We test every new smartwatch to gauge its design and comfort. If it’s not stylish and comfortable enough to get you from an early morning workout to the office to a night out, you probably won’t wear it every day. Most smartwatches are also fitness trackers, so we put all of its sensors to the test, from step counts to heart rate to GPS (when applicable).
If fitness is your top priority, the Apple Watch Series 1 has a good number of shortcomings compared with a dedicated fitness tracker. It doesn’t have onboard GPS, so you’ll need to carry your iPhone to accurately track outdoor activities, like running or cycling, and it’s not waterproof enough for swimming. And unlike a dedicated fitness tracker, the Apple Watch can’t automatically detect and track workouts—you have to manually start it—though this feature is coming with new Watch software this fall. And Apple’s built-in Activity app doesn’t provide much detail, so if you want to dig into your fitness data, or access sleep tracking at all, you have to download third-party apps.
The company claims that the SpO2 monitor will help its devices look for signs of sleep apnea and other breathing problems, potentially great features for devices that are meant to be worn 24/7. It'll be used primarily in Fitbit's forthcoming Sleep Score Beta, which further analyzes sleep quality using heart rate and breathing data. Starting sometime this November, users with devices that only have heart rate monitors can get a "sleep score" after each night's sleep. Those with an Ionic, Versa, or Charge 3 will presumably have better data thanks to the SpO2 monitor collecting breathing data.
Finding and installing apps is another sore point. Android Wear 2.0 has two ways of installing apps: On the watch directly, which is woefully awkward, or through the Play Store on the Web, which is okay. Watch faces for Wear OS exist in the kind of state Android phone apps were in during their earliest days—all over the place, so good luck searching. Watch makers would do well to include some sensible, category-spanning offerings by default in their devices.
The Samsung Gear Live is the first of the company’s smartwatches to be compatible with any Android phone running Android 4.3 or higher; other Gear models can be paired only with specific Samsung phones. Like the LG G Watch and Moto 360, it runs the Android Wear OS, allowing voice commands and pushing relevant information to the wearer. Compared with the LG G Watch, we prefer the style and fit of the Gear Live. The watch body is slightly curved, which made it more comfortable. The Gear Live also has a heart-rate monitor, which the G Watch lacks.
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.
In order to find the best smart watch, we looked at text and call features and, of course, design. We dug into tech reviews to separate must-haves from perks. Then, we brought in 19 smart watches to test for call responsiveness, text-ability, app accessibility, and general ease of us. In the end, three watches stood out for their reliable connectivity, gorgeous interfaces, and easy navigation.