Jewelry & Watches

Smartwatch buying guide 2020: Everything you need to know

Now is the time to upgrade your wrist wear to something smarter

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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 see the fruits of Google's blockbuster $2.1 billion purchase of Fitbit, while hybrid watch makers Withings are going from strength to strength, Fossil 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 2020. 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.

What's a smartwatch?

Google Wear OS smartwatches Smartwatches running Google's Wear OSGoogle

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 these further down this article.

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.

Although Google doesn't yet 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 LG and Huawei to Misfit, Montblanc 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 batteries lasting two or even three days, slimmer designs, and increased performance with better apps, connectivity and features.

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, like the Apple Watch, can also 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 your wrist when you receive a phone call, text, email or other kind of message.


Apple Watch Series 5 The Watch Series 5 is one of the very best smartwatches you can buyApple

The Apple Watch is widely regarded as one of the most capable smartwatches on sale today. It is available in two sizes (with diameters of 38mm and 42mm), three different materials (stainless steel, aluminium and ceramic), and with a huge range of strap options from Apple itself, as well as fashion brands and third parties.

The latest Watch Series 5 features an ECG app and fall detection (also seen on the Series 4), and its display can now be left on all the time, instead of only coming to life with a tap or by raising your wrist. With this simple update, the Apple Watch has become more watch-like than ever.

Prices range from just $299 for the Watch Series 3, which is still every bit as good as most of Apple's rivals, through $399 for the entry-level Series 5, and up to $1,399 for a ceramic model.

The Apple Watch is so popular, it recently outsold the entire Swiss watch industry.

Apple Watch Series 5 (GPS, 40mm) - Space Gray Aluminum Case with Black Sport Band

Samsung and Tizen

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 The Galaxy Watch Active 2 by SamsungSamsung

Samsung may only command an approximate 11 percent share of the global smartwatch market, compared to Apple's near-50 percent, the South Korean firm holds second place.

The company's newest model is the Galaxy Watch Active 2, which boasts a stainless steel case, traditional watch-like design (compared to the square display of the Apple Watch) and a find range of health and fitness features.

There's heart-tracking, water resistance, a huge range of digital faces, two size options (40mm and 44mm), and the choice of having 4G or sticking with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Samsung's watch also has an ECG app, but this is still waiting for approval from the FDA so can't yet be used. The Samsung is a fair bit cheaper than Apple's latest, with the range starting at $280 for the 40mm model and $299 for the 44mm version.

Tizen is Samsung's smartwatch operating system. It works by rotating a bezel and tapping at the display, and for our money is as good as Apple's watchOS.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 W/ Enhanced Sleep Tracking Analysis, Auto Workout Tracking, and Pace Coaching (40mm), Aqua Black - US Version with Warranty

Google and Wear OS

Google Wear OS smartwatches Google's Wear OS appears on a wide range of smartwatchesGoogle

Formerly known as Android Wear, this 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.

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 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.

All of that said, Google hasn't done much with Wear OS for the last couple of years. The company is currently going through the process of acquiring Fitbit, so we imagine this has caused a delay on any major updates to Wear OS. Once that purchase has been finalized, we expect to see a lot of new health and fitness features come to Wear OS - and perhaps the persistent rumors of a Google Pixel-branded smartwatch will finally come true.

Hybrid watches

Withings smartwatch range 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.

Withings Steel HR Hybrid Smartwatch - Activity, Sleep, Fitness and Heart Rate Tracker with Connected GPS

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, but this is also awaiting approval from the FDA, so it's yet on sale in the US.

Swiss smartwatches

Tag Heuer Connected Golf Edition The Tag Heuer Connected Golf Edition Tag 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. It lacks a heart rate monitor, but in its latest iteration has GPS for accurate run tracking and NFC for Google Pay.

Priced from $1,200, the current model is available in two sizes, 41mm and 45mm, and although chunky (around 10mm thick), its design matches the sporty look of Tag's regular wristwear.

TAG Heuer Connected Modular 41 Men's Smartwatch SBF818000.11FT8031

This watch is now a couple of years old, and we don't know yet if Tag Heuer is planning to release an updated model any time soon. We suspect it is waiting on Google to give Wear OS an overhaul, so buying tha Tag now might not be the best idea.

Montblanc also jumped aboard the smartwatch bandwagon with the $890 Summit, which runs Wear OS but lacks both NFC and GPS.

Finally, there are the Swiss watchmakers who blend modern technology with their centuries-old craft. For example, Frederique Constant has the Hybrid Manufacturer, pictured above, which is a self-winding mechanical wristwatch, but with a 'smart' module comprising Bluetooth and a fitness tracker.

This $3,500 watch can, via the smartphone app, be configured to show a second time zone, battery life, or your daily step count on a second dial. As with other hybrids, the app shows more detail and has sleep tracking, too. A final detail of this watch - and one for the horology nerds out there - is how the app shows how accurately the movement is keeping time, how healthy it is, and when a service is due.

Apple Watch Series 4 (GPS, 44mm) - Space Gray Aluminium Case with Black Sport Band

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