Let’s lay the groundwork: Three things to keep in mind when considering any smartwatch are compatibility, price and battery life. All the major smartwatches today pair with a smartphone, so you’ll need to find one compatible with your operating system.
Apple Watches only work with iPhones while Wear OS devices play nice with iOS and Android. Smartwatches made by Samsung, Garmin, Polar and others are also compatible with both Android and iOS, but you’ll have to install a companion app.
The smartwatch OS will also dictate the type and number of on-watch apps you’ll have access to. Many of these aren’t useful though, making this feature one that’s not too high on our requirements list.
The best smartwatches generally cost between $200 and $350. Compared to budget smartwatches, which cost between $100 and $200, these more expensive devices have advanced fitness, music and communications features. They will often also have special features like onboard GPS, music storage and NFC, which budget devices generally do not have.
Some companies make specialized fitness watches: Those can easily be more than $500, and we’d only recommend them to serious athletes. “Luxury” smartwatches can also reach sky-high prices, but we wouldn’t recommend any of them. These devices can cost more than $1,000, and you’re usually paying for a brand name or some exotic but ultimately useless materials.
Battery life remains one of the biggest complaints about smartwatches, but strides have been made recently. You can expect two full days from Apple Watches and most Wear OS devices. Watches using the Snapdragon Wear 3100 processor support extended battery modes that supposedly allow you to get up to five days on a charge — if you’re willing to shut off most features aside from, you know, displaying time. Other smartwatches can last five to seven days, but they usually have fewer features and lower-quality displays, and some fitness watches can last weeks on a single charge.
What to look for in a smartwatch
Activity tracking is a big reason why people turn to smartwatches. An all-purpose timepiece should log your steps, calories and workouts, and today’s wearables have a built-in heart rate monitor at the very least.
Many smartwatches also have GPS on board, which is useful for mapping runs and bike rides. Swimmers will want something water-resistant, and thankfully most all-purpose devices now can withstand at least a dunk in the pool. Some smartwatches from companies like Garmin and Polar are more fitness-focused than others and often offer extra features like heart-rate-variance tracking, blood-oxygen estimation, stress measurements and auto-exercise detection.
Your watch can not only track your morning runs but also play your jogging jams. Many smartwatches let you save your music locally, so you can connect wireless earbuds and listen to tunes without bringing your phone. Those that don’t have onboard storage for music usually have on-watch music controls, so you can control playback without whipping out your phone.
Many smartwatches have NFC, letting you pay for things without your wallet. After saving your credit or debit card information, you can hold your smartwatch up to an NFC reader to pay for a cup of coffee on your way home from a run. Keep in mind that different watches use different payment systems: Apple Watches use Apple Pay, Wear OS devices use Google Pay, Samsung devices use Samsung Pay and so forth. Fitbit and Garmin even have their own versions called — you guessed it — Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay.
Smartwatches can also make communication easier with app alerts, text replies and call-answering capabilities. App alerts delivered to your smartwatch let you glance down and see if you absolutely need to check your phone right now. Text alerts do the same, and some smartwatches let you send short replies directly from your wrist. Some smartwatches let you answer calls from your wrist and use the internal mic, provided your smartphone is nearby. Other timepieces have built-in LTE, allowing you to take and make calls even if your phone is off.
Size and style
You also want to consider style and size. You’ll wear this smartwatch all day long, so you’ll want to pick one that’s not only the right size for your wrist but also in a style that you like. Be sure to check case measurements (most often in millimeters), and if you like variety, look for a smartwatch with interchangeable bands.