I've been keen on smartwatches pretty much since day one. I get a lot of emails, texts, and assorted notifications, most of them crap but some vitally important.
Having a screen I can glance at on my wrist makes life infinitely easier. But smartwatches have come a long way since they showed up a few years ago. Which ones are best at keeping me from pulling out my phone? I decided to find out.
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 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 £180 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 five 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 £180, 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 £211 G Watch R and the Zenwatch, which will be available in the UK for £199 exclusively at Currys PC World, are equally great. Both have AMOLED 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 $200 (equivalent of £120, though likely to be more when available) the Zenwatch has an edge over the G Watch R's hefty £220 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 £100 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 thing 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.
The £200 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
Pretty unremarkable but not ugly. Somewhat overpriced at £190 RRP. The transflective LCD screen is easy to see in bright sunlight but always-on AMOLED is just as good and easier on the battery. Options like the G Watch R and Zenwatch are just better.
Samsung Gear Fit
Decent hardware, shitty 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.
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.
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.
Could be a great fitness/smartwatch combo; we'll see when it comes out.
Doesn't have smartwatch notifications yet but could be interesting when it gets them
Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity
No screen, no smartwatch. Also expeeeensive at £300.
Announced at CES 2014 but never showed up. I'd try a £30 smartwatch if it existed, though.
Photos by Nicholas Stango