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.
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