How to buy the best Smartwatch: Buying Guide 2021

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how to buy the best smartwatch

What features do you need from a smartwatch or Apple Watch and how much should you spend? We explain how to choose the best smartwatch.

The best smartwatches not only look stylish, but will work seamlessly to track fitness, control apps, deliver notifications and help you communicate straight from your wrist. In our expert tests we’ve found plenty of models that tick these boxes, but we’ve also uncovered smartwatches that are uncomfortable, lack functionality or won’t accurately track your activity. In this guide, we’ll help you to find the perfect smartwatch, whatever your budget. As our tests prove, spending big won’t always guarantee you a Which? Best Buy smartwatch.

What is a smartwatch?

A smartwatch is a watch with smart features, bringing features you’d normally use on your smartphone or laptop to your wrist. Many have digital screens but a few ‘hybrid’ watches have traditional analogue faces and hidden smart features.

You’ll need a smartphone before you can use a smartwatch, as your smartwatch will need to be paired to a phone. You’ll need to install the watch’s companion app on your phone before you begin. Through the app, you’ll be able to control the settings on the watch and view any fitness data it has gathered. 

How much will a good smartwatch cost?

Smartwatches cost from around £20 to over £500. At the very top of the price range, you’ll often be paying for premium materials, designer brands and decorations, such as gold or semi-precious stones, rather than any technological advances.

Ultimately, you don’t need to spend a lot to find a smartwatch you can rely on – we’ve found good models for a little over £100.

We’ve also confirmed that price is by no means an indicator of performance – at time of writing, our cheapest and most expensive Best Buy smartwatches have a price difference of more than £310. Paying more may get you features such as advanced activity tracking, premium materials, or perhaps a strap and bezel made of stainless steel or aluminium, rather than plastic. New models, especially from bigger brands, usually command a premium. Shop carefully and pick the right model, and you may be surprised at how little you have to spend.

Which smartwatches are compatible with my phone?

One of the most important factors to consider when buying a smartwatch is whether it’s compatible with your smartphone, as you’ll need to pair or connect them to access incoming calls, texts, emails and apps.  Fortunately, cross-compatibility is a lot better than it used to be, but there are still some things to bear in mind.

  • If you’re an iPhone user, an Apple Watch will be hands down the best option. Apple Watches don’t work well with Android phones, although there are ways to get some limited functionality. If you’re not interested in a smartphone, but still want a smartwatch, you could use Apple’s new Family Setup feature, whereby multiple Apple Watches can be paired with the same iPhone.
  • Samsung watches run the Tizen operating system. Just as Apple Watches are best with an iPhone, you’re best off with a Samsung-branded phone here. However, you will find good compatibility with other Android brands, and some compatibility with iPhones.
  • Wear OS is Google’s smartwatch operating system, and it’s the most versatile. It works fairly seamlessly across all Android brands. iPhone users will have a fairly smooth experience, but will miss out on some features, so it’s worth checking reviews before buying. For example, you probably won’t be able to respond to messages, via text or using your voice, even if your watch supports it for Android.

What is a hybrid smartwatch?

Some watches, including many watches running Wear OS, combine classic design with modern tech, hiding their smart features behind a traditional-looking watch face.

These watches will often have a decent or good set of smart features, but aren’t intended for hardcore fitness fans who want accurate, detailed tracking for particular sports. Some, due to their design and materials, are primarily about fashion, and won’t really be suitable for wearing at the gym, for example the Michael Kors Access Runway.

The Mobvoi Ticwatch Pro 2020 has a good set of fitness-tracking features compared to many hybrid watches, but is still more for people wanting to keep fit and active than people wanting specialist tracking.

Even if all you’re after is a chic-looking watch with a smattering of smart features, it’s worth checking our reviews before you buy, as we’ve found some look cheaper in reality than in their marketing pictures – which is disappointing for the high price, particularly if you’re buying it for someone for a present. 

Android (Wear OS), Samsung (Tizen) or Apple (watchOS)?

Wear OS by Google

Wear OS was built to work with Android devices, but offers (more limited) iPhone compatibility too. It’s another interface designed to direct messages, calls and diary appointments to your wrist. Previously known as Android Wear 2.0, Wear OS has a host of features including the ability to customise watch faces to retrieve the most important information from your favourite apps, and control over notifications. It can give you greater freedom from your smartphone, as standalone apps will work with any Bluetooth or wi-fi connection, even without your phone nearby.

Pros: Wear OS is well maintained by Google and recent updates have resulted in a far sleeker, more intuitive experience. There’s also a wealth of apps available to browse in the Play Store.

Cons: Compatibility with iPhones is limited, quality of some apps is hit and miss.

Tizen

Samsung smartwatches run off and operating system called Tizen. Tizen was initially only compatible with Samsung smartphones, but it now works with a range of Android handsets and the iPhone 5 and newer, albeit with limitations.

Pros: Samsung smartwatches are generally constructed from premium materials and have a good range of fitness features. If you’re sporty, something like the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active or Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 will be more suitable than most of the Wear OS watches, and they have a fashionable, neutral-looking, unisex design that pairs well with both office wear and sports gear.

Cons: Apps have historically been more limited on Tizen than on Wear OS, although this is slowly improving, with popular apps such as Spotify, Uber and Nest now available. 

watchOS

Designed to work exclusively with iPhones, Apple’s watchOS offers a touch-based interface that lets you scroll through your contacts, dictate texts and build your own fitness regime. Apple periodically releases new versions of the OS to keep things fresh – and for iPhone users at least, maintains a wide selection of useful and informative apps. Recent developments in particular maintained a strong focus on health, fitness and wellbeing.

Pros: watchOS is simple to use and works well with the iPhone, delivering all the notifications you’d expect and allowing you to customise the look and feel of the interface through apps.

Cons: It’s exclusive to Apple Watches, which are expensive devices, even when we’re talking about cheaper Apple Watches like the Apple Watch SE

What features do I need on a smartwatch?

Fitness tracking: All smartwatches can cover the basics, such as step and distance tracking. Most have heart-rate monitors, and an increasing number have built-in GPS, so you can track your running route without taking your phone. Many are also waterproof, which is handy if you want to keep your watch on in the pool (although not many offer detailed swimming metrics).  At Which? we run all smartwatches through a rigorous test to see just how accurate its exercise-logging capabilities really are.  Three weeks The longest battery life of any smartwatch we’ve tested. The shortest lasted for less than two days.

Good battery life: Most smartwatches use a rechargeable battery, but how long it lasts varies significantly between models. What features a smartwatch has will also have an impact on battery life – models with a large screen, heart-rate monitor or advanced sensors, for example, are likely to run out of juice quite quickly. And switching on GPS will also drain the battery faster. 

Internal storage: Most good smartwatches should have a reasonable amount of internal memory: look for 4GB or more. This not only allows you to download new apps, but also store music so you can listen to tunes without a smartphone in tow.

Wi-fi: A smartwatch with wi-fi can connect to local networks, so you can continue to receive notifications and use online functions even if your phone is out of Bluetooth range, so long as both your watch and phone have access to a wi-fi network. 

NFC: If you’re looking to make contactless payments via your smartwatch, make sure it has built in NFC (near-field communication). Also make sure you bank is compatible. 

Built-in GPS: Most smartwatches will be able to use the GPS on your smartphone. If you like to exercise outside and don’t want to be tied to the GPS on your smartphone, though, built-in GPS is the feature to look for. This will let you track your route and distance while leaving your smartphone safely at home.

Accuracy: We put every smartwatch through the same tests as fitness and activity trackers, including checking the accuracy of step and calorie count, distance travelled, and the built-in heart-rate monitor.

We know consistency is important too – if a smartwatch is accurate on some days but not on others it will be difficult to track improvements in your fitness levels. We repeat our walking test to see if the smartwatches consistently overstate, understate or hit the accuracy mark.

Waterproofing: Most smartwatches should be at least splash proof, and ideally IP67 or IP68-certified for immersion in water. Note that this doesn’t meant the watch is suitable for swimming; this capability is usually measured in atmospheres (ATM). For example, 5 ATM means a smartwatch is water resistant up to a depth of 50 metres.

Built-in heart-rate monitor: Measuring your heart-rate is one of the best ways to track improvements in your fitness levels, as well as being a useful metric for those looking to burn fat. The best smartwatches for fitness will measure your heart-rate all day, as well as telling you when you’ve reached your active heart-rate zone during exercise. Some will even measure the time it takes for your heart-rate to return to a resting rate after exercise, which is indicative of your fitness.

4G connectivity: Also known as cellular connectivity and LTE. This allows you to make and receive calls, texts and other notifications without your phone nearby. It’s not available for everyone, as only a small number of network carriers offer LTE. Connectivity will also have a large impact on the battery life of the watch. And you’ll need to consider the ongoing monthly cost. 

Built-in speaker: Most smartwatches have a built-in microphone (useful for dictating voice messages as responses, or using a voice assistant to issue commands), but it’s less common to find a speaker. This won’t be essential for everyone, but if you aspire to make phone calls using just your watch, it’s a must have. It’s also useful for alarms and reminders as an alternative to the vibration alert.

22mm watch strap: Some smartwatches (including the Apple Watch and older Samsung Gear watches) use a proprietary strap connection, which means you’ll have to stick to fairly limited set of branded replacements (or passable imitations). Choose a smartwatch with a removable 22mm watch strap, and you’ll find a massive range of designs and materials available, with prices starting from just a few pounds.

Best overall smartwatches

The smartwatches we’ve picked out below are our top-scoring models overall, assessed across parameters such as how they perform when it comes to notifications and smart features, how accurately they track your fitness, how long it takes to fully charge your device and how much battery life you can expect to get and whether they have clear and reactive screens.

That’s not to say each model here is the absolute best in every way, but these perform well enough in all tests to be our best smartwatches overall. 

Check Latest Best Selling: Smartwatch at Amazon.

Read: Top 10 Best Smartwatch Brands: You Should Know About

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