The battle for your wrist is on. From big names like Samsung and Sony to upstarts like Pebble and Martian, more than a dozen companies are creating smartwatches to serve as your smartphone companion. While features and design 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 get more active and keep track of your progress. A couple devices go above and beyond, with built-in voice functionality or even a camera. 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 upcoming 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.
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.
MORE: Best Smartwatches 2014
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 1 and 2 days for color and 5 days or more for e-paper.
On the other hand, a smartwatch such as the Galaxy Gear 2 sports a rich Super AMOLED display, which lets 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, including all the Samsung models, 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. Qualcomm has a compelling Mirasol technology for its Toq watch, which offers both color and long battery life, but it's limited to that device.
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 SmartWatch 2 actually combines a physical button and a touch screen with three Android-like capacitive keys beneath its 1.6-inch display. The Neptune Pine sports a relatively huge, 2.6-inch screen, making it easier to perform such tasks as dialing phone numbers, although the built-in QWERTY keyboard is still quite tiny.
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.
Watch Straps 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 discretely check whether it's worth answering or responding 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 1,000 apps in its appstore, which makes it easy to discover and load apps. However, both the cheaper Pebble and more-premium Steel can only store 8 apps or watchfaces at a time.
Sony's SmartWatch 2 has more than 300 apps available, and it's easy to search using the Smart Connect app. Categories include Music and Audio, as well as Communications and Fitness.
The Galaxy Gear debuted with about 70 apps, including big names like Evernote, Path and eBay. But now Samsung is switching platforms from Android to Tizen. Among the first apps are iHeartRadio, Glympse (for location sharing) and CNN, and the company will offer 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 heart rate 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 mciro-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 3 days between charges, 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 ranges 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 Sony SmartWatch 2 sports a plastic design and does have a color display. You'll need to decide what combination of form and function works best for your budget.