Smartwatches are fast becoming more popular than fitness trackers, thanks to the Apple Watch. You don't have to be an iPhone user to wear one, because there are a slew of high-end Android Wear devices to choose from. But if you're not sure you'd get much use from a smartwatch, all of those options seem like a pretty steep investment. For example, the new Apple Watch 3 with cellular costs $399, and that's before you tack on $10 extra a month for the connectivity.
We found a plethora of smartwatches from a squadron of obscure Chinese vendors on Amazon, most of which cost less than $50. We tested eight of them to see if any were worthy of your wrist.
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Many of the smartwatches we tested were rectangular, with control buttons at the bottom or side, with software and Bluetooth connections that are similar to those for iOS and Android. The clone watches let you install a GSM micro-SIM card and/or a microSD card for enhanced functionality. Their built-in, somewhat unpolished software functions similarly across all the models, with a few slight interface variations. These watches work more or less as advertised, and despite their bulky, generally cheesy look and feel, they may have everything you need, especially if you have a beefy wrist.
My biggest complaint was unreliability. After I turned off the watches, it was an extremely finicky process to start many of them back up.
Of the initial batch of smartwatches we tested, only one was worth considering. However, a second batch of watches (the Keoker KW18, Yuntab Y1, Alcatel OneTouch Go, Sepver SN05, and Amenon) were altogether more elegant looking and attractive, with thinner, round faces and more comfortable, better-fitting straps designed for a range of wrist sizes.
The second set of watches also offered more consistent performance, had fewer problems starting up and functioned mostly as advertised. Still, the software was familiar but somewhat glitchy, as were the Bluetooth connections at various points; we sometimes had trouble connecting them with a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, though an older Samsung Galaxy Nexus paired flawlessly with all of the watches. Some cases proved delicate and prone to scratching when memory and SIM cards were inserted and removed, but you shouldn't have to do that very often.
The Keoker Smart Watch — with its rubber buckle strap and plain, round, 1.3-inch face encased in an elegant, slim bezel — is the most aesthetically pleasing of the budget smartwatches. It's enhanced by a choice of several artistic faces, particularly a rendition of the picturesque London Eye. A conveniently included SIM tool releases a pull-out side tray, in which you can insert a SIM card and microSD card back to back. The back of the watch houses a four-contact magnetic charger, heart rate monitor and speaker. The watch, which works with both iOS and Android, features Bluetooth sync, a sleep monitor, a pedometer, a sedentary alarm, an alarm clock, a stopwatch, a calculator, a remote camera, anti-lost signal, SMS, a music player, call logs and more. With a SIM card (GSM/GPRS 850/900/1800/1900MHz) installed, the watch can be used independently as a phone.
Despite the Keoker's classy looks and higher price tag, there were flaws: Small but visible air bubbles underneath the face marred its appearance around the edge. While contacts and call logs synced flawlessly, the watch would not sync time and date, though I could set them independently.
Martian’s Notifier is a hybrid smartwatch, which means it sports an analog watch face with smart features. It’s not a touchscreen Apple Watch knock-off like some of the other budget smartwatches we’ve seen. But that’s a point in its favor, because the Notifier has just enough smarts to make it worth every dollar of its very low price.
The Notifier has a 1.5-inch OLED display embedded in its face that shows notifications, including phone calls, text messages, alerts from apps such as Fitbit and Twitter, and silent alarms. These notifications are easy to turn on in Martian’s app for iOS and Android. You can also customize the vibration levels for each notification to make them stronger or less noticeable. And unlike many of the cheap smartwatches we tested, the Notifier never struggled to keep its Bluetooth connection to a smartphone. The Notifier also has a remote camera feature that launches your phone’s Camera app to take a photo and a feature that alerts you when you walk out of range of your phone.
The watch doesn’t have a SIM card slot so you can’t make phone calls like you can with some the other picks we tested, but the overall quality is better than many of those budget models.
This 1.56-inch, 240 x 240-pixel touch-screen smartwatch differs from the others we tested in that it ships with a 16GB microSD card — a rare convenience for use with the 0.3-megapixel camera, sound recorder and other functions that require storage. Built-in software includes a dialer, messaging, synced contact list and call logs; and file manager, image viewer, calendar and more. Some built-in apps like the browser, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp require a SIM card (not included). The watch is functional via Bluetooth with both Android BT Notifier and iOS Bluetooth, though it has less functionality when you're texting with iOS.
The Y1 is an attractive, sporty, 1.25-inch smartwatch that comes with several appealing, easy-to-read faces. I could listen to music via Pandora and use a picture saved to the microSD card as wallpaper. The soft-textured strap fits comfortably around my small wrist. Its familiar software will connect via Bluetooth to iOS or Android phones, though the watch is mainly geared to run the Android-only Fun Run app, which consistently failed to recognize any smartwatch it was supposed to run with. The Y1 includes a pedometer, calculator, clock and music player. It also offers health tracking via a sleep monitor, sedentary reminder, pedometer and distance-traveled display. The watch immediately vibrates and buzzes when it loses its Bluetooth connection to your phone. If you have a SIM card installed (GSM 850/900/1800/1900 MHz), you can also make and receive calls directly from the watch, though you can also make and receive Bluetooth calls.
Because it's specifically marketed as a fun, sporty watch, the Alcatel OneTouch Go can get away with the larger frame it has surrounding its 1.22-inch, 240 x 204-pixel face. However, a chunk of the dial is cut off at the bottom, and the plate covering this part of the dial adds no functionality to the device. That said, the watch is light, comfortable and easy to wear.
The OneTouch Go features an optical heart monitor, a built-in accelerometer, a gyroscope and a pedometer, enabling the device to track steps, sleep and even your mood — though I found that last function unedifying. A companion Move app is advertised for both iOS and Android, but tech support confirmed that the iOS app was not currently functional with my iPhone 6s. The separate Go button makes it easy to choose the module you want without performing a lot of taps and swipes across a small screen. The faceplate and bands can be swapped out to get a whole different look.