How to Choose a Smartwatch
Editor's Note: On Sept. 7, Apple unveiled the successor to its first smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 2. It looks the same as the original Apple Watch, but it has upgraded internals and is waterproof. Once it's released on Sept. 16, we will test the Apple Watch Series 2 in full to reveal more about its strengths and weaknesses. For now, though, read our initial impressions here.
The top performers in our review are the Apple Watch Sport, the Gold Award winner; the Moto 360, the Silver Award winner; and the Huawei Watch, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a smartwatch to meet your needs, along with information on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 products.
Why Use a Smartwatch?
We are drowning in notifications and are constantly being interrupted by beeping and buzzing smartphones. It's an endless race to keep up to date on email, text messages and social media. No matter where you go, you see people entranced by the glowing screen of their smartphones. Some would argue our phones have become too invasive.
Enter smartwatches. Smartwatches aren't designed to be used for several minutes at a time. Just try raising your wrist for more than 30 seconds. It's uncomfortable and it looks awkward. The best smartwatches reduce the number of times you remove your smartphone from your pocket or bag. They keep you informed, unobtrusively, as to what is happening online without pulling you from the real world. You shouldn't expect to take phone calls with your smartwatch, but you can respond to text messages using your voice with most smartwatches.
Smartwatches: An Accessory for Your Smartphone
Smartwatches save you time for simple tasks, like controlling music playback, or reminding you of impending appointments and meetings. Some even have fitness-tracking abilities or heart rate monitors. And, of course, they tell time.
Smartphones, on the other hand, can be used to crank out long emails, read articles or watch videos on the mobile web. Think of smartwatches as accessories to your smartphone – they aren't intended to replace your smartphone. Instead, they act as an extension, offering you quick snippets of information – incoming messages, tweets, sports scores and weather, for instance.
Smartwatches: What We Tested, What We Found
Design: Smartwatches Come in Different Shapes, Styles and Sizes
Watches are accessories that complement your look. They not only tell time, they also make a statement. We know how important appearance is when purchasing something that you will wear, so we tested several different styles of smartwatches. The perfect smartwatch shouldn't just look good, it needs to fit your wrist well, be made of premium materials and should be comfortable to wear.
Since you will be wearing your watch practically every day, you want one that suits your style. Most smartwatch bands are swappable, but you have to purchase them separately, so pay attention to the material the watchband is made of. The material can range from synthetic rubber to leather to stainless steel. There are even different band styles—some double wrap and others have a cuff-style.
Unfortunately, very few smartwatches come in different face sizes, so some look very large on small wrists – especially women's wrists. Most smartwatches appear masculine and feature thick straps and large faces, but more and more manufacturers are rolling out smartwatches that cater to women.
Features and Specs: Not All Smartwatches Are Created Equal
We wore smartwatches – just like you would in an array of real-world scenarios – while running, at the movie theater, to a concert, on a hike, playing tennis, all sorts of places. The obvious goal of smartwatches is to make your day easier, whether it's tracking your steps, measuring sleep, responding to a friend's message or setting an alarm. Nearly every smartwatch tracks your steps, but not all have heart rate sensors. Also, most do not have a built-in GPS chip, so if you want to map out runs, you still need to run with your phone.
When jogging, smartwatches are extremely handy. You can instantly see your pace and quickly switch songs (even though your phone is in your pocket) without having to stop. Some smartwatches even have built-in storage for music, tether wirelessly to Bluetooth headphones and can be used independently from your phone for music. And after you are done running, you can use your smartwatch to check your heart rate.
We found that smartwatches help ease the burden in always relying on your smartphone to complete small tasks. It's crazy convenient to raise your wrist and say to your watch, "OK, Google, what time is it in London?" to find out if it is too late to message a friend overseas. On a smartphone, this process would require unlocking your phone, entering a passcode, scrolling through the apps, opening a folder, tapping the clock icon and then typing "London," if the location isn't already saved. With a smartwatch, it takes two steps.
However, the biggest complaint with smartwatches is the battery life. The best smartwatches should last an entire day – minimum. It's incredibly frustrating to take off your smartwatch to charge it midday. It's even more irritating when you check the time only to be greeted with a black screen. A dead battery renders your smartwatch useless. The market for smartwatches is still young, and as time goes on, battery life is improving, but there's still significant room for improvement. We recommend charging your smartwatch at night.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of the typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison both on loan from the companies and through retail purchase. These manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology nor was the methodology provided to any of the manufacturers in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. The results of our smartwatch evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else is Important in Selecting a Smartwatch?
A smartwatch should be stylish and useful. A good smartwatch makes a person's day easier and helps you accomplish small tasks, like marking an email "read" or checking into a flight with a QR-code boarding pass.
It's important to note, almost all smartwatches rely on your smartphone to function. They piggyback off your phone's data connection and connect via Bluetooth. A few smartwatches run independently from your phone but require a separate data plan and phone number. These models are not in our comparisons.
Most smartwatches run Google's Android Wear software, but others have their own operating system. For instance, several Samsung smartwatches run an OS called Tizen. Pebble created its own custom firmware for its smartwatch, and the Apple Watch runs a modified version of iOS dubbed watchOS. You want to ensure that whichever smartwatch you choose, it's compatible with your smartphone. For instance, the Apple Watch won't work with an Android device. Some older Samsung smartwatches only work with Samsung smartphones.
If you have an iPhone and an Android Wear watch, you are in luck, because Google has added iPhone support to smartwatches that run Android Wear. However, there are still flaws: the watch has limited functionality compared to if it is paired with an Android smartphone. For example, you can only read text messages, but you can't respond to them on the watch. Currently, Samsung's Gear S2 smartwatch does not work with the iPhone.
Most watches have an AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) display while others have a transflective LCD screen. The Pebble smartwatches use low-temperature polysilicon displays (LTPS LCDs), which are essentially colored ePaper screens. These are much easier to read in the sunlight since they lack glare. Screen shapes also vary with smartwatches; some are round, while others are rectangular. Some are thin, while others are big and bulky, especially on smaller wrists.
Smartwatch's internal specifications also tend to vary. When it comes to smartwatch's internal components, bigger numbers typically are better. Most have RAM of around 512MB and provide you with 4GB of storage space for apps and music. The processors, basically the brains of the watch, typically have a speed of at least 1.0 GHz; the faster the speed, the more the watch can handle.
You should also pay attention to levels of water resistance. The International Electrotechnical Commission classifies degrees of protection in smartwatches against water and dust. Most smartwatches are only splash-resistant and are not completely waterproof. You are only able to swim or shower with a select few brands.
And, as a final consideration, if your smartwatch somehow manages to get damaged or doesn't work for some reason or another, you should know beforehand what repair, help and support options are available. Most smartwatches come with a one-year warranty.
Smartwatches: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Three top smartwatches – the Apple Watch Sport, our Gold Award winner; the Moto 360, our Silver Award Winner; and the Huawei Watch, our Bronze Award Winner – stood out in comparison to other smartwatches, mostly due to their design, battery life and wide range of features.
The Apple Watch Sport is stylish, lightweight and has the best-looking display compared to any other smartwatch. It also has standout features that separate it from others, including a digital crown you twist to scroll through pages, rather than swiping on the watch's small screen. It also has a taptic engine, which vibrates and gives you different feedback as notifications and reminders come in.
The Moto 360 is the best smartwatch powered by Android Wear. It is entirely customizable and comes in two sizes that appeal to both men and women. The Huawei Watch is a premium smartwatch with a high-resolution display that is protected by sapphire crystal.
Pebble also deserves some recognition. The company's watches came to fruition because of a successful Kickstarter campaign. Its Pebble Time Round model is the thinnest smartwatch on the market. It's so comfortable and lightweight you may forget you are wearing it, that is, until it vibrates to remind you of your next meeting. Also, consider the Pebble Time or its more expensive older brother, the Pebble Time Steel. Both watches are a great value, and their batteries last well over a week, the longest of any smartwatch. For additional information, take a look at our articles on smartwatches.