Which Smartwatch Is Right For You?

What to Know Before Buying Your First Smartwatch


August 2, 2018 Tech By Photo by Fitbit

This definitive guide to the best smartwatches of 2018 explores everything you need to know before buying a smartwatch, including what to watch out for and the different models available, along with which smartwatches we feel are best for every type of person.

Prefer to skip directly to the picks? Click here.


Table of Contents

Introduction
What You Need to Know
Buying Guide
• Best Overall: Apple Watch Series 3
• Best for Spotify Subscribers: Samsung Gear Sport
• Best Entry-Level: Fitbit Versa
• Best Multi-Sport Smartwatch: Garmin Forerunner 935
• Honorable Mention: Apple Watch Series 1

Introduction

A smartwatch isn’t going to replace your smartphone. They have tiny screens and many of the apps you use every day — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook — don’t have smartwatch apps. If you expect to stream Netflix from your wrist, you’re having a laugh. Plus, most smartwatches don’t have LTE, meaning they can’t receive calls or texts when not tethered to your smartphone or connected to wi-fi. But smartwatches do have some advantages. They show you who’s calling, texting or emailing you without forcing you to look at your phone. They effectively replace your need for a dedicated fitness tracker. And some look pretty cool. Whatever your lifestyle and which smartphone you use, you’re bound to find something that suits you.

Not all smartwatches are the same, however. Most fall between a fitness tracker and something that relays smartphone notifications to your wrist. Some smartwatches can work untethered, completely autonomously from a smartphone — you can make calls, send texts and navigate directions, all while your smartphone is miles away. There are also hybrid smartwatches, made by mechanical watch manufacturers like Tag Heuer, Fossil and Withings, that have sensors to track fitness and traditional watch battery that lasts months.

Before pulling the trigger on an Apple Watch Series 3, or one of the new Android 2.0 smartwatches made by Samsung, LG or Huawei, do some research. Make sure it’s a smartwatch that’ll work to its full potential with your current smartphone and matches your budget and how you want to use it. If you work out a lot, get a fitness-focused smartwatch. If you go off the grid, get an LTE-connected one. Whatever your case, make sure you know the basics.

Before Buying, Here’s What to Know

3G, 4G, LTE, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.  There are different ways a smartwatch can connect to a smartphone. A Bluetooth-enabled smartwatch pairs with a smartphone just like a Bluetooth speaker. It’s the most basic of connections and has the shortest range; if the smartphone and smartwatch are too far apart, the connection dies. Most smartwatches will connect to a known wi-fi network as well. When connected, the smartwatch can still receive notifications (calls, texts, emails) as long your smartphone has an active data connection.

3G and 4G describe generations of the cellular network technologies and their subsequent transmission speeds — basically, it’s how fast your smartwatch can load data. A smartwatch with built-in 4G is going to be faster than a smartwatch with built-in 3G. However, the difference between smartwatches with 3G and 4G will probably be nominal since neither will be running heavily data-driven apps.

You may also start seeing smartwatch models with LTE, like the Samsung Gear S3. LTE (Long Term Evolution) is the newest network technology. The main advantage of an LTE connected smartwatch is that it can work completely untethered from a smartphone. Since it has a built-in cellular radio, the smartwatch can place and receive phone calls and stream music independent of your phone. There are a few caveats, though. The battery life will likely be terrible. The smartwatch will probably be bulky. And you’ll have to pay a monthly fee to add the smartwatch to your cellular plan. (Consult your cell carrier for exact info.)

For more information on 4G LTE smartwatches, read Computerworld‘s ‘One more time: An LTE smartwatch is a stupid idea.’

Compatibility. Not all smartwatches are compatible with all smartphones. For example, the Apple Watch only works with an iPhone, and all smartwatches running Android 2.0 will work with any Android, via the Android Wear app, but not all iOS features will carry over and some of the apps work wonky together, such as iMessage and every Android messaging app. Basically, if you own an iPhone, I recommend getting an Apple Watch; and if you have an Android smartphone, get one of the numerous Android 2.0 offerings.

Heart rate sensor. Knowing your heart rate is the most important fitness metric — experts agree. The data, taken both during and after your workout, will help you achieve certain fitness goals. If you’re serious about working out or just improving your cardiovascular health, you want a smartwatch with a heart rate sensor.

Built-in GPS. This is still a rare feature in smartwatches and wearables in general. For fitness, the built-in GPS is able to track speed, distance and location, all of which can help calculate calories burned and determine the overall success of a workout. It can also help give you more accurate weather reports and navigation instructions if your smartphone isn’t nearby (and it won’t kill a lot of data). It’s mainly a tool to gauge fitness, however; like heart-rate sensors, it’s mainly for people into fitness.

Battery life. The main complaint with smartwatches is battery life. There are very few on the market that can last longer than 24 hours, so manage expectations. Most of today’s high-end smartwatches have bright LCD screen or AMOLED displays, which are beautiful but tend to kill the battery. Basically, expect to take it off at night to charge.

The overall look and lifestyle. At the end of the day, a smartwatch isn’t just another device — it’s part of your wardrobe. You’re not going to put it away when you want, like your smartphone, so you should like the way it looks. Also, smartwatches come in all sorts of elegant or rugged options. If you want a more stylish option to match your silk shirt and selvedge denim jeans, go for the LG Watch Style. If you plan on taking it to the beach or hiking, get a rugged and water-resistant model, like the Garmin Forerunner 235.

Buying Guide

Best Overall Smartwatch: Apple Watch Series 3

The Good: If you own an iPhone, the Apple Watch Series 3 is simply the best smartwatch you can buy; the only reasons why you wouldn’t buy a Series 3 is if it’s too expensive ($329) or you want an even more serious GPS watch for running, hiking and exploring. The smartwatch pairs seamlessly with your iPhone, showing you calls, emails and iMessages. It’s an excellent fitness and ski tracker, too. The big thing with the Series 3 is that it’s available in an LTE model ($399+), meaning you can use apps, like Apple Maps or Apple Music, without having your iPhone nearby. That said, even if you don’t go for the cellular model, the Series 3 is much faster, much more energy efficient and much more water-resistant than any other previous Apple Watch.

Watch Out For: The Series 3 has pretty much the same exact design as the Series 1. To get the full benefits of the cellular model you’ll have to set up a separate cellular plan, which can be a pain and will cost you a monthly fee (roughly $10/month). Apple Music is the only music app that allows you to listen to music offline; if you’re a Spotify subscriber, tough luck.

Key Specs

Size: 38mm or 42mm
Sensors: barometric altimeter, accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate monitor, GPS
Water resistance: up to 50 meters
Battery Life: up to 18 hours

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Best Smartwatch for Spotify Subscribers: Samsung Gear Sport

The Good: This is Samsung’s main competitor to the Apple Watch Series 3, and it’s the ideal smartwatch for anybody with one of Samsung’s latest Galaxy smartphones. It’s essentially lighter and smaller smartwatch than the massive Gear S3. It works seamlessly with Samsung’s own apps, like Samsung Health and Samsung Pay, and it has a long, four-day battery life. Maybe the coolest feature of the Gear Sport is that it takes advantage of a Samsung and Spotify partnership; along with its smaller brethren, the Gear Fit2 Pro sports band ($200 $177+), it enables Spotify Premium subscribers to download playlists and listen to them offline.

Watch Out For: The Samsung Gear Sport is really designed to work with Samsung’s latest Galaxy smartphones. If you use a different type of smartphone, the overall experience most likely won’t be as good. Also, there’s no LTE model available. If you’re looking for LTE-equipped smartwatch by Samsung, you’ll want to go with the larger, older Samsung Gear S3 ($330+).

Key Specs

Size: 43mm
Sensors: accelerometer, barometer, gyroscope, heart-rate sensor
Water resistance: up to 50 meters
Battery life: up to four days

Best Entry-Level Smartwatch: Fitbit Versa

The Good: The Fitbit Versa has a lot going for it. It’s a very capable smartwatch, working with both iPhone and Android, and it’s a very capable fitness tracker, able to track steps, calories burned, sleep and heart rate, along with specific workouts and exercises. Its battery life is incredible; it can last up to four days if you wear it continuously. Aesthetically, it’s the slimmest and lightest smartwatch you can buy.

Watch Out For: It doesn’t have a built-in GPS. It doesn’t come in an LTE model. The only music services that let you download playlists to the Versa are Deezer and Pandora. You can only reply to text messages from the smartwatch if you have an Android device. It doesn’t have a speaker or microphone, so you can’t answer calls or talk to a virtual assistant.

Key Specs

Size: 38mm
Sensors: accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter, heart-rate sensor
Water resistance: up to 50 meters
Battery life: up to four days

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Best Multi-Sport Smartwatch: Garmin Forerunner 935

The Good: Garmin’s Forerunner 935 offers most of the same fitness-focused features as the company’s even higher-end Fenix line of smartwatches. It lets you train for specific events, like a triathlon, where you it can show your interval and transition times. It also works with most of the popular third-party products and apps, such as Final Surge and TrainingPeaks. Garmin partnered with Firstbeat, a company that specializes in physiology and heartbeat analytics, so the Forerunner 935 can give you deeper insights from your workout, such as your VO2 max and lactate threshold.

Watch Out For: It’s expensive. The smartwatch has a plastic construction, making it lightweight but also feel a little cheap. Won’t work as perfectly with your iPhone like an Apple Watch.

Key Specs

Size: 22mm
Sensors: accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter, heart-rate sensor, compass, thermometer, GPS
Water resistance: up to 50 meters
Battery life: up to 24 hours using GPS and HR

Honorable Mention: Apple Watch Series 1

The Good: Even though it’s several years old, the Apple Watch Series 1 is still a very good smartwatch for anybody with an iPhone. It will display all your iMessages, emails and calls. It’ll function mostly the same — it runs the same watchOS 4 — and it also looks virtually identical to the Series 3. Most importantly, the Series 1 is significantly more affordable than all other Apple Watch models.

Watch Out For: The main difference is that the Series 1 is an older gadget. Its screen isn’t as bright. Its processor isn’t as fast. And it’s nowhere near as good of a fitness tracker as the Series 3; there’s no built-in GPS or altimeter. Siri lacks a voice, like with the Series 3.

Key Specs

Size: 38mm or 42mm
Sensors: heart rate monitor, accelerometer, gyroscope
Water resistance: Splash-proof (IPX7)
Battery life: up to 18 hours

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