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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 traditional watchmakers like Tag Heuer and Fossil 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 even work independently of a 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.

Quick Tips:

If you're in a hurry, here are the most important things to consider before you buy a smartwatch.

  • Don't buy a smartwatch without confirming that it will work with your smartphone.
  • Pick a watch with a heart rate sensor if you're a fitness buff. Very few have GPS for tracking runs.
  • Pay attention to rated battery life when shopping. Smartwatches with e-paper displays, like Pebble, tend to last longer on a charge.
  • Look for a smartwatch that continues to show the time when it's not in use
  • Check that the watch band's clasp or buckle is easy to use and easy to swap.
  • The selection of apps is a factor but not as important as compatibility, design and other features.

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, Pebble Steel and Pebble Time use a proprietary OS but work with Android and iOS devices. The same thing goes for the Alcatel OneTouch and Martian watches. Samsung's Tizen-powered Gear S2 works with multiple Android handsets and the company promises iOS compatibility for 2016.

Huawei Watch and a paired Android phone. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideHuawei Watch and a paired Android phone. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideAndroid Wear watches — available from Samsung, LG, Huawei 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. Some Android Wear watches will work with the iPhone, but many features (such as adding apps and connecting the watch directly to Wi-Fi) aren't available when linked to iOS devices.

The Asus ZenWatch 2 displays a travel-time card. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideThe Asus ZenWatch 2 displays a travel-time card. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideAndroid 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.

Apple Watch. Credit: Lukas Gojda/ShutterstockApple Watch. Credit: Lukas Gojda/ShutterstockNot 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 LCD?

Most smartwatches come with a colorful LCD screen or AMOLED display, but others, such as Pebble's lineup, offer an E Ink or e-paper display. E-paper screens, which come in monochrome or color, are easier to read outdoors without worrying about glare, and they use less battery life.

The Pebble Time Steel has a colorful e-ink display. Credit: Samuel C. RutherfordThe Pebble Time Steel has a colorful e-ink display. Credit: Samuel C. RutherfordOn the other hand, smartwatches such as the Apple Watch and the Asus Zenwatch 2 let you view photos, apps and other content in richer color. And while e-paper watches have a built-in backlight, LCDs tend to be brighter. The trade-off is shorter battery life, though smartwatch makers are improving the devices' efficiency.

MORE: Best Smartwatches Right Now

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.

Buttons are required to navigate the Pebble Time Steel. Credit: Samuel C. RutherfordButtons are required to navigate the Pebble Time Steel. Credit: Samuel C. RutherfordOn the Pebbles, 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.

Sometimes the Apple Watch requires precision to navigate. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideSometimes the Apple Watch requires precision to navigate. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideWith 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. The Gear S2 tries to aid navigation with a bezel for the watch that you rotate to scroll through menus.

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.

Huawei sells alternative watch bands at gethuawei.com.Huawei sells alternative watch bands at gethuawei.com.The Huawei Watch, for example, offers a standard 18-mm band that you can swap out for any other traditional watch strap of that size.

Most smartwatches today offer plenty of customization options before purchase. For instance, you can pick the band color and material, as well as face color, finish and size for such watches as the Moto 360 (2nd gen), the Huawei Watch, the Pebble Time Round and the Apple Watch.

Moto 360. Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideMoto 360. Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideKeep in mind that comfort counts for a lot, as does the ease with which you can fasten the watch to your wrist. We would definitely avoid any smartwatches with cumbersome clasps that require too much force to open and close. Thankfully, most new watches use standard buckles, but older Samsung and Sony models do not.

More and more smartwatches are sporting round faces now, making them look more like traditional timepieces. Newer ones are getting slimmer and smaller. Most notably, the Pebble Time Round is the slimmest smartwatch around, with its 0.29-inch height and 14mm band.

Traditional watchmakers are also joining the fray: Fossil's Q Founder Android wearable is available for $275, while Tag Heuer's Connected watch that runs Android Wear is also on the market.

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 such as 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.

Flight alerts on the Fossil Q Founder. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideFlight alerts on the Fossil Q Founder. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideSome smartwatches offer more customization options. The Samsung Gear S2, 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. Other smartwatches, such as the Guess Connect and the Alcatel OneTouch Watch, let you decide which apps can send notifications to your watch through the companion app. The Apple Watch allows you to set VIP contacts and prioritize notifications from them, but doesn't let you customize beyond that.

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 well-rounded app roster thus far, with more than 8,500 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 8,000 apps and watch faces 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.

Moto 360 and the Android Wear App Store. Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideMoto 360 and the Android Wear App Store. Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideAndroid Wear has thousands of apps optimized for the platform. 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.

Other proprietary systems, especially Alcatel OneTouch and Samsung's Tizen OS for the Gear S2, tend to lack in the apps department. The Gear S2 currently offers about 1,400 apps.

Smartwatch Top Picks

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 as reliable as dedicated fitness trackers. The Apple Watch heart rate sensor proved more accurate in our testing.

The Microsoft Band 2 can track your heart rate. Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideThe Microsoft Band 2 can track your heart rate. Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideThe Microsoft Band 2 offers both a heart rate monitor and an integrated GPS for $249. 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? The Apple Watch lets you do that if you have your phone nearby. The Gear S2 has this capability as well, but just the version with built-in 3G ($99 on AT&T with 2-year contract). AT&T’s NumberSync feature lets you use the same number on your phone and the watch, and your phone doesn't need to be nearby or turned on.

Huawei also showed off the ability to make and receive calls on Android Wear from the new Huawei Watch, which carries an onboard mic and speaker. Note that while the Apple Watch and Guess Connect Smartwatch also make calls, the volume doesn't get very loud. We prefer to use the built-in mic for voice commands.

MORE: Best Android Wear Apps

Battery Life and Charging

Smartwatches with e-paper 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.

The charging stand for the Fossil Q Founder is cute but bulky. Credit: Jeremy LipsThe charging stand for the Fossil Q Founder is cute but bulky. Credit: Jeremy LipsAs 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.

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Pricing

Smartwatch prices range from a mere $99 for the original Pebble all the way up to $1,500 for the Tag Heuer Connected. In between, you'll find smartwatches priced based on both their feature set and their design. For example, the $149 Pebble Steel doesn't have a color screen but does have an elegant, stainless-steel body, while the $149 Asus Zenwatch 2 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.

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