Best smartwatch: What to look for before you buy

by Peter Griffin / 04 September, 2018

A decade on from the launch of Apple’s first iPhone, computing power well in advance of that game-changing device is now available to you on your wrist.

The era of the smartwatch is upon us – just look at the multitude of colourful straps and elongated or squarish screens people are wearing. From fitness trackers like the Fitbit and Garmin to the Samsung Gear and Apple Watch, there are a host of great options to combine fitness and activity tracking and message alerts on your watch, which incidentally will still tell you the time, along with the weather and even play your favourite music.

But the smartwatch landscape is complicated and it is easy to get caught out buying a device that doesn’t quite suit your needs. To help you strap something to your wrist you may actually want to live with 24-7, here is Noted’s five-point guide to buying a smartwatch.

Time to get a new smartwatch? But which watch? Photo / Getty Images

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1. Are you an exercise bunny or casual commuter?

Remember when the Fitbit, the world’s most popular fitness tracker, was a simple black band with no digital display and little resemblance to a watch? Things have moved on since then and Fitbit’s numerous models have assumed many watch-like characteristics, chiefly, the always-on visual display common to digital watches.

Nevertheless, there’s a difference between a dedicated fitness tracker and a smartwatch and the last thing you want to do is buy one when you need the other. Fitness trackers from the likes of Fitbit and Garmin are designed with sports and exercise front of mind.

They include a heart rate monitor, pedometer and altimeter to track steps taken and stairs climbed and often a GPS chip to record your distance covered. They will sync with your smartphone to give you a suite of tools to monitor your exercise progress. Many of them will offer notifications of incoming phone calls, text and email alerts as well. But they are designed with fitness tracking in mind. If you are happy using your smartphone for your day to day messaging, calendar, apps and music, a fitness tracker will suffice.

Then your typical exercise activity will determine which model is the best fit. You can expect to pay $1500 - $350 for a fitness tracker. If you are simply interested in hitting your 10,000 steps a day, an entry-level Fitbit will do the trick for around $150. Garmin has fitness trackers designed specifically with runners and cyclists in mind, giving you accurate tracking of biking and cycling distance covered using GPS. They’ll cost more as a result - $350 - $800.

Some models are fully waterproof, letting you use them in the pool to track your swimming strokes. Mountain bikers and extreme sports enthusiasts will want to consider shock-proof and ruggedised models.

Bottom line: If health and fitness tracking is your priority, opt for a dedicated fitness tracker that gives you basic time and date information but includes the essentials of health tracking - accelerometer and altimeter, heart rate monitor and GPS chip to track distance and location. Carefully consider your exercise habits to match them to the right fitness tracker.

2. What flavour of smartphone have you got?

What fitness tracker or smartwatch you buy will to a large extent depend on what smartphone you use. That’s because the majority of these devices are an extension of the phone, storing your fitness and health information on an app on the phone and using the phone’s internet connectivity to keep you networked via Bluetooth.

If you are an iPhone user the Apple Watch will be a very attractive option as a fitness tracker and fully-fledged smartwatch, but it isn’t the only choice you have. Fitbit and Jawbone devices are tightly integrated with their respective apps to work on the iPhone. The Garmin smartwatches also work well in conjunction with an iPhone.

You can also use devices that support the Google Wear operating system in conjunction with an iPhone as well as a Samsung Gear device that runs Samsung’s own Tizen operating system. But Google Wear and Tizen devices are designed to pair with smartphones using the Android OS, so you won’t get full functionality when pairing with an iPhone. For instance, some Android smartwatches carry Samsung’s smartwatch line-up and naturally enough, work best with Samsung smartphones, but are still compatible with Android-powered Huawei or Nokia phones.

You can’t pair an Apple Watch with an Android smartphone so that option is off the table unless you have an iPhone.

Bottom line: Some fitness trackers work equally well with an iPhone or Android device, but some smartwatches are built to pair with Android phones so you won’t enjoy full functionality and pairing on an iPhone. The Apple Watch only pairs with the iPhone so is off limits to Android users. Your existing phone choice will play an important part in choosing a smartwatch. You can check your smartphone’s compatibility with a range of Google Wear-powered smartwatches at g.co/WearCheck

Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music.

3. The smartwatch - features to consider

For a device that gives you more of the functionality you enjoy with your smartphone, you’ll want to opt for a dedicated smartwatch. The leading players at the moment are the Apple Watch for iPhone users and the Samsung Gear S3 for those with Android phones. Apple Watch has its own operating system, Samsung employs its Tizen OS, and a host of other smartwatches use the Google Wear operating system.

If you are an iPhone user, it is a no-brainer to go with the Apple Watch as its integration with the iPhone and Apple’s cloud service is seamless. The Apple Watch debuted in 2013 and the current series 3 model is a quality device.

In the non-Apple field, there is more choice but more variability in quality and features.

Here are some of the key things to consider.

What’s on display?: Most smartwatches have full-colour displays, though the underlying technology will determine how good the screen looks. There has been a move towards AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) displays, as used in the Apple Watch which present a bright screen, crisp text and accurate colours. Fitness trackers tend to have lower-quality screens and may not present in full-colour, partly to save battery life.

You are unlikely to be viewing photos on your phone or reading screeds of text, but it is important to check in-store before buying that you are happy with the screen display of your intended smartwatch purchase.

Buttons vs touch: Many smartwatches and fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit Versa, Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S3 have touch screens that let you tap and swipe to move between apps and features. There’s a move towards combining touchscreen and buttons for both options.

For instance, I rarely use the touchscreen on my Fitbit Versa because the shortcuts to my most-used smartwatch features are available via the three physical buttons on the watch. Gesture recognition is hit and miss on smartphone screens, nowhere near as responsive and accurate as on your smartphone screen, so bear that in mind too. Force Touch is a useful feature that has come to smartwatches, notably the Apple Watch. Just press down or tap the screen to activate different features.

Other watchmakers, such as Samsung, have borrowed the rotating bezel concept from dive watches to allow you to scroll through apps and features by turning the bezel - this is the best method of navigating a smartwatch I’ve come across yet.

The Fitbit Versa.

App compatibility: The Apple Watch app is native to the iPhone, so syncing is easy and introduces you to the watchOS App Store, which has a wide range of apps that can be downloaded to the Apple Watch.

In addition, Apple’s Health app on the iPhone is at the heart of the health and fitness tracking features of the Apple Watch and Apple has put a lot of effort into making this really useful. It also developed HealthKit, a software platform which lets app developers plug into the Health app.

You’ll find apps like Shazam, TuneIn, Spotify, Uber, Nest, Flipboard and many more on the Apple Watch.

Both Apple and other smartwatch makers load a basic set of apps onto the watch for you, including an exercise monitor, weather, news, calendaring and messaging apps, so you won’t have to rely on loading new apps onto your smartwatch to make it highly functional.

The Fitbit OS also has a decent number of compatible apps available that will pair with the smartphone versions of the apps on Android and iOS devices.

Samsung OS has a reasonable number of apps too, which also interact with apps on either phone platform.

Outside of those top three sellers, the big player is Google with its Wear OS platform. It has struggled to gain traction, which is a shame as it has some nice features. But you’ll rarely see it on models selling in New Zealand - even Nokia smartwatches have their own dedicated smartwatch OS, bypassing Wear OS.

Check the manufacturers’ websites to see the full list of available apps for watchOS, Fitbit OS, Samsung OS and Wear OS devices.

Battery life and charging options: Charging your smartwatch is a hassle and the biggest downside to trading in your manually-wound or button battery-powered watch. A Fitbit Versa might last 3 - 4 days between charges, but a smartwatch like the Samsung Gear Sport or Apple Watch will need recharging every couple of days and sometimes every night if you are tapping on the screen regularly and using its apps.

The problem is that to monitor your sleeping patterns, a valuable feature most of these new smartwatches support, the watch needs to be on your wrist. So leaving your watch charging overnight while you slumber isn’t going to work. But smartwatches have small batteries compared to smartphones, so should only take 2 - 4 hours to fully charge, depending on the model.

Several of them also now support wireless charging which is hugely valuable as you avoid adding yet another cable and cradle to your dresser. Wireless charging pads are on the market that will charge your compatible iPhone and watch at the same time, and Apple is set to release its own official charging pad dubbed AirPower. Wireless charging is also available for Samsung smartphones and smartwatches.

Googlewear OS platform.

Messaging and alerts capability: Your smartwatch can be a great productivity tool, letting you discreetly glance at your wrist to see incoming calls, texts and emails and receive meeting reminders from your calendar. In most cases, these alerts are pushing to the watch from your smartphone via Bluetooth.

The beauty is that you can stay plugged into your message stream without having to keep picking up your phone. The Fitbit devices will alert you to incoming calls and display text messages and emails, but the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear and Wear OS-powered devices are more fully-featured in this department.

Some of them incorporate Google Assistant and allow voice commands so you can pull up information just by asking a question - an excellent feature given the limitations of navigating a tiny screen.

Quick replies sent from your watch are a common feature to acknowledge receipt of a message without involving your phone.

Dropping the phone: Some models of smartwatches in the Samsung and Apple line-ups feature a mobile network chip, allowing you to plug in a micro SIM card to make and receive calls, texts and emails and access the internet without being paired to your phone. It sounds great, but remember that the smartwatch has a very small battery, so relying on it for communications will drain the power quickly.

I see these models as coming in handy when you want to stay connected while exercising but don’t want to be weighed down by your phone. Mobile payments are also possible on some watches through contactless payment devices in stores, just as you can do with smartphones enabled with near-field communications.

These, however, are niche applications and yet to take off in the New Zealand market.

Bottom line: Compare features along smartwatches to get the basics right - display type, app compatibility, battery life and messaging and alert capability.

Apple smartwatch.

4. Design is really important

Wrist watches have been fashion accessories since they were first invented. The first generation of smartwatches were dull, chunky looking devices, more functional than fashionable. How things have changed. You can select from thousands of watch faces and even design your own. Wrist straps can be swapped out and designers have come up with clever quick-release clasps for them, knowing that the need to charge your watch regularly will see you needing to remove it quickly.

A huge accessory market for smartwatches exists and traditional watchmakers are getting in on the action, with smartwatches from the likes of Fossil, Tag Heuer and Louis Vuitton available to buy online.

But the most important thing is that the smartwatch is comfortable on your wrist, isn’t too bulky, has an easy release strap and the buttons and other physical navigation features work for you.

Bottom line: If you are shelling out up to $600 for a smartwatch, it can’t be a gadget that is worn a few times and discarded in favour of your old $10 Casio digital. It needs to fit your lifestyle, from its aesthetic to its functionality.

Samsung Gear S3 Frontier.

5. The smartphone alternative

If the thought of paying $300 - $400 for a fancy watch that is likely to be obsolete in a couple of years, you can enjoy many of the health-tracking features of a smartwatch on your smartphone. My P20 Pro has the “Health” app, which came bundled with it.

It counts my steps, minutes of exercise, distance moved and calories burnt. I can track my weight changes and sleep patterns by manually entering information, though the phone is also compatible with certain wearable fitness trackers and electronic scales.

Yesterday, the Health app told me I had taken 6,639 steps, moving 4.6km and burning 895 calories. The only problem is that I also went on a 40km bike ride, which the app wasn’t able to track despite my phone being in my bike pannier the whole time.

That’s the big downside of relying on your phone as a tracker, unless it is somewhere on your body, whenever you are moving about or exercising, all that effort won’t be counted. For some people - say joggers who wear their smartphone on an arm band, that’s not a big issue, but you really aren’t getting the full picture of your activity, including the things you do in your sleep, without having a gadget mounted on your wrist.

But your phone will play an important part if you do get a Fitbit or Garmin device with the aim of tracking your activity. It will be the place where your health data is synced to, you can tinker with your tracking settings and review your progress. There’s also a whole ecosystem of health apps that plug into tracking devices, combining them with exercise and diet advice - MyFitnessPal, Runtastic and Strava are three of the most popular ones worth checking out.

Bottom line: There’s plenty of health and fitness tracking potential in the phone you already have. With a bit of disciplined use and by keeping your phone on you as you move about, you’ll get a good gauge on your exercise progress - and have a fully-fledged communication device on hand at all times.

My picks for smartwatches

Fitbit Versa: The Fitbit is the health tracker for the masses and they have a model for every need. But the best option for adults who do a moderate amount of exercise and just want to keep tabs on their general fitness (ie: most of us), the Fitbit Versa is a great choice. It's an entry-level smartwatch. For more on the Fitbit Versa’s various attributes, read my in-depth review. ($350)

Samsung Gear S3 Frontier: Until we see what Google can pack into a smartwatch with its long-awaited Pixel Watch, the best smartwatch for Android users is the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier. It pretty much has everything a user with an Android phone needs in a smartwatch - GPS, heart rate monitor, water resistance, near field communications, an always-on digital display, messaging alerts and app support. I don’t see a real need to opt for the 3G version yet, which would untether you from your phone completely but adds around $100 to the price. ($549)

Apple Watch Series 3: If you are an iPhone user and generally exist in Apple’s ecosystem, it makes sense to get an Apple Watch. The design quality is exceptional and the Watch makes a nice pairing with your iPhone as materials and design elements are common to both. Apple’s Health app covers most of the bases when it comes to tracking your essential fitness and activity indicators - nutrition, sleep, physical exercise, but Apple has gone further with HealthKit, which allows health and fitness apps downloaded from the App Store to share data with each other. Apple has committed to Watch, and its attention to practical and eye-pleasing design as well as useful tracking features is commendable. ($529)

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