Over the past decade, smartwatches have racked up big sales, mostly for their health and fitness tracking. They log how many miles you’ve run and monitor your resting heart rate, a not-so trivial feature considering that a rise in resting heart rate may be a warning sign of COVID-19 infection.
This year’s smartwatch models add to their usefulness, although the upgrades they come with are more incremental than big breakthroughs. And for more fashion-conscious wearers, there are more colors of cases and styles of bands than ever.
Here are some of the best smartwatches available in time for the holiday season:
For Apple fans
Apple’s latest smartwatch, the Series 6, may not be the most appealing to traditional watch wearers, with its squared off screen and lack of visible lugs on the band. But to everyone else, the design is still a sharp-looking accessory that arguably offers the best lineup of features that you’ll actually use.
Unlike its predecessor, the Series 6 comes with a blood-oxygen sensor, built-in sleep tracking, and some new colors. Otherwise, it’s largely the same as last year’s model.
Still, the Series 6 has among the sharpest and brightest screens of any smartwatch, a vast array of watch bands to choose from, and the most robust app ecosystem by far. Even in some places where the Series 6 lacks features out of the box, you can add an app to fill the gap. Need a better golfing app or more detailed sleep tracking? There’s a choice of apps for that.
The Series 6 also has the full-color always-on display that Apple introduced last year on the Series 5. That’s a killer feature that makes it easier to quickly check the time, the weather, or other small bits of information.
Now for some downsides: Battery life on all Apple models is only a day or two, versus rivals that last for four or five days, so frequent charging is necessary.
Also, keep in mind that Apple limits how smartwatches from other manufacturers interact with iPhones. So some important features, like being able to respond to messages and alerts on the watch, don’t work.
And if you don’t have an iPhone, don’t even bother buying an Apple Watch. It doesn’t connect to Android phones.
For fitness fanatics
Fitbit was the original fitness-tracking sensation a decade ago when the device was just a plain plastic band. Since then, Fitbit has expanded into smartwatches, and its latest model, the $230 Versa 3, has a lot going for it.
The Versa 3 matches many of the features in Apple Watch Series 6, such as heart-rate tracking, blood-oxygen sensors, sleep tracking, menstrual-cycle tracking, and built-in GPS. It’s also waterproof and has its own wireless payments system, matching Apple Pay.
What sets the Versa 3 apart from Apple is that it includes Amazon’s dependable Alexa voice assistant instead of less-than-dependable Siri. It also offers six days of battery life and lets users select from hundreds of third-party watch faces. Many exercisers also prefer how Fitbit’s app more clearly displays workout statistics.
Still, critics note that Fitbit’s app ecosystem has far fewer watch apps than Apple’s. Meanwhile, some stats and A.I.-driven recommendations require a $10 per month Fitbit Premium subscription, and there’s no cellular version of the watch that can connect without being paired with a phone.
An alternative for Android users
While the Fitbit Versa 3 is a worthy choice for Android phone users, its square design and lack of a few key options, like cellular connectivity, may be a turn off for some consumers.
A more expensive alternative is the $400 Samsung Galaxy Watch3. The big sales pitch for this bulkier, round watch is a rotating bezel that can be used to spin through options and menus in Samsung’s Tizen software, instead of just relying on side buttons and taps on the screen for controls like rival devices.
Like the Apple Watch and the Versa 3, Samsung’s watch has a color always-on screen (though some reviewers have dinged it for reducing the watch’s claimed two-day battery life).
It also matches rivals with GPS, heart-rate tracking, sleep tracking, and wireless payments. The selection of apps is decent, and there are models with cellular connectivity. Separating itself from the Apple Watch, the Galaxy Watch3 offers thousands of third-party watch faces and includes Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant. Bixby may not be at the level of Alexa or Google’s assistant, but it’s been improving over the past few years. The Galaxy watch’s blood pressure measuring app is available in most countries, but isn’t offered in the U.S.
For big budget traditionalists
Some shoppers may have a bigger budget or want a smartwatch that’s more like a traditional watch. Garmin’s line of sporty smartwatches are mostly round, which is a good start, and the company ups the ante in looks and premium materials with its high-end MARQ collection.
Each of the seven watches in the group, which cost from $1,500 to $2,500, is made with titanium and filled with customized functions and apps to meet the needs of a specific activity.
The “driver” version, for example, includes detailed maps of 250 famous car racetracks and offers sophisticated lap timing readouts. The golfing version is programmed with 41,000 courses around the world and has a virtual caddy app that suggests which club to use based on current conditions. There are also a variety of specialized map and tracking apps to aid the user’s putting and driving. I have found the screen less bright than that of rival watches, however, which is a pretty serious failing on such an expensive smartwatch.
The MARQ collection watches also have typical features of rivals like heart-rate monitoring, wireless payments, and music apps. Having a particularly bountiful year? Garmin sells five of the watches in the collection as a limited-edition boxed set for $10,000.