The Apple Watch is finally coming. It touches down on April 24th. But what makes it so special? Well...not a whole lot except for the fact that it works with an iPhone and is made by Apple, as Mark Wilson very succinctly points out at Co.Design. Here's everything else that's already out there, and already fantastic.
I mean, the Apple Watch doesn't have to revinvent everything to be wildly important. Android Wear is fine and dandy, but that doesn't matter a lick to the iPhone owners. Not to mention that, no matter how you slice it, Apple does have a knack for legitmising an idea by putting out a product of its own.
Still! There's a whole lot to be said for the rest of the smartwatches out there, specifically the offerings from Pebble which A.) are the best overall and B.) work on iOS as well! And no matter how good the Apple Watch's app selection is, the Pebble Steel is still going to have five days of battery life.
We can't tell you how the Apple Watch will fair up against the new Pebble Time (or Pebble Time Steel), but we can tell you what the state of smartwatch affairs looks like, right this freaking second. The answer? Not bad at all, even without the Apple Watch.
I've been keen on smartwatches pretty much since day one. I get a lot of emails, texts, and assorted notifications, most of them garbage but some vitally important. Having a glancable screen on my wrist makes life infinitely easier. But smartwatches have come a long way since they showed up a few years ago. Which watches are best at keeping me from pulling out my phone? I decided to find out.
Update 2/24/15: We recommend two different Pebble smartwatches, but you should know that a new Pebble is on the way. The Pebble Time will be shipping to Kickstarter backers in May.
Update 3/09/15: Now we finally know when the Apple Watch is touching down: April 24th. Naturally that will shake up the smartwatch scene a fair bit.
Plenty of wrist computers look to prove their worth by having FEATURES like speakers and apps and data connections and touchscreens and miniature espresso makers (I might have made that last one up). But simple is better. I've found that a smartwatch only needs to perform two main jobs to be worth a damn. These are, in order of importance:
- Telling the goddamn time, all of the time.
- Sending me simple on-the-wrist notifications that let me know why my phone just buzzed. Who emailed, who texted, what the first few words of their message are, etc.
This discovery led me to rule out a few types of wearables — straight-up fitness trackers, for instance — as well as "smart" analogue watches that can vibrate but not show me the subject line of an email. Most importantly, it led me to rule out any watch that can't go at least 24 hours with its screen on the whole time. A watch that does not show you the time when you look at it is not a good enough watch and there's nothing more maddening than looking at your wrist and not seeing the time. Gesture-wake is never perfect, so always-on is mandatory. And of course, a dead watch tells no time.
After I sorted the wheat from the chaff, these were the watches worth wearing.
The Best Smartwatch Overall: Pebble Steel
The only smartwatch I can recommend without knowing ANYTHING about you is the $US200 Pebble Steel. I love this thing. It's missing a lot of the fancier smartwatch features: sometimes I missed being able to use voice control, or being able to swipe through my notifications with a finger instead of by pressing a button. But the trade-off is worth it because the screen is always on, always readable, and the battery lasts for 5 days, easy. Even better, it looks classy enough that I'm comfortable wearing it even if I'm dressing up for a formal dinner or fancy business party. This ain't no child's toy.
It's also incredibly versatile. Unlike Google's Android Wear watches or the upcoming Apple Watch, the Pebble Steel works with Android and iOS. Design-wise it's small enough that it looks fine even on daintier wrists. It's got leather and metal band options, a bajillion different faces to choose from, and I've never seen a third-party app store as robust as Pebble's. At $US200, the Pebble Steel is on the cheap side when it comes to the better-looking smartwatches. It's a great smartwatch for anyone who's in the market.
The Most Stylish: LG G Watch R and ASUS Zenwatch
We've got a tie here because on a functional level, the $US300 G Watch R and the $US200 Zenwatch are pretty equally great. Both have OLED screens, which means they can always display the time without burning through their whole battery before the day is out. Both watches got me through 24 hours with battery to spare, even with extreme use. Both run Google's Android Wear platform, which I love: it's super convenient to set laundry reminders on my wrist with voice commands, or archive emails from my watch.
Which one you should pick pretty much depends on which look you like more, and how much money you have to spend. I'm partial to the sporty look of the G Watch R even though the tickmarks around its edges look kind of silly if you use a watchface that doesn't have hands. I prefer that to the thinner Zenwatch's considerable bezel. But at $US200 the Zenwatch has an edge over the G Watch R's hefty $US300 pricetag. Both are fantastic smartwatches, and the best Android Wear has to offer.
The Most Smartwatch for the Price: Pebble
If you want to just dabble in smartwatchery without dropping a lot of cash, get the original $US80 Pebble. Functionally, it's the same as the Pebble Steel but in an cheaper, more robust (and uglier) plastic body. I hated the Pebble's look at first, but eventually I came around to kind of dig it. Also the plastic body and rubber strap also make it great for wearing at night (sleep-tracking) or in the shower (music control/just being way too connected). Even though the screen on mine got a little scuffed, I learned to love the little sucker for being so robust and trusty.
There's no better way to explore whether you actually want a smartwatch (short of borrowing one somehow) than buying the Pebble. If I didn't have so many new smartwatches landing on my desk, this is probably the one I would get.
Apple Watch (added 3/09/15)
Yes, the fabled Apple Watch is finally on its way. We've known all about it for a while now, but now we know its starting price is $US350 and it will be available on April 24th. We're trying it as soon as we can!
Pebble Time (added 2/24/15)
Heads up: there's a new Pebble coming in a few months. It's got a colour screen and a microphone for voice commands. Can't wait to try it, but for now we can't judge.
The Moto 360 is beautiful, simple, and elegant, but it's not good enough. You still have to shake the watch to turn on the screen, and battery life doesn't always last the day anyhow.
Sony Smartwatch 3
The best-performing Android Wear watch is pretty homely. The transflective LCD screen is easy to see in bright light, but the G Watch R and Zenwatch work nearly as well and look way better.
Samsung Gear Fit
Decent hardware, garbage software. Thin strip-like screen that functions like a tall, vertical display is bad at notifications. All that plus it's only compatible with Samsung devices. Pass.
More fitness tracker than smartwatch, the interface and notifications leave a lot to be desired as far as smartwatches are concerned.
Basis Peak (added 2/24/15)
Way too many limitations. No Android 5.0 support, no way to do anything except see your notifications. Plus we had a really hard time keeping it paired with our phone. Good as a fitness tracker but not as a smartwatch.
Fitbit Surge (added 2/24/15)
No way. You get call notifications, SMS notifications, and that's it. They take up the entire screen. No way to see your email. It's not the best fitness tracker for the money, and not a great smartwatch either.
LG G Watch
Fine, but both the Pebble Steel and the ASUS Zenwatch are better, prettier, and cheaper.
Samsung Gear Live
Like the G Watch, it's boring but not bad, though the Steel and Zenwatch have it beat in looks and price. Also the Gear Live's default strap is garbage, so you have to buy a replacement if you dont want it to pop off and break.
Samsung Gear S
Big, clunky, expensive. It has its own data connection, but that's of dubious value and doesn't excuse the rest of its flaws.
Samsung Galaxy Gear
Old, bulky, unchangeable bands, Samsung phones only. Nope.
Mirasol screen is cool, but this sucker is bulky, ugly, and hard to come by.
LG G Watch Urbane
This upcoming LG smartwatch looks like a pretty awesome Android Wear timepiece. We'll let you know when we try one.
LG G Watch Urbane LTE
And this upcoming LG smartwatch has an immense battery and all sorts of new features. Looking forward to giving it a go.
Martian Voice Command and Martian Notifier
Clever analogue/digital design but the tiny little horizontal window is just bad at telling you what you want to know.
Metawatch M1 and Metawatch Frame
Same deal as the M1 and Frame, except with regards to the cheaper Pebble instead.
Sony Smartwatch and Smartwatch 2
Samsung Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo
These watches only work with Samsung phones, so they would have to be truly amazing to be worth locking yourself down. They are not.
Announced last year but pre-orders just started. I'll be checking it out as soon as I can.
Runs straight up Android 4.2.2, which is noooooot designed for a watch screen.
Widely known to be a complete disaster.
Absurdly huge. Stay away.
Extremely mixed reviews, not worth dabbling with no-name software.
Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity
No screen, no smartwatch. Also expeeeensive at ~$US500.
Announced at CES 2014 but never showed up. I'd try a $US50 smartwatch if it existed, though.
HP MB Chronowing
Intriguing but expensive and more watch than smartwatch. Expensive at $US350, and there are no reviews. The company wouldn't send me one.
Expensive, unproven software and ecosystem.
Mota G2 Smartwatch
Sparse and bad reviews. Also these guys are promoting a ridiculously impossible smart ring right now so I don't trust them at all.
More calculator watch than smartwatch.
Agent Smartwatch, Hyetis, HOT Smartwatch, Vea Buddy
All crowd-funded, none of them have shown up yet. Never buy a product until it actually exists.
12/16/14 - Original post
2/24/15 - Updated The Rest with Basis Peak, Fitbit Surge, Pebble Time, Sony Smartwatch 3
Photos by Nicholas Stango