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.
Since the early days of modern smartwatches, we’ve sought to test as many relevant models as we can and recommend the watches that do the best job of making a smartwatch convenient and useful. We test Wear OS watches by wearing them while they’re connected to Android phones. Whenever possible, we ask other people to try out our potential picks to get an idea of how others react to a watch’s size, style, interface, and other features.
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.
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.
Most smartwatches have a fitness component for the very good reason that a watch is moving with you throughout the day. For counting steps, encouraging activity, and tracking occasional long walks, runs, or bike rides, most smartwatches will do fine. If you want a device to track your everyday runs or cycling sessions, you want a GPS running watch. If you’re serious about tracking and improving your movement and sleep, a fitness tracker will do that for less money and look more discrete doing so (and if you have health insurance, you may get a discount or incentives to use one). There are smartwatches that lean heavily toward sports and fitness in their marketing, but there are drawbacks to each of them not found in a dedicated device. At the other extreme, if you all you really need is step counting, a hybrid smartwatch—with an analog face like a traditional watch, but with built-in motion sensors and months-long battery life—may be a better option.
As you’d expect, it has GPS and GLONASS alongside a heart rate monitor to bolster its fitness credentials. Other features include offline Spotify support, which is great for anyone who wants music without having to carry along their phone. Tizen is currently the only watch operating system to offer offline Spotify, too. Unfortunately, Tizen app support is otherwise lacking compared to rivals.
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.
Most smartwatches are still more unisex than specifically made for women. Even though Fossil, Skagen, and Apple make very convincing unisex watches that women can actually wear, none of them are unapologetically feminine. If you, like me, have been waiting for the day when you can look at a smartwatch and say, "Oh my God! It's so cute!" your day has come.
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.
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.
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.
Waterproof to 165 feet, the Versa handles swimming as well as any other exercise, with the screen surprisingly visible underwater. As is standard with many other non-smartwatch Fitbit models, heart rate tracking is built in, which allows for detailed sleep tracking. There’s no GPS, though — if you want to track your running route, you’ll need to carry your phone or pay the extra for the Ionic model.
The hardware is now “swimproof” with improved water resistance and there’s also now a heart rate sensor. Those work with the new Google Fit app to improve the fitness experience from your watch. Further, the Falster 2 has built-in GPS and NFC as well. This opens up Google Pay functionality for the watch for mobile payments in-store. Of course, Wear OS is still at the center of the experience, and the whole thing runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100.
The Gear S3 also offers a dual-core Exynos 7270 processor, 768MB of RAM, and 4GB of storage. The watch also features sensors such as GPS, NFC, and even optional LTE. The standout features, though, include Samsung Pay (on any smartphone) and the rotating bezel. The Gear S3 is a pretty big watch, though, coming in at 12.9mm thick with a 46mm diameter.
This watch won’t work unless you have an iPhone. However, it is hands-down the best smart watch for an iPhone. Other watches (including the Fossil Q Venture) will work with an iPhone, but won’t be able to answer calls or respond to texts, and if you want to customize the apps on your watch, you’ll need to navigate the Google Play store through the watch screen.