Wearable technology has evolved massively over the last half-decade. In that time we have seen smartwatches running software by Apple and Google mature from simple devices with poor battery life, through a brief stage of being pitched as fashion accessories, and into the fully-fledged health and fitness trackers of today.
The Apple Watch now outsells the entire Swiss watch industry, while Samsung has a couple of feature-packed wearables of its own, and Google recently completed its blockbuster $2.1 billion takeover of Fitbit. There are also brands like Garmin to consider when it comes to a smartwatch build to survive the harshest outdoor environments, the Tag Heuer Connected for luxury Swiss watch fans, and a range of stylish hybrid options from Withings.
- Google to acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion
- Future Apple Watch could ID you by scanning the skin on your wrist
- Upgrade your Apple Watch with these stylish new straps and bands
In this article we will look at what's available to buy now, in early 2021, and what to expect later in the year. In some cases it is safe to buy a new smartwatch now, but in other cases we recommend waiting out for either a new model or a price drop on current offerings.
The wearable market is less predictable than the smartphone market, but there are at least of couple of annual product launches you can set your smartwatch by. The most reliable is the new Apple Watch, which always arrives alongside the latest iPhone at a launch event in September. The current model is the Watch Series 6 and the only feature that sets it apart from the Series 5 is the addition of infrared sensors to track your blood oxygenation level.
If you want the latest and greatest, then by all means purchase the Series 6. But of you are on a tighter budget and don't need every feature, then we recommend either looking for a second-hand Series 5, or going for the Watch SE. This was introduced by Apple alongside the Series 6 in the fall of 2020 and is a cut-price version of the Series 6, but without its ECG and blood oxygenation sensors. It still has the same design, plus a heart rate monitor, dual-core S5 processor, fall detection with emergency calls, optional 4G connectivity, and runs the same watchOS 7 software as all other models of Apple Watch.
At just $279, we think the Watch SE is excellent value for money, more so than the $199 Watch Series 3 that is also still available from Apple.
Alternatively, you could wait for the Series 7. It's too early to say what this might feature, but the rumor mill has suggested glucose monitoring could be on its way – although this was also said of the Series 6 a year ago. For us, we reckon buying the SE or Series 6 now (February 2021) makes most sense, as so far there is nothing to suggest the Series 7 will represent a major upgrade, other than the potential for non-invasive glucose monitoring.
In short - the SE or Series 6 are well worth buying right now. If you already own one, wait until September for the Series 7, and by then the 6 might see a decent price cut for 2022.
The Watch Active 2 could be replaced later in 2021Samsung
Samsung launched its Galaxy Watch Active 2 alongside the Galaxy S10 smartphone in February 2019. It has a great design, runs the company's Tizen operating system, and (unlike the iPhone-only Apple Watch) works with both iOS and Android smartphones.
The Samsung smartwatch also has an ECG feature, just like the Watch Series 4, 5 and 6, and is controlled using a clever touch-sensitive bezel.
At around $250, the Samsung significantly undercuts the current Apple Watch, and we think it represents good value for money. Our only concern is how it is two years old now, and could well be replaced by a Watch Active 3 in the first or second quarter of 2021. Anyone interested in buying a Samsung smartwatch should therefore considering waiting a couple of months before getting their credit card out. And when the Watch Active 3 inevitably arrives, the Active 2 might have its price cut before disappearing.
Samsung also sells the Galaxy Watch 3. This is available in two sizes with cases of 41mm and 45mm, with or without 4G, and in three different colors. Like the Active 2, the Watch 3 features industry-standard lug bars so it is easy to swap out the straps for any other you like the look of. As with Apple, there are rumors that Samsung's next smartwatch, the Galaxy Watch 4, will feature glucose monitoring for the first time.
With Samsung not announcing a new smartwatch alongside the Galaxy S21 smartphone family in January, it's tricky to say when the next watch might arrive. If you are keen to buy one now, then do, but otherwise we suggest waiting until the summer. By then we should have a clearer picture of when the company's next Unpacked product launch event will be.
Smartwatches by GarminGarmin
Garmin might not be your first port of call when it comes to buying a new smartwatch. But if you want a wearable designed from the outset to be used outdoors and in harsh environments the company's Fenix 6 is well worth a look. Available in a few different configurations, this watch is unapologetically chunky but with good reason, as it has a huge battery life of up to 14 days when used as a regular smartwatch. It also has many of the sports and fitness tracking features you see on other smartwatches, along with apps for hiking, expeditions, skiing, golf and more.
At between $500 and $600, the Fenix 6 isn't cheap but if you need a smartwatch to perform in any situation and stand up to abuse, it should be worth a consideration. Also, coming from Garmin instead of Apple or Samsung means it isn't subject to a relentless annual update cycle, so buying now is no bad thing and a new model is unlikely to immediately make the current generation feel out of date.
Garmin also sells the fashion-forward Vivomore HR smartwatch and the more feminine Lily.
French fitness tech company Withings offers a wide range of hybrid smartwatches with health and fitness features. There's the entry-level $70 Move, which is little more than an activity tracker that looks like a watch. Upping your budget will take you to the Steel range, which includes a heart rate monitor and, in the case of the most expensive versions, a seriously classy design with scratch-resistant sapphire crystal instead of glass. We're big fans.
But two Withings watches that has a question mark over them are the ScanWatch and the Move ECG. Announced in 2019 and 2020 respectively, both have the hardware to take an ECG and, while this function is authorized and functional in Europe, it hasn't yet gained approval from the FDA in the U.S., meaning the watches aren't available here yet.
We hope this problem can be overcome quickly, but for now it means we suggest readers interested in a Withings watch look at the Steel HR or Steel HR Sport. Both watches have recently received a price drop, potentially suggesting the arrival of new models in the near future. We doubt new models will feature much in the way of new features, but those seeking a Withings with. new design might want to wait a couple of months and see what happens. If you like the look of the current models then you should buy now and take advantage of the reduced prices.
Withings also sells the Pulse HR fitness tracker, but we reckon Fitbit is a better option for that kind of device.
Google and Fitbit
The Fitbit Charge 4 fitness trackerFitbit
Having acquired Fitbit for over $2 billion, we are expecting a lot of wearable and smartwatch news to come from Google over the next year or so. But for now, the story remains the same as every – that Google has been rumored for three years to be making its first own-brand smartwatch, potentially called the Pixel Watch, but nothing has launched just yet. The purchase of Fitbit may well have put these plans on hold as Google works out what to do next, but we hope the mythical Pixel Watch eventually arrives.
Instead, Fitbit's range of excellent fitness trackers and smartwatches remain on sale. Of these, the Charge 4 is the latest, greatest fitness tracker, and the Sense is Fitbit's latest and most capable smartwatch. The Charge 4 has GPS and constant heart rate tracking, as well as automatically exercise and sleep tracking, a battery life of up to seven days, smartphone alerts, contactless payments and interchangeable straps. The Charge 4 arrived in March 2020, so is unlikely to be replaced by a new model for around a year yet, making this a good time to buy.
The Fitbit Sense smartwatchFitbit
The Sense has a similar feature set – and is similarly improved by subscribing to the $10 a month Fitbit Plus service – but resembles a smartwatch with a larger touchscreen. It has up to six days of battery life and can track your heart, activity, exercise and sleep, as well as blood oxygenation, skin temperature (which can indicate a fever when raised), and even your stress levels. The Sense was only launched in September 2020 so would make a good buy now, as it is unlikely to be replaced for a good while yet.
Check out The GearBrain, our compatibility find engine to find the perfect smartwatch that meets your needs and works with your smartphone.
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