the Series 3 costs more than a fitness tracker or even many running watches, and it still has compromises compared with a dedicated fitness tracker, such as a lack of dedicated physical buttons. We think serious athletes are better served by a fitness-specific device.
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.
The Asus ZenWatch 3 was a previous top pick for a Wear OS smartwatch. As of now, it has reached the end of its Wear OS updates (after a very long delay getting to Android Wear 2.0). Its rotating crown does not actually work to turn or scroll anything on the screen. Its proprietary watch band connections mean that your options are limited to what is available from third parties on Amazon. And the watch is hard to find new.
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.
For deeper integration with your Android phone, you can give Google's Wear OS platform a try with Fossil's $275 Q Control touchscreen smartwatch. It lacks GPS and support for NFC payments, which is why the Gear Sport is a better fitness-focused smartwatch for Android users, but Fossil's Google Assistant integration and stylish design make it a solid contender. However, smartwatches with Qualcomm's new Snapdragon Wear 3100 processor start shipping in October, so you may want to hold off until we put them to the test.