We’re roughly four years into the Great Modern Smartwatch Experiment, which means we’ve learned what smartwatches can be good for (fitness tracking, notifications) and what they are definitely not good for (replacing your smartphone entirely). If you’re in the market for a smartwatch, whether that’s because you’ve never owned one before and are curious about them or you’re looking to upgrade your older-generation model, you can expect today’s smartwatches to last a little bit longer between charges, be a little faster to accomplish things, and perhaps do a couple of new tricks you weren’t expecting.
But the best smartwatch is still very much a slave to a smartphone, and even if you shell out for an LTE-connected model and pay a service plan fee for it, it’s not going to free you completely. For that reason, we don’t think LTE smartwatches are a good buy for most people — it’s far easier and cheaper to just keep your phone with you and use your watch as a sort of remote control for the phone in your pocket or bag.
Which smartwatch you pick is going to be based entirely on what phone you own, so our picks are broken down into the best option for iPhone users and the best one for Android owners.
For iPhone owners, Apple’s Series 4 Watch is far and away the best option available. The Apple Watch has a large, bright screen; sleek, comfortable hardware; fast performance; very reliable battery life; and a whole host of fitness tracking and health-related features. The Apple Watch also has the strongest third-party ecosystem — there are countless straps, accessories, chargers, docks, apps, and watchface complications you can use with the Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch excels at providing quick access to any notifications that come in to your phone, and it lets you reply to messages right from your wrist quickly and easily. You can use it as a speakerphone whenever you feel like emulating Dick Tracy, and it’s great for controlling music playing on your phone. It also has Apple Pay for buying things without a wallet or your phone, GPS and heart rate tracking for workouts, and even the ability to warn you if it detects certain heart problems.
Battery life can vary depending on how much you use the Watch to track activities and how many notifications you receive, but in our testing, the Series 4 Watch never failed to last at least an entire day between charges, and often it could go for two days. It’s still something you need to charge rather regularly, but you don’t have to worry about it dying on your wrist halfway through the day if you’ve started with a full tank.
Unlike virtually every other smartwatch on the market, the Apple Watch still doesn’t offer an always-on display, however, so it doesn’t actually tell you the time until you touch the screen or lift your wrist. It’s still extremely ironic that the thing the Apple Watch is the worst at is being an actual time-keeping device.
But aside from that, there’s very little to complain about with the Apple Watch Series 4, and it’s easily the best option for iPhone users.
If you’ve got an Android phone, the Apple Watch won’t work at all, and the best option here is Samsung’s Galaxy Watch. The Galaxy Watch does work with both iPhones and Android devices, but it’s best with an Android phone, and specifically, one made by Samsung.
The Galaxy Watch has most all of the features you’d expect on a modern smartwatch: GPS, touchscreen, multi-day battery life, voice control, mobile payments, and heart rate monitoring. It has a circular face that’s easy to read indoors and out, and has a very useful always-on mode that makes it easy to see the time at a glance.
The best part of the Galaxy Watch is its rotating bezel, which is a very natural and simple way to glide through the software interface. Like the Apple Watch Series 4, the Galaxy Watch has no trouble lasting an entire day between charges, and will sometimes stretch into multiple days depending on your use.
Where the Galaxy Watch falls short is in its third-party app support and reliance on Samsung software and services. There just aren’t very many third-party apps available for it, and the third-party watchfaces, though plentiful, aren’t very good. If you use the Galaxy Watch with a phone that’s not made by Samsung, you’ll also have to install numerous apps on your phone to enable all of its features, which is annoying.
But aside from those concerns, the Galaxy Watch is about as good as it gets for Android users.
The rest of the smartwatch field is largely comprised of variations of Wear OS devices that run Google’s actual smartwatch platform. The problem with most of these devices is they feel at least a generation (or more) behind where Apple and Samsung are at with wearables. They have fewer features, worse battery life, and often thick, clumsy designs. Based on our experience, the Wear OS watches that fare the best are ones made by Fossil and its stable of brands (such as Skagen), which are available in a variety of styles and sizes.
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