Why we like it: Apple Watches are the best smartwatches overall because they make it easier than any other wearable device to interact with the messages and notifications relayed from your iPhone. The Series 1, specifically, has all the features most people need at a reasonable price. It looks better than most smartwatches and fitness trackers, on wrists both large and small, thanks to two sizes and an array of finishes and bands (both official and third party). While not every major iPhone app has an Apple Watch partner app, many do, and most respond quickly and are optimized for the watch’s small screen, unlike many of the apps available for Android watches. And the Series 1 Apple Watch does a good job of independently tracking most kinds of workouts where accurate distance tracking isn’t vital,1 and encourages non-workout fitness (like standing and moving every hour). We also like that the Apple Watch lets you easily make contactless payments using Apple Pay, and if you own a Mac, you can unlock it by just getting close to it with your Apple Watch.
What’s on display?: Most smartwatches have full-colour displays, though the underlying technology will determine how good the screen looks. There has been a move towards AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) displays, as used in the Apple Watch which present a bright screen, crisp text and accurate colours. Fitness trackers tend to have lower-quality screens and may not present in full-colour, partly to save battery life.
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.
Wrist watches have been fashion accessories since they were first invented. The first generation of smartwatches were dull, chunky looking devices, more functional than fashionable. How things have changed. You can select from thousands of watch faces and even design your own. Wrist straps can be swapped out and designers have come up with clever quick-release clasps for them, knowing that the need to charge your watch regularly will see you needing to remove it quickly.
The Sport’s built-in fitness features do a decent job of motivating you to move more, tracking a Fitbit-like set of metrics: Stairs climbed, steps taken, and minutes active. It reminds you to get up every hour or so and suggests stretches and movements you can do at your desk if you’re stuck there. While the Sport can track your movement and exercise, and start doing so automatically, it is not accurate enough for dedicated runners or cyclists (who should get a GPS running watch instead): Influential fitness gear tester Ray Maker (aka DC Rainmaker) clocked “the worst GPS track accuracy I’ve ever seen on a run” wearing the Gear Sport. We didn’t see quite the same entirely-different-street discrepancies in biking tests, but the Sport is nevertheless not a competitive training tool, providing only a rough guide to distance and speed.
If you don’t need your smartwatch to look business-casual, you want more fitness and exercise features than our top pick, or you’re a Samsung loyalist, the Samsung Gear Sport is a better pick for you. (You can use the Gear Sport with non-Samsung phones, but doing so requires that you install at least four apps.) The Gear Sport handles all the casual notification and message-triage functions of a smartwatch about as well as our top pick—with the exception of voice transcription—but it adds heart-rate monitoring, GPS tracking, swim tracking, and built-in reminders to move throughout the day. It doesn’t do all of these things perfectly, but it does just enough to make for a generally useful smartwatch, with great battery life and a clever interface.
Basically, smartwatches are wearable-technology devices that maintain a relatively persistent wireless connection to your mobile device—usually a smart phone—and can receive notifications of incoming calls, texts, instant messages, social-network updates, and more, from that device. Some can also let you accept and conduct phone calls right on the watch. And even newer models (the Samsung Gear S, for one) can act as smart phones all on their own, without needing a paired phone nearby.
The Misfit Vapor was originally launched with a proprietary operating system, but that was ditched for Android Wear 2.0. The Vapor has a 1.39-inch AMOLED display, Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor, 4GB of storage, 512mb of RAM, and a heart rate sensor. Those specs are fairly standard for Android Wear, but the Vapor also includes 5ATM water resistance which is a huge plus, and an assortment of software features added by Misfit.
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.
Of the scores of Wear OS by Google (also called Wear OS, and formerly Android Wear) smartwatches that function nearly the same, the Fossil Q Explorist and Fossil Q Venture are the ones we recommend for most people. Similar models that differ mainly in size and design, these two Fossil watches offer style and band options for the widest range of tastes while performing as well as (or better than) anything else out there. They handle notifications and your responses without delay, provide all-day battery life, swiftly handle voice transcription and Google Assistant questions, and provide casual fitness tracking. Their buttons and screens are responsive. They look and feel like good watches, too, which is something we think most people want from a smartwatch at this point.
Using your voice with the Google Assistant function built into the Q watches (and every modern Wear OS watch) is generally okay, though only roughly 80 percent reliable. The combination of a microphone on the side of your watch, a Bluetooth connection to your phone when you’re away from Wi-Fi, your phone’s cellular Web connection, and the imperfect acknowledgement of human speech by Google Assistant do not make for anything near a 100 percent success rate. When it works, Google Assistant makes you feel connected and advanced; when it fails, you can be seen as a person who asks their wrist about the capital of Malaysia. This is more a reflection of the state of connectivity and digital assistants than of the Q watches themselves—or any Wear OS watch, for that matter—although in our experience Wear OS watches fail on voice queries more often than Siri on the Apple Watch. That said, voice dictation on the Q watches is far more reliable, at least when it comes to recognizing words and phrases, than Google Assistant. If transcription fails, it’s more likely to be because of the watch/phone connection than the watch mishearing your words.
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.
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.
Garmin has been putting out go-to smartwatches for sports lovers for a while now. Running, cycling, swimming, golf - Garmin has had us well and truly covered. Despite the Forerunner name, the 645 Music is more in the mould of the Vivoactive 3 Music. It's got a similar look and also brings the music this time. This helps make the Garmin more of a smartwatch rival to the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear or Fitbit Ionic than before.
In the same year, Microsoft announced the SPOT smartwatch and it began hitting stores in early 2004. SPOT stands for Smart Personal Objects Technology, an initiative by Microsoft to personalize household electronics and other everyday gadgets. For instance, the company demonstrated coffee makers, weather stations, and alarm clocks featuring built-in SPOT technology. The device was a standalone smartwatch that offered information at a glance where other devices would have required more immersion and interaction. The information included weather, news, stock prices, and sports scores and was transmitted through FM waves. It was accessible through a yearly subscription that cost from $39 to $59.
How frustrating. I really -like- the idea of a smart watch... but it's so hard to find the right one. I'm not an exercise freak so heartrate monitors etc are useless to me. I really like the design of the Samsung watches with their bezels to control it, but the Tizen OS with it's limited apps puts me right off. The Access Grayson watch is beautiful, but the lack of NFC is a deal breaker for me - Google Pay with the convenience of a watch is part of the reason I'd buy one. I don't need to be able to put a sim in it... that's what my phone's for, but GOS would be nice for when I travel, and as a motorbike rider some level of waterproofing is a must. Guess I'm waiting for the next round of watches to see what's on offer.
If you like traditional analog watches and want just a few smart features, the Cookoo 2 might be more appealing than its more full-featured rectangular competitors. Behind its hands is a monochrome display that delivers basic notifications: incoming calls (with Caller ID), missed calls, texts, e-mail, social media alerts (for WhatsApp, Line, QQ, WeChat, Skype, Facebook, Twitter), and calendar alerts. Just bear in mind that it's a very basic smartwatch, with little configurability.
The Nixon Mission is a rugged 'action' smartwatch, and we really like it. The durable casing can take a bashing, while the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 keeps things ticking inside. It runs Android Wear, but also comes with some useful pre-installed apps which track real-time surfing and snowboarding conditions. It's water resistant to 10ATM (roughly 100m), and best of all, it comes in Orange.
At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, Razer released the Nabu Watch, a dual-screen smartwatch: integrates an always-on illuminated backlit display, that takes care of some pretty standard features as date and time, and a second OLED screen, which is activated by raising your wrist, allows access to extra smart features. Luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer released TAG Heuer Connected, a smartwatch powered by Android Wear.
Unlike the Apple Series 3, you can get third-party watch faces along with the default options. Many of these third-party faces also come with customizable widgets so you can manage layout without cluttering up your watch. From the homepage (which displays the time and date), you can twist the bezel to access fitness tracking data, like steps taken and calories burned, check the weather, change the song you’re listening to, or use any number of custom widgets.