While the smartwatch has been around in one form or another since the 70s, it’s fair to say that the device has come into its own within the past half decade. It was the relatively inexpensive Pebble watch that managed to create broad enough appeal to eventually attract the attention of the likes of Samsung, LG, Asus and Fossil to name a few. By the fall of 2014, even Apple was getting into the smartwatch business.
As processors continue to shrink, screens continue to improve and batteries continue to become more long-lasting, the once bulky, not-always-useful smartwatch has become a class of gadget that can be at times as useful as a smartphone.
But with all of those options comes the need for a lot more knowledge when it comes to picking out what’s right for you. In this brief guide, we've selected what we feel are the best smartwatches in each category. But before we get into our selection, here's a little primer on what to look for in a smartwatch.
Let’s start with a basic rundown of the sort of features and specifications you should be looking for when sorting through the options.
As smartwatches have evolved, they’ve begun to separate into a number of sub-categories.
The Apple Watch, running on only iPhones, is a category unto itself. Then you have Android smartwatches, the largest in the category because they serve any phone that uses the Android operating system. You can also use these watches with an iPhone, but you lose some capabilities. Samsung’s smartwatch, while technically runs on Android, makes use of a proprietary operating system called Tizen. This system functions best on Samsung phones, though it’s not bad on iPhone or Android. Finally, you have hybrid watches, which are often watches that look like your typical analog watch, complete with an hour and minute hand, but includes some hidden smartwatch functionality. These sorts generally work equally well on any smartphone.
As with the smartphone, your future smartwatch is enlivened by a computer chip which relies on memory, storage space, a display and a battery to power it all.
Chip: Apple uses its own proprietary chipset, as does Samsung. Android watches tend to use one of Qualcomm’s many chips. In putting together this guide, I mostly looked Qualcomm’s high-end Snapdragon 2100 chip.
Memory: The RAM in a watch can have a big impact on how it performs. Our Android, Apple, and Samsung picks all have 768 RAM.
Display: The screen of modern smartwatches continue to improve. Currently, the best on the market tend to use 1.2-inch to 1.4-inch round AMOLED screens. They offer vivid, bright colors without sucking up too much power.
Storage: Your watch’s storage is where you put the apps - there won’t be many - and the songs - maybe a lot. Most watches stick to about 4GB though the Apple Watch Series 3 comes in with 8GB or 16GB for all of that music they want to sell you.
Battery: The lifespan of a smartwatch is a contentious issue, right up there with the size and weight of the things. Unfortunately, the bigger the batter, the longer the life, but also the bigger the watch. We found that about 300mAh batteries seem to be the sweet-spot (depending on the features.)
It used to be that a smartwatch could send notifications and have some apps, but nowadays there is a host of possible features you want to consider before making your decision. Modern smartwatches may include a heart rate sensor, built-in GPS, NFC for using the device to store and pay for items with credit cards and LTE, which can give the phone to connect to the internet and even make and receive calls without being connected wirelessly to your phone.
You also might want to consider the body shape: many Android watches have a round face, Apple’s is a rectangle.
And finally, think about how you will be interacting with your watch. The Apple Watch has a rotating crown, some buttons and a touchscreen. Samsung’s watch has buttons, a touchscreen and a rotating bezel. Other watches do everything in between those two.
In deciding which smartwatches to recommend I did a lot of research on the specs of watches currently available. I also relied on a life of collecting smart and digital watches. Finally, I tried out the ones that I felt were the best in each category, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
It’s important to note, that these watches are often tied tightly to the sort of phone you will be using. You can buy an Android smartwatch for an iPhone but it doesn’t really make sense.
Apple Watch Series 3 ($329 to $749)
This is a no-brainer. The latest iteration of the Apple Watch bumps up the processing speed of the device, improves Bluetooth for connecting to your phone, has a built-in altimeter, more RAM and, if you pay extra, you can get the LTE feature which means you can use it as a standalone phone. That extra muscle also now allows Siri to talk through your watch.
While the Apple Watch’s exterior design still isn’t my favorite - I prefer the round faces - and I wish that Apple would open digital watch face design completely up to designers, the way the iPhone and Apple Watch work together is unparalleled. Each new iteration (this is my third) smooths out any rough edges between phone and watch and by now there seem to be very little left to fix. The two function as two halves of a whole.
Gear Sport ($299)
This was a harder pick. The Gear S3 is a wonderful watch and the Gear S3 Frontier adds a chunkier, more rugged look to that design. But the Sport is one of the lightest, thinnest smartwatches I’ve ever tried. And Samsung managed to pull this off without having to cut many features. The screen is slightly smaller than the S3, 1.2 versus 1.3-inches. But the pixel density (how nice it looks) is slightly higher at 302 versus 278. You do lose LTE support, but that didn’t feel like a deal breaker for me. The watch is a wonderful companion to Samsung’s latest phones, managing to deliver the best of both the closed-system design of Apple and the free-for-all marketplace of Android. You get a lot more control but still maintain most of the quality of operation between watch and phone. Apple has the edge here, but just barely. And unlike with the Apple Watch, you can run a Samsung smartwatch on a non-Samsung Android phone or even on an iPhone. The results are the best around when it comes to a third-party watch for those devices, but still not as good as either a watch designed for Android or the iPhone.
If LTE is important to you, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest you pick up the S3 or Frontier, too excellent, albeit slightly larger watches from Samsung.
LG Watch Sport ($350)
Now we’re getting into the largest selection of watches. Lots of companies make smartwatches for the standard Android phone and there are even quite a few quality options from the likes of Asus and Huawei. But both the most powerful, best all-around selection is the LG Watch Sport.
The LG Watch Sport features one of the largest screens among those I looked at, at 1.38-inches. It also has one of the best screens with a pixel density of 348. The battery is larger than most and it has every feature you could ask for: heart rate, GPS, LTE and NFC. To top it all off, where a lot of Android Smartwatches tend to rely on just the touchscreen and buttons, the LG Watch Sport throws in a rotating crown. The biggest drawback is its size, not surprising given everything packed into this watch. I also wasn’t very impressed with the band, which is made of a hard rubber material that kept managing to free itself from a loop and jut out from my wrist.
If you’re worried about the size and are willing to give up a lot of features (heart rate, GPS, LTE and NFC) LG also makes a more stylish version called the LG Watch Style. It has a smaller screen (1.2), less RAM (512) and a smaller battery, but also no need for a lot of that thanks to the stripped away features.
Gear Fit2 Pro ($199)
One of the categories that seem to be increasingly separating itself from the rest of the smartwatches is the fitness band. These are band-like bits of gear designed with fitness in mind. Some feature screens, some don’t.
The best currently on the market, by far, is Samsung’s exceptional GearFit 2 Pro. The device maintains the band aesthetic, but packs in a gorgeous, curved, 1.5-inch SAMOLED touchscreen that delivers a pixel density of 310. It’s slim design still includes a heart-rate tracker and GPS, though you do lose LTE and NFC. While it’s running on Android Tizen, I still found that it worked just fine on iOS and vanilla Android.
I’m a huge fan of fully-featured smartwatches, but the universality of the GearFit2 almost has me wanting to use this device full time.
Kronaby Apex and Nokia Steel HR
Hybrid watches are a fantastic gadget for people who want some of the central functionality of a smartwatch but don’t want to wear something geeky on their wrist. While the designs rum the gambit, most hybrid watches either use the existing hands of the watch to deliver information, or small screens, or simply buzz to impart details.
In looking through what’s available, I settled on two that I think standout in different ways.
Kronaby Apex ($625)
The Kronaby is the most beautiful smartwatch or hybrid watch I’ve ever seen. The Swedish made timepiece features a double-domed sapphire crystal with AR coating, a matte black dial, matte white hands and a variety of straps.
If you cam across this watch, you’d have no idea that it also includes some pretty impressive features.
Inside the watch, there’s a Bluetooth 4.1 Low Energy connection, accelerometer and vibration motor. To use the watch, you connect it to the Kronaby App on Android or iOS. Once connected, the app will make sure your watch is always showing the correct time, no matter how many time zones you cross. It also allows you to essentially program the watch.
Through the app, you can set up the subdial to track your steps or show a second timezone. You can program the crown to show the date, a second time, your step count or start a timer.
The top and bottom buttons of the watch can be programmed to trigger different behavior, including finding or muting your phone, music controls, taking a picture, marking a GPS location with your phone, alerting a friend you need company or a walk home or tying it to If This Than That software.
That last one is the most impressive because it opens the door to getting your watch to trigger a lot of different things. For instance, I set up the watch I tested to turn on the Hue lights in my bedroom with a press. But the free If This Then That software has nearly endless possibilities.
Finally, the Kronaby uses a unique approach to receiving and letting you know about notifications. The watch offers three sorts of notifications. A single buzz with the hands moving to one, a double buzz with the hands moving to two and a triple buzz with the hands moving to three. It’s up to you to decide who or what should go into each of those categories. The watch allows you tie people, apps, calls, texts, calendar events, goals and even IFTT to those categories. So, for instance, I put all of my family in category one. Now if the watch buzzes once, I know someone in my family is trying to reach me. I put events in two and calls in three. What’s neat about this approach is that instead of giving you a firehose of notifications, it gets you to think about what’s important and then set up filters for that information.
Because there is no screen and the Bluetooth connection is low energy, Kronaby says that the regular watch battery should last two years before needing replacement.
Nokia Steel HR ($180 to $200 on sale December 5th)
Where the Kronaby is a minimalist, almost James Bond watch, the Nokia Steel Heart does a nice job of giving you quick information on a small screen while also including hands for the time and a subdial to track movement.
The Steel Heart is the smallest of the watches I tested and the one I received the most compliments about. It’s the sort of watch that looks like it might be a hybrid but still holds its own among classic, analog watches.
The watch connects to your phone to save detailed information like time spent in each heart rate zone and maximum heart rate during a workout. The watch automatically senses when you start to workout and begins a constant monitoring of your heart rate. It can also track your sleep, again without any need to push a button to activate it.
The small black and white pixelated screen can show date, time, your heart rate, steps taken, distance walked, calories burned and your alarm time. It also will show you when you have a call, meeting or text.
And because it doesn’t have a massive screen to drive, you can get about a month of use out of it before it needs a recharge.