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Published May. 19, 2021

The current crop of smartwatches is flush with features. The most popular models offer easy-to-use operating systems, responsive touch screens, voice activation, and seamless syncing with your smartphone via WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. That’s on top of access to a myriad of apps available for download, fitness/heart-rate/oxygen rate tracking, and with GPS navigation. Wrist-based wearables truly have come a long way since the clunky early generations, especially when it comes to managing notifications and tracking your health.

There are so many brands and features to choose from—so we’re here to help you understand the latest products and features at a glance, so you can pick the best smartwatch for your budget and lifestyle.

How to shop for the best smartwatch

Smartwatches are essentially lightweight wrist-sized mini-computers that sync via connections with your smartphone or via their own cellular connections. In addition to telling time, smartwatches offer apps to control music, maps, weather, schedules, calendars, email, shopping, voice activation, reminders, and fitness, and heart rate tracking. Let’s walk through a few key features such as battery life, operating system compatibility, display size, ease of use, and sensors for fitness/health tracking.

How often will you need to charge it?

Most smartwatches have an average battery life of 1 to 2 days. That depends on usage, of course. The more smart features your watch has and that you use, the faster the battery will drain. If you’re more concerned with tracking your location or your workouts than you are with seeing every single notification your phones slings at you, there are some longer lasting options.

Most smart watches charge via a magnetic charging cable and can take anywhere from one hour to a full night to recharge. Some options on the market even utilize a hybrid charge harnessing solar power. There is a great deal of variability in charging speed and battery life between models and brands. The smartwatch configuration, cellular network, signal strength, and streaming quality are among some of the factors that affect battery life. Your best bet is to top it off when you have some downtime.

Which operating system is best?

Operating system is a crucial concern when choosing the best smartwatch because it determines the device’s compatibility. Consider the smartwatch as part of a larger, interconnected system. You’d rather have a device that can seamlessly integrate and play nicely with your existing devices, rather than one that runs independently.

Google’s Wear OS, for instance, can be found in devices from companies like Huawei, Fossil, TicWatch, and Misfit. Wear OS will work with an iPhone, but it provides a more seamless experience if your device runs Android.

Samsung uses Tizen OS, most recently updated and rebranded as One UI. While it can be used with both Android and Apple smartphones, it has the most options when paired with Android and Samsung smartphone devices.

Apple’s watchOS is designed specifically to be used with iPhones, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. In exchange for that exclusivity, Apple offers seamless integration between its devices and operating systems. Setting up an Apple Watch, for instance, is extremely simple.

The popular fitness tracker company Fitbit, uses their own FitbitOS for their smartwatches, which works with either Android or Apple smartphones and must be updated and managed through an app on your device.

How big is the smartwatch face?

Typically, a larger display makes the watch easier to read and use, especially when swiping through crowded app screens. Go too big, however, and it won’t be comfortable. A screen’s quality goes beyond its simple size. Brightness and resolution help determine user experience. Even a tiny watch face can effectively communicate information if it’s well-designed. New features designed to make these small screens more accessible include easy-to-use zoom features for quicker font and graphic recognition.

Do you need a health and fitness tracker?

When fitness is your main intended use for your smartwatch, we suggest going with a more purpose-driven device. Some smartwatches can track electrodermal activity, skin temperature, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels. Built-in apps can track steps, stairs, workouts, and use GPS technology to analyze your pace and distance traveled. Apps can help suggest workouts, motivate your goals, manage stress, and promote sleep.

While some other smartwatches offer some kind of nod to fitness tech, their offerings are likely OK for the casual fitness enthusiast but won’t satisfy the hardcore. The focus and versatility that comes with a dedicated fitness device will make sure you’re getting the most out of both your smartwatch and your workout.

Best smartwatch for battery life: Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar

Rugged, premium quality pick with emphasis on sports and navigation. Amazon

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This Garmin smartwatch is a great choice when long battery life is crucial (and when outdoor sports or wilderness adventures are a part of your lifestyle). With a power manager feature and solar-charged battery, allow for up to 14 days of battery use without plugging in the charging cord. The battery can support GPS Activity up to 28/36 days with solar charging. It can withstand water pressures of up to 100 meters. You can also stream Spotify wirelessly from your wrist for your favorite playlists on the go.

Best Android and iPhone-compatible smartwatch: Samsung Galaxy Watch 3

Samsung Galaxy Watch 3

For those who don’t want to look like they have a computer on their wrist. Amazon

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One of the first big pros for the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 is simply how stylish it looks. It doesn’t initially scream “smartwatch,” so it works no matter your overall aesthetic. Despite the fact that it’s made by Samsung, it’s compatible with both Android and iOS devices. This pick also allows you to leave your phone at home, as it’s equipped with LTE connectivity for calling, texting, notifications, and music streaming. Just make sure to add it to your mobile data plan. And while stylish, this pick still comes with fitness tracking functions like a sleep tracker and automatic workout monitor.

Best smartwatch display: Apple Watch Series 6

Apple Watch Series 6

Is swim-proof, with faster access to information, and new health monitoring sensors. Amazon

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The newest in the series of Apple smartwatches, the Apple Watch Series 6—our full Series 6 review here—comes in two face sizes: 40mm and 44mm. The addition of an always-on retina display adjusts to become 2.5x brighter when you and your wrist are outdoors—which makes for easier use in direct sun. In addition, the accessibility feature allows for zooming in on font and graphics making displays and text messages easier to read. As with most Apple products the user interface is clean and easy to navigate. Drawbacks include compatibility with only Apple brand smartphones and an approximately 1 day of battery charge with moderate use.

Best fitness tracker: Fitbit Sense

Fitbit Sense

The first name in wearable exercise technology delivers a powerful pick to consider. Amazon

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Built around a holistic health program, the Fitbit Sense performs the expected functions such as heart rate and body temperature monitoring and is our vote for the best fitness tracker. But, it also adds sleep pattern regulation and stress management. It allows you to access saved data, and track patterns and irregularities in addition to setting fitness goals. With built-in GPS that can help you easily monitor daily activities and outdoor workouts. For smarter living, you can also use it with Google Assistant or Alexa to easily set alarms or get news alerts.

Best “smart home” smartwatch: Samsung Gear Sport Smartwatch

Samsung Gear Sport Smartwatch

Your first step into a larger world of watch-controlled appliances, media centers, and home amenities. Amazon

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Not only is the Samsung Gear Sport surprisingly swim-ready and water-resistant up to 50 meters, but it also features an app that allows you to control door locks, lights, and other smart home functions with the press of a button. It features some limited fitness tracking features and allows you to set up a quick-pay feature so you can get your next coffee with the swipe of your wrist. This pick is compatible with both iOS and Samsung smartphones, so you can be sure it’ll function well with whatever tech you already own.

FAQs

Q: What is the best Android smartwatch?

If you’re running an Android smartphone, the best smartwatch advice we can give boils down to this: Don’t buy an Apple Watch. Only iPhones will be able to take full advantage of the Apple Watch features, which means you’ll be much better off if you pick something that runs on an Android-friendly operating system. Anything from Fitbit, Samsung, or most other manufacturers, really, should treat you just fine. 

Q: What is the best smartwatch to buy?

If you’re an iPhone user, you can’t beat the Apple Watch when it comes to simplicity and compatibility. There are benefits that come from fully buying into one company’s hardware and software ecosystems. Other do-it-all models like the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 and the Motorola Moto 360 offer a full suite of features that apply to most users. If you don’t have a specific need in mind (like adventuring or hardcore fintess tracking), then a well-rounded model will be your best bet.

Q: Which smartwatch should I buy in 2021?

While it’s tempting to buy the most advanced model, sometimes those extra features can get in the way. Think about why you want a smart watch and then buy something that fits that need. If you’re looking for serious health tracking, something from Fitbit or Garmin is probably well-suited for you. Google and Samsung recently announced that they’re teaming up to revamp the WearOS platform, which could mean some impressive new models are coming down the line. So, it might make sense to buy something cheap and basic right now and wait to see what those two tech behemoths have up their sleeves later this year. 

Best budget smartwatch: what you get for under $200

If you’re trying to keep the cost down, opting out of cellular connectivity will typically save you some cash. Another cost-saving trick when looking for a deal is to find an older version when newer versions have been released. For example, the Apple Watch version 3 with GPS is a great option for a perfectly good (albeit slightly older model) at a much more reasonable price. The series 3 includes an optical heart sensor, retina display, altimeter, 8GB of storage as well as Bluetooth 4.2 connection.

The best smartwatch is out there and waiting

The smartwatch may not have reached the level of absolute necessity like some other handheld and wearable devices, but its ability to enhance and interact with those must-haves make it an intriguing and, well, fun addition to your tech. Finding one that suits your lifestyle goes beyond just aesthetics. Knowing how and why you want one will help you narrow down your field and ensure you find the right one. For example, if you’re looking to make it a part of your active, daily fitness lifestyle, you’ll want the best smartwatch for running and workouts. If you’re looking to eventually control your entire house with a flick of the wrist, you’ll be looking for completely different functionality. The category is also still growing and just testing its limits, so getting used to using one now is never a bad idea.

Related: Check out our Fitbit Inspire 2 review

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