Why we like it: Garmin’s Vívosport fitness band gives you more (and more-accurate) fitness tracking features than a smartwatch, though you won’t be able to respond to messages and notifications or use apps on your wrist. The Vívosport lasts up to a week on a single battery charge, while an Apple Watch or Android Wear device requires overnight charging. Its screen always shows stats during a workout, while smartwatches like the Apple Watch typically turn off when you’re not looking at them. And you can wear a Vívosport while you sleep to get at least a rough view of how restful your night was without having to worry about charging it every morning. All these things give you a better overall picture of how active and healthy you are, and make it more convenient to wear one smaller device all the time: You won’t have to grab a phone to track a run, you won’t have to wear a large, utilitarian-looking GPS watch to work, and you’ll rarely have to worry about battery life during a long workout. The Vívosport also tracks heart rates and GPS location nearly as well as a GPS watch (with some exceptions), but in a smaller and less noticeable package.
The first digital watch, which debuted in 1972, was the Pulsar manufactured by Hamilton Watch Company. "Pulsar" became a brand name which would later be acquired by Seiko in 1978. In 1982, a Pulsar watch (NL C01) was released which could store 24 digits, making it most likely the first watch with user-programmable memory, or "memorybank" watch. With the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s, Seiko began to develop computers in the form of watches. The Data 2000 watch (1983) came with an external keyboard for data-entry. Data was synced from the keyboard to the watch via electro-magnetic coupling (wireless docking). The name comes from its ability to store 2000 characters. The D409 was the first Seiko model with on-board data entry (via a miniature keyboard) and featured a dot matrix display. Its memory was tiny, at only 112 digits. It was released in 1984, in gold, silver and black. These models were followed by many others by Seiko during the 1980s, most notably the "RC Series": During the 1980s, Casio began to market a successful line of "computer watches", in addition to its calculator watches. Most notable was the Casio data bank series. Novelty "game watches", such as the Nelsonic game watches, were also produced by Casio and other companies.
Apple is back with the Apple Watch Series 4, the latest in the smartwatch game that's focused on helping wearers live a healthier lifestyle. Running on Apple’s S4 64-bit dual-core processor and the new WatchOS 5 operating system, it’s twice as fast as its predecessor. Available in two sizes — 40 mm and 44mm — it has a 30 percent larger display than the Series 3 and comes in six different aluminum and stainless steel finishes. New improvements include Walkie Talkie mode and a speaker that is 50% louder than in the Series 3. The microphone has been moved to the watch’s opposite side to reduce noise and create clearer phone calls. The bottom, now made from black ceramic and sapphire crystal for better radio wave transmission, is intended to help with cellular reception and call quality.
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.”
Waterproof to 165 feet and tested to military standards for durability, it includes features like a digital compass, altimeter, and barometer that you won’t find in most other smartwatches, as well as more standard tools such as GPS. The WSD-F20 can also function as a flashlight — handy in an emergency — and lets you download maps for offline navigation when you’re far from the nearest cell signal.
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.
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 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.
The Charge 3's screen has 40-percent more active space than the Charge 2 has, and it makes for a better touchscreen overall. From the watch face, swipe from top to bottom to reveal the notification drawer; from bottom to top to see the daily dashboard; and side to side to see available apps. Transitions between screen pages are smooth, and stick-figure animations in apps like the Exercise app move with ease.
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.
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.
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.
Google announced in late August a substantial new version of Wear OS, which should roll out to nearly every smartwatch running Android Wear 2.0 as of September 2018. The biggest changes are to the navigation of Wear OS’s homescreen, which means it could make these watches significantly easier to use. The updated UI will give you four primary places to go from your watch face: Swiping left gets you to the new Google Fit and its Heart Points and Move Minutes; swiping right brings you to a hopefully fast-loading, better-responding Google Assistant interface for asking questions or issuing commands; swipe up and you’ll see a long stream of all of your notifications, which you can interact with and respond to; swipe down, as with Wear 2.0, to access quick settings. Google told Engadget that the update focuses on reducing loading times and improving Assistant responsiveness, which addresses some of our major our misgivings about Wear OS. We’ll test this latest Wear OS and update this guide after we have a better sense of the changes.
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 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.
Battery life and charging options: Charging your smartwatch is a hassle and the biggest downside to trading in your manually-wound or button battery-powered watch. A Fitbit Versa might last 3 - 4 days between charges, but a smartwatch like the Samsung Gear Sport or Apple Watch will need recharging every couple of days and sometimes every night if you are tapping on the screen regularly and using its apps.
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.