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The best smartwatches: Apple and Samsung battle for your wrist

It's been seven years since the first Apple Watch was released, and it's pretty clear to most that Apple's wearable is arguably the best smartwatch available. It requires an iPhone, though, so Android phone owners need a different companion... and there are plenty of good options available.

The first modern smartwatch, the Fossil Wrist PDA, launched in 2003 from Palm. Microsoft then followed up with its unique SPOT watch collection powered by MSN Direct services running over FM radio waves. Motorola, Pebble, Samsung, Suunto, and others then provided various options as wearables advanced with smartphones.

Today's smartwatches offer more advanced features, such as detailed 24/7 health and wellness tracking, voice assistants, call and text message support, and a variety of apps and services that extend the power of your smartphone to your wrist. Some models have cellular support and can serve your needs independently from your phone for limited functionality.

In 2021, there are several powerful options available to help you get work done through a wearable device. While the Apple Watch is the best for iPhone users, those iPhone users can also choose one of the other watches that may better fit their needs, price range, or battery life.

Apple Watch Series 7

Best overall smartwatch

Apple Watch Series 7
Image: Apple

Display: 368x448 pixels OLED | Battery Life: 18 hours | Dimensions: 45x?x? mm | Weight: TBA grams (Al) | Water/Dust Resistance: 50m with IP6X | LTE Cellular Option: Yes | Starting Price: $429 


In 2015, Apple released its first Apple Watch, and over the next seven years, it secured its place as the best smartwatch available. No other watch has such vast application support while also getting all the smartwatch essentials nearly perfect. It may be debatable if an iPhone is the best smartphone or not, but it is clear the Apple Watch is the wearable to beat.

The only current limitation of the Apple Watch is that it requires an iPhone as its companion. This means that more than 80% of the world's smartphone owners cannot use it as their wearable. Many in the tech media community have stated that the Apple Watch is the best device Apple has ever made and ZDNet's own Jason Perlow wrote how the Apple Watch saved his life.

The Apple Watch Series 7 is now available for purchase. It includes a display that maximizes the front of the watch with faster charging, a brighter always-on display, and improvements in watchOS 8.

Pros: 

  • Gorgeous, refined hardware
  • Bright and useful always-on mode
  • Blood oxygen sensor
  • Excellent third-party application support

Cons:

  • Less than two-day battery life 
  • Limited sleep details 

Apple Watch Series 6

Best last generation Apple Watch

Apple Watch Series 6

Display: 368x448 pixels OLED | Battery Life: 18 hours | Dimensions: 44x38x10.7 mm | Weight: 36.5 grams (Al) | Water Resistance: 50m | LTE Cellular Option: Yes | Starting Price: $429 


The Apple Watch Series 6, see our full review, is last year's model with a couple of new case colors, blood oxygen monitoring, sleep tracking, and much more. A few updates have appeared over the past several months and the Apple Watch continues to get better with age and you may be able to save some money when the Series 7 watch is available to purchase.

Pros: 

  • High quality fit and finish
  • Bright and useful always-on mode
  • Blood oxygen sensor
  • Excellent third-party application support

Cons:

  • Less than two-day battery life 
  • Limited sleep details 

Apple Watch SE

Best value Apple Watch

Apple Watch SE
Image: Apple

Display: 368x448 pixels OLED | Battery Life: 18 hours | Dimensions: 44x38x10.7 mm | Weight: 36.5 grams (Al) | Water Resistance: 50m | LTE Cellular Option: Yes | Starting Price: $279


Apple made an interesting move in 2020 and released a lower-priced Apple Watch designed to expand the use of an Apple Watch to other family members. The Apple Watch SE starts at just $279 and if you are an iPhone user it's an easy wearable to recommend.

Physically, the Apple Watch SE has the same design and large display seen on the Apple Watch Series 6, complete with many of the same health tracking features and all of the application support. The watch has a slightly less capable processor, doesn't support the always-on watch face, and does not include the blood oxygen monitoring capability found in the Apple Watch 6. However, you can purchase it with a cellular radio, and with Family Setup, you can pair watches for children or older adults who don't have their own iPhone.

At this low price and with a growing Apple ecosystem, it's tough not to at least consider the Apple Watch SE if you have any interest in a wearable.

Pros: 

  • Gorgeous, refined hardware
  • Excellent price for a powerful smartwatch
  • Broad support for health and fitness features
  • Extensive third-party application support

Cons:

  • Less than two-day battery life 
  • Limited sleep details 

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic

Best smartwatch for Android phone owners

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic
Image: Samsung

Display: 1.4-inch 450x450 pixels Super AMOLED | Battery Life: Two days | Dimensions: 45.5x45.5x11.0 mm | Weight: 52 grams | Water Resistance: 5 ATM+IP68 | LTE Cellular Option: Yes | Starting Price: $429.99 


Samsung is clearly not standing by as Apple continues to update and improve the Apple Watch. Samsung's latest Galaxy Watch 4 Classic offers many of the same advanced health tracking features, such as blood oxygen monitoring, ECG, and sleep tracking, with the ability to connect with both Android and iPhone devices.

We also see the addition of body composition measurements in the Galaxy Watch 4, along with blood pressure monitoring in select countries. Hopefully, Samsung can deliver on blood pressure support in the US, but it's been more than a year past its last estimated approval by regulatory agencies.

The major change for the Galaxy Watch 4 is the partnership with Google so that the watch is no longer powered by Tizen, but is a Google Wear OS 3 powered by Samsung watch. This means it still looks like a Samsung smartwatch, but also supports Google Pay, Google Play Store, and many more Google apps with the possibility of Google Assistant in a future update.

It has a sleek rotating bezel and an operating system optimized for the round watch design. Fall detection, messaging, phone calls, and more are available on the watch, with advanced fitness data such as VO2 Max and advanced running dynamics data also supported.

Pros: 

  • Slick rotating bezel design
  • High-quality stainless steel material
  • Broad support for health and fitness features
  • New version of Wear OS with potential for better app support

Cons:

  • Limited third-party applications 
  • Large size not fit for small wrists
  • Blood pressure certification taking much longer than advertised 

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4

Best Samsung smartwatch without a rotating bezel

Samsung Galaxy Watch 4
Image: Samsung

Display: 1.4-inch 450x450 pixels AMOLED | Battery Life: Two days | Dimensions: 44.4x43.3x9.8 mm | Weight: 30.3 grams | Water Resistance: 5 ATM+IP68 | LTE Cellular Option: Yes | Starting Price: $329.99 


Samsung used to have the Galaxy Watch Active line that offered a smaller option with no rotating bezel and this year we have that model labeled as the Galaxy Watch 4. It is offered in 40mm and 44mm size options so it will appeal to more people than the larger Galaxy Watch 4 Classic. It is also lighter with aluminum rather than stainless steel construction.

The Galaxy Watch 4 is arguably better than the Apple Watch in many regards, but it doesn't have nearly the support for third-party apps that we see in the Apple ecosystem. However, we may see that change in the future as Google's WearOS powered by Samsung continues to develop. We already see Google Maps, Google Pay, Google Keep, and more available on the watch so stay tuned for developments here.

The Galaxy Watch 4 has a traditional round watch face design, a vast number of available watch faces, the ability to charge on the go on the back of a smartphone, and advanced health and wellness tracking capability. 

Pros: 

  • Sleek, minimalist design
  • Vibrant Super AMOLED display
  • Affordable
  • Digital rotating bezel

Cons:

  • Limited third-party application support
  • Battery life not as long as expected 

Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3

Best Google Wear OS smartwatch

Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3

Display: 1.4-inch 454x454 pixels AMOLED and FSTN secondary display | Battery Life: 72 hours  | Dimensions: 47x48x12.2 mm | Weight: 41.9 grams | Water Resistance: IP68 | LTE Cellular Option: No | Starting Price: $299.99 


While Google has not put much effort into developing its Wear OS platform, companies like Mobvoi continue to offer solid smartwatch competitors running Wear OS. The latest watch from Mobvoi is the TicWatch Pro 3, the first smartwatch sporting Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform.

The TicWatch Pro 3, see our full review, is the best Wear OS device available with a unique layered display design that has an LCD display on top of an AMOLED display so users can have extended battery life, up to 30 days, with a more limited watch experience.

While not as well supported as the Apple Watch, Wear OS is still a very capable wearable platform with an extensive number of available watch faces, plenty of popular third-party apps, Google Assistant voice support, advanced health tracking, and much more. The TicWatch Pro 3 has all of the latest advanced health metrics, such as blood oxygen monitoring, and is also a very capable GPS sports watch.

At just $299.99, it's also tough to beat the TicWatch Pro 3. It works with both Android and iOS smartphones too so if you are considering a smartwatch for multiple platforms, then this is a very capable option.

Pros: 

  • Innovative dual-display design
  • Google Assistant and Google Pay on the wrist
  • Solid third-party app support
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Affordable price

Cons:

  • Duplicated health apps
  • No offline music support

Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch

Second best Google Wear OS smartwatch

Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch
Image: Fossil

Display: 1.19-inch 390x390 pixels AMOLED | Battery Life: 18 hours  | Dimensions: 44x44x12 mm | Weight: 99 grams | Water Resistance: 3 ATM | LTE Cellular Option: Yes | Starting Price: $295 


In addition to Mobvoi, Fossil continues to release new Google Wear OS smartwatches and also often uses the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile processors. The Fossil Gen 5 Smartwatch is available in various colors with different band options for less than $300.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 3100 powers this Fossil smartwatch, and with Wear OS, users enjoy the power of Google Assistant on the wrist. Google Pay is supported, so you can pay wirelessly with your phone in your pocket. Integrated GPS also means you can track your outdoor exercise with the Fossil Gen 5 Smartwatch.

There are a lot of rumors that Fossil will soon launch its first Snapdragon Wear 4100-powered smartwatch as the Fossil Gen 6 model, so we will continue to monitor these rumors until an announcement is made.

Pros: 

  • Vibrant display
  • Google Assistant and Google Pay on the wrist
  • Solid third-party app support
  • Affordable price

Cons:

  • Average battery life
  • Heavy, big watch

Fitbit Sense

Best basic smartwatch

Fitbit Sense
Image: Fitbit

Display: 1.58-inch 336x336 pixels AMOLED | Battery Life: Six days  | Dimensions: 40.5x40.5x12.35 mm | Weight: 48 grams | Water Resistance: 5 ATM | LTE Cellular Option: No | Starting Price: $299.95 


The Fitbit Sense has a stainless steel ring around the watch face and additional sensors on the back so that it offers support for ECG, skin temperature, and a few more advanced health metrics. If you want to save $70 then you can buy the Fitbit Versa 3 and lose out on a few advanced wellness metrics.

A significant improvement in this watch compared to previous Fitbit watches is the integrated GPS receiver that will help you more accurately track your outside activities.

The Fitbit ecosystem is well supported, with many people on the platform to help motivate you toward achieving your daily activity and fitness goals. The smartphone app is fantastic and offers a ton of insight, recommendations, and understanding of the data collected by the watches. Android smartphone users enjoy a better experience with support for quick text message replies, but these new Fitbit watches work well with Android and iOS for most functions.

Pros: 

  • Bright and clear AMOLED display
  • Lightweight and comfortable for 24/7 wear
  • Google Assistant and phone call support
  • Smart alarm support
  • Extensive health and wellness support

Cons:

  • Solid-state button is not as reliable as physical button
  • Limited third-party app support

Can you use a Samsung Watch with an iPhone?

While the Samsung Watch, Google Wear OS watches, and the Fitbit all work with both Android and iPhone devices, one feature that is not supported by Apple with any of these alternative watches is the ability to text from the watch through the connected smartphone.

Samsung Pay is also limited to Android phones with the best experience with a Galaxy Watch taking place through a connection with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

Can you use a cellular Apple Watch as a standalone device?

While you can leave your iPhone at home while you run, go to the store, or stroll on the beach, you must have an iPhone turned on and connected to the internet at this other location. This is one reason why connecting to an iPhone and then switching to an Android then makes the Apple Watch basically useless to use with an Android phone.

A cellular-enabled Samsung Galaxy Watch can indeed act as a stand-alone mobile device after initial setup. With the latest Galaxy Watch 4 running Wear OS powered by Samsung there are many more apps that can be used on the go so you can leave the phone behind in most cases.

What are the hot new features in the latest smartwatches?

Health and fitness tracking have been the areas with most innovations and improvements in the last couple of years. While these watches are not medical devices, they have sensors, algorithms, and applications that help you track trends in your heart rate, stress levels, blood oxygen levels, and more. You can use it as a basic ECG to check if further investigation is needed. The latest Galaxy Watch 4 can also measure your body composition and testing indicates it matches other methods fairly well.

All of these smartwatches can also serve as capable GPS sports watches to track the details of your outdoor activities. Exercise guidance is provided on the watch with connected health applications on your smartphone so you can keep track of your progress too.

Which is the right smartwatch for you?

If you own an iPhone, we highly recommend the Apple Watch SE or Apple Watch 6. Honestly, most people will be perfectly happy with the less expensive Watch SE and not even see much of a difference for a decent cost savings. Nothing beats the Apple Watch for the third-party apps, seamless connectivity, Apple Pay, and much more.

With the move from Tizen to Google WearOS, the new Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 models are amazing smartwatches that may soon top Apple with the ability to work with both Android and iPhone devices. There is a lot of potential here with this new partnership and we look forward to more developments. The Galaxy Watch 4 models are also less expensive than the Apple Watch.

How did we choose these smartwatches?

We have spent weeks, sometimes months, with most of these wearables while connecting them to the Apple iPhone and various Android smartwatches. We have run, walked, hiked, biked, slept, worked, traveled, played, and more with these watches on our wrists. We also read other reviews and reviewer guides provided by the smartwatch makers to make sure we have explored all of the available features. 

Best smartwatches in 2021: Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and more


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