Smartwatches are designed to work with your smartphone rather than replace it, providing notifications so you don't have to whip out your handset every 5 seconds. And although the category is in its infancy, three models stand out among the first crop. The Pebble ($149) is water-resistant and has a wide range of apps available. The Sony SmartWatch 2 ($199) delivers an Android-like experience on your wrist. And the Galaxy Gear ($299) lets you make calls and even snap photos. But which high-tech timepiece is best? We've put all three devices through an 11-round face-off to determine which smartwatch is right for you.
At 2 x 1.2 x 0.4 inches and 1.35 ounces, the Pebble is the lightest of the three watches and has more of a thin, vertical rectangle shape than its squarish competitors. The plastic watch comes in five attractive colors, ranging from the loud orange and cherry red to the plain jet black and arctic white.
The Pebble can also survive underwater for up to 30 minutes, and uses a comfortable rubber or silicone 22mm band that you can replace with any standard band of its size. It uses a proprietary magnetic charging port that has USB at the other end for connecting to an AC adapter or a PC.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 has the same elegant, professional design as Sony's classy Xperia Z phone: a square, aluminum body with a glossy, black bezel and chrome sides. Though the SmartWatch 2 comes in only one color, you can get it with either a metal or resin band, which you can replace with any standard 24mm band. These bands include seven different color choices from Sony, such as brown, pink, purple and, our favorite, turquoise. We found the default resin band comfortable and very easy to adjust.
At 1.6 x 1.6 x 0.35 inches and just 1.7 ounces, the SmartWatch 2 is shorter and only a little heavier than the Pebble. It uses a standard microUSB charging port, which will take any smartphone cable you have handy. The SmartWatch 2 can survive 30 minutes in up to 3 feet of water.
The stainless-steel Samsung Galaxy Gear looks the most high-tech of the three watches, but at 2.2 x 1.4 x .0.43 inches and 2.6 ounces, it's also the bulkiest. The Gear comes with a choice of six band colors — ranging from jet black to wild orange to lime green — but these bands are not replaceable because the camera and microphone are built into them. Perhaps because of their electronics, the bands also feel stiff, they are harder to adjust and their clasps take some effort to close.
To juice up the Gear, you must place it in its proprietary charging dock and connect that to a power source via microUSB. Samsung does not say that the Gear will work underwater.
Winner: Sony SmartWatch 2. The Smartwatch 2 combines an elegant, durable design with a convenient charging port and a bevy of colorful, comfortable bands.
The Pebble uses a gray-scale, low-power e-ink display with a relatively low 144 x 160-pixel resolution and a small 1.26-inch size. Like the Kindle and Nook e-readers, which also use e-ink screens, the Pebble is easy to view in sunlight and lasts a very long time on a charge. Unlike some other smartwatches, the Pebble's screen never goes to sleep. However, it does not support touch and instead forces you to use the watch's physical buttons to navigate the interface.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 has a full-color, 220 x 176-pixel, 1.6-inch touch screen that's capable of displaying 262,000 colors. In our tests, the watch's screen looked gorgeous, even when we viewed it in sunlight. To save power, the transflective display goes into a gray-scale mode in which it only shows the watch face after 15 seconds of inactivity.
When it's powered on, the Samsung Galaxy Gear's 320 x 320-pixel, 1.6-inch Super AMOLED display offers the most vibrant images of the three watches. However, when not in use, the screen goes completely dark to save power and only wakes up to show you the time after you've lifted the watch up to your face or hit its power button.
Winner: Sony SmartWatch 2. While the Galaxy Gear's screen offers better image quality, the SmartWatch 2's gray-scale mode allows you to see the time even when it's asleep.
Running the proprietary Pebble OS, the Pebble watch has a very simple interface. A set of three buttons on the right side of the watch allow you to navigate through menus and change options, while the left button takes you back a step until you get to the watch face. When you navigate through the menus, you can set an alarm, change the default watch face, adjust the date/time or control the look of the notifications. If you install third-party apps, such as games or fitness trackers, they will also appear on this menu. The Pebble's smartphone app lets you designate which apps will show alerts on the watch.
Though it runs a proprietary operating system, the Sony SmartWatch 2 has an interface that deliberately looks a lot like Android. As with a smartphone, the bottom bezel has three navigation buttons: back, home and menu. Hitting the home button takes you to a home screen filled with up to six apps. As you install more apps, you can scroll horizontally to see additional screens with up to six icons each. The top of the screen shows status icons for the battery and Bluetooth connection, as well as the time. You can even swipe down for a notification drawer, just as you can in Android.
The Samsung Galaxy Gear runs a version of Android, but you wouldn't know that just by looking at it. The watch has a rather bland UI that requires you to swipe left and right through a series of single icons, one of which is a shortcut to the All Apps menu. There's no wallpaper or notification bar, and the preloaded icons are all nothing more than monochrome, white line art. Getting to the camera app is quick and easy, though, as you can just swipe down once to get to the home screen and again to get to the camera, while swiping up twice takes you to the dialer.
Winner: Sony SmartWatch 2. Sony's Android-like UI offers the most familiar, efficient and attractive experience.
Though it will not have an official app store until 2014, the Pebble watch already has about 2,000 free third-party apps and watch faces, which are available on download sites such as mypebblefaces.com. Some of the most interesting apps include the 7-minute Workout, which guides you through some exercises; Tasker, which controls your Android phone from your watch; and If This Then That, which provides custom alerts based on conditions you set, such as news, weather or stocks. There are a ton of attractive watch faces, including those with entertainment themes — there's one for "Breaking Bad," and another for Iron Maiden fans.
There are more than 300 apps available for the Sony SmartWatch 2, and its Smart Connect companion app makes discovering them easy. Though the apps all live in the Google Play store, Smart Connect sorts them into 11 categories, ranging from Communications to Fitness to Photography. Though many of these apps are mediocre, there are some very helpful ones that will allow you to fire the camera on your phone, learn a few foreign-language phrases and keep track of fitness goals.
The Galaxy Gear has the fewest apps, with roughly 75 available through Samsung's store. However, of the few available apps, several offer useful services. The eBay app tracks your bids. Evernote has your to-do lists, and EasilyDo helps you stay organized. Though we wish there were more apps that take advantage of the camera, Cam Dictionary and Vivino both take images you shoot and provide detailed information about them.
Winner: Pebble. Though it doesn't have an official app store yet, the gray-scale watch has a passionate developer base that's made some interesting software.
Like other smartwatches, the Pebble will wake up to alert you of calls, emails, social updates and other types of notifications you set. The notifications remain on the screen, and you can scroll up and down to read them. However, as soon as you hit the back button, they are lost forever, and you must pick up your phone to see what you missed. There is no way to act upon a notification from the watch.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 provides very detailed notifications for Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and a number of other services, including Exchange / IMAP and POP mail (if you use Touchdown or K-9 mail as your client). Unlike the Pebble, all of these messages remain available, even after you've navigated away from their initial alerts. You can pull down a list of recent notifications by dragging down the notification drawer or by tapping the New Events icon on the home screen. Many apps also allow you to customize their alerts so you only get notified when particular users email or message you.
The Galaxy Gear also provides a plethora of alerts from different types of apps. A recent software update added the ability to see the full text of Gmail emails, Facebook messages and incoming alerts from many different services, including Google+ and Google Now. Unlike the Pebble, the Gear saves your notifications so you can find them again, but all of them are located under the notifications icon, and they are also sorted by service type. Using a feature called Smart Relay, you can tap a button on the watch and have it open your current message on your phone.
Winner: Sony SmartWatch 2. The Sony provides the best notification system, offering fine control over the alerts and the easiest way to browse through archived messages.
The Pebble is the only one of the three watches that works with iOS as well as Android. Through a third-party app, you can even connect the Pebble to your Windows Phone.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 is compatible with any phone running Android 4 or higher, but does not work with iOS or Windows Phone. Because it caches your alerts locally, you can scroll back through your old emails or social media messages, even if the watch is disconnected from your phone.
Because it has a speaker, microphone and camera built-in, the Galaxy Gear has a lot of special features that its competitors lack. With its audio capability, the Gear can not only make phone calls, but also accept voice commands using Samsung's S Voice assistant. With S Voice, you can dial contacts by name, reply to incoming emails or even post text updates to Facebook or Twitter by voice alone.
The Gear's 1.9-MP camera not only allows you to shoot quick photos and videos, but also works with apps such as Camtasia, which translates foreign-language text, and Vivino, which provides information about a wine when you shoot its label.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy Gear. The Gear's camera and audio features provide it with unique and compelling use cases you can't find elsewhere.
The Pebble works with Gmail, and if you install a third-party app called Pebble Notifier on Android, it will also show alerts from your Exchange account or other third-party email provider. Unfortunately, all the messages show up together in one long, scrollable list, and you must scroll through the text of each message before seeing the following one. Reading your messages gets rather unruly when you have three or more new messages and must scroll down several screens just to see what all of them are. While Gmail messages appeared with a fair amount of the body text before cutting off, Exchange messages showed only the subject line and sender.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 provides full, detailed notifications for Gmail and other types of email. Unlike the Pebble, which forces you to scroll through all of your messages, the Sony SmartWatch 2 gives you an inbox-style view that allows you to scroll through a list of senders and subject lines, and then tap on the one you want to see. Once a message is opened, you can view it in its entirety and even see a profile picture for the sender. If you use a Sony phone or install Touchdown or K-9 mail, you can get the same experience with Exchange, IMAP or POP mail.
With the most current firmware, the Galaxy Gear also lets you view complete messages from Gmail or from other accounts (using Samsung's email client). The interface for browsing through archived messages isn't quite as attractive as Sony's, because it's buried under the notifications menu and doesn't look like an inbox. While the S Voice assistant allows you to compose and reply to SMS messages, it doesn't work with email.
Winner: Sony SmartWatch 2. Sony makes it easy to browse through your inbox; its app also allows you to limit alerts to certain senders.
If you have Pebble Notifier installed on your Android phone, you can get alerts from Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or anything that can alert you. You can't respond to these alerts, and they won't contain images. As with all alerts on the Pebble, social networking updates disappear forever as soon as you change screens.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 has preloaded apps for Twitter and Facebook, both of which provide notifications not only for direct messages, but also feeds of updates from your friends. You can even decide which friends you want to see updates from. There's no way to respond or post anything directly from the watch, however. Also, if you choose not to receive alerts from a particular friend, his or her updates won't be visible in the archive. There is no Google+ app.
As of its latest firmware update, the Galaxy Gear can receive Twitter, Facebook and Google+ alerts, and will show you the complete text of those alerts when you tap. These alerts are limited to messages or mentions, so you won't be able to browse your news feed.
Winner: Sony SmartWatch 2. Being able to get alerts from your feeds, rather than just messages and mentions, is a real plus.
When you receive a call on the Pebble, the watch immediately shows the caller's name and allows you to hit a button to dismiss the call. However, if you want to answer the call, you must pick up the phone or answer with a Bluetooth headset. There is no way to send a rejection text, such as "I'm busy now" or "I'm driving," from the watch.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 also shows incoming calls as alerts on the watch face and allows you to dismiss them directly from your wrist. However, you can also respond with a canned rejection text, such as "I'm in a meeting at the moment. I'll call you back later." You can even create your own canned messages with the app. With the Sony call-handling app, you can also dial numbers from your contact list, though the call takes place on the phone, not the watch.
When you receive an incoming call on the Galaxy Gear, you can answer it on your wrist and conduct an entire conversation on the watch, without removing your phone from your pocket. If you're walking down a noisy street, talking to your wrist may seem awkward, but if you're in a relatively private space, you can hear the watch and have your conversation without lifting it to your ear. You can also initiate voice calls directly from the watch.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy Gear. The ability to talk directly from the watch puts the Gear on top.
Value & Battery Life
The Samsung Galaxy Gear's $299 price tag is higher than most contract users pay for their smartphones. For the extra money, the watch does offer the compelling audio and camera functionality that its competitors lack, but considering its limited ecosystem of apps and small selection of voice commands, it should cost a lot less.
The $199 Sony SmartWatch 2 carries a more reasonable price tag than the Gear, while the $149 Pebble hovers close to the price point where early adopters and impulse buyers can buy it without regret.
Winner: Pebble. Considering that all of these watches are works in progress, $149 feels a lot more manageable than $199 or $299, the same prices people pay for high-end smartphones.
In our tests, the Samsung Galaxy Gear lasted through more than a day of moderate use on a charge, but you'll still want to plug it in at night. The Sony SmartWatch 2 lasted close to three days, which would cover you even if you're away from an outlet for a while. The Pebble lasted more than four days in our tests and is rated for five to seven days by its manufacturer.
Winner: Pebble. The Pebble's low-power e-ink display helps this smartwatch last the longest on a charge.
Each of these smartwatches has its own set of unique features and drawbacks. If you have the money to spend, you own one of the few compatible Samsung phones and you want the most cutting-edge experience, the Galaxy Gear's unique camera and audio features make it a strong choice. If you don't have an Android phone or want the most apps for the lowest price, the Pebble is for you.
However, the Sony SmartWatch 2 is our top choice overall for its detailed notifications, attractive dual-mode screen and most intuitive interface.