Smartwatch Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know
The battle for your wrist is on. But what should you look for in a smartwatch? Use these tips to pick the best device for your needs and budget.
From big names such as Apple and Samsung to upstarts like Pebble and Martian, dozens of companies are creating smartwatches to deliver notifications, apps and more to your wrist. Although features and designs vary, the main appeal of a smartwatch is that it can save you time. Whether you want to quickly check incoming messages or control your music, you'll be able to glance down at your wrist instead of having to whip out and unlock your phone. Some smartwatches can even replace your phone, but most are designed as companion devices.
If you want to keep better tabs on your health, a growing number of smartwatches have built-in fitness features, such as a pedometer or heart rate monitor. (The line between fitness trackers and smartwatches is definitely blurring.)
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, both the Pebble and Pebble Steel use a proprietary OS but work with Android and iOS devices. The same thing goes for the Alcatel OneTouch watch.
Android Wear watches — available from Samsung, LG, Sony 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.
Android Wear does a nice job of anticipating your needs via Google Now-style cards, and the number of options has grown quickly via support for third-party apps. For instance, Mint can send you reminders on how much you've spent, and you can use a Walgreens Balance Rewards card in the store.
Not surprisingly, the Apple Watch only works with the iPhone. Similar to Android Wear and Google Now, Apple's wearable has a Glances feature that lets you quickly preview things like weather, upcoming events and other items, but it focuses more on fitness and social interactions.
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 two days for color and five days or more for e-paper.
On the other hand, smartwatches such as the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear Live 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 the devices' efficiency.
Color displays use so much power that many watches turn off their screens while they're asleep, so you can't even see the time without waking the device. Look for a smartwatch that continues to show the time when it's not in use, usually at a dimmer brightness.
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.
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 options within apps. The latest update lets you switch between cards with a flick of your wrist.
With the Apple Watch, Apple opted for a combo approach, offering a touch display and a digital crown on the right side. You can use the crown to quickly zoom in on content or to scroll, and the screen uses Force Touch, which knows the difference between a tap and a long press.
Bottom Line: 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.
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. The Moto 360, for example, offers a standard 22-mm band.
The Pebble Steel comes with two straps (leather and steel), while the original Pebble supports all sorts of 22-mm bands. The Sony SmartWatch 3 is available with a sport or steel band. The Apple Watch offers the most design options yet. It comes in two sizes and three finishes (steel, aluminum and gold), and offers six band designs.
Keep in mind that comfort counts for a lot, as does the ease with which you can fasten the watch to your wrist. Though it's versatile, the Microsoft Band is so bulky that many wearers position the display on the inside of their wrists. We would definitely avoid any smartwatches with cumbersome clasps that require too much force to open and close. Samsung and Sony are guilty of this. The Moto 360 uses a traditional band.
Notifications and Alerts
Any good smartwatch will alert you to incoming calls, emails and text messages 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 from sites like 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. The Apple Watch lets you swipe down from the top of the screen to see Notification Center.
Some smartwatches offer more customization options. The Samsung Gear 2, for example, lets you decide which notifications come through to your wrist by using the Gear Manager app on your phone. There's also a Smart Relay feature. Just picking up your phone with the notification displayed on your Gear watch will open the corresponding app on the larger screen.
Apps and Watchfaces
Although the smartwatch category is very young, some models offer dozens or even hundreds of apps.
The Apple Watch has the most impressive app roster thus far, with more than 3,500 options available. Options include Instagram, Uber, Shazam and CNN. You can do everything from control your lights with the Philips Hue app to order out lunch with Seamless. There's a dedicated Apple Watch App Store for downloading extra software.
Pebble has more than 4,200 apps and watchfaces in its app store, which makes it easy to discover and load apps. Pebble has attracted some big names, like PayPal, ESPN and The Weather Channel, but Apple has more top-tier brands in its corner.
Android Wear has a fairly limited selection of apps optimized for the platform. As of May, we counted 213 featured apps, but there are some compelling options. Eat24 lets you order food from your wrist, Lyft enables you to schedule a ride and WhatsApp lets you reply to messages with your voice.
Although Samsung offers an Android Wear watch, it uses the Tizen OS for the Gear 2 and Gear Neo, as well as the Gear S, for which there are more than 1,000 apps available. Options include iHeartRadio, Glympse (for location-sharing) and CNN.
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Special Features: Fitness, Voice and More
As fitness trackers continue to attract attention, smartwatch makers are getting in on the action by integrating activity-monitoring functions. Some smartwatches depend on your smartphone for activity tracking, but most at least have a built-in pedometer for tracking steps.
Most Android Wear devices have a heart rate monitor built in, but we haven't found them to be reliable. The Apple Watch heart rate sensor proved more accurate in our testing.
The Microsoft Band offers both a heart rate monitor and integrated GPS for a relatively cheap $200. The display is pretty small for reading smartphone notifications, but it gets the job done. The Apple Watch doesn't offer GPS, which means you need to run with your smartphone if you want accurate pace info and distance.
Do you want to make calls from your wrist? Samsung's Gear 2 and Gear Neo work with your smartphone to do this, and they also have S Voice functionality for issuing Siri-like commands. The pricier Gear S, sold through wireless carriers, goes even further by not relying on your smartphone at all because it has its own SIM card. However, the design is fairly bulky.
The Apple Watch also makes calls, but the volume doesn't get very loud. We prefer to use the built-in mic for voice commands.
Battery Life and Charging
Smartwatches with E Ink displays run for about four to five days on a charge. However, most smartwatches with color screens tend to last one to two days between charges (and sometimes less than one day), so you'll want to consider how often you're willing to keep plugging in your watch.
Watches with voice capabilities won't last nearly as long when you use them as phones, but that's to be expected. The Apple Watch lasts about 18 hours of mixed use on a charge.
As for charging, we prefer smartwatches that use micro USB, because it's easier to find a cable when you don't have the one that came with your device handy. The Alcatel OneTouch watch uses a clever full-size USB charging port, so you can plug it right into your laptop or other charger.
The Apple Watch uses a magnetic charger with a long cable, which is easy to attach.
Smartwatch prices range from a mere $99 for the original Pebble all the way up to $399 for the Gear S. In between, you'll find smartwatches priced both based on their feature set and their design. For example, the $199 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 a clunky aesthetic.
The Alcatel OneTouch watch sports a color screen and syncs with Android and iOS phones for just $149, although the app selection is limited. The Apple Watch starts at a relatively pricey $349 ($399 for the 42mm version) but it does a lot for the money.
You'll need to decide what combination of form and function works best for your budget.