It's been nearly 2 years since Tim Cook announced the Apple Watch. The hype has died down a bit and now the concept of a smartwatch as a $300+ companion to your smartphone is inching closer to the realm of possibility, in terms of technology and personal budget. Now that you've seen a few of these in the wild on the wrists of your friends and coworkers, you might be asking yourself: Is it time for me to buy a smartwatch, too?
For most of you, the answer is still a solid “maybe.” But there's good news. The early adopters have done the hard work of vetting the (often expensive) contenders on the market, and now it's fairly simple to make an informed purchase on a brand and model with proven value and staying power. Plus, you've got a lot more choices in terms of operating system, functionality, size, design, and price.
So, there's no better time than now to start considering a smartwatch.
Why Buy a Smartwatch: Are They Really Worth It?
If you’ve been paying attention to the portable tech scene in recent years, you’ve seen a lot of developments – curved or 4k screens, gestures, cameras that work underwater, etc. All of these features have one thing in common: they are impressive, but really not that useful. Even so, there have been a few groundbreaking achievements, and the creation of smartwatches is certainly one of them.
Wearables have been around for a while in the form of fitness trackers. Modern smartwatches are evolved from their athletic-based ancestors, so they often have the same features, like pedometers or heart rate monitors. And, of course, just like a smartphone still makes voice calls, a smartwatch still tells you the time of day. Still, you might be asking yourself: what makes smartwatches worth paying three to five times more than you would for a regular watch?
Well, that depends on how technologically-integrated you are. If you check your email or texts constantly, and struggle to make it a few minutes without glancing at a screen, having a permanent fixture on your wrist would be a good investment. Replacing that dive into your pocket with a flick of the wrist 50 to 75 times a day can definitely be worth it. On the other hand, if you still use a flip phone, you’ll receive much less benefit—you might want to start by upgrading to a smartphone or a fitness tracker first. Your happiness with the product depends a lot on how you use technology in your day-to-day, and how you'll use it more effectively and less obtrusively with a smartwatch.
Some of the benefits are obvious: notifications can be read without pulling the phone out of your pocket, caller ID is right on your wrist, and you can get information by talking into its microphone (on newer models, at least). However, the biggest game-changers only become apparent with time. A few watches have transit apps that can give you train schedules even without an internet connection. Google Maps is actually functional in walking mode. You can read texts or emails while not appearing rude, and you can even set a smart lock so your phone automatically unlocks if the watch is within range (almost like a fingerprint scanner).
These features aren't as groundbreaking as the ones your smartphone already offers. But they are less obtrusive and easier to use when you're doing something else. In this way, if you are someone who uses your smartphone's features a lot—perhaps even too much—then a smartwatch is going to vastly simplify your life.
Choosing a Smartwatch: Aesthetics, Functionality, and Price
Now, into the bulk of it: there are three main things to look at when purchasing a smart watch: aesthetics, functionality, and price. Wearables are still very new, so the first two items are sometimes mutually exclusive, unless you have a high budget. There’s a few that check all three boxes, but they’re far from common. Only in the last year have circular displays come into availability, and in my opinion, they look a lot better than the bulky square frames of the past. That’s your choice to make, though. Here, I’m going to focus more on design than features because the models available even a year from now will boast new features and tech specs. The look, feel, and craftsmanship of each smartwatch, however, should stay consistent.
Let’s start looking at specific watches!
(Image: The Verge)
- Diameter: 42mm
- Price: $299
- OS Support: iOS or Android
- Special Features: Full-Circle Edge-to-Edge Display, Sapphire Crystal Cover
To start us off, Huawei offers one of the best smartwatches currently on the market. While other brands focus on gimmicks and tech, Huawei strove for beauty and durability. There might not be any state-of-the-art GPS integration or other similar advancements, but this watch makes up for it in aesthetics and wearability. All the essentials are here and they’re done excellently, for one hell of a good price.
(Image: Hamza Qayyum)
- Diameter: 44mm
- Price: $349
- OS: iOS or Android
- Special Features: Monochrome & Non-Touch Display, 30+ Day Charge
The Luna is a special case. In a world of vivid touch screens and constant competition, it’s a strange choice to opt for black-and-white tech. However, this comes with many advantages that other watches can’t come close to reaching.
Think of it as the e-ink ready display vs. backlit tablet advantage.
For one, it is easily legible in direct sunlight, and it does so without excessive brightness. Similarly, because the screen draws so little battery, Vector boasts that it can maintain a single charge for over 30 days of use. Other watches struggle to last a full day, so this is an incredible feat. All of this comes at the expense of the intelligence of the watch; it’s no match to many of its competitors in features, and can be somewhat clunky to use without touch controls. If you’re aware of your priorities, and they match up with what the Luna offers, you should definitely check it out.
- Diameter: 46mm
- Price: $295
- OS: iOS or Android
- Special Features: Stylish, No Groundbreaking Tech
The Fossil Q Founder is as bare-bones as you can get, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Glitz and gimmicks work well to generate media buzz, but being on the bleeding edge also often means putting up with bugs and instability. Sometimes, you just want a watch that’s capable of doing everything you want it to do, and nothing more. The Founder does exactly that, and it’s an excellent choice for those seeking a stylish option that doesn’t overload on extra features.
- Diameter: 44mm
- Price: $285
- OS: Android Only
- Special Features: Rotating Bezel, Tizen OS
The single most noticeable characteristic of the Gear S2 is also somewhat concealed: the bezel cleverly rotates, allowing the user to select apps or zoom more precisely. Not only does this feel very natural, but it also greatly aids in efficiency of use. For some, the bezel might be a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick worth keeping. While this feature truly sets it apart from its competition, the watch itself has a few pitfalls. For one, it uses a proprietary Samsung operating system, which has drastically fewer apps than Android Wear devices. It also makes it incompatible with iPhones. Still, it’s a great buy if you’re looking for something innovative.
- Dimensions: 38.6 mm x 33.3 mm or 42 mm x 35.9 mm
- Price: $549 to $1099
- OS: iOS Only
- Special Features: Apple Pay, Siri, Digital Crown
Ah, the Apple Watch. The brand speaks for itself—remarkable craftsmanship and lots of innovation all packed inside one of the smallest watches on the market. You’ll pay a premium for it, but it’s hard to find many of its features anywhere else. It utilizes a digital crown, similar to the rotating bezel of the Gear G2, as a secondary form of navigation. This makes it exceptionally easy to use when compared to watches with only touch or button controls. Also packed inside is the Apple Pay system, which lets you pay with a tap of the watch. You can even talk to Siri through the onboard microphone and get answers from its speakers. Much of this technology exists elsewhere, but not all pulled into one device, and that’s what Apple does best. If you can afford it, and are already integrated in the Apple ecosystem, this is a great choice. Maybe wait for the round Apple Watch, though; it’s surely on the horizon.
(Image: Droid Life)
- Diameter: 42mm / 46mm
- Price: $329 to $419
- OS: iOS (sort of) or Android
- Special Features: WiFi Connectivity, Wireless Charging
This is the successor to the watch that first started the circular screen trend, and it just keeps getting better. This time around it comes in multiple sizes with built-in WiFi, allowing it to operate without a phone. It still has the infamous “flat tire”, a black patch at the bottom of the screen housing an ambient light sensor, but it’s far from the only watch with this issue. It can get a bit annoying with the wrong watch face, but for the most part, it just blends in. One other nice feature is its wireless charging capabilities: it uses the Qi standard, so at night you can place it on its convenient dock instead of fumbling with a cable. All-in-all, it’s a great smartwatch; there might not be any groundbreaking innovations but it can handle almost anything you throw at it.
- Diameter: 36mm
- Price: $138
- OS: iOS or Android
- Special Features: Independent GPS, Good Display for Sunlight
This is Sony’s first smartwatch running the Android Wear OS; previous incarnations used proprietary software. The Sony SmartWatch 3 has a number of excellent sensors for tracking movement and speed, making it perfect for exercising and outdoor activities. This is one of the few watches that can operate exceptionally well without pairing to a phone, which means you can leave the house with one less gadget in your pocket when you go out for a jog. It’s a bit clunky vertically, so it might not be good for small wrists (as the small width might lead you to believe), but if the athletic features appeal to you it’s a great investment.
- LG Watch Urbane
- Diameter: 45mm
- Price: $299
- OS: iOS or Android
- Special Features: Full-Circle P-OLED Display, Standalone Operation
Like the SmartWatch 3, the LG Watch Urbane sports a wide degree of connectivity, allowing it to operate without a smartphone. This is useful, of course, but it’s unlikely you’ll use the Urbane to entirely replace your phone; even the best smartwatches are inherently limited devices intended for different purposes. As long as you recognize the shortcomings of this and any watch, you’ll be more than satisfied. The Urbane is a gorgeous watch with classic styling, and for many, design trumps specifications, especially when everything on the market packs nearly the same specs.
- Dimensions: 38mm x 34mm
- Price: $105
- OS: iOS or Android
- Special Features: e-Paper Non-Touch Display, Water Resistant to 50m
The brand that started it all. Without Pebble, smart watches would have taken a lot longer to proliferate—they helped create and excite the market. Originally spurred by a kickstarter campaign, the Pebble Watch was designed with an e-Paper display, which uses electricity only to change the screen. In other words, energy is only used once a minute unless prompted by the user, so the battery life is incredible compared to other watches. This version offers a sleek brushed steel exterior and slightly beefed up hardware, but still offers all the things that made Pebble great in the first place. Best of all, it’s dirt cheap!
- Casio WSD-F10
- Diameter: 56mm
- Price: $499
- OS: iOS or Android
- Special Features: Accurate Activity Tracking & Sensors (like a magnetometer to act as a compass), High Weather and Wear Resistance, No GPS
For those of you that like to hike, cycle, or just plain be outdoors, this watch offers a great deal of unparalleled features. Regular smartwatches are capable of tracking steps, heart rate, and usually little else—the WSD-F10, however, can determine air pressure, altitude, and orientation to provide you with detailed readouts of your surroundings.
You can also set it into different “modes”, which save battery by disabling features that wouldn’t be useful in your current situation. For instance, the fishing mode will give information on atmospheric readings to determine future weather patterns, which could tell you when to pack things up. The largest downside (aside from its humongous width) is the relatively short battery life (20 hours of full-time tracking and use) and the complete lack of an onboard GPS. You can sync it to your phone, but that will drain its battery instead, so it’s a trade-off. Perhaps future iterations will fix all three of these issues, but for now, it’s still a great gadget for outdoor use.
From the ten choices outlined above, you should be able to easily find your new favorite watch. I would first recommend making a list of all the features most important to you: long battery duration, aesthetics, price, etc., and combing through the products above one more time, eliminating whatever doesn’t match. Maybe even check out a local tech store to see them in person, pictures can sometimes distort reality.
Whatever you wind up picking, I’m sure you’ll find it to be a useful device that continuously surprises you with new applications!