Choosing a smartwatch can be a difficult task, especially as you try to separate the devices that offer useful features with those that are packed with gimmicky functions that aren’t tailored to the specific purpose that you envision for your new wearable.
As JR Raphael reported recently for Computerworld, the introduction of any new type of technology prompts “an awkward phase where everyone tries to figure out what types of usage actually make sense for the form.” By the second or third generation of the technology, manufacturers begin cramming “all sorts of silly concepts” into their devices for the marketing potential, rather than the real-world value, that those features will add to their products.
As device makers work to find ways to make their smartwatches stand out, they’ve already ushered in this awkward phase. Case in point: the idea that the second generation of the Apple Watch could feature a camera for wrist-based video chats — which would be both impractical and uncomfortable to complete.
The smartwatch’s most practical functionality is for quick tasks that require only a few seconds of screen time and minimal interaction in terms of taps, swipes, or voice input. The smartwatch can prevent you from needing to pull out your smartphone for these small tasks, but it shouldn’t take on tasks that would be quicker, and less frustrating, for you to complete on your smartphone.
There are a few smartwatches that have things figured out, at least in an early sense of the phrase. But if you’re in the market for a smartwatch, it’s probably already clear to you that the best device for you will be determined by what your specific interests are and what you’re really hoping to get out of wearing the device each day.
1. For the style-conscious
Motorola’s Moto 360 is a good choice for a user who wants his or her smartwatch to look like a regular wristwatch. It features a round 1.65-inch display, a stainless steel frame, and a leather band. At its launch, it offered a welcome change over the plasticky, blocky Android Wear watches that came before it. Like the newer LG G Watch R, it isn’t obvious that it’s a smartwatch, and it’s one of the best-looking smartwatches we’ve seen so far. However, a common complaint about the Moto 360 is that its processor is inefficient, and it’s a choice to avoid for anyone hoping for a smartwatch with a battery that’ll last longer than a day. Another good choice for the style-conscious user is the Asus ZenWatch. Its design isn’t quite as refined as the Moto 360’s, but it does offer a rectangular face, which is a good option for users who don’t want a round face.
2. For the battery-conscious
An excellent choice if you’re looking for a smartwatch that can deliver days’ worth of texts, emails, and other notifications on a single charge is the Pebble Steel. Instead of a color screen, it features a 1.26-inch e-paper display and a sleek silver or black casing. The lack of a color display does limit the Steel’s ability to compete with other smartwatches, like the growing assortment of impressive Android Wear watches, as does Pebble’s limit on the number of apps you can install (you can’t exceed eight). But the device can last through four days between charges, and is compatible with both Android phones and Apple’s iPhone.
3. For the budget-conscious
If getting a useful smartwatch for the least amount of money is your priority, then the original Pebble smartwatch is the best smartwatch for you. For less than $100, you get a device for which developers have built more than 6,000 apps and watch faces. You also get a colorful, water-resistant design, and the ability to get notifications about texts, emails, and calls on your wrist. It’s also compatible with a number of popular fitness apps.
4. For the Apple enthusiast
For the user who loves Apple’s devices and is looking to add another to his or her Apple-made ecosystem, the Apple Watch is an obvious choice. While even the entry-level Apple Watch Sport is pricier than other smartwatch options, the Apple Watch integrates most closely with the iPhone, and, in fact, currently depends on a paired iPhone for most of its functionality. You can set up notifications for many of the apps you have installed on your iPhone, which, for many users, enables them to check their iPhones significantly less frequently throughout the day.
5. For the Android fan
There are a number of good smartwatches built on Android Wear, but the LG Watch Urbane is generally regarded as the best one. With a stylish stainless steel and leather build, it feels like a luxury watch. It runs the latest version of Android Wear, so you can scroll through and respond to a wide variety of notifications with gesture controls. It also supports an ever-growing variety of apps, plus voice control, WiFi connectivity, and a heart rate monitor.
6. For the app enthusiast
The Apple Watch or one of Pebble’s watches is currently the best bet for someone who enjoys researching, installing, and experimenting with apps. (The worst choice, for the record, would be the Alcatel OneTouch Watch, which doesn’t have a dedicated app store.) Both Apple’s watch and Pebble’s wearables offer access to app stores packed with thousands of different apps. While many argue that no one’s quite figured out the killer app for a smartwatch, given the volume of apps created for these platforms, it’s most likely to happen here first.
7. For the voice control fan
If your primary inspiration for purchasing a smartwatch is the desire to emulate Dick Tracy and control your smartwatch with your voice, the Samsung Gear 2 is, hands-down, the best smartwatch for you. With a built-in microphone and speaker, the Gear 2 enables you to make calls while keeping your paired smartphone in your pocket. It also enables you to use Samsung’s S Voice to look up information, making voice commands an integral part of the wearable.
8. For the operating system chameleon
If you’re among the contingent of users who changes smartphones often or owns different mobile devices that run on different operating systems, it may be important to you to find a smartwatch that’s compatible with your various devices. The best smartwatches, so far, that are compatible with both Android and iOS smartphones are the Pebble Steel, the Pebble Time, and Alcatel’s OneTouch Watch. If battery longevity and a wider selection of apps are more important to you than a full-color screen, go with one of Pebble’s watches. If you’d prefer the color screen, consider the OneTouch Watch, which features an accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter, heart rate sensor, and compass, some of which are known to be a bit finicky. Its battery also lasts longer than that of most color smartwatches.
9. For the runner or workout fan
The Sony SmartWatch 3 is a surprise winner for runners and others who need excellent connectivity options that enable them to leave a smartphone at home. The affordable device packs a Snapdragon 400 processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of internal storage, plus Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, and WiFi. Additionally, it’s dust and water-resistant, and while it doesn’t look as polished as some of the other options, it does have a streamlined, minimal aesthetic.