It's shaping up to be a great year to splash out on a smartwatch, with excellent options available from Apple at a broader price range than ever before, and healthy competition from Samsung too.
This could also be the year we finally see the fruits of Google's blockbuster $2.1 billion purchase of Fitbit, which was first announced in late-2019 and completed in January 2021. Meanwhile, hybrid watch maker Withings is going from strength to strength, the Fossil group has a huge range to pick from across its many brands, and the Swiss have some luxury offerings too.
What follows is the GearBrain guide to buying a smartwatch in 2021. We have highlighted the major brands to consider, and explained the differences between smartwatches and hybrids, and how even some luxury Swiss watches are smarter than ever. We also look at what new models are expected to arrive later this year.
What is a smartwatch?
In our eyes, a watch becomes a smartwatch when it replaces its traditional face and mechanical hands with a touch screen. Some hybrids do a bit of both, putting simpler displays inside the face of a regular watch, but we'll cover those later.
When it comes to smartwatch operating systems, like with computers and smartphones there are a couple of main players to consider. First there is watchOS, which is the operating used exclusively by the Apple Watch.
Next there is Wear OS, which belongs to Google and was called Android Wear until 2018. The name was changed to promote the fact that watches running Google's software work with iPhones as well as Android devices – a key differentiator, as all models of Apple Watch only work with iPhones.
Although Google doesn't produce a smartwatch of its own (those persistent rumors haven't come true just yet), Wear OS is found on smartwatches made by many brands, from Misfit and Montblanc, to Fossil and Tag Heuer.
Early smartwatches suffered from poor battery life of no more than one day, uninspiring design, and middling performance. Since those formative days, there have been vast improvements in all of these areas, with some batteries lasting two or even three days, slimmer designs, and increased performance with better apps, connectivity and features. That said, for some models (including even the latest Apple Watch) at least one charge every 24 hours is required to get the most out of them.
In most cases, smartwatches can double as a fitness tracker and personal trainer, tracking walking, running, cycling and other activities, sometimes with the help of an embedded heart rate monitor. Some specialize in certain areas, for example the Tag Heuer Connected that comes with a dedicated golf app for measuring distances and keeping score on courses all over the world.
Some, like the Apple Watch Series 4/5/6 and Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, perform the equivalent of a single-lead ECG (electrocardiogram), which can alert the wearer to potential symptoms of atrial fibrillation. Some also offer fall detection, where a contact and even the emergency services will be automatically called if the watch senses you take a hard fall and not get up.
Smartwatches also excel at notifications, subtly vibrating on your wrist when you receive a phone call, text, email or other kind of message. Some can be purchased with a 4G connection and their own data plan, allowing them to make a receive calls and stream music without being connected to a smartphone.
The first Apple Watch arrived back in 2015 and was pitched as a luxury accessory. Apple even tried to sell $20,000 gold versions, and one briefly appeared on the wrist of Beyonce. But Apple soon changed course, turning the Watch into a health and fitness device that owners wouldn't want to go a day without.
This move worked, as in 2019 the Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry, proving there is huge demand for a wearable that tracks health and fitness, but also carries enough Apple design swagger to not feel like a medical device.
Running Apple's new watchOS 7 software, the latest models for 2021 are the Watch Series 6 and new, cheaper Watch SE. The Watch Series 3 also remains on sale, priced at just $199. The SE, newly introduced in 2020, is $279 and the Watch Series 6 starts at $399. Hermes models with luxury leather straps and unique faces are the most expensive, reaching $1,499, but there are many mid-price options in-between too.
All models have a heart rate monitor and can track activity, exercise and sleep. But only the Series 6 can perform an ECG, record blood oxygenation and alert its wearer to signs of atrial fibrillation. All are available with or without a cellular connection.
The Watch is offered in two sizes, 40mm and 44mm, and all models have interchangeable straps. There are three case options; from cheapest to most expensive these are aluminum, stainless steel and titanium.
The Samsung Galaxy Watch3Samsung
Samsung has been in the smartwatch game for longer than Apple, having made its first Android Wear-powered devices back in 2014. The latest model is called the Galaxy Watch3 and it runs Samsung's own Tizen operating system. The Watch3 is available in two sizes, 41mm and 45, making it suitable for most wrists, and unlike the Apple Watch it has industry-standard lug bars so the straps can be swapped for almost any other.
4G versions are available, giving the watch a data connection and the ability to make and receive phone calls and stream music when not connected to your smartphone. Speaking of which, Samsung Galaxy watches work with iPhones and Androids, whereas the Apple Watch only works (and has only ever worked) with iPhones.
A neat feature of the Galaxy Watch3 is how the bezel rotates to scroll through content, saving you swiping the screen and smearing it with fingerprints. The watch also features a heart rate monitor, and can take an ECG and measure blood pressure and oxygen level.
Samsung also currently sells the slightly older Galaxy Watch Active2, which is offered in 40mm and 44mm variants, but has a slimmer design due to the lack of a rotating bezel, which is instead touch-sensitive.
Google and Wear OS
A huge range of smartwatches from various brans run Google's WearOSGoogle
Formerly known as Android Wear, Wear OS is Google's smartwatch operating system. It is used by a range of manufacturers, including tech companies like LG and Huawei, but also watch and fashion brands like Kate Spade, Hugo Boss, Guess, Michael Kors and Fossil, plus Tag Heuer.
Wear OS offers the same basic features as watchOS and Tizen. There are several customizable watch faces to pick from, apps to download and install, a notifications system, and varying degrees of fitness, sleep and exercise tracking.
Where the Apple Watch has Apple Pay and Samsung wearables use Samsung Pay, Wear OS watches make use of...you guessed it, Google Pay. Not all models have NFC (a requirement of Google Pay), but most do and these can be used to make in-store purchases instead of using your credit card.
Prices for Wear OS watches start at around the $200 mark for a model from a fashion brand, but climb to over $1,200 for examples from Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer.
Despite persistent rumors of a 'Pixel Watch', Google is yet to produce any smartwatches or wearables of its own. But this could soon change. As we mentioned earlier, Google paid $1.2 billion for Fitbit in November 2019 and completed the takeover in January 2021, so we can expect to see the search giant become more involved in the smartwatch and wearable space soon.
Fitbit Versa 3 smartwatchFitbit
Although best known for its exercise trackers, Fitbit also makes a smartwatch called the Versa. The latest Versa 3 runs the company's own Fitbit OS software, works with iPhones and Android, has a 1.6-inch AMOLED touchscreen display, and promises up to six days of battery life. There is also integrated GPS, water resistance and NFC, plus Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
In short, it's a fully-functioning smartwatch that also doubles as a top-notch health and fitness tracker from Fitbit. Available in a range of colors, the Versa 3 is priced at around $230. It also comes with a free three-month trial of Fitbit Premium, which costs $10 a month and of which you can read more here.
Withings are among the most attractive hybrid smartwatchesWithings
Generally speaking, the hybrid watch is one which has a traditional face with physical dials, but also includes a Bluetooth connection, accelerometers to track exercise, and a companion smartphone app. Some hybrid watches also have a vibration motor to deliver notifications or silent alarms to your wrist, and most look like regular timepieces.
Although you can't write an email or hail an Uber with a hybrid smartwatch, you can wear them for weeks or even months at a time before they need charging or a new battery.
The step-counting tech of a hybrid watch is rarely more accurate or more detailed than what your smartphone can manage. But not everyone carries a phone in their pocket all day, and it's often more convenient to glance at your wrist instead of grabbing your phone and opening the step-counting app to check your progress.
Hybrid watches are popular among fashion houses, especially the many brands owned and managed by the Fossil group. As with smartwatches, hybrid watches are made by Misfit, Skagen, Michael Kors, Fossil itself, and many others.
Technology companies have mostly steered clear of the hybrid market, apart from Withings. The French company, which was briefly owned by Nokia before buying itself back in 2018, sells a wide range of great-looking hybrids with classy designs, leather straps and affordable prices.
The company also offers a hybrid with ECG functionality, called the Move ECG. But this is awaiting approval from the FDA, so is yet to go on sale in the US. The company's latest, called the ScanWatch, is a feature-packed hybrid watch and boasts an attractive stainless steel case – but it too is waiting FDA approval for its ECG function. Withings says it hopes to gain this validation soon. The ScanWatch was due to go on sale in the US before the end of 2020, but as of January 2021 it still isn't available. All of Withings' watches can be bought in the UK and Europe.
Tag Heuer has regularly updated and improved the ConnectedTag Heuer
Not to be left on the sidelines, the Swiss watch industry is paying (at least some) attention to the rise of the smartwatch. Tag Heuer was an early mover, partnering with Intel and Google to release the Connected in 2015.
This is a true smartwatch, in that it has a touch screen and runs Wear OS. The latest model, launched in 2020, includes a heart rate monitor for the first time, along with GPS for accurate run tracking and NFC for Google Pay.
Priced from $1,800 to $2,350, the current model is available in a single case size of 45mm and although chunky (around 10mm thick), its design matches the sporty look of Tag's regular wrist wear.
The latest Connected, released in 2020, offers more color and material options than ever, including a limited-edition version aimed specifically at golfers. This commitment makes us think Tag Heuer is in the smartwatch game for the long haul, and we hope to see more versions of the Connected in the years to come.
Montblanc also jumped aboard the smartwatch bandwagon with the Summit, which runs Wear OS. Now in its third generation, the Summit 2+ is a thousand-dollar Swiss smartwatch with a stainless steel case, leather strap, heart rate monitor, integrated GPS, 8GB of storage, and a 1.3-inch display housed in a 43.5mm case.
The latest Swiss smartwatch is the Hublot Big Bang E, which also runs Google's Wear OS and features a 42mm black ceramic case with a rubber strap. It is priced at $5,800.
Finally, there are the Swiss watchmakers who blend modern technology with their centuries-old craft. For example, Frederique Constant has a collection of four hybrid smartwatches falling into the circa-$1,000 sector. The collection includes quartz-driven mens and ladies watches, which connect to the company's own smartphone app over Bluetooth to track your activity and sleep.
New Apple Watch Series 6 (GPS, 44mm) - Space Gray Aluminum Case with Black Sport Band