Ultimate Smartwatch Buying Guide 2021
Our smartwatch guide will help you choose the perfect smartwatch for your lifestyle. We explain all the features worth knowing about and the ones that are overrated too.
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The truth is, finding the right smartwatch isn't easy!
Until fairly recently the smartwatch market was pretty niche and had very little variety on offer.
But, with improved battery technology and some innovative design choices, the smartwatches of 2021 cover a whole range of specialist uses.
Sure, there are your day to day watches that provide a solid "all round" experience (and we'll cover those down below too) but there are also smartwatches designed for fitness (and running in particular), outdoor pursuits, fashion, music, and a whole lot more.
Smartwatches are also no longer the preserve of the privileged few with cash to burn either.
Recent offerings from companies like Amazfit offer amazing value for money and really make you question how companies like Apple and Samsung get away with their pricing.
I'd recommend staying away from most of the dirt cheap Chinese brands that you'll find but a good smartwatch doesn't need to cost more than $100 or even $50. However, like with all tech there are levels to this, and you'll need to make certain compromises.
If you're new to the world of smartwatches and you're finding all the choice on offer a bit overwhelming then this guide is for you.
We cover a few questions you should be asking yourself in order to make the right choice.
We also go over the features on offer in smartwatches in 2021. We'll make some suggestions based on these too.
If you have any questions about anything we cover here then be sure to drop us a message down below or on our contact page.
How to Choose a Smartwatch: Initial Checklist
This is a great place to start! We're going to ask a few simple questions that should narrow down what you're looking for. We'll even make a few suggestions based on your answers.
Take a quick look at our buyer's checklist on the right. We go into more detail in the section that follows.
What's your budget?
An obvious but extremely important first question to ask. Setting a budget can narrow down your choices significantly (or not!).
What will the main purpose of your smartwatch be?
Smartwatches are designed for a variety of tasks these days.Knowing specifically which type you're looking for is a big help.
What kind of smartphone do you own?
You'll likely want to pair your smartwatch to your smartphone. Compatibility can be an issue when it comes to pairing your smartwatch to your smartphone.
How important is battery life to you? There's a large spread when it comes to battery life of smartwatches.
Smartwatch prices in 2021 range from around $50 to +$1,000 for the specialist watches. Of course, you can add another zero to this if you want to go for the diamond encrusted limited editions, if that's what floats your boat.
The cheapest smartwatch that we'd be happy recommending is the Amazfit Bip U Pro. It's a pretty solid all-rounder that comes with built-in GPS, solid battery life, fitness tracking, a heart rate monitor, and smart notifications.
On the other end of the price spectrum are the big players like Apple and Samsung. They currently make two of the best smartwatches on the market.
The Apple Watch Series 6 is an excellent smartwatch with battery life that is much better than previous iterations but still with room to improve.
The Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 is a serious contender to the Apple Watch throne. In fact, if you have an Android phone then it's the better choice, due to compatibility issues.
If like myself, fitness tracking is a priority in a smartwatch then Garmin or Fitbit are probably better choices. You can see some of our favorites here.
The Purpose of Your Smartwatch
Like we mentioned earlier, smartwatches these days are designed for a variety of tasks. In this section, we've selected the categories on offer in 2021.
Choose which one describes you and your reason for getting a smartwatch the best. Then we can offer some amazing recommendations!
The All Rounder
'The All Rounder' is the Swiss army knife of smartwatches. It does a bit of everything and is a great day to day watch.
Take a look at our favorite all-round smartwatches below.
The Music Lover
Does music play a big part in your life? Certain smartwatches offer Spotify integration so you can listen to music on the move (via Bluetooth headphones or internal speakers). I have this on my Garmin and for me it's a "must have" feature from now on!
The Fitness Enthusiast
With exercise and fitness tracking at its core 'The Fitness Enthusiast' smartwatch has a heart rate monitor, GPS, activity tracking, solid battery life, and possibly a whole lot more depending on your budget.
The Cool Dude
Is style one of the more important aspects for you? These smartwatches are effortlessly cool and will be the talk of your workplace.
The Life Outdoors
The outdoor enthusiast needs a rugged smartwatch that's waterproof and durable. Key features include powerful battery life, GPS, mapping, compass, and weather alerts.
The Cell Phone Replacement
Certain smartwatches are now able to take calls and send and receive messages independently from your phone. Perfect for those occasions when a bulky smartwatch is an inconvenience but you need to stay connected to the world.
Smartwatches aren't truly standalone devices (in most cases) and you'll want to pair your watch with your phone to use certain features. Things like notifications, music, calls and messages, and detailed fitness tracking statistics are usually (but not always) accessed via a Bluetooth or WiFi connection with your phone.
Most smartwatches and cellphones work well with each other and compatibility isn't an issue. However, there are some combinations that don't play nicely and it's important that you're aware of these before making an expensive mistake.
Therefore, one of the most important factors affecting which smartwatch you choose is which smartphone you own.
The Apple watch for example doesn't combine well with an Android smartphone. Yes, your watch will still work but you'll be unable to pair it with your phone. In fact, you won't even be able to set-up your standalone LTE Apple Watch without access to an iPhone. In our opinion this situation is just best avoided altogether.
Other popular smartwatch operating systems like Google Wear OS and Samsung Tizen work with both iPhone and Android but compatibility is not 100% with the iPhone.
Popular smartwatch brands Samsung and Garmin will work with both iPhones and Android phones.
Smartwatch battery life has made some big leaps in the past couple of years. You no longer need to bring a charger to work with you for a quick afternoon top up!
Some models now make use of solar energy to go weeks between charges. You can see the smartwatches with the longest battery life in our guide.
Certain features like GPS drain the battery more quickly so be sure to check battery life estimates for smartwatches with GPS enables. This figure should be quoted but it won't be the one that is most prominent!
You should be looking at a 24 hour minimum and pretty much every smartwatch made in the last couple of years should give you this. The Apple Watch probably has the most to offer of all smartwatches at the moment but the battery life is one of the worst available. It's a trade-off with the big, bright screen and all those bells and whistles.
Key Smartwatch Features in 2021
Get a feel for what's available by taking a look at the core features that smartwatches currently offer.
OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) and AMOLED displays are the current industry standards. They are more detailed, thinner, and more energy efficient than the traditional LED displays that were the standard for smartwatches until recently.
The viewable screen sizes vary from around 40mm up to around 50mm. You'll find larger screens on obscure Chinese models but I'd avoid these.
Though having a large screen size is beneficial with most tech, with smartwatches it's not always the case. A bigger screen means more bulk (not great for small wrists) and more energy usage (shorter battery life). However, it does mean more viewable real estate and space for you to control a touchscreen. It's a trade-off you'll need to balance for yourself.
The user interface has always been the stumbling block for smartwatches (well, this and battery life).
As you make something smaller and more portable how do you maintain an intuitive and easy to use interaction between user and machine?
It's for this reason that smartwatches as we now know them will never truly replace smartphones. Not until there's a big shift in interface design anyway.
Most smartwatches use touchscreens but they still maintain the use of buttons and bezels for certain tasks. The Apple smartwatches have the best interface design (in my opinion!) and make great use of the bezel for flicking though options.
Most interfaces now include voice control integration which is a game changer too. Operating systems from Apple, Google, and Samsung all make use of voice commands (this can be turned on and off).
There's now quite a variety on offer when it comes to the style in smartwatches. You don't need to settle for a boxy, bulky black wrist-piece anymore.
While they'll never quite match the classic look of something like a Tag Heuer chronograph, more traditional styles can be found.
If you just can't get past the modern smartwatch styling, then a hybrid smartwatch is worth a look. Hybrids are the half way point between traditional watch and modern smartwatch. They lack the full feature set of a smartwatch but can do certain tasks like receiving notifications and activity tracking. At the same time, they maintain a classic watch style. You can find out more about them here.
Most smartwatches now come in a choice of colors and straps. The watch faces are completely customizable too. You can choose how it looks when idle and when in use too.
Fitness tracking is a feature at the core of many smartwatches, especially those from Garmin and Fitbit.
Your basic fitness tracking counts steps walked and calories burned. This level of tracking is common to pretty much all smartwatches.
Things are taken up a notch with the tracking of physical activities like running, cycling, and swimming. Good running smartwatches will track your route (via GPS) and offer all kinds of statistics and analysis. Measurements like average speed, heart rate, exertion levels, oxygen saturation levels, and V02 max are just some of the statistics available to you.
When synced up with a smartphone app like Strava or Garmin Connect (via Bluetooth or WiFi) all of your statistics are displayed in easily dissected graphs. You can connect with friends and compare times, and challenge and inspire each other. It's a great way to stay motivated with your fitness goals.
By measuring your movements and heart rate while sleeping, some smartwatches are able to grade your quality of sleep and give you insights on how you might improve it.
Sleep analysis includes measurements like how long it takes to fall asleep, duration of individual sleep cycle stages, sleep interruptions, and overall quality of rest.
A nice touch on some of the Fitbit smartwatches (like the Fitbit Versa 3) is a smart alarm that wakes the wearer up gradually (with increasing vibrations) at the end of their sleep cycle. This means they are less groggy when they wake.
The choice and quality of apps available can be a big reason to go with one manufacturer over another.
Big players like Apple and Samsung lead the way with access to their vast app stores.
If the Spotify app is a must, then Samsung has the best integration with this. Besides, downloading music onto the memory you can also stream directly from your watch (LTE model dependent).
Be aware that some apps can be reasonably expensive or even contain in-app purchases.
Notifications on a smartwatch are just like those on your phone. You can set apps to alert you when you receive messages or somebody leaves a comment on Facebook for example. You can also read messages and take calls (in some cases).
Notifications can be received on smartwatches in two ways.
The most common method is via a connection with your smartphone. This means you need to be within Bluetooth range of your smartphone. This is generally around 10 meters.
The second way to receive notifications is directly via a 4G/LTE connection. This method doesn't rely on a nearby smartphone to relay messages, but does require your smartwatch to part of your phone's data plan (learn more here).
Heart Rate Monitor
You might want to measure your heart rate to manage your stress levels or improve your fitness.
I find it most useful to measure my level of exertion when running. I try and keep my heart rate within certain boundaries to achieve optimum training performance.
The most common way of doing this is with an optical sensor that measures blood flow. This is called optical heart rate monitoring (OHRM). It does a fairly good job but it's not as accurate as an ECG/EKG measurement (electrocardiogram).
An electrocardiogram actually measures how well your heart is working. This is much more useful for people with health conditions. Apple actually has FDA approval for its ECG feature.
GPS or Global Positioning System is a satellite system that tells you where you are.
It's used on a smartwatch to track routes, and give accurate estimates of distance, speed, and pace when exercising. It can also be used to estimate elevation but is more accurate when combined with a barometric altimeter (to measure pressure changes).
GPS is just one such satellite tracking system and there are times when the signal isn't strong. For this reason, if satellite tracking is important to you then you should choose a watch that uses Galileo and GLONASS systems too. With three systems combined you should always have a strong signal.
Good outdoors smartwatches like the Garmin Instinct give you multiple global navigation satellite systems.
If you're serious about your outdoor adventures then a solid mapping feature is a must. Google Maps is available on most smartwatches but you'll need something a bit more sophisticated for adventures in the mountains.
Smartwatches built for the outdoors use topographic maps that allow you to use waypoints and mark places of interest. You can plan routes and preview them on your wrist.
These maps are updated regularly and you can get detailed maps of every area you can think of. Even detailed maps of waterways and ocean coastlines are available.
The Garmin Fenix 6 Pro is an amazing smartwatch with solid mapping features.
Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Fitbit Pay, Garmin Pay, and Google Pay (among others) all allow you to hook up your debit and credit cards to a digital account.
This allows you to leave your wallet at home and make payments directly from your wrist.
Of course, not all shops accept this type of payment just yet but it's becoming more popular all the time. It's an amazing feature that has become even more relevant since covid-19 has reared its ugly head.
By virtue of being located on your wrist, a smartwatch can take a fair deal of punishment.
Features like reinforced glass, scratch-resistant screens, and silicon straps are just a few hard wearing components to look out for.
The toughest smartwatches are built to military standards and you can see which ones we recommend in our guide. They include things like thermal, shock, and water resistance.
Waterproof or Water Resistant?
Be careful about this distinction because it's an important one. Manufacturers can be a bit sneaky sometimes with their wording around this.
A water resistant watch will probably not survive being submerged in water. That means no swimming allowed!
If you're a swimmer you should be looking at a waterproof rating of at least 50 ATM or 50 meters. This is fairly standard now but don't forget to check.
The battery life of smartwatches has come on leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. You no longer need to top up the battery mid-afternoon to make it through the day. In fact, most smartwatches will go a few days between charges now.
Features like GPS, heart rate monitoring, and streaming (if it's available) drain the battery more quickly so be sure to account for this.
If you need serious battery power then solar charging is the way to go. Just be aware that these are some of the more expensive smartwatches on the market.
Certain smartwatch models now offer the ability to make calls, send and receive messages, stream music, and receive notifications without being tethered to your cellphone.
They require a cellphone plan that accommodates standalone calling and an eligible cellphone. Samsung Galaxy Watches will only work in this way if you have a Galaxy phone for example.
This feature is really useful for times when you don't want to be carrying a bulky smartphone but need to stay connected to the world. The big downside here is battery use which can be quite substantial.
We have guide to these smartwatches here.
Some smartwatches now offer music playback which can be listened to via a Bluetooth connection (headphones or speakers) or via in-built speakers.
It should be noted you'll need a fully paid subscription with a streaming service like Spotify.
Music is either downloaded onto the onboard memory of your smartwatch or streamed directly from it.
Streaming is the rarer of the two options and only a couple of watches will actually do this. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 being one.
I exercise with my smartwatch paired to my wireless Bluetooth headphones now and it's been a complete game-changer for me. It's a smartwatch feature I'd never be without.
You can see our favorite music watches in this guide.