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We’ve worn dozens of smartwatches and fitness trackers over the course of workdays, workouts, vacations and the rest of everyday life to see which ones best track your activity, relay your phone notifications, give you access to apps and do anything else that lets you keep your phone in your pocket. The Apple Watch Series 4 (which works only with iPhones) offers the best combination of style, message handling, apps, battery life, activity tracking and value. But we also have picks if you use an Android phone, or if you value fitness or distance-sports tracking over style, notifications and apps.
The best smartwatch for iPhone owners: Apple Watch Series 4
Who this is for: iPhone owners who want to leave their phone in their pocket while keeping up with messages and notifications, controlling smart devices, getting directions and tracking their fitness.
Why we like it: Apple Watches are the best smartwatches overall because they make it easier than any other wearable device to interact with the messages and notifications relayed from your iPhone. The Series 4 is noticeably faster than 2017’s Series 3; in addition, Siri is more reliable, and details (such as the improved Digital Crown with haptic feedback and special watch faces that fit more information onto the new display) further improve the experience. It looks better than most smartwatches and fitness trackers, on wrists both large and small, thanks to two sizes and an array of finishes and bands (both official and third-party). Although not every major iPhone app has an Apple Watch partner app, many do, and most respond quickly and are optimised for the watch’s small screen, unlike many of the apps available for Android watches. And the Apple Watch does a good job of independently tracking most kinds of workouts where accurate distance tracking isn’t vital, and it encourages non-workout fitness (such as standing and moving every hour). We also like that the Apple Watch lets you easily make contactless payments using Apple Pay, and if you own a Mac, you can unlock the computer by just getting close to it with your Apple Watch.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Apple Watch requires an iPhone – if you have another kind of phone, you’re out of luck. Although good Apple Watch apps are better than what you get for Android smartwatches, many are still very limited compared with their phone counterparts. And it can get annoying how aggressively the Apple Watch turns off its screen (to save energy) whenever it senses you’ve put your arm down.
The Apple Watch easily survives a day of normal use on a charge, but if you do anything demanding – use LTE, navigate with Maps for an extended period, track a long workout – you may find your watch in Power Reserve mode before evening.
Available sizes: 40 mm and 44 mm
Colours: Silver, dark grey, gold
The best Android smartwatch: Fossil Q Explorist and Venture
Who this is for: Android phone owners who want to reply to notifications, use apps for home control or directions and pull out their phone less. But with no heart-rate monitor, it’s not for those who are serious about fitness tracking.
Why we like it: Fossil’s Q Explorist and Venture watches are good-looking watches with a decent range of case and band options, and decent responsiveness and battery life – this is high praise given the current state of Android smartwatches. They can track steps, control music playback, give you turn-by-turn directions on your wrist and allow you to respond to messages with your voice or quick-reply taps. But these two models are not unique: The Fossil Group offers an array of more than 300 smartwatches under different fashion brands – including Diesel, Skagen, Tag Heuer, Kate Spade and Movado – that have essentially the same internal components and software, so you can pick the watch design you like best.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Wear OS, Google’s name for Android for smartwatches, still feels like a work in progress, and in our testing, the Google Assistant voice feature frequently dropped responses – though that could improve via software updates. The Q line’s button at the 3 o’clock position is easy to accidentally trigger, bringing up Google Assistant and sometimes sending it nonsense questions. Wear OS also lacks a left-handed mode to allow you to switch the watch around. On the workout front, Fossil Q watches lack a heart rate monitor, so they’re not able to detect workouts or help with pacing, and the size of these models – and most Android smartwatches, really – and the touchscreen interface make workouts more difficult to monitor and pause than with a dedicated fitness tracker.
Available sizes: 46 mm (Q Explorist), 42 mm (Q Venture)
Colours: Silver, black, gold, rose gold, pink, gold/blue, smoke
The best fitness tracker for people who want to get or stay active: Fitbit Charge 3
Who this is for: People who care more about tracking their fitness, sleep, heart rate and activity throughout the day than they do about apps and notifications, but who don’t need all the features of a high-end GPS watch.
Why we like it: Of all the trackers we tested, the Fitbit Charge 3 is the simplest to use and among the most accurate for measuring steps and heart rate – although accuracy isn’t everything. It reliably senses, correctly identifies and begins to record your workouts – running, walking, biking – after about 10 minutes of movement. The combination of a touchscreen display, an inductive “button” on the side, and clearly labelled icons makes the menus easy to navigate. The user-friendly app links you to a robust network of other Fitbit wearers, who can help motivate you. In addition, you can use that app to choose which smartphone notifications to receive, so that only the ones you want will buzz on your wrist. The Charge 3 also tracks how long and how well you sleep at night, and it can even detect naps, unlike many of its competitors. Its above-average battery life means you’ll be able to wear it for longer at a stretch, too.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Charge 3 can record 20 different types of activity, but you can see no more than six activity modes at once. Also, although the device captured our data well in swim mode, it doesn’t show counted lengths in real time while you swim, which several other trackers do. And it limits you to setting a time goal for swimming – you can’t set one for distance.
We found the standard plastic band that comes with the Charge 3 less comfortable than some of the others we tested, you can buy additional bands and swap them out quite easily.
Finally, a few Amazon reviews – especially earlier ones – complain about phone-syncing problems (in our tests, this happened occasionally with one of our Android phones, although restarting the phone always fixed it) and all-out bricking (which we didn’t experience at all). Fitbit customer service has always been very good about replacing faulty devices.
Battery life: up to seven days
Sleep tracking: yes, including naps
Waterproof: yes, 50 metres
Heart-rate monitor: yes
GPS: yes, when connected to a phone
The best watch for the serious runner or triathlete: Garmin Forerunner 645
Who this is for: People who run seriously or compete in triathlons, need physical buttons for use while moving, and want to monitor their performance and progress with richer and more precise data.
Why we like it: The sleek and slim Garmin Forerunner 645 was our testers’ favourite GPS watch in almost every way. In particular, its exceptionally accurate wrist-based heart-rate tracking makes it the only watch we feel confident using for heart-rate-based training without a separate strap. The button-powered interface is easy to use, and it’s more customisable than that of any other watch we tested – you can modify any aspect of the display, from the watch face to the widgets to the activity profiles to the running-data screens. Its excellent all-day activity tracking, detailed sleep tracking, and nice-to-have smartwatch notifications and apps make it useful enough to wear 24/7. Equally important is that it’s comfortable and attractive enough that we’d actually want to wear it all day.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Our one concern, apart from the hefty price, was GPS inaccuracy, which we experienced on some runs in New York City. However, as our experts caution against relying on GPS to assess your exact pace while running, we don’t see this as a dealbreaker.
Colours: Black, slate, sandstone, cerise, rose gold