Back in 1970, the Hamilton Watch Company teamed up with an emerging tech company to create the first digital watch — a timepiece that was considered pretty “smart” because it flashed the date and time on a small LED screen.
Fast forward 30+ years, and such an innovation seems like ancient history. But that first digital watch laid the groundwork for today’s smartwatch category.
While the term “smartwatch” defies a precise definition, you can think of it as a wearable computer that sits on your wrist. Microsoft had such a concept in mind when it introduced the Spot in 2003, but the company discontinued the idea in short order. It took more than a decade (with a few stops in between from companies such as Sony, Samsung, and Motorola) for leading consumer tech giant Apple to release its first version of the smartwatch.
The evolution of the smartwatch continues today. Manufacturers of these wearable devices have yet to zero in on exactly which features and functions — not to mention price points — meet the demands of tech-hungry consumers. Still, you can’t deny the appeal of the smartwatch, and if you’ve landed on this page, chances are you’re interested in one for yourself or a loved one.
That’s why we created the above product recommendation matrix: to give you the lowdown on five of the best smartwatch products history has yet to provide.
At BestReviews, we don’t just review products. We research and study product categories, and we create shopping guides that help our readers learn more about what interests them. For more information about smartwatches, please continue reading.
While smartwatches are small, wearable computers that hug your wrist, that’s where the similarities between product options end. The smartwatch space spans many product types and can be divided into a few standard categories.
From such manufacturers as Fitbit (which recently purchased Pebble), Garmin, Microsoft, and Tomtom, these wearables are smaller in size than traditional smartwatches. The primary function of a fitness band is to provide support and tracking related to an individual’s exercise routine.
Price ranges from around $80 to over $200 and varies based on the watch’s capabilities, which can include heart rate monitoring and the measurement of calories burned and steps taken. Watches on the higher end of the pricing spectrum will feature notification of phone calls or texts but not the ability to answer calls or respond to messages.
To add GPS to a fitness band — a great asset for runners — you’re looking at a watch like the FitBit Surge, which sells for over $200. However, the FitBit Blaze is extremely popular with consumers and sells for $198. Though GPS isn’t included in the band itself, you can sync it with your smartphone for connected GPS service.
Primarily manufactured by traditional watchmakers such as Timex and Fossil, these timepieces sync with a smartphone and provide alerts when a phone call comes in, when a social media message is posted, or when a text arrives. However, these gadgets lack the ability to respond to said notifications.
As the price increases in this category, you’ll find more complex devices that are powered by either the Apple or Android operating systems to facilitate advanced functionality.
Entry-level models offer basic fitness and sleep tracking. More advanced units may include a customizable face. In addition to syncing with an Android smartphone, the Fossil Q line has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, providing users the ability to remotely control music as well as use voice to control its features.
This is far and away the biggest category. Here you will find Apple’s smartwatch as well as models from Samsung, Motorola, LG, and most popular consumer electronics manufacturers.
All devices within this category use the manufacturer’s operating system, and each operating system and device is linked to a marketplace of applications that are exclusive to that device. For example, Samsung and Google both utilize the Android operating system, but each uses a different version. Because of this, their applications are not, for the most part, interchangeable.
Smartwatches in this category operate in sync with their companion smartphones via WiFi and/or Bluetooth. For example, an Apple watch is tied to the iPhone, and the Samsung Gear smartwatch links with Samsung’s various phones. The phone must be in proximity of the watch in order for all applications to function properly.
Because this category of smartwatches does not include 3G or 4G LTE chipsets, they cannot independently make or receive phone calls.
For those who want their smartwatch to be able to receive or send phone calls independent of their smartphone, a number of manufacturers are beginning to add 3G or 4G LTE chips to their wrist wearables. Most notable in this category is the Samsung Gear S3, which has cell capability built in and works with AT&T or Verizon.
Other smartwatches with LTE functionality include the LG Urbane and a number of products from smaller Asian manufacturers, the capabilities of which can be expanded into replicating a smartphone by using an eSim card.
On the horizon for 2017 are the long-anticipated smartwatches from Google-code named Angelfish and Swordfish, with the Swordfish including LTE (4G) functionality.
For those on the fence about buying a smartwatch, here are some benefits to consider:
Doing your homework before you make a purchase will prevent you from buying a gadget that ends up gathering dust in your sock drawer. We suggest these tips:
After shelling out money for your new smartwatch, here are some tips to keep it running trouble-free:
The smartwatch faces an interesting challenge in that the category has yet to catch on with mass consumers. Manufacturers have struggled to find the right formula of style, substance, and utility, while consumers have yet to consider smartwatches a must-have product.
With some immediate changes coming in the smartwatch market, would-be buyers must decide if now is the time to buy or if it’s wise to wait for the next cool feature.
In the wake of Apple’s initial 2015 smartwatch launch, a number of Swiss-based luxury horology firms hinted at moving into the high-end portion of the market. To date, Tag Heuer has seen success with its Connected series selling more than 60,000 units at a price north of $1,500. With Tag’s success, Swarovski is planning an Android-based watch for Q1 with Hublot and Tissot next in line. If you think of your watch as a fashion statement, it would be wise to see what walks the world’s swanky runways.
A third generation of Apple’s smartwatch will emerge in 2017, and based on a number of its patents, the timepiece will have a round shape instead of its rectangular face.
A number of mass market watch manufacturers, including Swatch and Guess, have communicated weak signals regarding their take on smartwatch technology. Swatch generated plenty of enthusiasm with its 2015 introduction of the Touch Zero One sporty smartwatch, but that project quickly derailed. Guess has entered the market with a few notification-oriented smartwatches, but nothing has riled up its fan base just yet.
So what’s the takeaway from all this future talk? Like so many other consumer tech products, buying a smartwatch comes with the knowledge that newer, flashier models will hit the market shortly after your purchase. Therefore, it’s wise to enter the smartwatch merry-go-round with a product that suits your budget and the knowledge that every year will surely bring tempting new upgrades.
Q: How do I know if my smartwatch is compatible with my smartphone?
A: For starters, an Apple smartwatch is generally only compatible with an iPhone. Some Android phones offer limited, but not full, compatibility. Compatibility for smartwatches built on Android Wear can be checked at this website. LG watches are built on WebOS, which means they are fully compatible only with LG smartphones.
Q: Can I make or receive phone calls on my smartwatch?
A: If your smartwatch has built-in 3G or LTE (4G) functionality, you can make and receive calls using the same number as your smartphone — even if you’re away from your phone. People who own smartwatches without 3G or 4G can make or receive calls using WiFi or Bluetooth when in proximity of their phones.
Q: I heard Pebble went out of business. What do I do if I have a Pebble watch or one on order?
A: Pebble was bought by Fitbit in Dec. 2016. This site provides the details and some clues as to what to do if you have a Pebble watch or one on order.
Q: When will the next Apple smartwatch be released? Should I wait to buy one?
A: Apple is expected to release the next version of its smartwatch in Q3 of 2017. It promises to provide better battery life and more storage. There is also the possibility that it will have a round screen. In Q1 or Q2, Apple may release an interim update to the current model labelling it Apple Watch 2S.
Newer models mean lower prices for existing models. Unless you are waiting for a round screen, buying a “model 2” at a cheaper price is a smart move. The new features will be merely incremental.