Smartwatch buying guide 2024: Everything you need to know

Apple Watch 9 vs. Samsung Galaxy Watch 6
(Image credit: Future)

Shopping for a new smartwatch? Our smartwatch buying guide breaks down the key factors you should consider to help you decide between top models like the latest Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch, Garmin, Fitbit and more. 

The best smartwatches we've tested all excel but they're not one size fits all. From big technology brands such as Apple, Samsung and Google to traditional watchmakers like Casio (G-Shock) and Tag Heuer, dozens of companies have smartwatches that offer basic workout tracking, smartphone notifications, apps and more. Newer models like the Apple Watch Series 9 and Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 push the capabilities even further.

Apple Watch SE and Fitbit Charge 6 on the same wrist.

(Image credit: Dan Bracaglia/Future)

Although features and designs vary, many smartwatches can help you stay better connected, save time and keep tabs on your well-being. Most have built-in fitness metrics, such as a heart rate sensor and accelerometer for workout tracking. Others offer onboard GPS for outdoor adventure tracking. Some act more as an extension of your phone, while others, like the Fitbit Sense 2, are marketed as health-focused devices, capable of monitoring exercise, sleep, recovery and more.

Many flagship devices, like the Apple Watch Ultra 2, even work independently of a phone. But if you want something that gives you a break from your notifications, one of the best fitness trackers might be better for you. Here's a breakdown of the key differences between smartwatches and fitness trackers

We've also reviewed several affordable options to see which of the best cheap smartwatches are worthwhile — spoiler alert: quite a few. So whether you're on a budget, have specific fitness goals or want to be more productive, our smartwatch buying guide is here to help you choose the best wrist wearable for you.

Smartwatch buying guide: quick tips

  • Compatibility: Don't buy a smartwatch without confirming that it will work with your smartphone. For example, Apple Watches only work with the best iPhones. We've also put together a guide to the best smartwatches for Android for options that pair to your Samsung, Google or other Android smartphone.
  • Fitness features: Pick a watch with a heart rate sensor and GPS (to track your runs/bike rides/swims/etc.) if you're a fitness buff.
 You can see our guide to the best running watches if that's your sport of choice. And check out our showdown of the Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs. Garmin Forerunner 965 if you're after a tough-built, feature-packed adventure watch.
  • Health monitoring tech: In addition to monitoring exercise, devices like the Polar Vantage V3 and Garmin Fenix 7 offer insights into sleep quality and workout recovery. They also keep tabs on blood oxygen saturation, skin temperature and more. 
  • Battery life: 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.
Some are even solar-powered
  • Water resistance: Most smartwatches are water resistant but not all are built to survive long periods in water or at great depths. The Fitbit Charge 6 and Apple Watch SE 2022, for instance, are cleared for short periods of surface-level swimming, but you'll want an Apple Watch Ultra or G-Shock Move for serious underwater exploration. 
  • Swappable watch bands: 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.

  • App selection: The selection of apps is a factor worth considering. For example, the Fitbit Versa 4 doesn't offer nearly as many apps as an Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Watch. 

Smartwatch buying guide: phone compatibility

Because most smartwatches are designed to serve as companions to your smartphone, device compatibility is worth considering. Fortunately, there are a lot of smartwatches that play nicely with both iOS and Android devices. For instance, the best Fitbits like the Fitbit Charge 6 and Fitbit Versa 4 work with multiple Android handsets as well as iPhones. The same can be said for the best Garmin smartwatches and budget-friendly devices from brands like Amazfit

fitbit versa 4 app menu with Google maps in the center

(Image credit: Tom Pritchard/Tom's Guide)

For Android purists, a huge selection of smartwatches run on Google Wear OS, from the Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 and Google Pixel Watch 2 to the OnePlus Watch 2 and TicWatch Pro 3 Ulta.

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 your lists in Todoist.

Smartwatch buying guide: OLED vs. LCD

Samsung Galaxy Watch 6

(Image credit: Future)

Many smartwatches use a bright LCD screen or AMOLED display, which lets you view photos, apps and other content in rich color. The trade-off is shorter battery life than devices with simpler monochromatic displays. However, some full-color smartwatches can last for days at a time, including the Garmin Venu 3. On the other hand, models with B&W screens, like the Casio G-Shock Move and Garmin Instinct 2 series, can last weeks or more. 

Pricer smartwatches offer crisp OLED displays instead of LCDs to allow for slimmer designs. Apple developed its first OLED display to make the first-generation Apple Watch as thin as possible. But it should be noted Samsung created the first ever, OLED smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, in 2013.

Smartwatch buying guide: touchscreen vs. touchless

G-Shock smartwatch on wrist with out of focus foliage in background.

(Image credit: Future)

Opting for a touchscreen on your smartwatch may seem like a no-brainer. However, some may find it difficult to select items on smaller displays, and not all gesture-based interfaces are intuitive. Fortunately, many of the best smartwatches offer both physical and touch-based controls and well-thought-out user interfaces. 

Apple opted for a combo approach. All Apple Watches have a touch display and both a digital crown and a side button on the right. 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 flagship Apple Watch Ultra 2 additionally offers a user-programmable "action" button. The latest Apple Watches also have Apple's customizable double tap gesture.

On the Android side, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 Classic features a fan-favorite rotating bezel for quickly scrolling through menus. Moreover, Wear OS does a nice job of presenting card-based notifications you can easily dismiss with a swipe. You can also switch between cards with a flick of your wrist. 

Smartwatch buying guide: 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. 

While some brands, like Apple and Fitbit, have proprietary methods for affixing straps, many do not. The new Garmin Forerunner 165 and Polar Grit X2 Pro, for example, use traditional watch spring bars, allowing you to rock a near-infinite number of watch band options.  

That said, most smartwatches today offer plenty of customization options at the time of purchase. For instance, you can pick the band color and material, as well as face color, finish and size for your Apple Watch Series 9 and Samsung Galaxy Watch 6.

Garmin Forerunner 165.

(Image credit: Dan Bracaglia/Future)

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. The Garmin Lily 2 is a particularly attractive choice for smaller wrists.

Traditional watchmakers are also joining the fray. You also have brands like Withings and Pininfarina focused on classicly styled smartwatches, most notably the Withings Nova, ScanWatch 2,  and Pininfarina Senso

Of course, high-end watch brands like 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. For that reason, we don't usually recommend them over devices from Apple, Samsung, Garmin or Fitbit.

Smartwatch buying guide: app selection

The smartwatch category is maturing, and some models now have hundreds or even thousands of apps, while others have only a dozen or fewer. 

The Apple Watch has the most well-rounded app roster thus far, with thousands to choose from, including ESPN, MapMyRun, Uber and even Rosetta Stone. You can do everything from controlling your Philips Hue lights (and all the other best smart home devices) to ordering lunch with Seamless

There's a dedicated Apple Watch App Store for installing those apps in the Apple Watch app for iOS. Here's a closer look at the best Apple Watch apps.

Fitbit Versa 3 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Google's Wear OS also has hundreds 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.

Fitness-focused smartwatches, like those from Fitbit, Garmin and Polar, offer a far skimpier selection of apps. The Fitbit Versa 4, for example, only has access to Google Maps and Google Wallet. The Polar V3 doesn't even have that.

Smartwatch buying guide: fitness and wellness tracking

POlar Vantage V3.

(Image credit: Future)

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 step counting or step tracking.

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 Charge 6 or Garmin Forerunner 265. Both let you change the watch face and read notifications. Both offer 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.

Every smartwatch we recommend has a heart rate monitor built-in, but we haven't always found it to be as reliable as dedicated fitness trackers like Fitbit Inspire 3. The Apple Watch heart rate sensor proved more accurate in our testing, though.

In addition to heart rate monitors certain models 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.

Garmin Forerunner 965 vs Garmin Forerunner 265

(Image credit: Future)

Other features like ECG, SpO2 and skin temperature monitoring might be important to you, too. Fitbit, Apple and Samsung all have FDA-approved ECG sensors in some of their newer smartwatches. ECGs can detect signs of atrial fibrillation. SpO2 monitoring is more common, reading your blood oxygen levels for signs of sleep apnea or other possible respiratory conditions.

The Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2, Google Pixel Watch 2 and Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 all offer insights into sleep. However, you'll find the best workout recovery metrics in devices like the Garmin Forerunner series and Polar Vantage V3.

Smartwatch buying guide: calling and mobile payments

Do you want to make calls from your wrist? Some 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 lets 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. Most Wear OS models offer Google Wallet — as do most Fitbits — or something equivalent, like Samsung Pay or Garmin Pay.

Smartwatch buying guide: battery life and charging

Apple Watch Ultra 2

(Image credit: Future)

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 Series 9 lasts about 18 hours of mixed use on a charge, while the Ultra 2 is good for 36 hours (or up to 70 hours in low power mode).

Many devices, including the latest Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch models, 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. 

However, neither Fitbit nor Garmin supports wireless charging in any existing models. 

Smartwatch buying guide: pricing

a photo of the Apple Watch 9 and the Apple Watch Ultra 2

(Image credit: Future)

Except for budget devices from no-name brands, most smartwatches will cost between $100 for older devices, 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 9 starts at $399 for a basic aluminum case and silicone band without built-in GPS, but the cost is north of $1049 in stainless steel with a matching link bracelet. 

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

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Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is the managing editor of social and video at Tom’s Guide. She covers smartwatches, TVs and audio devices, too. Kate appears on Fox News to talk tech trends and runs the Tom's Guide TikTok account, which you should be following. When she’s not filming tech videos, you can find her taking up a new sport, mastering the NYT Crossword or channeling her inner celebrity chef.