The smartwatch market has come a long way since the original Pebble smashed Kickstarter records back in 2012, and finally it’s possible to make an informed decision about buying the right smartwatch for you.
Fast-forward to 2016 and everything is different. The Apple Watch has certainly led the way, but it’s not without its downsides, and now the fashion world has jumped on board, with Fossil, Michael Kors, Mondaine, Tag Heuer, Nixon and Casio all throwing their weight behind the cause.
The perfect smartwatch should work effortlessly, offering you the right mix of features, without making things complex with too many bells and whistles. What’s more, many devices are skewed towards certain types of people, which means that while there’s likely to be a perfect candidate for your needs, there are also going to be plenty of duds.
Here we’ll give you the definitive rundown of the main factors you need to weigh up when spending your cash.
Choose the right device
The majority of smartwatches on the market act as accessories to a connected mobile phone, so your current choice of handset is going to have a big say in which watches you can pick from (or vice versa).
The Apple Watch only works with iPhones, as you might imagine. But that doesn’t mean that iOS users are stuck with Cupertino’s offering. Android Wear watches now work with iPhone, as well as Pebble and a host of other upstarts.
Samsung smartwatches run the company’s own Tizen OS: most of its older devices (like the Gear 2 Neo) only work with a limited number of Samsung phones, although the new Gear S2 is compatible with a much longer list of recent Android handsets.
Android Wear watches – as you can no doubt surmise from the name – have for a long time only been built to work with Android phones (and only phones running Android 4.3 or later at that). Google has added iPhone compatibility to the OS, which should mean most future Android Wear devices are iOS-friendly.
As with smartphones, Google develops the software – which is based on Google services such as Google Now – then leaves it to manufacturers like Motorola, LG, Sony, Samsung and HTC to build the watches.
However, the tech old guard are getting brushed aside, and Android Wear has been the go-to OS for some exciting and unreleased watches. Tag Heuer and Fossil have chosen the software for its smartwatch, but so have New Balance, Nixon and Michael Kors, which are coming to market this year with their own smartwatches.
In theory, all Android Wear devices are made equal, but that’s not the case anymore. New updates from Google are highlighting differences under-the-hood, and now there’s actually a fairly big difference in the features you can access from watch-to-watch. The best thing to do is to read our round-up of the best Android Wear smartwatches for a detailed look at each one.
The long-established Pebble runs its own mobile OS and can communicate with apps on either Android or iOS, giving it a huge potential market, and the same goes for the Vector Luna, Olio, CoWatch and a good number of upcoming smartwatches. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t want to be tied to iOS or Android forever, then buying an agnostic device could be a big win.
What apps can it run?
While in most cases smartwatches run paired to a phone, they still have app stores which enable you to add to the core features of the watch – just like a smartphone.
Apple’s the leader here and had 8,500 compatible apps in its store at the last count (you can expect this number to swell considerably too). What’s more, as its apps can be merely extensions of iPhone apps, it’s easy for developers to create – and they’re doing so in droves. Now that watchOS 2 has added support for native apps we will get quality, not just quantity from the App Store.
Samsung’s Tizen is also showing good numbers with its Tizen OS, and there are over 1,000 apps to date.
The Pebble watches boast a decent array of apps made by a community of loyal and enthusiastic developers, but does lack the quality of the Apple selection: there’s only a smattering which take advantage of the Time’s colour e-paper screen or Timeline functionality. Similarly, Android Wear also has a bulging store, but like the early days of Android smartphones, it still lacks innovation and quality over a year after Wear’s launch.
Get the right mix of features
The majority of smartwatches feature a small digital display for showing the time, date and other notifications, though some are sharper and clearer than others.
Battery life is another consideration, and the display on offer tends to go hand-in-hand with longevity.
If you want longer battery (between a week and a month) then manufacturers have to sacrifice screen quality, so you’ll get e-paper or low energy LCD as we’ve seen on the Pebble smartwatch, Garmin Vivoactive and Vector Luna. They don’t look amazing, but they do the job.
If you want bright pin-sharp visuals, such as the ones you get with the Apple Watch and Android Wear devices, your smartwatch will last two days at best. It’s a simple choice about what’s most important to you.
It’s also wise to check out the kind of features each smartwatch champions.
Most will act as a watch first and foremost, and then notify you of messages from your smartphone, such as calls and emails. Some Android Wear smartwatches can make use of the Wi-Fi support for connecting on the go when you don’t have your phone but devices like the original ZenWatch miss out.
However, some smartwatches go further. Many are aimed at fitness, like the Garmin Vivoactive HR – so while its long battery life might seem appealing, a lot of the features might be wasted on you if you not a runner, golfer or cyclist.
Similarly, if you’re into sports, you need to check out the hardware included. The Sony SmartWatch 3 and the Moto 360 Sport are the only current Android Wear devices with GPS, and therefore capable of accurately tracking running, so don’t expect all devices under the Google umbrella to do the same. The Nixon The Mission, expected later this year and features GPS, as well as a humungous build for outdoor explorers. It’s very similar to the Casio WSD-F10, which is on sale now, but shuns GPS.
The Apple Watch has a built-in heart rate sensor which gives it a boost for fitness, but it can only borrow GPS from the iPhone, so you’ll need to carry that for workouts too.
The Pebble smartwatch’s fitness features are powered by Misfit, so it can track steps and sleep just as a normal Fitbit-style device would, but there’s no GPS for accurate run or cycle tracking.
Style is supremely important in a smartwatch, and luckily things are changing for the better. Recent smartwatches such as the Vector Luna, Pebble Time Steel and LG Watch Urbane – not to mention the Apple Watch – have brought more style to the party. New devices from Tag Heuer and Fossil show that smartwatch aesthetics are becoming more refined all the time.
Whichever smartwatch you choose, check out strap options, and whether it has a standard fitting.
Of the Android Wear line-up, the Moto 360 2 offers some of the best customisation options around, and it also boasts standard 16mm, 20mm and 22mm fittings, so you can choose your own too. The same applies for Pebble and Vector and Pebble is also investing in a Smartstraps platform to add customisable functions, not just style.
However, Apple Watch buyers beware. While the Apple Watch has a beautiful line-up of straps including the Milanese loop. While Apple’s range of straps are expensive, you can bag a bargain by opting for a third party strap, which can save you hundreds of dollars.
Dustproofing and waterproofing are other features to watch out for, particularly if you spend more of your time in the great outdoors than in an office cubicle and many smartwatches carry an IP67 rating. The Sony SmartWatch 3 ups this to IP68 (double the depth of water for double the time).
Need more help?
Be sure to take a look at our best smartwatch roundup too, as it’s ever evolving with the latest models.
And finally, bookmark our smartwatch hub to keep up to date with all the latest goings for the genre.