Think it’s time to upgrade your traditional watch by adding some apps and notifications to your wrist? Here are the features to look for, along with the top-rated smartwatches we’ve tested.
Bringing Brains to Your Wrist
The infamous calculator watch has been around since the 1970s, but smartwatches have finally reached the point that they’re, well, smart. From running apps, to displaying smartphone notifications, to monitoring your heart rate, the latest crop of smartwatches do a lot more than just tell time. But which one should you buy? We’ve rounded up our top-rated options to help you decide. It’s also important to know what to look for, so keep the following advice in mind when shopping around.
Pick a Watch That Works With Your Phone
Naturally, the first thing you’ll want to consider when buying a smartwatch is compatibility. Most of the devices currently available use Wear OS, Google’s operating system for wearables. Wear OS supports iOS, but make sure to find out if the features you want are available on iOS before buying in. Fitbit OS and Samsung’s Tizen also support both Android and iOS. The Apple Watch, as you’d expect, connects strictly to iOS-powered devices, so it’s iPhone-only. Make sure to pick a watch that’s compatible with the mobile device you own.
What About Apps?
What separates a smartwatch from a dumb watch? Lots of things, but as smartphones have taught us, apps might be the most important.
Most of the watches we like feature full-fledged app stores, bringing everything from Uber and Yelp to—yes, a calculator—to your wrist. Much like smartphones, app availability is a good way to determine which product to get, so make sure to check out the app selection for each watch before buying in.
And if you’re looking for apps, right now Apple is your best bet. The Apple Watch has the largest number of high-quality apps and big-name developers, by far. Wear OS also has its fair share, and Fibit OS is catching up, but developer interest definitely seems to be in Apple first. Samsung’s Tizen doesn’t seem to be on the radar for most developers.
Fitness Tracker vs. Smartwatch
Unless you want a gadget on both of your wrists (not the best look, in my opinion), you’ll want a smartwatch that can do double duty as a fitness tracker—or any other wearable gadget you were thinking about getting. Most smartwatches are capable of tracking basic activity, like steps, but you need to pay close attention to any additional features.
The Apple Watch Series 5, for instance, features GPS, so it can track your runs without the help of a companion device. It also has a heart rate sensor. Not only that, but an ECG function allows you to generate a PDF of your heart rhythm you can share with your doctor. Of course, it’s also the most expensive product on this list. The Fitbit Ionic and Versa 2 cost less and track more advanced fitness metrics than most of the competition, but have less in the way of third-party apps, so there’s some trade-off.
Look closely and choose a watch that tracks the activities you want to monitor.
A cellular connection allows you to make calls, send texts, stream music, download apps, and do anything else that requires an internet connection, without actually needing to be connected to your phone. The cellular Apple Watch Series 5 carries a $100 premium over the standard version, and you also have to pay to add it to your phone plan—most carriers charge an additional $10 per month.
Whether this convenience is worth it for you depends on what you plan to use your watch for. If you want to be able to stream music while you exercise, but you want to leave your phone back in the locker room or at home, a cellular connection can certainly come in handy. If you always have your phone on you, however, you can probably save the money and skip it.
You don’t want a smartwatch with good battery life, right? Good, because you’re not going to get it. Watches with full-color, smartphone-like displays, like the Apple Watch and Wear OS watches, only last for about a day on a single charge. Like your phone, you’re going to want to throw them on a charger every night before you go to bed. And most of the watches that fall into this category feature screens that turn off after just a few seconds. In order to check the time, you either need to trigger the display with a physical button or a gesture like holding it up to your face.
In general, you’ll get the best battery life with one of the Fitbit watches. They typically last around four days before needing a charge. That means you can wear them to bed to track your sleep, something you can’t do with a watch that needs to be charged every night.
Smartwatches can be very expensive, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of money to get a good one. Yes, the ceramic Apple Watch Hermès is sure to draw a lot of attention, but at $1,249 (and up), you can buy six Fitbit Versas. If you’re a first-time smartwatch buyer, you might want to think about going the less-expensive route, in case you wind up not wearing it all that much.
The Best Android Watch
Now that Google has changed the name of Android Wear to Wear OS, and Wear OS supports both Android and iOS, Android watches are no longer really a thing. There are more Wear OS watches on the market than any other kind.
There are also far more styles to choose from. If you buy an Apple Watch, you’re limited to a selection of proprietary bands if you want to swap out the original for a customized look (although Apple offers plenty). Many Wear OS watches support standard watch straps, making your options virtually limitless. Not only that, but the selection of watches themselves is far more diverse than the one-design-fits-all Apple Watch.
So while Wear OS still lags behind the Apple Watch in terms of simplicity and app selection, it’s far more when it comes to pricing and features. But pay close attention to the reviews, because not all Wear OS watches are created equal.
Buy It for Looks, Don’t Buy It for Life
Let’s not forget: You’re also going to wear this thing. And unlike your Timex, it’s probably not going to remain in style for years. Smartwatch design is rapidly changing, so hold out until you find something you actually want to wear. And keep in mind that smartwatches are still gadgets. The coming year is sure to bring new iterations of pretty much every watch on this list, not to mention plenty of completely new ones.
The battle for wrist real estate is quickly heating up. That’s good news for consumers, since it’s likely to result in even better—and better-looking—devices. I wouldn’t be surprised if this list reads completely differently the next time you see it. But if you’re looking for the best smartwatch available today, the options here are the finest we’ve seen so far. For the latest reviews, see our Smartwatch Product Guide.