Smartwatch Buying Guide

A smartwatch is a wrist-worn minicomputer that can notify you—via a wireless connection—of incoming calls, texts, instant messages, and social-network updates. But if smartwatches are just an accessory for your smartphone, why give them the time of day?

Well, they can be pretty smart on their own.
• Some models come with their own network connections, so they can perform many advanced tasks without being paired to a nearby phone.
• They often include built-in sensors—including accelerometers, barometers, and heart-rate monitors—to track your physical activity.
• Wireless technologies, such as NFC, let you use your watch to make mobile payments at the register.

Smartwatch technology is evolving. Models have gone from large and clunky to more sleek and fashion savvy. And they're getting slimmer all the time. You can also expect smartwatches to integrate emerging operating systems and app ecosystems that could dramatically enhance their capabilities.

Plain vs. Pricey

Just like your computer and smartphone, smartwatches run on operating systems with distinct and separate apps. Be sure to check to see which ones are available for the smartwatch you're considering.

Two of these operating systems are versions of Google’s Android Wear and Samsung's Tizen. The Apple Watch runs on Apple's Watch OS.

Picture of a red-colored budget-minded and basic smartwatch

Budget-Minded and Basic

Essentially a wrist-worn extension of your smartphone, early smartwatches like this original Pebble (no longer featured in our ratings) had a monochrome, non-touch screen; you navigated its menus using buttons and these models only notified you of incoming calls, e-mails, and texts. 

Picture of a swank and sophisticaed black smartwatch

Swanky and Sophisticated

More sophisticated watches do all that the basic models do, plus offer features like full-color touchscreens, voice-command capability, activity tracking, GPS, mobile payments at the register, and voice calls. Models can cost anywhere between $250 and $800.

Capabilities to Consider

Some smartwatches have quirky shortcomings, such as hard-to-use chargers. A number of them can be paired with only a limited number of mobile devices. Here are a few important considerations:

• Above all, make sure the smartwatch will be compatible with your existing smartphone or other smart device that you plan to pair with it.

• The smartwatch should be comfortable to wear. Some are large, and can be clunky. Most newer models are round, and some are less bulky, and may be more comfortable.

• Battery life can range from a day to a week or more depending on how you use the watch, how much power it requires, and the sophistication of the watch technology.

• Water resistance: Most watches are water resistant. But some models can be worn swimming or in the shower. Check the specs if this is an important feature to you.

• Charging: Some smartwatches come with convenient wireless chargers. Others come with snap-on docks for charging. Still others require a cable that plugs into the watch itself.

Which Watch?

Smartwatch technology is relatively new, and features and functions will continue to evolve over time. Before you overcommit or overspend, decide which features are important to you.

If you want to save some money, you can choose a watch that lacks some of the more sophisticated features. And if you really only need a device that monitors your exercise, a fitness tracker might suffice.

If you're an Android fan, an Android Wear watch offers smooth compatibility with your Android phone as well as Google Now. Apple aficionados might gravitate to the company's own smartwatch, but several models by other brands work with iOS too.

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