With our online presence becoming more and more intertwined with our daily lives, the advent of different wearable technology seemed a certainty. In fact, the idea of a wrist communicator has been around for at least 50 years, dating back to Star Trek or the Dick Tracy line of comics. With the enormous variety of wearable tech available, you may be wondering if you should get a smartwatch, fitness tracker, or some other specialized product. To help, we bought the top 12 smartwatches available and put them through a comprehensive side-by-side testing process to crown the top smartwatch and put together this guide to help you decide if a smartwatch is right for you, what to look for when purchasing one, or what other types of wearables might be a better fit. For more information on how each model of smartwatch stacked up, take a peek at our complete smartwatch review.
Step 1: Is a Smartwatch the Right Piece of Wearable Tech for You? Why Buy One?
The first question for many people when thinking about buying a smartwatch: Why would I even want one? Aside from the undeniable appeal of carrying on a conversation through your very own wrist communicator, these products have a variety of uses and functions to make your life easier.
Smartwatches make use of an operating system — just like your phone or computer — and allow you to customize the apps available to match your needs. In addition, these will display most push notifications from your phone, as well as allow you to use a handful of apps right on your wrist. This could include playing games, using your watch as a method of payment, taking and making calls, replying to text messages or emails, and many others. Many of the newest smartwatches have incorporated standalone apps and voice control, allowing you to summon that rideshare with ease, all while leaving your phone safely stowed in your pocket.
All smartwatches will also double as a bare-bones fitness tracker, allowing you to count your steps and log basic workout data, though some watches are more suited to this than others, having rugged, water-resistant cases and silicon bands. Other smartwatches are much more elegant and classy affairs, meant to act as a stylistic accessory and much more closely resemble a traditional timepiece. You should get a smartwatch if you are constantly bombarded with notifications throughout the day and want to be able to discreetly view them and offer basic responses, would make use of a basic fitness tracker, or want to put a futuristic twist on your traditional chronograph.
On the other hand, a fitness tracker is solely for improving your fitness — though the newer, high-end models are beginning to blur the line with smartwatches and offer more and more smart features. However, the major differentiating factor is that these products do not have an app store or an OS that is very customizable, leaving you with what the manufacturer sets. These are usually smaller, less expensive, and more discreet and offer a much wider variety of fitness metrics to log as well as a much larger array of trackable workouts to choose from. The performance athlete, or someone who only want to wear a device while working out would be much better served by a fitness tracker, than a smartwatch. For more information on fitness trackers, take a look at our exhaustive review of the top fitness trackers currently available,
GPS Running Watch
For the elite athletes out there that may feel that fitness trackers are falling short of their tracking needs, then a GPS running watch may be the answer. These products are pricier — in the same tier as smartwatches — but are usually more suited for the outdoors in terms of ruggedness and water resistance, as well as providing a much larger suite of data on your workout. For more information on these products, take a look at OutdoorGearLab's comprehensive GPS Sport and Running watch review .
Step 2: What Type of Phone do you Have? What Smart Functions do you Want?
Now that you have decided that a smartwatch is the correct piece of wearable tech for you, it's time to narrow down your selection. The first factor will be to look at what type of smartphone you currently use. While there is some cross-OS compatibility, it usually reduces the functionality of the watch. We would recommend that you stick with your OS, pairing Apple Watches to iOS, Samsung watches to Samsung phones, and Android Wear watches with standard Android phones.
Selecting the correct OS will be the biggest reduction in the available pool of model, meaning now it is time to look at what exactly you want your smartwatch to do and making sure it has the necessary hardware to match. For example, if you are particularly excited about being able to use the watch to make calls, it is very important to get one that has a microphone and speaker. Not all models do, and many only have the microphone for voice commands, not calls.
If you want to use the watch as a payment method, then it is necessary to make sure the watch has NFC technology. Similarly, if you are interested in using the watch as a standalone fitness tracker or for other navigation purposes, a built-in GPS module is a must.
Those are the big three pieces of hardware that will differentiate the most between what these watches can do, so making sure the smartwatch has the right tech for your needs is the next step in moving forward to selecting the perfect smartwatch for you. Once you have this done, you can move on to the final step, detailed below.
Step 3: Sleek and Stylish, or Rugged and Outdoorsy?
Finally, you have narrowed down your selection to a few finalists, and are ready to pick the perfect watch for you. This is where you need to think about where you are planning on wearing your watch and which will match your style. The more outdoors-minded should consider a watch that is rugged, reasonably water resistant and includes or has the option to use a silicone or other water and sweat proof bands.
Those that are looking for a watch to take out on the town are going to want to look at models that are sleek, stylish, and more reminiscent of traditional timepieces. You also might want to consider a model that is compatible with a wide array of bands, so you can find the perfect match for every occasion.
While the ever-increasing array of wearable devices is daunting, hopefully, this guide will help point you in the right direction to find the perfect device to match your needs, budget, and style. For more information on the capabilities of specific models, take a glance at our comprehensive smartwatch review — linked below — where we took the top models currently available and put them through a grueling side-by-side testing process.