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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, 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 and GPS if you're a fitness buff.
  • Pay attention to rated battery life when shopping. Though rare, smartwatches with e-paper displays 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, Samsung's Tizen-powered Gear S3 works with multiple Android handsets as well as iPhones.

Android 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.

Android 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. Android Wear 2.0 also has a number of improvements, including the ability to install apps directly on the watch itself. For a full list of features, as well as supported watches, please check out our Android Wear 2.0 FAQ.

Apple Watch. Credit: Lukas Gojda/ShutterstockApple Watch. Credit: Lukas Gojda/ShutterstockNot surprisingly, the Apple Watch only works with the iPhone. An 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. There are some high-tech timepieces that double as phones, but those are less common.

MORE: Best Smartwatches

Display

With the demise of Pebble, 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.

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. Still, 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 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 Gear S2 and Gear S3 added 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.

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) 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 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.

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 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, the Apple Watch lets you swipe down from the top of the screen to see Notification Center, while Android Wear 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 GuideSome smartwatches offer more customization options. The Samsung Gear S3, 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. 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 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 20,000 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.

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 GuideWhile they haven't released an official figure, Android Wear has thousands of apps optimized for its platform. What's more, Android Wear 2.0 lets you install apps directly on the watch itself, rather than having to go through your smartphone first. 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 Samsung's Tizen OS for the Gear S3, tend to lack in the apps department. The Gear S3 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.

In addition to heart rate monitors, both the Apple Watch 2 and the Samsung Gear S3 have GPS, which makes them more attractive to those who want to go running or biking outdoors, and want to track their movements. However, keep in mind that using GPS will have a significant impact on battery life. If you plan to use this primarily for working out, you may want to consider fitness trackers with smartwatch-like features, such as the Fitbit Blaze or the Garmin Forerunner 235, the latter of which lets you change its face and read notifications.

MORE: Best Fitness Trackers

Do you want to make calls from your wrist? The Apple Watch lets you do that if you have your phone nearby. The Gear S3 Frontier goes one better, with built-in LTE, so you can potentially leave your phone at home. AT&T’s NumberSync and Verizon's Message+ 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

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. Unfortunately, most smartwatches have wireless chargers, which tend to be bulky. The Apple Watch's magnetic charger is an exception.

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-$500 range, depending on features and accessories. For example, the Apple Watch Series 2 starts at $269 for a basic aluminum case and silicone band, but north of $1,249 for the ceramic case. 

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

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