The infamous calculator watch has been around since the 1970s, but smartwatches have finally reached the point that they're, well, smart. From running apps, to displaying smartphone notifications, to monitoring your heart rate, the latest crop of smartwatches do a lot more than just tell time. But which one should you buy? We've rounded up our top-rated options to help you decide. It's also important to know what to look for, so keep the following advice in mind when shopping around.
Pick a Watch That Works With Your Phone
Naturally, the first thing you'll want to consider when buying a smartwatch is compatibility.
All Apple Watch models run watchOS, Apple's smartwatch operating system, and connect strictly to iOS-powered devices, meaning they're iPhone-only. The Series 7, Apple's latest flagship model, requires an iPhone 6s or later, running iOS 15 or later.
Samsung's latest smartwatches, the Galaxy Watch4 and Watch4 Classic, run the new Wear OS platform, and only work with Android. They require a smartphone running Android 6.0 or later with 1.5GB of RAM, a departure from 2020's Watch3, which also worked with iPhones.
All the other models on this list work with both Android and iOS smartphones.
The Best Smartwatch Apps
What separates a smartwatch from a dumb watch? Lots of things, but as smartphones have taught us, apps might be the most important.
Most of the watches we like feature full-fledged app stores, bringing everything from Spotify and Yelp to—yes, a calculator—to your wrist. Much like smartphones, app availability is a good way to determine which product to get, so make sure to check out the app selection for each watch before buying in.
If you're looking for apps, Apple is your best bet. The Apple Watch has the largest number of high-quality apps and big-name developers, by far.
Wear OS also has its fair share, but third-party developers still seem more interested in creating for Apple wearables. But now that Wear OS is running on Samsung's latest smartwatches, it might garner more developer interest.
In the Google Play Store on the Galaxy Watch4 series, you can already find some big name apps like Any.do, AccuWeather, Citymapper, Google Fit, Google Keep, Google Pay, Google Slides, IFTTT, iHeartRadio, Lifesum, Nike Run Club, Kamoot, Pandora, Shazam, Telegram, and Todoist. Moreover, Samsung and Google say YouTube Music and Bitmoji, as well as revamped versions of Spotify, Calm, Strava, adidas Running, Swim.com, and Flo Period Tracker, will also be coming to their unified Wear OS platform.
Still, some popular apps available on the Apple Watch are missing from Wear OS, including Audible, CNN, Facebook Messenger, ESPN, Runkeeper, Starbucks, The Weather Channel, and Uber.
Smartwatches vs. Fitness Trackers
Unless you want a gadget on both of your wrists (not the best look), you'll want a smartwatch that can do double duty as a fitness tracker. Most smartwatches are capable of tracking basic activity, like steps, but you need to pay close attention to any additional features.
With the exception of the Garmin Lily, all the smartwatches on our list feature a GPS so they can track your runs without the help of a companion device. These days, most smartwatches also feature an optical heart rate sensor, allowing for continuous and on-demand heart rate measurements.
The Apple Watch Series 7 and Galaxy Watch4 offer several advanced health-tracking features, including the ability to take an electrocardiogram (ECG) and measure your measure your blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) level. Of course, they're among the most expensive products on this list.
The Fitbit Versa 3 costs less and tracks plenty of fitness and sleep metrics, but has less in the way of third-party apps, so there's some trade-off. Look closely and choose a watch that tracks the activities and health metrics you want to monitor.
Does Your Smartwatch Need Cellular Connectivity?
A cellular connection allows you to make calls, send texts, stream music, download apps, and do anything else that requires an internet connection, without actually needing to be connected to your phone. The cellular Apple Watch Series 7 carries a $100 premium over the standard version, and you also have to pay to add it to your phone plan—most carriers charge an additional $10 per month.
Whether this convenience is worth it for you depends on what you plan to use your watch for. If you want to be able to stream music while you exercise, but you want to leave your phone back in the locker room or at home, a cellular connection can certainly come in handy. If you always have your phone on you, however, you can probably save the money and skip it.
How Long Do Smartwatches Last?
You don't want a smartwatch with good battery life, right? Good, because you're not going to get it. Watches with full-color, smartphone-like displays, like the Apple Watch and Wear OS watches, only last for about a day on a single charge. Features like an always-on display and GPS tracking are handy, but they drain battery life quickly.
The Series 7 only gets around 18 hours of battery life, so you’ll need to find some time to charge it during the day if you plan to use the sleep tracking feature. That could mean sacrificing some activity tracking during the day.
In general, you'll get the best battery life with one of the Fitbit watches. They typically last around six days before needing a charge. That means you can wear them to bed to track your sleep, something you can't do with a watch that needs to be charged every night.
How Much Should You Spend on a Smartwatch?
Smartwatches can be very expensive, but that doesn't mean you need to spend a lot of money to get a good one. Yes, the $1,229 Apple Watch Hermès is sure to draw a lot of attention, but for that price, you could buy five Fitbits.
If you're a first-time smartwatch buyer, you might want to think about going the less-expensive route in case you wind up not wearing it all that much. The $20 Wyze Watch and the $159 OnePlus Watch are two affordable options, but be sure to read our reviews so you're aware of their limitations before spending your money on them.
The Best Android Watch
As mentioned, with the exception of the Apple Watch, all of the models on this list work with Android.
The Samsung Galaxy Watch4 is our current favorite for its streamlined design, excellent health and safety features, and useful calling and texting features. The Galaxy Watch4 and many other Android-compatible watches support standard watch straps, making your aesthetic options virtually limitless.
The Fitbit Versa 3 is another good option. With support for smartphone notifications, Amazon Alexa, Fitbit Pay mobile payments, Deezer and Pandora music and podcast storage, and Spotify music controls, the Versa 3 is one of the most feature-rich Android-compatible smartwatches in its price range.
Buy It for Looks, Don't Buy It for Life
Let's not forget: You're also going to wear this thing. And unlike your Timex, it's probably not going to remain in style for years. Smartwatch design is rapidly changing, so hold out until you find something you actually want to wear. And keep in mind that smartwatches are still gadgets. The coming year is sure to bring new iterations of pretty much every watch on this list, not to mention plenty of completely new ones.
The battle for wrist real estate is quickly heating up. That's good news for consumers, since it's likely to result in even better—and better-looking—devices. I wouldn't be surprised if this list reads completely differently the next time you see it. But if you're looking for the best smartwatch available today, the options here are the finest we've seen so far.