A smartwatch isn’t going to replace your smartphone. In fact, it’s more of a smartphone accessory these days. They have tiny screens and many of the apps you use every day — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook — don’t have smartwatch apps. Most smartwatches don’t have LTE (or you have to pay a lot extra for it), meaning they can’t receive calls or texts when your smartphone isn't nearby.
But there are many advantages to having a smartwatch. They show you who’s calling, texting or emailing you without forcing you to look at your phone. They replace your need for a dedicated fitness tracker — because most smartwatches these days are souped up fitness trackers. And some smartwatches look pretty cool. Whatever your lifestyle and which smartphone you use, you’re bound to find something that suits you.
Not all smartwatches are the same, however. Most fall between a fitness tracker and something that relays smartphone notifications to your wrist. Some smartwatches can work untethered, completely autonomously from a smartphone — you can make calls, send texts and navigate directions, all while your smartphone is miles away. There are also hybrid smartwatches, made by mechanical watch manufacturers like Tag Heuer, Fossil and Withings, that have sensors to track fitness and traditional watch battery that lasts months.
Before pulling the trigger on the latest Apple Watch (the Series 7) or a smartwatch by Samsung or Fitbit— do some research. Make sure it’s a smartwatch that’ll work to its full potential with your current smartphone and matches your budget and how you want to use it. If you work out a lot, get a fitness-focused smartwatch. If you go off the grid, get an LTE-connected one. Whatever your case, make sure you know the basics.
Things to Consider Before You Buy
3G, 4G, 5G, LTE, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. There are different ways a smartwatch can connect to a smartphone. A Bluetooth-enabled smartwatch pairs with a smartphone just like a Bluetooth speaker. It’s the most basic of connections and has the shortest range; if the smartphone and smartwatch are too far apart, the connection dies. Most smartwatches will connect to a known wi-fi network as well. When connected, the smartwatch can still receive notifications (calls, texts, emails) as long your smartphone has an active data connection.
3G, 4G and 5G describe generations of the cellular network technologies and their subsequent transmission speeds — basically, it’s how fast your smartwatch can load data. A smartwatch with built-in 5G is going to be faster than a smartwatch with built-in 4G (and 4G faster than 3G). However, the difference between smartwatches with 5G, 4G and 3G will admittedly be nominal since neither will be running heavily data-driven apps — and 5G is still in its early stages and most people/cities can't take advantage of its fast speeds yet.
Most smartwatches are available in LTE or cellular models, too. The main advantage of an LTE connected smartwatch is that it can work completely untethered from a smartphone. Since it has a built-in cellular radio, the smartwatch can place and receive phone calls and stream music independent of your phone. There are a few caveats, though. The battery life will likely be worse. The smartwatch will probably be bulky. And you’ll have to pay a monthly fee to add the smartwatch to your cellular plan. (Consult your cell carrier for exact info.) Plus, they just tend to be more expensive than regular “GPS only” models.
Compatibility. Not all smartwatches are compatible with all smartphones. For example, the Apple Watch only works with an iPhone, and all smartwatches running Android 2.0 will work with any Android, via the Android Wear app, but not all iOS features will carry over and some of the apps work wonky together, such as iMessage and every Android messaging app. Basically, if you own an iPhone, I recommend getting an Apple Watch; and if you have an Android smartphone, get one of the numerous Android 2.0 offerings.
Heart rate sensor. Knowing your heart rate is the most important fitness metric — experts agree. The data, taken both during and after your workout, will help you achieve certain fitness goals. If you’re serious about working out or just improving your cardiovascular health, you want a smartwatch with a heart rate sensor.
Built-in GPS. This is still a rare feature in smartwatches and wearables in general. For fitness, the built-in GPS is able to track speed, distance and location, all of which can help calculate calories burned and determine the overall success of a workout. It can also help give you more accurate weather reports and navigation instructions if your smartphone isn’t nearby (and it won’t kill a lot of data). It’s mainly a tool to gauge fitness, however; like heart-rate sensors, it’s mainly for people into fitness.
Battery life. The main complaint with smartwatches is battery life. There are very few on the market that can last longer than 24 hours, so manage expectations. Most of today’s high-end smartwatches have a bright LCD screen or AMOLED displays, which are beautiful to look at but tend to kill the battery. Basically, expect to take it off at night to charge.
The overall look and lifestyle. At the end of the day, a smartwatch isn’t just another device — it’s part of your wardrobe. You’re not going to put it away when you want, like your smartphone, so you should like the way it looks. Also, smartwatches come in various sizes, colors and materials, and sometimes even in more refined or rugged options.
The SE isn't Apple's best Apple Watch — that title belongs to the Series 7 — but it is probably the best option for most people with an iPhone. It has most of the sensors (including the gyroscope, compass, fall detection and an always-on altimeter) and capabilities as the Series 7, along with the same battery life, but comes at a significantly more affordable price. There are two main tradeoffs with the SE. It doesn't have an always-on display and it lacks two wellness sensors (electrical heart-rate and blood oxygen sensors), which are ultimately things that the vast majority people are probably perfectly fine living without.
The Series 7 is the perfect smartwatch for iPhone owners who want the best that Apple has to offer. It's unique compared to other Apple Watch models because it has a blood oxygen sensor and an electrical heart sensor (so it's capable of taking an ECG), but it also has a 20-percent bigger display, which allows for more watch faces makes the display easier to navigate. It's also the most durable (IP6X) and fastest charging (33% faster) smartwatch that Apple has ever made.
The Coros Pace 2 is an excellent, lightweight and relatively affordable smartwatch for runners and other endurance athletes. It has all the necessary sensors to track general fitness, but it also has running-specific features such as interval training (pace, power, cadence, heart rate) and programs to help you get in shape for various races. The other nice thing is that the Pace 2 is compatible with a wide variety of third-party accessories, such as chest straps and power meters, so it doesn't limit what other devices you want to use to help you train. It also has a three-week battery life, which is pretty epic.
The Galaxy Watch4 is Samsung's best-ever smartwatch and it's definitely the best option for anyone with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. It's also probably the most beautiful smartwatch you can buy. It packs pretty much all the health and wellness sensors (including a heart-rate monitor and GPS) you'd want to a "premium" smartwatch. It should be noted that Samsung makes two versions of this smartwatch: the Galaxy Watch4 (pictured) and the Galaxy Watch4 Classic. Both have the same capabilities and run Wear OS, but different in the fact that the "Classic" is slightly larger, more expensive and has wonderful rotating bezel.
Garmin’s Forerunner 945 is a serious smartwatch for serious endurance athletes (and it offers most of the same fitness-focused features as the company’s even higher-end Fenix line of smartwatches). It lets you train for specific events, like a triathlon, where it can show your interval and transition times. It also works with most of the popular third-party products and apps, such as Final Surge and TrainingPeaks. Garmin partnered with Firstbeat, a company that specializes in physiology and heartbeat analytics, so the Forerunner 935 can give you deeper insights from your workout, such as your VO2 max and lactate threshold. Compared to its predecessor, the Forerunner 935, Garmin’s new running smartwatch has a significantly bigger battery, has enough built-in storage to hold 1,000 songs, and it supports full-color maps.
The Sense is Fitbit's flagship smartwatch (replacing the Ionic) and it actually has a lot in common with the company's Versa 3 (below). The only major differences are that the Sense is much more capable health-and-wellness tracker. Unlike the Versa 3, the Sense has three brand-new sensors: an ECG (to potentially give you an early detection of atrial fibrillation), an EDA (to detect stress) and a skin temperature sensor (to give you early indications if you're coming down with a fever or other illness). Overall, the Sense is a good third-party smartwatch for people want a lot of wellness data, but it's also kind of expensive considering how similar it is to the Versa 3.
Released in 2020, the Fitbit Versa 3 is a good entry-level smartwatch for iPhone or Android users alike. It's a big upgrade over the Versa 2 mainly due to the fact that it has a built-in GPS and significantly better heart-rate tracking. It also has a built-in speaker and microphone, which the Versa 2 lacked, so you can actually hear your voice assistant (either Google Assistant or Amazon's Alexa) when you ask it a question instead of having to read the voice assistant's response on the smartwatch's screen. This is a good alternative to the Apple Watch Series 3, but considering how expensive the Versa 3 still is compared to other more capable smartwatches, it's actually pretty difficult to recommend.
Released in 2017, the Series 3 is the oldest and most affordable smartwatch that Apple sells. It has the same original body as the Series 1 and Series 2 — meaning a smaller display and larger bezels — and it definitely looks old. It does have a built-in GPS and an optical heart sensor, so it's still a good fitness tracker, but it also lacks some newer sensors, such as the always-on altimeter and the built-in compass, so it's probably not a great for hikers and outdoors enthusiasts. You also can't buy a cellular model the Series 3, either. If you're somebody who just wants a cheap Apple Watch to track your workouts, the Series 3 is a decent option (although you should seriously consider spending the extra $80 on the Apple Watch SE).