Smartwatch and fitness tracker buying guide

If you're in the market for a smartwatch or fitness band, here's what you should look for and what you should know before buying. (Hint: it's still a messy, muddy place.)

watches-9.jpg
Lori Grunin/CNET

Smartwatches, smartwatches everywhere. Fitness bands, too. Wearable tech wants to be in your life, but do you feel like letting it in?

Wearable tech is still on the rise: according to market researcher Canalys, 7 million wearable bands shipped in the first quarter of this year, a growth of 150 percent over the previous year. By IDC's earlier estimates, 45.7 million wearable bands will ship by the end of this year, with a yearly forecast of 126.1 million by 2019.

And yet, there's so much that feels hard to recommend. When I took a look at the wearable landscape back before the Apple Watch, it seemed like a good time to wait. Now, past the halfway point of 2015, lots of new products have finally emerged: The Apple Watch, Pebble Time and new fitness trackers from Jawbone, Fitbit and Garmin are all available for purchase. And...it's still a muddy territory.

That's because wearable tech is still largely unnecessary for most people. For the vast majority, these devices still skew somewhere between a toy and a tool -- albeit one that is often somewhat redundant to your smartphone. Bands and watches can do it better, though, and there are some options out there that range from pretty decent to downright solid. But buyer beware: While we've reached a lull in the wearable tech onslaught -- nearly all of the previously announced products have been released -- know that whatever you pick now might feel outdated in just a year.

That said, are you ready to take the plunge? Consider: Do you want to make sure you don't miss messages on your phone? Care about getting a bit healthier via a gadget? Do you run a lot? Are you an early adopter of status-symbol personal tech? Then maybe a smartwatch or fitness band is for you.

There are now dozens of smartwatches and fitness trackers now available, but below you'll find our recommendations right now, and why they stand out. Also make sure to check out our continually updated list of best wearable tech.

What to look for in a smartwatch or fitness band:

  • Design: Does it actually appeal to you? This is a matter of personal taste.
  • Phone support: You'll need Bluetooth 4.0, and your phone and OS need to be supported.
  • Is it waterproof, or swim-friendly? Do you shower with your watch on?
  • Battery life: Our baseline is an average of three days for a smartwatch, seven days average for a fitness band -- but very few current products meet those expectations.
  • What apps does it run? Pebble, Android Wear and Samsung Gear all use different apps.
  • Color screen, or black and white, or something else, or none at all? Some screens are always on.
  • Can it recognize your voice, and can it act as a speakerphone? Do you want that?
  • Is there a heart-rate monitor? How does it track fitness? Heart-rate monitors vary greatly, too.
  • What apps and ecosystems is it compatible with? For fitness bands, this is a big deal.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple Watch: A good iPhone accessory set to get even better

The Apple Watch has made the biggest splash, with the biggest brand recognition, of any piece of wearable tech. That doesn't mean it's a must-have. The Apple Watch requires a recent (iPhone 5 or later) iPhone, and runs its own App Store-compatible apps. But its mix of easy-to-access notifications, fitness tracking, premium design and extra bells and whistles set it apart from most of the competition. It's expensive, though, and its battery life isn't great (one day or slightly more). And, its selection of third-party apps just don't load fast or work that well.

It's also an unfinished product. A wealth of on-board apps are coming this fall along with a revamped WatchOS 2, a software revamp that will hit by the end of the year. These could both make the Apple Watch far better than it currently is. But if you wait until the fall, would you consider waiting even further until next year and an inevitable Apple Watch 2? I say you at least wait until this fall to see what the new changes are like, unless you're desperate to start playing with one today. Even with its flaws, it's one of the best smartwatches around right now. And, if you're an iPhone user, this edges out the Pebble in nearly all regards (except battery life).

Pebble Time: Pebble's latest watch adds color and a new UI, but still feels the same. Sarah Tew/CNET

Pebble: Old reliable

Think of the Pebble watch as the BlackBerry of smartwatches: functional, traditional, somewhat unsexy, but once you become a serious user you'll probably be hooked. Pebble watches don't have touchscreens, lack heart-rate tracking, and have apps that feel retro and not all that advanced compared to what Apple Watch, Samsung Gear and Android Wear offer. But the Pebble works across Android and iOS, has hundreds of apps and watch faces that are mostly free, has battery life that lasts nearly a week, an always-on reflective display, and can be worn while swimming and showering. It's like a regular digital watch, turned smart.

You can pick from several models. The oldest Pebble ($99, £100 or AU$149) is still decent for its price, but ugly and scratch-prone. The step-up Pebble Steel ($150, £149 or AU$289) adds a metal frame and Gorilla Glass, but has the same black-and-white screen. These Pebbles can only store eight apps or watch faces at a time. The new Pebble Time ($199 or £180) looks more toy-ish than the Casio-retro Pebble Steel, but adds a reflective color screen, storage for dozens of apps, and a revamped interface with a new timeline view for upcoming events. It also has a rear port that could eventually be used for hardware-extension watchbands.

Buy the cheap Pebble if you want something basic to catch messages and info; consider the Pebble Time for better futureproofing. My sentimental favorite is still the throwback Pebble Steel for its angular looks. The Pebble is the best place to go for a decent set of basic functions in something that feels more like a regular digital watch.

LG Watch Urbane: classic design, one of our favorite Android Wear watches. Sarah Tew / CNET

Android Wear: Google's smartwatch offers lots of options

Android phone owners have a lot of smartwatch options. There are over half a dozen Android Wear smartwatches to choose from: the LG G Watch , Samsung Gear Live , Moto 360 , Asus ZenWatch , Sony SmartWatch 3 , LG G Watch R and LG Watch Urbane . They all run a common OS and apps, and work with tons of Android phones. Because Android Wear watches have been around for a year, you can probably catch a sale on one and get a good deal. These watches vary in features slightly, something to consider when buying: some lack Wi-Fi for extended connectivity, and Sony's is the only one that has GPS. Some lack heart-rate tracking. They all have different designs, with round or square screens, but they all run the same set of apps and watch faces.

Battery life is mediocre, and Google's watch OS and interface, while it's been getting better and better, still feels imperfect and sometimes awkward. You can do a lot of things with Android Wear, like respond to messages, use apps and get map navigation. But they all require a phone to be paired and they lack any speakerphone for making calls.

My favorite is the LG Watch Urbane, but it's also expensive. The Moto 360 is a good choice now that its price has dropped. It has built-in Wi-Fi, which enables a longer-distance bridged connection with your phone across different Wi-Fi networks, included in Android Wear's latest software update. For the right price, an Android Wear watch can be fun. But most of them still feel rough around the edges and more like a chore than a life-altering tool...and that's mainly due to Android Wear's software.

Samsung Gear watches: Skip for now

A note on Samsung watches: The company has made many smartwatches, most of which work exclusively with certain Samsung phones. In 2015, thus far, Samsung has had no new smartwatches at all. Samsung's watches offer more hardware features, and also have onboard speakerphones like the Apple Watch. (The Samsung Gear S , released last fall, even doubles as a stand-alone phone with its own SIM card.) But Samsung has a new watch on the horizon, and probably a new app ecosystem. For that reason, and others, you should skip Tizen-based Samsung Gear watches for now (that's every watch except the Samsung Gear Live, an older watch that runs Google's Android Wear).

If you have a Samsung phone, you can use an Android Wear watch (see above). The apps are better, and the support is greater. You can't make phone calls from your wrist, though.

watches-6.jpg
Worth getting: Jawbone Up2, Fitbit Charge HR, Misfit Flash and Withings Activite Pop. Lori Grunin/CNET

Fitness bands: Heart rate, or no?

Despite smarter smartwatches like Apple Watch, fitness bands are doing just fine. That's because they're cheaper and more purpose-built. Fitbit is the dominant brand, but it's not necessarily my favorite. That being said, you're bound to find the most people you know using Fitbits, which helps because you can compete socially with them.

Fitness trackers are about all-day 24-hour activity monitoring. Some of them track active exercise, but most lack GPS functions that serious runners crave. These are, mostly, for the average person looking to get a bit healthier.

If you're getting a Fitbit, get the Fitbit Charge HR . It doesn't cost much more than the regular Fitbit Charge, and adds 24-hour heart-rate tracking. It also tracks sleep, has decent battery life and is easy to use.

Jawbone makes a fantastic fitness app, but its latest hardware isn't all that great. The Jawbone Up2 lacks heart-rate, but that's fine: you're better off saving $80 and skipping the Up3's bare-bones, weird heart-rate functions.

On the cheaper end, go with a Misfit Flash : its long battery life and shower-friendly water resistance in a $50 gadget can't be beat.

You can also pick a semi-smart watch with fitness built in: the Withings Activite Pop feels like a regular analog watch but has eight months of battery life, can track swimming, and syncs steps and sleep over Bluetooth to your phone. It's a sign of where fitness tracking might head next: to your everyday watch.

In general, go cheap with fitness bands, and skip heart-rate for now unless you're a serious workout warrior or runner. Heart-rate tracking isn't all that accurate unless you're using a chest strap monitor, and most fitness apps don't help you understand your heart rate in any meaningful way.

Do-it-all fitness gadgets (like the Basis Peak and Microsoft Band ) have too many compromises to feel like the right solution for most people. But these types of comprehensive bands point to where fitness bands might aspire to next.

The Polar M400, one of our favorite running watches. Sarah Tew/CNET

Running watches: Power tools

If you're a real runner, there are plenty of purpose-built solutions on the market. Garmin, Timex, Polar and many others have dedicated running watches. These sync data with your phone or PC, but their advantages over fitness trackers tend to involve longer battery life, GPS, and more detailed runner-oriented data.

Stay tuned for more reviews, but our favorite right now is the Polar M400 : its combination of smartwatch-like notifications (for iOS), GPS and all-day activity tracking make it stand out. The Garmin Forerunner 15 is a solid entry-level running watch, but it lacks Bluetooth for phone syncing. Having on-board GPS and a wealth of runner-targeted stats at your fingertips, plus a display that maximizes easy reading of those stats, still makes these watches stand apart from most fitness bands and smartwatches.

watches-2.jpg
Apple Watch, LG Watch Urbane, Pebble Time, Moto 360. Lori Grunin/CNET

What comes next?

Look for apps and ecosystem to drive wearables for now. The arrival of better apps on the Apple Watch will probably happen in tandem with improved Android Wear apps and, eventually, a new Samsung watch with its own apps. Connecting to smart homes, connected devices and onboard watch sensors in new, innovative ways could start making smartwatches feel a lot more interesting by mid-2016. But that's all speculation. At the moment, smartwatches feel caught up in a singular problem: they're mainly phone accessories, and as a result they feel like luxuries rather than necessities.

For fitness bands, improvements in heart-rate sensors and apps that interpret heart rate in helpful ways still need to emerge to justify the purchase for most people.

Finally, there need to be new steps in sensor technology and battery life. Will there be new types of sensors beyond barometers, heart rate sensors, and accelerometers? It's possible, but those sensors haven't yet arrived. Battery life on smartwatches is still really limited -- cracking the week-plus barrier would be a huge help. The Pebble Time Steel promises up to 10 days of battery life, but most watches still require charging multiple times a week.

These bigger changes won't come until next year. For now, I'd still either pick a basic fitness band or go with a major-brand smartwatch with app support.

Featured Video
Close
Drag