After buying more than 20 smartwatches, I know a thing or two about what to look for. Here's my extensive buying guide for wearable tech.
I think the easiest way to start is to get a basic understanding of the different types of smartwatches. There is a decent variety, but they can be categorized into a few major categorizations.
That’s what the rest of this post does in an effort to help narrow your search.
Main Types of Smartwatches
1. Operating System: Android Wear vs. Tizen (Samsung Gear) vs. OS (Apple)
This is the big starting point when buying a smart watch. Fortunately, the decision is pretty easy because it partly depends on the smart phone you own. If you have an Android phone, get an Android smart watch. If an Apple iPhone, get an OS smart watch.
BUT, what if you’re open to getting a different phone, which means the field is wide open… you must decide between an iOS smart watch and Android smart watch.
This isn’t such an easy decision. After all, Apple products are great. That said, the less proprietary nature of Android makes for a lot more watch choice (pretty much all other smart watches run on Android).
If it helps your decision, I’m more of an Android fan than an Apple fan. I’ve primarily used Samsung mobile phones and so when I bought my first batch of smartwatches, they were Android wear.
Android Wear vs. Samsung Gear (Tizen)
If you’re leaning toward Android, you must then decide whether to get an Android Wear or Samsung Gear (Tizen Operating System).
Android Wear is great because there are loads of apps and many watch brands use this OS.
However, overall, I much prefer the operating system used in the Samsung Gear S3 watches because it’s FAST and doesn’t drain the battery as fast.
This is an important component to choose a smartwatch. You must identify what functions/purposes are most important to you.
The main purposes/functions are:
- Fitness/Gym workouts tracking.
- More traditional functions such as receiving text messages/emails.
- Outdoor pursuits (where GPS is helpful).
- Style is the be-all and end-all.
3. Style and Design Options
Actually I put a lot of importance on this. But, if you want both a top notch fitness smart watch and a more elegant smart watch, there’s no reason you can’t buy one of each… or get a less expensive fitness tracker for working out and then invest more into a gorgeous smart watch.
At the end of the day there are 4 main style/design variables:
- More formal (elegant)
- Size considerations
Some smart watches offer an a la carte menu for design where you can choose the bezel, case, band and face. The Moto 360 is an example.
Also, most smart watches offer a variety of styles and designs. Fossil, Zen Watch, Apple, and Moto 360 offer a great selection of styles and different designs.
On the flip side, Fitbit smart watches and Garmin differences across their selection is focused more on functionality than design. Their watches, for the most part are sporty.
And then there’s the Samsung Smart Watches which offer very little variety except they have a classic design (the Gear S2 Classic) and a sporty design.
Shape: Round vs. Square
Part of design is considering shape . There are a good variety of both square and round smartwatches.
The round vs. square decision comes down to personal choice and comfort. You might find the square more comfortable because it doesn’t push into the top of your hand when you hyper-extend your hand whereas round watches do. While this isn’t a big deal for everyday use, it should be a consideration for gym/fitness smartwatches.
For example, if you do yoga and want a smartwatch for yoga where your hands hyper-extend frequently, a small square watch may be more to your liking.
4. The Health App Available
If you have an activity tracker or have data already stored in a health app, you’ll want to ensure your smartwatch will sync with that app in some way or fashion.
If you have no health data, then you can start from scratch with any. Many custom health apps for particular brands can sync with other health apps. For example, if you want the Samsung Gear S3 watch which uses the S Health app, but you prefer Google Fit, you can sync S Health with Google Fit.
That said, there is no universal health app and in some instances apps will not sync with one another.
Therefore, part of your buying decision, if the health app is important to you, must include looking carefully at the health app and its ability to sync with other health apps. The point is research the health app for any particular watch.
FYI, Android Wear watches work well with Google Fit and Google Fit syncs with most health apps. I use Google Fit on all my watches except Samsung Gear S3, but then with the Health Sync app, I’m able to sync Google Fit with S Health.
5. The Watch Strap
Another consideration you probably haven’t thought of, but I have after buying more than a dozen smartwatches, is the watch strap.
Typically, there are 3 watch strap materials:
- Steel link
- Silicone (rubber like material)
- Relocation to Mauritius
There isn’t a universal best. It really boils down to personal choice and what you’ll be using the watch for.
For example, if you’re using it primarily for fitness and activity, you definitely want a silicone strap.
If, on the other hand, you’ll be wearing it for work in an office, you want something nicer – the steel or leather band is a good choice.
The point is, don’t just buy the first watch for a particular model you see on your screen or in the store. Ask about options – colors and straps.
FYI, Fossil Q smartwatches are great because their watch straps are interchangeable. I have 2 Fossil Q watches plus an extra leather strap and a silicone strap.
6. Other Considerations
When shopping for a smartwatch, also pay attention to the following considerations:
- Battery life per charge;
- Functions: Fitness tracking, GPS, heart rate monitor and other functionality.
- Water resistant or proof or “don’t get a drop on it”: IP67 = water resistant / IP68 = waterproof.
- Size and weight;
- Shape (round vs. square);
- User interface;
- Ease-of-use; and
- Version: sometimes to save money, it makes sense to buy the previous generation. This makes sense when the new version isn’t all that different.
7. Money no object?
Buy two or more. Why?
You can get one for fitness and one for everyday use. For example, I won’t wear my Fossil Q Marshal or ZenWatch 3 in the gym, but the Garmin and fitbit smartwatches are perfect for working out.
Here’s the cool thing, at least for Android watches. Once you have all the apps set up on your mobile phone for one watch, additional watches sync automatically to all the Android Wear, which is awesome.
Leading Smartwatch Brands
There are a stable of main players in the smartwatch industry. Over time some will drop out (like Pebble recently did) while new companies will jump into the fray.
For now, the leading smartwatch brands are:
- ASUS (ZenWatch)
- fitbit Blaze and Surge
- Fossil Q
- Motorola (Moto 360)
- TAGHeuer Connected
- Michael Kors
I suspect that over the next few years, more watch brands and more smart phone companies enter the market. Currently, tech companies dominate, but traditional watch companies like Fossil and TagHeuer have released smartwatches.
How Much Should You Expect to Pay?
Expect to pay $300 to $650 for most smartwatches. There are some high-end models that cost more, but you can buy most models for $650 or less. Apple watches are the most expensive (other than TAG Heuer) for the most part. Android Wear smartwatches are typically less expensive.
Should you wait to buy a smartwatch?
There are 2 reason you would wait to buy a smartwatch:
1. Wait for lower prices; and/or
2. Wait for better watches.
Both are viable reasons to wait.
That said, I don’t think prices will drop all that much. I do, however, believe functionality, battery life, design and quality will improve dramatically over the next several years. If you’re inclined to wait, this is the better reason to wait.
Aren’t smartwatches a “gimmick” product?
When Apple released the first smartwatch, everyone was on pins and needles, especially Apple, as to whether it would be a big hit or a dud.
Initially, they weren’t as popular as other new Apple products and so the tech pundits chalked it up as a fail.
However, I think there’s a huge future for smartwatches. While some people argue that they are a tech accessory (for now), they are selling and many companies are getting in on the action.
One argument is that since most smartwatches require a proximate mobile phone that the watch is merely an accessory. That argument may hold water for now, but it won’t be long until the phone won’t be necessary for most models.
For example, when I started looking for smartwatches, stores all over my city were sold out of many brands. In fact some models such as Apple, Samsung Gear S3, Moto 360 and several Garmin smartwatches were impossible to find in retail stores. Fitbit Blaze was everywhere because they have incredible distribution by getting into all kinds of stores.
Given the local demand, I can’t help but think that as functionality, battery charge life and design improve, demand is increasing. Currently, battery life is short for most smartwatches, but this will undoubtedly improve.
The big players are investing big into wearable technology and so all current weaknesses will improve over the next few years.
Are smartwatches just an accessory?
I’ve read that smartwatches aren’t a device in their own right and instead are merely accessories. I disagree. The argument that they’re merely an accessory is based on the fact that they largely can’t function without a proximate mobile phone.
However, I think that argument is weak for 2 reasons:
1. Smartwatches have a primary function: Smartwatches do provide a primary function and that is they tell time. The additional smart features are indeed additional and currently do require a proximate phone, but there is a primary function. It’s similar to smartphone phones in their infancy; their primary function was as a telephone.
2. Smartwatches will no longer require a proximate phone: It won’t be long until smartwatches will function entirely on their own without a proximate mobile device. They will be able to do all the functions they currently do, including making/receiving calls, sending/receiving texts and emails etc. without a nearby phone. Once this happens they will be a bona fide device in their own right.
Accordingly, it’s my opinion that smartwatches will grow in popularity, will indeed be a successful product line in its own right and you’ll see many traditional watch makers enter the market as well.
Should you buy a smartwatch online or in a brick and mortar store?
I bought my first 7 smartwatches at Best Buy. The reason I did this is I didn’t want to wait and there’s a Best Buy a couple blocks from my office.
Reasons to buy in a brick and mortar store are twofold:
1. You can try the demo versions;
2. You can ask the sales help questions. I found the people at Best Buy to be pretty helpful; and/or
3. You get it immediately.
Reasons to buy online are:
1. More selection: brick and mortar stores may not have the latest models or a specific model you’re looking for.
2. Save money: you can possibly find lower prices online; and/or
3. Convenience: you don’t have to trek on over to the store.
Where does that leave you?
That leaves you with hopefully having narrowed down your list. From there read our intensely researched and tested smartwatch reviews and if you have the time, swing by a store and try out the demos on display.
After that, choose your ideal model and find the best price – whether in-store or online.