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The Fitbit Versa 2.

Best smartwatch: What to look for before you buy

The era of the smartwatch is upon us. From fitness trackers like the Fitbit and Garmin to the Huawei Watch and Apple Watch, there's 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’s easy to get caught out buying a device that doesn’t quite suit your needs. To help you strap something to your wrist you actually want to live with 24-7, here is NOTED’s five-point guide to buying a smartwatch.

Jump to Peter Griffin's recommendations

Garmin Venu.

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 distance covered. They sync with your smartphone so you can monitor your exercise progress and many offer notifications of incoming phone calls, text and email alerts as well. If you’re 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 $150-$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 and a more rugged design than your typical Fitbit. They’ll cost more as a result – $350-$800.

Increasingly, smartwatches are fully waterproof, letting you use them in the pool to track your swimming strokes. The Apple Watch will even go through a procedure after being in the water to vibrate the moisture out of its speaker. 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 accurately track distance, elevation and location. Carefully consider your exercise habits to match them to the right fitness tracker.

Read more: Why more and more of us are jumping on the wearable tech bandwagon | What are Apple and Huawei's new smartwatches like?

 Apple Watch Series 5.

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 an attractive option as a health tracker and fully-fledged smartwatch, but it isn’t the only choice you have. Fitbit, recently bought by Google, has a wide range of devices that are tightly integrated with the Fitbit app to work on the iPhone. The Garmin smartwatches also work well in conjunction with an iPhone or Android, as do Samsung’s smartwatches (compatible with iPhone 5 and above).

If you are an Android phone user, the Apple Watch isn’t an option – it won’t work with the Android operating system. But virtually every other fitness tracker and smartwatch will work with Android.

Things get a bit more complicated when attempting to pair a smartwatch such as a Huawei or Samsung with the iPhone. Those watches have their own operating systems, LiteOS and Tizen 3.0 respectively. Other smartwatches are based on Google’s Wear OS system.

All of the functionality may not be available due to a lack of access to Apple’s iOS software. If you are an iPhone user, check that you’ll be getting the functionality you need – this guide will help.

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.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active.

The smartwatch features to consider

For a device that gives you more of the functionality you enjoy with your smartphone, you’ll want a dedicated smartwatch. The leading players at the moment are the Apple Watch with its new Series 5 and older Series 3 for iPhone users. In the Android camp, the key players available in New Zealand are Samsung, with the Galaxy Watch and Galaxy Watch Active 2, Huawei with the Watch GT 2 and Garmin with its Venu smartwatch.

If you’re an iPhone user, it is a no-brainer to go with the Apple Watch as its integration with the iPhone and Apple’s iCloud service is seamless. The Apple Watch debuted in 2013 and the current Series 5 model is a quality device, the best-featured smartwatch currently on the market. Its only real limitation is battery life – it needs to be recharged each day. 

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 OLED displays, as used in the Apple Watch which presents 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 watch 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 Galaxy Watch 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.

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, like Spotify and Uber for example, that can be downloaded to the Apple Watch. With the Series 5, apps can be downloaded directly to the watch as long as you have Wi-fi coverage.

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

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 FitbitOS 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’s 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. Smartwatches from Fossil are on sale in New Zealand based on 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 normal wristwatch. A Fitbit Versa fitness tracker might last 3-4 days between charges, but a smartwatch like the Galaxy Watch or Apple Watch will need recharging almost every day. If you are tapping on the screen regularly and using apps, you are going to have to charge it every night.

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 1-3 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 is also available for Samsung smartphones and smartwatches. However, the Huawei Watch GT 2 isn’t able to be charged on Qi wireless pads or reverse charged from a phone like the P30 Pro. Make sure your preferred option is covered if wireless charging is an attractive alternative to using a smartwatch cradle.

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, Galaxy Watch and Wear OS-powered devices are more fully-featured in this department.

The Wear OS smartwatches 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. Apple has mastered this on the Apple Watch, allowing you to use Siri to pull up information such as calendar events and boarding passes.

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

Dropping the need for a 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 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. But they rely on the availability of a mobile phone plan that allows you to combine your phone account with smartwatch usage. Currently only the Apple Series 5 cellular edition is available for a joint account through mobile operator Spark, which also offers a wearables data plan

Mobile payments are also possible on an increasing variety of smartwatches through contactless payment devices in stores, just as you can do with smartphones enabled with near-field communications. Apple Pay is the leader here – check to see if your bank or credit card is supported for use with wireless terminals on your preferred smartwatch.

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

An Herme's branded Apple Watch

Design is really important

Wristwatches 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. Samsung, Huawei and Apple devices have their own ranges of straps, which can be purchased online.

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.

P30 Pro Sleep app display

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 P30 Pro has the “Health” app, which came bundled with it.

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.

It counts my steps, minutes of exercise, distance moved and calories burnt. I can also start an exercise session in the app to track running or cycling. The downside is the bulkiness of wearing a smartphone during a workout and not all smartphones have waterproofing, which you’ll want in a smartwatch you use regularly for exercise.

Your phone will play an important part if you do get an Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, Huawei 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

Apple Watch Series 5: 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, but Apple has gone further with HealthKit, which allows health and fitness apps downloaded from the App Store to share data with each other. The always-on display on the Series 5 and ability to browse the app store from the phone are great improvements. Siri integration tops off the feature set. ($729 - read review here)

Samsung Galaxy Watch: Possibly the best option available for Android users currently, the Galaxy Watch balances good battery life (3-4 days for typical use), with sophisticated exercise tracking, waterproofing and quality, robust design. It is mistakable for a traditional wristwatch and has a rotating bezel to let you easily cycle through the user interface. Includes access to a good range of apps, though a few key omissions will annoy some users. Samsung’s Bixby smart assistant lets you call up info on the screen with voice commands. ($549)

Huawei Watch GT 2: Expands the functionality of last year’s Watch GT to include Bluetooth calling from the phone and onboard storage for music playback. Crucially, the two-week battery life that makes the GT such a convenient smartwatch to wear is retained. The health-tracking features have had an upgrade with a new stress tracker rating your stress levels based on a questionnaire and heart rate measurements. The overall design is improved and retains that sporty wristwatch look. Great value for money. ($342 - read review here)

Fitbit Versa 2: The Versa was a great new addition to the Fitbit range nudging the health tracking company into smartwatch territory. It features a great lightweight and attractive design, an always-on screen option, five days of battery life with standard usage and the Alexa voice assistant built-in. There are a few limitations, such as the lack of a GPS chip built-in for accurate location and distance tracking, but as a budget smartwatch, it covers the bases well and Fitbit’s health app and user interface is as impressive as ever. ($360)

SpaceTalk: The smartwatch for kids. It can be used without a smartphone and fitted with a microSIM card that can be used for calls and SMS messages. There’s no support for social media keeping it distraction-free but it does have an SOS function that can be customised to call a sequence of contacts and local authorities in an emergency. With the AllMyTribe app, parents can take advantage of the built-in GPS chip to keep tabs on their child’s whereabouts. A great communication and safety device without the downsides of issuing youngsters with smartphones. ($399)

Article updated December 2019.

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