Smartwatch Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know
The battle for your wrist is on, but what should you buy? Or should you wait?
From big names like Samsung and LG to upstarts like Pebble and Martian, more than a dozen companies are creating smartwatches to serve as your smartphone companion. While features and designs vary, the main appeal of a smartwatch is to deliver notifications to your wrist (including calls, texts, email and social updates), so you can decide whether it's worth whipping out your phone to respond. In other words, smartwatches can save you time — but there's a lot more to this emerging category.
A number of smartwatches offer a growing library of apps, and some come with built-in fitness features to help you become more active and keep track of your progress. A couple of the devices go above and beyond, with built-in voice functionality or even a camera. Then there's Apple, whose rumored and fitness-focused iWatch is expected to debut by the end of the year. How do you decide which smartwatch is right for your needs and budget? Here's a quick guide.
OS and Device Compatibility
Because most smartwatches are designed to serve as companions to your smartphone, device compatibility is very important. For instance, the Pebble and Pebble Steel both work with Android and iOS devices, as does the Martian Notifier.
However, the Samsung Gear 2 and Gear Neo support only Samsung Galaxy smartphones (about 17 devices in all). Other smartwatches work with multiple Android phones but not the iPhone. The Sony SmartWatch 2, for example, works with any smartphone (or tablet) running Android 4.0 or later.
The new Android Wear watches, available from Samsung, LG and others, work with Android 4.3 and higher smartphones. Google makes it easy to check whether your smartphone is compatible by going to g.co/WearCheck from your smartphone browser.
Bottom line: Don't buy a smartwatch unless you know that it will work with your smartphone. There are some high-tech timepieces that double as phones, but those are less common.
Display: E Ink or Color?
There's something that feels anachronistic (pardon the pun) about a monochrome E Ink or e-paper display on a smartwatch. But such displays provide a couple of very important benefits. First, they make it possible to read the screen outdoors without worrying about glare. Second, an E Ink screen helps save serious battery life. We're talking about the difference between one and 2 days for color and 5 days or more for e-paper.
On the other hand, smartwatches like the Samsung Gear Live and Gear 2 let you view photos, apps and other content in full color. And while E Ink watches have a built-in backlight, color displays tend to be brighter. The trade-off is shorter battery life, though smartwatch makers are improving efficiency.
Color displays use so much power that many watches turn off their screens while asleep, so you can't even see the time without waking the devices. The Sony Smartwatch 2, however, enters a grayscale mode while asleep. The LG G Watch will automatically dim when not in use, showing only the time (or any other active operations). However, the screen on that watch--and nearly all color screen models--is very difficult to see outdoors, especially in direct sunlight.
The only good middle ground option that we've seen is Qualcomm's Mirasol screen technology for its Toq watch, which offers both color and long battery life. Too bad the tech is limited to just that device, at least so far.
Interface: Buttons vs. Touch
On the surface, opting for a touch screen on your smartwatch would seem to be a no-brainer. After all, there's a touch screen on your smartphone and pretty much every other gadget these days. A touch-display interface should also be easier to navigate. On the Pebble, for example, you have to do a fair amount of scrolling with the physical buttons. Nevertheless, smartwatches with physical buttons tend to be more affordable than those with touch screens. And some people prefer the classic look of a traditional watch.
On the other hand, it can sometimes be difficult to target items on a smaller touch display, and some of the gesture-based interfaces aren't intuitive. The Android Wear software does a nice job of presenting card-based notifications you can easily dismiss with a swipe, but there's a lot of swiping involved to get to other apps and other options within apps. For instance, the Play, Pause and Skip buttons for the Android Wear music player are all on different screens.
Over time, we see touch screens winning out in the smartwatch space, but if you crave simplicity and a more old-school aesthetic, physical buttons will do the trick.
MORE: Best Smartwatches 2014
Design and Personalization
The better smartwatches offer a choice of straps and/or the ability to swap them out for a third-party option. This is important if you want to personalize the look of your device. Samsung, for example, moved the camera from the strap on the original Galaxy Gear to the device itself on the Gear 2 so users can replace the band with any 22mm band, including some the company sells.
The Pebble Steel comes with two straps (leather and steel), while the original Pebble supports all sorts of 22mm bands. The Sony SmartWatch 2 has a changeable 24mm band.
We're not a fan of smartwatches that force you to cut the band to fit, such as the Toq.
Notifications and Alerts
Any good smartwatch will alert you to incoming calls, emails and text messaging with a quick buzz of your wrist, which can help you discreetly check whether it's worth answering right away. But you should also look for social network integration for notifications, including Facebook and Twitter.
Be sure that you'll be able to quickly check all of your most recent notifications, even if you miss them when they first come in. For example, Pebble updated the software on its smartwatches to let you review up to 50 of your latest alerts.
Some smartwatches offer more customization options, such as Sony's SmartWatch 2. That device lets you to choose which friends' updates should generate alerts, a feature that is handled via Sony's app on your smartphone.
Samsung's smartwatch and phone integration goes even further, with the company's Smart Relay feature. Just picking up your phone with the notification on its Gear watches will open the corresponding app on the larger screen. Both the Samsung and Sony let you send canned responses via text message to missed (or ignored) calls.
Apps and Watchfaces
Although the smartwatch category is very young, some models offer dozens or even hundreds of apps. Pebble is in the lead thus far, with more than 3,200 apps in its app store, which makes it easy to discover and load apps. However, both the cheaper Pebble and more-premium Steel can store only eight apps or watch faces at a time.
Android Wear has a fairly limited selection of apps optimized for the platform. As of August, we counted only 43 apps, although there are some compelling options thus far. Eat24 lets you order food from your wrist, Lyft enables you to order a car, and WhatsApp lets you reply to messages with your voice.
Samsung switched platforms from Android to Tizen for the Gear 2 and Gear Neo. Options include iHeartRadio, Glympse (for location-sharing) and CNN, and the company offered about 100 apps globally at launch.
In the case of the Neptune Pine, you can run bona fide Android apps on its display. Although the watch lacks Google Play support, the company promises its own app store.
MORE: 10 Best Pebble Apps
Special Features: Fitness, Voice and More
As fitness trackers like the Fitbit and Jawbone continue to attract attention, smartwatch makers are getting in on the action by integrating activity-monitoring functions. Some smartwatches depend on your smartphone to track things like steps taken, such as Pebble with the Runkeeper app and the Sony SmartWatch 2 with the Runtastic app.
However, other devices, like the Gear 2 and Gear Fit, integrate a pedometer and even a heartrate monitor. (The Gear fit is more of a fitness band on steroids, as it doesn't offer third-party apps, but it qualifies as a smartwatch in our book.) The Neptune Pine has a built-in pedometer as well, and its built-in apps can track your steps, pace, calories-burned and more.
Do you want to make calls from your wrist? A lot of consumers expect that of a smartwatch, but it's far from a standard feature. The Gear 2 and Gear Neo from Samsung have this feature, but they also have S Voice functionality for issuing Siri-like commands. Martian watches also provide a speaker and microphone.
The Neptune Pine and Omate can both operate as standalone mini-smartphones, complete with micro-SIM card support.
The Omate, Neptune Pine and Gear 2 all feature built-in cameras as well. We don't see many folks snapping images from their wrists, but some may prefer to have the option.
Battery Life and Charging
The longest-lasting smartwatches tend to run for about 4 to 5 days on a charge, including those models with either E-Ink displays or Qualcomm's Mirasol-screen Toq device. Most smartwatches with color screens tend to last 1 to 2 days between charges (usually less than 1), so you'll want to consider how often you're willing to keep plugging in your watch.
Those watches with voice capabilities won't last nearly as long when you use them as phones, but that's to be expected. The Neptune Pine, for example, is rated for 6 hours of talk time on 3G.
As for charging, we prefer smartwatches that use microUSB, because it's easier to find a cable when you don't have the one that came with your device handy. The Martian and Sony watches use this standard.
Samsung's Gear watches require a proprietary cradle that plugs into microUSB. The Pebble and Pebble Steel require a special cable with a proprietary connector on one end and USB on the other.
Smartwatch prices range from a mere $149 for the original Pebble all the way up to $455 for the Neptune Pine. In between, you'll find smartwatches that are priced based on their feature set but also their design. For example, the $249 Pebble Steel doesn't have a color screen but does have an elegant, stainless steel body, while the $199 Gear Live features a color display but clunky aesthetic. You'll need to decide what combination of formand function works best for your budget.
The iWatch Factor
iWatch Concept Art. Credit: Karl Tate/Tom's GuideA lot of shoppers intrigued by the potential of smartwatches are delaying their purchase to see what Apple may bring to the table. The rumored iWatch is expected to feature a curved glass display and multiple sensors for tracking your fitness. Some reports claim that the device will run a scaled-down version of iOS, which would ostensibly make it easy for developers to write applications for the platform.
Although no specs have been confirmed, it's rumored that the iWatch will come in multiple sizes and potentially last 4-5 days on a charge, despite packing a color display. As for design, expect a luxury device all the way, as signaled by such recent Apple hires as the former Yves Saint Laurent CEO.
Clearly, there is a lot of buzz around the iWatch, but should you wait? Probably, but keep in mind that the iWatch will likely sync only with other iDevices and not Android phones. We also expect Apple's first wearable to be pricier than some smartwatches, certainly more than the $149 entry-level Pebble. Apple could take this entire category to the next level, but we also expect other companies to step up their game.