When choosing a smartphone, you'll find lots of models to compare and contrast—at least you know whatever handset you pick will be able to perform the same standard tasks, such as making calls, sending texts, and running your favorite apps. When it comes to smartwatches, you've also got all kinds of devices, but they offer different functions and features, which makes finding the right one even trickier.
We're here to dispel some of the confusion and worry so you can choose the right smartwatch for your specific needs. From the different makes on the market to the blurring lines between fitness trackers and smartwatches, we'll outline some of the features to look for first before moving on to our picks for the best watches and fitness wearables out there.
Features to look for
For a smartwatch to be considered a smartwatch, it must be able to tell time—that much is a given. However, it's just about the only constant in a field where the choice of features and functions ranges far and wide.
Top-tier smartwatches from Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit are essentially miniature phones that sit on your wrist. They run pint-size apps, let you exert remote control of your smartphone, and include plenty of other abilities such as tracking your run around a park, storing music, or even making phone calls through a tiny SIM.
On the next level down, you see devices that are basically fitness trackers with a display: They focus on logging steps and other activities, and treat smartwatch features as a bonus. These devices can tell the time, and sometimes show simple notifications from your phone—but interactions are limited, which means you'll need to pull out your smartphone for most tasks. While they're not as capable as full smartwatches, they often cost much less.
Another category that's emerged is a traditional, mechanical watch with a few added smarts. These devices typically add features like a basic form of step counting with maybe a simple notification system as well. You get the style and the price of a normal watch, with the bonus of a little bit of fitness tracking.
Whichever category you lean towards, check for a few key specs. One is whether the watch works with your phone (iOS or Android); another is how long the battery lasts (mechanical watches are still ages ahead here). Also, check that the watch has the features you want. For example, runners and sports enthusiasts might want to look for standalone GPS, which lets your wrist-based device track your location even when it's not connected to your phone. Swimmers who want to record their progress should keep their eyes out for waterproof smartwatches. And so on.
Of course, form and comfort should also factor into your decision. If you're going to be wearing this watch a lot of the time, you want to make sure it's comfortable. So visit a retail store and try a few smartwatches on for size, or check through a selection of online reviews. You can get a feel for the look of a smartwatch through pictures, and through reviews, you should also be able to find details of its feel and weight on the wrist.
Now that you know what to look for, we've collected some of our top picks.
The Apple Watch:
Arguments continue, but the general consensus seems to be that the Apple Watch is the most advanced smartwatch you can buy right now. It interfaces seamlessly with the iPhone, offers a host of mini apps for you to use, and excels at health and fitness tracking.
You can use an Apple Watch to look up future calendar events, listen to music, regulate your breathing, send messages and even chat with Siri, as well as track your activities and push you towards your fitness goals. It can act as a remote shutter for the camera on your connected iPhone, and you can even make and receive calls through it if your iPhone is nearby and hooked up to Wi-Fi.
The newest Series 2 models start at $369 and come with built-in GPS, a heart rate monitor, and water resistance to 50 yards. The major downside is that it only works with iPhones—so if you've got an Android device or think you might want one in the future, the Apple Watch won't cut it.
Android Wear smartwatches are essentially the Google alternative to the Apple Watch. Made by a number of manufacturing partners, like Huawei and LG, they do most of what an Apple Watch does. However, they're more flexible—not only do they work with Android phones, but devices running Android Wear 2.0 also (to a limited degree) interface with the iPhone, although you don't get as much interactivity with Apple apps like iMessage.
All the big smartwatch features are here, including seeing notifications and sending messages from your wrist, tracking your activities and fitness goals through Google Fit, listening to music, logging your location (for GPS-enabled devices), talking to Google Assistant, and more. Some models include support for 4G/LTE via a small SIM slot, which means you can also make and receive calls without a connected phone.
As with Android phones, you've got a broad choice of smartwatches to pick from. Prices typically fall somewhere below the Apple Watch level—the LG Watch Sport, one of the most expensive Android Wear flagships, retails for $350. Just double-check the specs for features like a heart rate monitor, as some Android watches include one and some don't.
Once in the Android Wear camp, Samsung has now struck out on its own with its homemade Tizen operating system for smartwatches (and various other devices). The company makes some of the best wearables in the business, with the advantage that they work just as well paired with an Android or an iOS phone.
The Tizen smartwatch interface isn't quite as polished as those offered by Apple Watch or Android Wear, but in terms of features and functions, it's just about on a par: You can track activities, view calendars, get notifications, cache songs to play on your morning jog, and even make calls with the SIM-enabled models. You do, however, miss out on a few native functions, like the Apple Watch's ability to reply to text messages from your wrist.
The latest offering from Samsung is the Gear S3, available in two slightly different designs for $349.99. Samsung also makes the less capable but cheaper Fit2 bands for $179.99; they focus on fitness tracking but do give you some smartwatch features, such as text notifications.
Fitbit jumped into the smartwatch market last year with the Fitbit Blaze, giving smartwatch shoppers yet another model and platform to pick from. Like the Samsung watches, the Blaze is compatible with both Android phones and iPhones, so it's a good option for those who may switch between mobile platforms.
You get all of the basic smartwatch features, like music controls, notifications, fitness tracking, and calendar updates on your wrist, but you do miss out on some advanced options available on rival devices. The Blaze has no voice-controlled smart assistant, for instance, and you can't run apps on the watch itself, as the Apple Watch and Android Wear watches do.
At $199.95, however, the price is very good—and this being Fitbit, the fitness features are all excellent. Other options from Fitbit include the Alta HR and the Charge 2, which are first and foremost fitness trackers, but which also tell time and show phone alerts.
Outdoor sports watches:
If you take your running and hiking more seriously than most, then a separate category of smartwatch exists just for you. No one has officially labeled it, but many refer to these devices as outdoor sports watches. They're bigger and more rugged than other designs, and tend to focus on navigation and activity tracking rather than mini apps or digital assistants. Take a look at some of the watches offered by Garmin or Casio to get an idea of what we mean.
These watches don't offer proper app platforms, like the Apple Watch or Android Wear do, but they will show most notifications from your phone (like calls and calendar entries), and they have a host of other features to make up for what they lack. For example, the top-end Garmin Fenix 5 can measure your heart rate, track your steps, direct you home (or anywhere else) without a connected phone, and give you advanced performance metrics beyond the reach of most smartwatches.
You'll have to pay a premium for smartwatches in this category (the Fenix 5 starts at $599.99, though cheaper options are available) because they offer the most detailed fitness tracking and most advanced integrated navigation to outdoor sports enthusiasts.
As if you didn't already have enough options, finally we come to traditional mechanical watches with some extra smarts inside. If you're already used to a low-tech watch but like the idea of a little extra functionality, give one of these models a try.
Lots of traditional watchmakers are putting out devices in this category now. To give you two examples, we like the Fossil Q Nate or the Withings Steel HR. Both of these models can track your steps, monitor your heart rate, alert you to some phone notifications, and even get your phone to ring if you've misplaced it.
Traditional-style watches tend to be cheaper than dedicated smartwatches (the Fossil Q Nate costs $155 and the Withings Steel HR goes for about $180). Another advantage is that, because they use standard watch batteries, they don't need to be recharged. For those with a foot in both the old and new watch camps, they're an ideal option.