Best Smartwatches 2020 – Buyer’s Guide

Best Smartwatches 2020 – Buyer’s Guide

Contemporary smartwatches are more than an extension of a smartphone; they’re a standalone wearable technology. As world-leading tech companies such as Apple, Google, and Samsung have worked to meet the needs of niche markets such as fitness tracking, they’ve entered into an arms race. Each generation of smartwatch has had to outperform not only its own earlier iterations, but also the latest versions of its rivals.

This has created a thriving marketplace for smartwatch shoppers, not only for those in the market for a generalist watch such as the Apple 5 or the Samsung Galaxy, but also for more sport-specific watches such as the Mobvoi TicWatch or Fitbit Ionic.

The bad news, as with so many things in our consumerist economy, is that the number of options can lead to choice overload.
My goal with this article is to help you simplify your choices. Before you read any further, ask yourself why the smart watch is wanted. Counting laps at the pool? Reps at the gym? For the joy of having the latest piece of gear? Knowing why you want the smartwatch will help you look for the right features. Then, as you read this article, you can rank each watch by how well it meets your needs. The final selection can be made by cost, brand, additional features, etc.

For this article, I’ve begged and borrowed as many watches as I could in order to try them out to compare and contrast them. I’m confident that, after reading this, you will have the information you need to make the right choice for you. With Black Friday around the corner, there isn’t a better time of year to snag yourself a great piece of wearable tech.
For a quick glance at the top ten list, you can check out the table below. If you want to dig even deeper, check out the individual reviews below and the buyer’s guide at the end.

1. Apple Watch Series 5 GPS - Best Overall

Apple Watch Series 5 GPS










Specs

  • OS: WatchOS 6
  • Compatibility: iOS
  • Display: 1.78 ”OLED
  • Processor: Apple S5
  • Band Sizes: Different based on watch size
  • Onboard Storage: 32GB
  • Battery Duration: 24 hours to 36 hours
  • Charging Method: Wireless
  • IP Rating: 50m
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, LTE, NFC

Review


Apple's latest smartwatch is, no doubt, the best smartwatch… for iPhone users. Because it won’t work with an Android phone.


The one major upgrade this watch offers over its earlier version is an Always-On display. There are of course other upgrades to the software and hardware, but from a user perspective, this is the one you’ll notice most. This helps the watch feel more like a real watch and less like a novelty athletic tracker. If you’ve worn a smartwatch before, then you’ve probably stopped noticing the time it takes your watch to wake up after you’ve flicked your wrist. But as soon as you wear a watch with an Always-On display, you’ll realize you’ve been missing something.

I appreciated this most at two points in my day - when I was doing planks, and when I was on my bike trainer. These are both situations in which I sometimes desperately want to see how much longer is on my timer, but can’t flick my wrist up to activate a watch.

For every app other than Workout, the watch will still go into sleep mode. The display won’t show the app but will instead default to a watch face that shows the time and, depending on your choice of watch face, other critical data. For me this was perfect, but if you were hoping to keep another app open without the watch going to sleep, then this may not be the right watch for you.

One issue I had with the display was the dimmer, which wasn’t dim enough. It’s supposed to automatically adjust, but always shined brighter than my future (and my future’s bright, I promise). So I ended up having to activate cinema mode at night. I think Apple should have included a low brightness mode like regular wrist watches have with luminous hands. It’s easy to see, but doesn’t distract you. It might have led to longer battery life, too.

There is a lot of hype around the LTPO technology used in the Apple Watch 5. Apple claims it’s the reason for the device’s longer battery life. However, a little research suggests that it's really only an incremental upgrade from the OLED display in the Apple Watch 4. Of course, the new Watch 5 has a bunch of new display drivers that make things more efficient, and a better light sensor than its predecessor, but it's really nothing that couldn't have been done to the Watch 4. The cynic in me wonders whether Apple really needed an extra 12 months to develop this tech, or if it was just holding off for 2019 in order to exploit it for the purposes of marketing a supposed upgrade to the previous version.

Between the new LTPO technology and the new drivers and sensors, the watch can go from a refresh rate of 60Hz to just 1Hz in 1 second, making for more efficient dimming and a longer battery life. The speed of the whole process is a win for Apple; Other manufacturers have a hard time making displays that can make those switches fast and dynamically.

As far as the external design is concerned, you don't get any revolutionary change in the Apple Watch 5. Models in the Apple Watch series are notorious for all looking the same from one generation to the next - the look is part of their brand . The frame is the same curved aluminum. The display is as square as ever, and the digital crown, which you can use to scroll through the menus on the watch, hasn’t changed either. You can use a small button next to the digital crown to see the apps you opened recently and activate Apple Pay.

When it comes to fitness features, the Apple Watch 5 has hardly received any upgrades to its capabilities. The heart rate monitor, accelerometer, and GPS are the same as those in the Apple Watch 4. One major upgrade is the compass, which tells you where you’re going and works out your elevation in collaboration with the GPS. This is a great feature for hikers, joggers, or cyclists, though may be of limited use to other people.

One feature that should be noted is the EKG monitor that came out with the Series 4 and still functions on the Series 5. For more on that, read our review of the Apple Watch 4.

Despite the fact that there aren’t many new features in the Apple Watch 5, it’s still an awesome watch for fitness with everything working just as well as in the Watch 4. The GPS is super accurate and so is the heart rate monitor. When you swim, the watch will count lengths and durations accurately, though the watch might have trouble accurate telling you what strokes you’re doing.

2. Samsung Galaxy Watch - Best for Samsung Users

Samsung Galaxy Watch

Specs

  • OS: Tizen OS
  • Compatibility: Android and iOS
  • Display: 1.2 inch or 1.3 inch 360 by 360 Super AMOLED
  • Processor: Dual-core 1.15GHz
  • Band Sizes: 22mm and 20mm
  • Onboard Storage: 4GB
  • Battery Duration: Max of 4 days on 46mm; lower duration on 42mm
  • Charging Method: Wireless
  • IP Rating: 50m
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, LTE (as an add-on / costs extra)

Review

Samsung’s line of Galaxy Watches is another entrant on our list with an Always-On option. This makes sense, as its direct competitor is the Apple Watch 5. These are both great watches, and if you don't mind spending the money and are looking for a generalist watch with lots of apps, the real decision between the Samsung Galaxy and Apple Watch 5 is which OS you need. Apple 5 is for Apple users; Samsung isn’t.

Another difference is the style. If you need a watch that will match an upscale wardrobe for boardrooms or fancy dinner parties, then the Samsung Galaxy is probably the best watch on the market. It looks like something a collector might put in a shadow box. Its round, stainless steel case gives it a classic look, to which its rotating bezel only adds. Divers, pilots, and other professionals used to use these bezels on ancient, analog watches to track time. On the Samsung Galaxy, the bezel is cleverly designed to navigate menus.

This feature is more beneficial than it may at first sound. Samsung has repurposed a style from classic watches and delivered a feature that allows users to more easily interact with their watch. Rotate it left to see your notifications. Rotate it right to quickly access widgets. In combination with physical buttons and a touch screen, this is among the most intuitive watches to use.

The Galaxy Watch Active 2 (reviewed below) also has a version of the rotating bezel - though this one is a virtual bezel that uses haptics to simulate the feel of the physical bezel.

The Samsung Galaxy Watch comes in two different sizes: a 46mm version and a 42mm version. The 46mm version has a silver and black theme while the 42mm version comes either in rose gold or midnight black. Both are comfortable. The larger version looks best on a big wrist in more formal wear. The smaller version looks more natural on slimmer wrists and more active wear.

However, looks aside, there is an important technical component to the different sizes. The larger, 46mm version has a larger screen and a battery that lasts as much as 24 hours longer. These are both crucial components of any wearable tech, and for that reason we recommend the 46mm version.

Samsung watches - the Galaxy included - runs on the Tizen OS, which Samsung uses in its TVs (and other devices). Tizen’s nature as a multi-platform OS is part of what allows the Galaxy’s rotating bezel.

The Tizen OS is also responsible for the Galaxy’s long battery life. The 46mm version will easily last 4 days (the smaller, 42mm version lasts 3 - which is still good). This is normal use, fetching notifications and messages, tracking workouts, and making honest efforts to communicate with Bixby, Samsung’s lackluster AI.

Like all smartwatches, Samsung’s Galaxy has fitness tracking capabilities, with a wide array of sensors and the Samsung Health app. These will nudge you along when you get too sedentary and can auto-detect six different exercises (you can set it to detect an additional 33 exercises). It also has a sleep tracker and is waterproof for a maximum depth of 50 meters.

The problems with this watch are mostly on the software end, rather than the hardware. For starters, some often used, arguably important, third party apps are missing, including Facebook Messenger, Google Maps, and WhatsApp. Other issues include not having any of the fitness apps that come with Wear OS, such as Google Health and others. The only apps you get are those that exist in the Tizen ecosystem, which is not as diverse as those in Wear OS or even iOS.

The voice assistant, Bixby, is also less than satisfactory. It has issues understanding most voice commands, a problem that could be resolved with time as the company upgrades its algorithms.

3. Fossil Gen 5 Smartwatch – Best for Android

Fossil Gen 5 Smartwatch – Best for Android
Specs
OS: Wear OS
Compatibility: Android and iOS
Display: 1.28 inch 416 by 416 AMOLED
Processor: Snapdragon Wear 3100
Band Sizes: 22mm
Onboard Storage: 4GB
Battery Duration: 30 hours
Charging Method: Proprietary method
IP Rating: water resistant up to 3 ATM
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC

Review
Fossil has been in the watch-making business since 1984, and developed a reputation for making great watches… in their mid-priced range. In their 35 years, they have branched out into other fashion products such as wallets, fragrances, handbags and purses, as well as higher-end watches in their “Fossil Swiss” line. However, their brand still seems focused on mid-priced watches.

With their Gen 5 smartwatch, Fossil has kept to those roots; As of this writing, the Fossil Gen 5 is priced roughly $ 100 less than the Apple Watch 5, and $ 50 less than the Samsung Galaxy. Considering its price, features, and functionality, it lies squarely in the middle of the pack of watches from this reviewer's standpoint.

Still, it's a good enough watch that I think it would be the right choice for some consumers - particularly users of Android devices. If you love your Android device and want the most seamless communication between it and your watch, then this is the watch to get.

In appearance, you have seven options of bezel / band, from classic stainless steel to the more athletic look of black silicone. Fossil is, at heart, a fashion company, and so their watches are accordingly stylish - which you choose depends on your own personal look.

The one issue I do take with Fossil's style is where it crosses into function. As with their previous generations of watches, their Gen 5 has three buttons that protrude from the right of the watch face. This may be something unique to me, but I found that when I flexed my wrist far enough (especially while wearing cycling gloves and riding on the tops), I could inadvertently toggle the watch's features.

The display is an AMOLED screen with a 328ppi pixel density. It’s pretty sharp to look at, but in bright sunlight becomes unreadable - you have to adjust the settings, which can be tricky when it's hard to see the screen well enough to interact with it.

The chipset for the Fossil Gen 5 is the Snapdragon Wear 3100, and this is what makes this watch one of the most viable watches on the Wear OS platform. It has 1GB of RAM, which allows the watch to run faster and more smoothly than any other watch in the Wear OS world. While navigating through the apps, you’ll still notice a bit of lag - but not so much that it's frustrating or challenging to work the watch’s features.

In terms of battery life, Fossil's Gen 5 advertises itself as having “24+ hrs” with “Multi Day Modes.” What this means in practice is that, in terms of settings, there are perhaps too many options. There are the “Daily” and “Extended” options, which most tech users will be familiar with. But then there are also “Custom” and “Time Only” options, which doesn’t seem so bad. Until you realize that each of these also has 12 different settings that you can choose between. There are certainly tech junkies who will love messing with these settings and maximizing their battery use… but most of us would feel better with fewer options, and the trust that the watch is smart enough to give us a functional amount of battery life.

The watch comes with features that are pretty standard for this generation - built-in NFC, GPS, heart rate monitoring, and speaker. With the Cardiogram app, Fossil claims the ability to detect sleep apnea, diabetes, hypertension, and atrial fibrillation. The watch is water resistant to 3 atmospheres of pressure - making it more than enough for showering, bathing, or even active swimming.

The primary app for fitness tracking is the Google Fit, which works both with an Android phone and an Apple phone. It tracks your performance using heart points and move minutes, which is great for those who don’t like to be bombarded with too many technicalities on their smartwatch display. If you want finer, more comprehensive stats, though, you’re always welcome to install a third party application.
4. Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 - Best for Fitness Accountability
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 - Best for Fitness Accountability
Specs
OS: Tizen OS
Compatibility: Android and iOS
Display: 1.2 inch 360 by 360 Super AMOLED
Processor: Dual-core 1.15GHz
Band Sizes: 20mm
Onboard Storage: 4GB
Battery Duration: Approximately 2 days
Charging Method: Wireless
IP Rating: 50m
Connectivity: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi

Review
Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active 2 released a mere 6-months after the original Galaxy Watch Active, and the two aren’t that different. There are minor upgrades to the software and hardware, with proportional improvements in screen sizes, battery life, etc.

For me, the biggest difference between the two is that the Active 2 has a virtual version of the Galaxy Watch’s rotating bezel (which is a big deal, and I’ll talk more about in a few paragraphs).

Another difference in the Active 2 is the introduction of the built-in fall detection and ECG - which Samsung promises, but isn’t yet available. They first need FDA approval, which they expect to get in the first months of 2020. Features like these, though, really target the watch’s audience - people interested in fitness and activity.

However - and this may be a real problem for the Active 2 - their tracking isn’t as accurate as other devices. This is true both for GPS tracking and steps counted; The Active 2 tends to over-estimate distances.

There are cases where this won’t matter. If you’re buying the watch to help yourself be more accountable, and want to track activity more than train for an event, this watch will work fine. Also, if you’re going to use this watch and only this watch to track your progress in training, then it’s consistent enough with itself that you can make gains. However, if you use this watch to, for example, train for a half-marathon, then you may be surprised when, on the day of the event, you reach mile 11 and realize the event is two miles longer than you'd been training for, or that your average times are far lower than you'd thought they'd be.

That being said, the watch has a lot going for it. Among my favorites, as I mentioned, is navigating apps with the virtual bezel. The Samsung Galaxy Watch has a physical bezel that rotates to allow users to move between apps. The Active 2 doesn’t have this physically rotating bezel, but uses haptic technology to imitate it well enough that it felt intuitive and was certainly fast.

The Active 2 also has apps for YouTube, Twitter, Spotify, and more. And while these worked well enough, whether or not watching YouTube videos or reading texts on such a small screen is a plus is up to you.

However, the Spotify app allows you to download playlists and listen offline, which is a great plus for users either in the weight room or on the trainer or in nearly any other exercise environment. Moreover, features such as tracking sleep (with a clever “goodnight” mode that dims the screen) and water, food, and caffeine consumption are a great plus for people who are interested in holding themselves accountable, but maybe aren't training to win the next New York City marathon.

The Running Coach is also improved, and now gives real-time pace metrics and a rundown of what to expect in your workout before you start. Audio cues can be heard either through the watch’s own speakers, or over Bluetooth headset.

For casual fitness buffs or people just getting into fitness, all of this might sound great. And these features make Active 2 a great smartwatch for fitness and can last amateur athletes for years. However, be warned that if you’re hoping to reach even high-collegiate levels of training, then you will outgrow this watch.

The chipset on the Active 2 is the Exynos 9110 dual-core processor, which is the same used on the Galaxy Watch. It's fast enough to feel intuitive, and the 768MB of RAM is more than enough for switching between apps. If you go for the more expensive LTE model, you get even more RAM (1.5GB).

The round face of the Galaxy Watch Active 2 gives it a traditional look, and it comes in a variety of colors to match your style. The stainless steel variants are a little more expensive, and the bands are interchangeable.

The bottom line on this watch is that, for consumers with an iPhone, this isn’t for them - hands down, they should go with an Apple Watch. This watch, in contrast, pairs most easily with Samsung phones. Its kit is pretty standard for this generation of watches - with heart rate monitoring, GPS tracking, etc. While its name implies it’s targeted at active users, it may not be accurate enough for collegiate-level athletes or hardcore trainers who need to track their progress to make gains. However, it's still a Samsung watch, which is a reliable brand. For users who just want to stay fit and want a device that can help keep them accountable, this watch is great. And for people concerned with ECG monitoring and fall detection, this may be one of the best watches on the market (once those options are approved by the FDA).

5. Mobvoi TicWatch Pro - Best Battery Life
Mobvoi TicWatch Pro - Best Battery Life
Specs
OS: Wear OS
Compatibility: Android 4.3+ and iOS 8+
Display: 1.4 inch 400 by 400 OLED and second LCD screen
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100
Onboard Storage: 4GB
Battery Duration: 7 days in essential mode and 48hrs otherwise
Charging Method: Magnetic pin
IP Rating: IP68
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi, NFC

Review
Mobvoi TicWatch is a new entrant to the field. To be entirely honest, I hadn’t heard of the names TicWatch or Mobvoi until last year. However, even though it's a new brand with new products, it's managed to take hold of its share of the market with a savvy business strategy and sound designs. The Mobvoi TicWatch E and S were both impressive, and now we have the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro, which also is its most premium product to date.

Mobvoi started out making artificial intelligence voice technologies. They then expanded into smart home devices and wearables, focusing on the underserved Chinese market.

Their main design philosophy has been to deliver high-end specs on a budget by skimping on external designs. Which is a reasonable trade off.

But with the TicWatch Pro, they’re offering a high-end design with their usual quality specs, plus some truly innovative features.

Like most smartwatches, there are no rotating bezels or crowns - most of your interaction will come through the display itself, or through the two buttons on the watch's side. The top of which acts as a home button, while the bottom is a programmable shortcut.

The first major innovation that Mobvoi has brought to the market is this watch’s display. Not because it's a touchscreen, but because it's actually two screens combined in the same watch face.

The top screen is a transparent LCD. This is the screen that’s used in low-power, or “Essential,” mode. Data such as the time and date, step count, and heart rate, can all be displayed on a low-power screen that’s still visible even in direct sunlight.

Underneath this LCD display is layered the kind of touchscreen that most smartwatches use. This more power-hungry display is high resolution (at 400 × 400 pixels) and is used for navigating and displaying apps, and other key functions of the smart watch.

This clever combination of screens is the reason for the second innovative feature of the TicWatch Pro - a battery life that can be measured in days instead of hours. Putting the watch into Essential mode (which it will do itself once the battery gets too low) whenever possible means the watch uses very little juice. It gives you limited access to the other features of the smartwatch, but allows you to use the watch for days at a time without having to even think about recharging.

In terms of looks, Mobvoi has stepped up their game here, but they’re still not going to compete with Fossil, Samsung, or even Apple. The TicWatch Pro has a round face, and the bezel is marked in 5-minute intervals - at a glance, it has the appearance of a higher end watch. But closer inspection will show it to be what it is - midpriced.

On the wrist, it feels a little thick and weighty, but not uncomfortably so. There are 8 different options for straps, from colored silicone to brown leather. More interestingly, there are also options for straps that combine silicone and leather.

The biggest downside to this watch is that it isn’t as user-friendly as other watches. For starters, there is no LTE version yet offered. It uses the Wear OS, but also requires that the Mobvoi app be downloaded in order for the watch to work at all. Not only is the Mobvoi app itself lackluster, but other important functions, such as the phone app, aren't quite as good as what you’ll find on other smartwatches.

The TicWatch Pro’s fitness tracking functions are okay, and will work well enough for many users. Unless those users want to go swimming - while the watch is water resistant, Mobvoi recommends that it not get much more wet than a hot shower. If fitness tracking is high on your list of needs in a smartwatch, there are others on our list that are more accurate and have better options.




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