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.
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.
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.
Samsung treads between smartwatch and fitness tracker, also packing in a heart rate sensor along with that GPS and its much-improved Samsung Health software. There's also the option of LTE (coming soon), if you wish for an untethered connection, with a standalone speaker for taking calls on the watch. It's now waterproof, too, adding swim tracking skills that are on par with the Watch Series 4.
You can also use devices that support the Google Wear operating system in conjunction with an iPhone as well as a Samsung Gear device that runs Samsung’s own Tizen operating system. But Google Wear and Tizen devices are designed to pair with smartphones using the Android OS, so you won’t get full functionality when pairing with an iPhone. For instance, some Android smartwatches carry Samsung’s smartwatch line-up and naturally enough, work best with Samsung smartphones, but are still compatible with Android-powered Huawei or Nokia phones.
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Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Apple Watch requires an iPhone—if you have another kind of phone, you’re out of luck. While good Apple Watch apps are better than what you get for Android smartwatches, many are still very limited compared with their phone counterparts. And it can get annoying how aggressively the Apple Watch turns off its screen (to save energy) whenever it senses you’ve put your arm down.
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.
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.
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.