On 9 September 2014, Apple Inc. announced its first smartwatch called Apple Watch to be released in early 2015. On 24 April 2015, Apple Watch began shipping across the world. Apple’s first try into wearable technology was met with considerable criticism during the pre-launch period, with many early technology reviews citing issues with battery life and hardware malfunctions. However, others praised Apple for creating a potentially fashionable device that can compete with "traditional watches," not just the smartwatch industry in general. The watch only turns on when activated (either by lifting one's wrist, touching the screen, or pressing a button). On 29 October 2014, Microsoft announced the Microsoft Band, a smart fitness tracker and the company's first venture into wrist-worn devices since SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) a decade earlier. The Microsoft Band was released at $199 the following day, on 30 October 2014.
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.
Wirecutter writers have been researching, testing, and writing about smartwatches since early 2013, just after the first Pebble watches were shipped to Kickstarter backers. I’ve personally worn nearly every notable smartwatch since that first Pebble and have written about them for a number of publications, including IT World and Fast Company. I also have extensive experience with Android phones, having written the (since outdated) Complete Android Guide and numerous articles about Android. I also contribute to and help edit the Wirecutter guide to the best smartwatch for iPhones.
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.
In 2003, Fossil released the Wrist PDA, a watch which ran the Palm OS and contained 8 MB of RAM and 4 MB of flash memory. It contained a built in stylus to help use the tiny monochrome display, which had a resolution of 160×160 pixels. Although many reviewers declared the watch revolutionary, it was criticized for its weight (108 grams) and was ultimately discontinued in 2005.
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Smartwatches, like smart phones, can also run apps, via your smart phone or right on the watch. These include health and fitness apps (thus the comparison with activity trackers), apps that control functions such as music and the camera on your phone, navigation apps, and more. Because most smartwatches have open software platforms (at least so far), developers are coming up with new and innovative apps that can increase the functionality of the devices.
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 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.
I've been pleased to see swim-tracking trickle down into more affordable devices over the past few years. Fitbit's Flex 2 remains its most affordable device with swim-tracking features, priced at $60. But the $150 Charge 3, with its big display and smattering of smartwatch capabilities, is for a different audience than those who would gravitate to the tiny, quasi-cylindrical Flex 2. Even if you don't swim often, water-resistance up to 50 meters means users don't have to worry about showering with the Charge 3 or dropping it in the pool by accident.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Wear OS, Google’s name for Android for smartwatches, still feels like a work in progress, and in our testing, the Google Assistant voice feature frequently dropped responses—though that could improve via software updates. The Q line’s button at the 3 o’clock position is easy to accidentally trigger, bringing up Google Assistant and sometimes sending it nonsense questions. Wear OS also lacks a left-handed mode to allow you to switch the watch around. On the workout front, Fossil Q watches lack a heart rate monitor, so they’re not able to detect workouts or help with pacing; and the size of these models—and most Android smartwatches, really—and the touchscreen interface make workouts more difficult to monitor and pause than with a dedicated fitness tracker.
If you’re trying to decide which one is right for you, allow us to help. The Versa is smaller and looks good on most wrist sizes, while the Ionic is probably best for large wrists. The other main difference is GPS connectivity — the Ionic comes with built-in GPS, while the Versa does not. However, you can pair it with your smartphone if you don’t mind bringing it with you on a run.
I’ve worn a smartwatch almost daily for nearly five years as of this writing. I often feel that it keeps me alert to what’s happening, especially for things like texts from my wife and close friends, alarms that a parking meter is nearly expired, or reminders that dinner needs to start marinating or roasting. It has also encouraged me to get moving and take a walk when I’d otherwise stay in place. Sometimes it has made me feel rude, distracted, or overly attached to whatever little blip comes next. It has come in handy on my bike, and it has distracted me when I’m driving my car. Some of this can be better handled through settings and filters, but some of it comes from human nature.
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.
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.
The primary differences with the Classic versus the standard include, first off, that this model lacks LTE. That, however, does mean that the Classic is built from a more premium “Titanium Grey” shell which has a bit less sporty look. A leather band is also installed out of the box rather than the silicone one found on other models. Pricing on the Huawei Watch 2 Classic is a bit higher than the standard model, asking $369 from retailers such as Amazon and Best Buy.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Vívosport’s screen is highly sensitive to incidental brushes and touches; we ended up activating the screen auto-lock feature, a small annoyance. Compared with a dedicated GPS running watch, the GPS tracking on any fitness band takes longer to connect to satellites; and it’s easier to see your pace and other statistics on a running watch’s larger LCD screen while moving than on a fitness band’s relatively miniscule display. Garmin doesn’t have the motivating social network of Fitbit, so it’s less likely that your friends or coworkers will connect and challenge you, or that a corporate fitness challenge will work with your Vívosport. A fitness band falls short of a full-featured smartwatch, because typically it won’t give you a voice assistant, let you install apps, or let you interact with phone notifications, and many of those notifications will be difficult to read on the Vívosport’s small screen.
The Apple Watch boasts cutting-edge smartwatch tech including mobile payments with Apple Pay, stand-alone GPS, full waterproofing up to 50 meters, and thousands of apps. The user interface is very simple and attractive. It's easy to use and it has advanced, easy-to-use fitness tracking features, thanks to a plethora of sensors and an excellent heart rate monitor.
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.
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.
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 Explorist and Venture cases are an average thickness for a round smartwatch (at 12.5 and 11.5 millimeters, respectively), with widths of 45 mm and 42 mm, respectively. Neither watch feels too heavy or awkward on a larger wrist, though even the smaller Venture watch is still quite chunky on a smaller wrist. Each model’s battery regularly lasted a whole day in our testing, and the voice-dictation functions are on a par with those of most smartwatches; the same goes for Google Assistant’s accuracy. Both watches and their Google Fit system track day-to-day activity, and although Wear OS apps don’t have quite the buy-in from app makers that the Apple Watch does, you can likely find your favorite apps in Google’s Play Store, and most phone apps provide rich notifications that you can interact with through the watch. Both show signs of good build quality, with thoughtful attention to detail on all surfaces and no cheap connectors or pieces.
Even today, fitness trackers have a few advantages over smartwatches: they're easier to wear since they have slimmer, lighter profiles. They're less complicated because they're designed primarily to keep you fit (not necessarily for things like emailing on the go). And, perhaps the most important distinction of all, fitness trackers are generally less expensive than smartwatches.
The top smartwatches that debuted at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show included the Casio WSD-F20, Misfit Wearables Vapor and the Garmin Fenix 5 series. Apple released on September 22, 2017 their Apple Watch Series 3 model which offers built in LTE cellular connectivity allowing phone calls, messaging and data without relying on a nearby smartphone connection. 
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The MetaWatch M1, like the Cookoo 2 and Martian Notifier, is a basic smartwatch. It shows alerts for texts, e-mails, social media updates, calendar appointments, weather, and Caller ID, and can control your phone's music app. The notifications are configurable in terms of what you are alerted to and how: whether via a vibration or on the watch’s display. Also built in are a timer, a stopwatch, and an alarm
Fossil introduced its fourth generation of smartwatches, the Q Explorist HR and Q Venture HR, upgraded versions of our current picks at the same respective prices. These editions of the watches add untethered GPS, NFC for Google Pay purchases, and heart-rate monitoring. Fossil also claims that they’re waterproof enough for swimming. However, both use an aging Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip when a newer version is expected to arrive in September.
They include a heart rate monitor, pedometer and altimeter to track steps taken and stairs climbed and often a GPS chip to record your distance covered. They will sync with your smartphone to give you a suite of tools to monitor your exercise progress. Many of them will offer notifications of incoming phone calls, text and email alerts as well. But they are designed with fitness tracking in mind. If you are happy using your smartphone for your day to day messaging, calendar, apps and music, a fitness tracker will suffice.
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.
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.
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