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Smartwatch Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

From big names such as Apple and Fitbit to traditional watchmakers like Tag Heuer and Fossil, dozens of companies are creating smartwatches that deliver notifications, apps and more to your wrist. Although features and designs vary, smartwatches can help save you time and keep better tabs on your health.

Many smartwatches have built-in fitness features, such as a heart rate sensor and GPS. The Fitbit Versa, for example, is marketed as a health-focused device rather than as smartphone replacement.

Some smartwatches, such as the Apple Watch Series 3, even work independently of a phone, but most are designed as companion devices. 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. For example, Apple Watches only work with iPhones. Google's Wear OS platform and Samsung's Tizen watches will work with both Android phones and iPhones, but with fewer features than if you use them with Android devices.


  • Pick a watch with a heart rate sensor and GPS (to track your runs) if you're a fitness buff.

  • Pay attention to rated battery life when shopping. Hybrid smartwatches that look more like analog timepieces tend to have the longest battery life, but they don’t have touchscreens.

  • Check that the watch band's clasp or buckle is easy to use and easy to swap. Also make sure that it’s easy for you to find replacement bands.

  • The selection of apps is a factor, but it’s 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, Samsung's Tizen-powered Gear S3 and Gear Sport work with multiple Android handsets as well as iPhones, but it’s easier to use those watches with an Android device (and specifically a Samsung one).

The Fibit Versa works just as well with Android phones as it does with iPhones. Android phone owners do get one extra feature: quick replies to incoming text messages.

Google’s Wear OS smartwatch operating system runs on watches from LG, Huawei and others and works with Android 4.3 and higher smartphones. Google makes it easy to check whether your smartphone is compatible: just go to g.co/WearCheck from your smartphone browser. Some Wear OS 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 the watch is linked to iOS devices.

Android Wear 2.0, which rolled out in early 2017, brought a slew of new features to smartwatches, including advanced fitness-tracking features, support for Google Assistant and the ability to install apps directly on the watch itself. Google rebranded its smartwatch platform from Android Wear to Wear OS in March 2018 to reflect its cross-platform compatibility. All you have to do is download the Wear OS app to connect the watch to a smartphone.

Apple Watch. Credit: Lukas Gojda/ShutterstockApple Watch. Credit: Lukas Gojda/Shutterstock

Not surprisingly, the Apple Watch only works with the iPhone. The preinstalled Apple Watch app for the iPhone is where you'll find the watchOS App Store. There, you can install the watch versions of your favorite iOS apps or find new ones: The store features everything from games to fitness-tracking apps to extensions of your most-used productivity apps so you can get Slack notifications or see Trello cards.

Bottom line: Don't buy a smartwatch unless you know that it will work with your smartphone.

MORE: Best Smartwatches

Display

Nearly all smartwatches now available use a colorful LCD screen or AMOLED display, which let you view photos, apps and other content in richer color, and 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. LCD displays tend to be thicker than OLED ones, which is why Apple developed its first OLED display for the first-generation Apple Watch: to make it as thin as possible. Samsung created the first OLED smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, in 2013.

Interface: Buttons vs. touch

On the surface, opting for a touch screen on your smartwatch would seem to be a no-brainer. Still, it can sometimes be difficult to target items on a smaller touch display, and some of the gesture-based interfaces aren't intuitive. Wear OS 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 Guide

With the Apple Watch, Apple opted for a combo approach, offering a touch display and both a digital crown and side button 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. A press of the side button brings you to your dock of frequently used apps.

The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier and Samsung Gear Sport have a bezel that you rotate to scroll through menus. These are used in combination with touch.

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.

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 and the Apple Watch.

MORE: How to use and personalize your Apple Watch

Moto 360. Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's GuideMoto 360. Credit: Samuel C. Rutherford / Tom's Guide

Keep 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.

More and more smartwatches are sporting round faces now, making them look more like traditional timepieces. Newer ones are getting slimmer and smaller.

Traditional watchmakers are also joining the fray with Android Wear devices that combine the style of an analog watch with the smarts of Google's watch operating system. Movado, Tag Heuer, Emporio Armani and even Louis Vuitton have jumped on board the smartwatch bandwagon with fashion-forward devices (and price tags to match).

Notifications and Alerts

Any good smartwatch will alert you to incoming calls, emails and text messages with a quick buzz to 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, the Apple Watch lets you swipe down from the top of the screen to see Notification Center, while Wear OS lets you swipe up from the bottom to see your latest messages.

Flight alerts on the Fossil Q Founder. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's GuideFlight alerts on the Fossil Q Founder. Credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide

Some smartwatches offer more customization options. The Samsung Gear S3, for example, uses the Gear Manager app on your phone to help you decide which notifications come through to your wrist. 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.

The Apple Watch allows you to adjust notification settings on the Apple Watch app for iOS. You can choose to mirror the notifications from your iPhone or customize them.

Apps and Watch Faces

The smartwatch category is maturing, and some models now have hundreds or even thousands of apps.

The Apple Watch has the most well-rounded app roster thus far, with more than 20,000 available, including ESPN, MapMyRun, Uber and even Rosetta Stone. 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 installing those apps in the Apple Watch app for iOS.

MORE: Best Apple Watch Apps

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 Guide

While Google hasn’t released an official figure, Wear OS has thousands of apps optimized for its platform. You install apps directly on the watch itself, rather than having to go through your smartphone first. Wear OS has many of the same apps that watchOS does, including Lyft, which enables you to schedule a ride, and WhatsApp, which lets you reply to messages with your voice.

Other proprietary systems, especially Samsung's Tizen OS for the Gear S3 and Gear Sport, tend to be deficient in the apps department. This platform currently offers about 1,400 apps.

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Fitness Features: Heart Rate and GPS

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.

If you plan to use a smartwatch primarily for working out, you may want to consider fitness trackers with smartwatch-like features, such as the Fitbit Versa or the Garmin Vivoactive 3, both of which let you change the watch face and read notifications. The Versa goes even further by offering female health features, such as the ability to log periods and record symptoms, as well as compare your cycle against health stats like sleep and activity.

Most Wear OS devices have a heart rate monitor built in, but we haven't found them to be as reliable as dedicated fitness trackers like Fitbit Charge 2. The Apple Watch heart rate sensor proved more accurate in our testing.

In addition to heart rate monitors, the Apple Watch Series 3, Samsung Gear S3 and Samsung Gear Sport have GPS, which makes them more attractive to those who want to go running or biking outdoors, and want to track their distance and pace. However, keep in mind that using GPS will have a significant impact on battery life.

MORE: Best Fitness Trackers

Other Features: Calling and Mobile Payments

Do you want to make calls from your wrist? The Apple Watch Series 3 and Gear S3 Frontier have built-in LTE so you can leave your phone at home — at least in theory. AT&T’s NumberSync and Verizon's NumberShare feature let you use the same number on your phone and the watch, and your phone doesn't need to be nearby or turned on. You will have to pay for a separate data plan for your smartwatch — about $10 per month — which is something to consider if you want to take advantage of its cellular connectivity.

Many smartwatches have NFC chips inside, which means you can use them to pay for stuff, even without a phone nearby. All Apple Watch models have Apple Pay enabled, even without an iPhone nearby or an LTE connection. Wear OS watches that support Android Pay include the LG Watch Sport, Huawei Watch 2 and Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45. Samsung’s own mobile-payment system, Samsung Pay, works on five of its Gear smartwatches.

Garmin and Fitbit, which are known for their fitness-focused watches, have added mobile payments to their latest devices, too.

MORE: Best Android Wear Apps

Battery Life and Charging

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 Lips

Most smartwatches, including the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear Sport, use wireless charging, which is convenient: You don’t have to plug your device directly into a charger; instead, you lay it flat on a charging puck.

MORE: Best Smartphones on the Market Now

Pricing

With the exception of budget devices from no-name brands, most smartwatches will cost between $100 for older devices such as the Moto 360, all the way up to $1,600 for the Tag Heuer Connected. You'll find most smartwatches in the $200 to $500 range, depending on features and accessories. For example, the Apple Watch Series 3 starts at $329 for a basic aluminum case and silicone band without built-in GPS, but the cost is north of $1,349 for the ceramic case with GPS.

You'll need to decide what combination of form and function works best for your budget.

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