How to buy the best smartwatch
By Christina Woodger
Should you pay more for an Apple Watch? What features do you need and how much should you spend? We explain how to pick the perfect smartwatch.
The best smartwatches not only look stylish, but will work seamlessly to track fitness, control apps, deliver notifications and help you to communicate seamlessly from your wrist.
In our tests we've found plenty that tick these boxes, but have also found smartwatches that are uncomfortable, lack functionality or won’t accurately track your activity.
In this guide we'll help you to find the perfect smartwatch, whatever your budget.
Just want to see our reviews? Discover the best smartwatches.
In this article:
Smartwatches cost from around £60 to well over £650. At the very top of the price range, you’ll often be paying for premium materials, designer brands and decorations, such as gold or semi-precious stones, rather than any technological advances.
Ultimately, you don't need to spend a lot to find a smartwatch you can rely on – we've found good models for a little over £100.
We’ve also found that price is by no means an indicator of performance – our cheapest and most expensive Best Buy smartwatches have a price difference of more than £300. Paying more may get you features such as advanced activity tracking, premium materials, or perhaps a strap and bezel made of stainless steel or aluminium, rather than plastic. New models, especially from bigger brands, usually command a price premium. Shop carefully and pick the right model, and you may be surprised at how little you have to spend.
One of the most important factors to consider when buying a smartwatch is whether it’s compatible with your smartphone, as you’ll need to pair or connect them to access incoming calls, texts, emails and apps.
Fortunately, cross-compatibility is a lot better than it used to be, but there are still some things to bear in mind.
- Generally speaking, Apple Watches don't work well with Android phones. There are ways to get some limited functionality, and the watch will work by itself, in isolation of the phone. But seeing as Apple Watches are relatively expensive, you're best only considering one if you already have an iPhone.
- Samsung watches run the Tizen operating system. Just as Apple Watches are best with an iPhone, you're best off with a Samsung-branded phone here. However, you will find better compatibility with other Android brands, and some compatibility with iPhones. If you're considering buying a Samsung watch, it's worth researching how well it works with your particular (non-Samsung) phone so you're aware of potential limitations.
- Wear OS is Google's smartwatch operating system, and it's the most versatile. It works fairly seamlessly across all Android brands, and although there are some limitations with iPhones, this is your best bet if you'd rather not shell out on an Apple Watch. Again, it's worth looking into potential issues before you buy.
Read on for more details on each of these platforms.
A hybrid or analogue smartwatch will have a smattering of smart features, but not the full gamut offered by a true smartwatch. Instead, the focus will be on the design of the watch face and strap. They often have a classic watch-style face and some even have watch hands that you wind manually using a dial.
The choice between a hybrid smartwatch and a regular smartwatch boils down to whether you want a wearable device with a lot of smart features - such as the ability to receive and send texts, calls and emails, and add apps to your wrist, or if you prefer the traditional style and simply want a few extra features.
When it comes to smart features, an analogue watch tends to be limited to the basics such as buzzing when you receive a text or email on your smartphone. Some offer a little more, such as control of the camera on your phone from your wrist. We’ve taken a look at hybrid smartwatches from brands such as Guess and Skagen.
Most hybrid smartwatches will have one or two fitness features, such as basic step tracking. However, there are some that don’t have any fitness tracking functions at all. If this is an important feature for you, take a look at our fitness tracker reviews.
Wear OS by Google
Built to work with Android devices but with iPhone compatibility too, Wear OS is another touch-driven interface designed to direct messages, calls and diary appointments to the device on your wrist. Previously known as Android Wear 2.0, Wear OS has a host of features including the ability to customise watch faces to retrieve the most important information from your favourite apps, and control over notifications. It can give you greater freedom from your smartphone, as standalone apps will work with any Bluetooth or wi-fi connection, even without your phone nearby.
Pros: Wear OS is well maintained by Google, and recent updates have resulted in a far sleeker, more intuitive experience. There's also wealth of apps available to browse in the Play Store.
Cons: Compatibility with iPhones is limited, quality of many apps is hit and miss, bugs and minor issues reported on some smartwatches.
Get help choosing with our Wear OS smartwatch reviews.
You'll find Tizen on Samsung smartwatches. It's an open-source operating system, based on Linux. It was initially only compatible with Samsung smartphones, but it now works with a range of Android handsets and the iPhone 5 and newer, albeit with limitations.
Pros: Samsung smartwatches are generally constructed from premium materials. They're more likely to have better battery life than Wear OS watches with similar features, with some claimed to last two to four days between charges.
Cons: Apps are more limited on Tizen than on Wear OS, although this is slowly improving, with popular apps such as Spotify, Uber and Nest now available.
Read all of our in-depth Samsung smartwatch reviews.
Designed to work exclusively with iPhones, Apple’s watchOS offers a touch-based interface that lets you scroll through your contacts, dictate texts and build your own fitness regime. Apple periodically releases new versions of the OS to keep things fresh – and for iPhone users at least, maintains a wide selection of useful and informative apps. Recent developments in particular maintained a strong focus on health, fitness and wellbeing.
Pros: watchOS is simple to use and works well with the iPhone, delivering all the notifications you’d expect and allowing you to customise the look and feel of the interface through apps.
Cons: It’s exclusive to Apple Watches and available only on expensive devices. Prices start from £269 for an Apple Watch Sport Series 1.
Browse our Apple Watch reviews.
Fitness tracking: Certain smartwatches have just as many exercise-logging features as fitness trackers, and some are particularly advanced. The Apple Watch Series 2 and Samsung Gear S3, for example, have heart-rate monitors and built-in GPS so you can track your running route without taking your phone. They are also waterproof, so well suited to swimmers.
If you’re looking for a smartwatch that will help you keep an eye on your heartbeat, head over to our reviews of smartwatches with heart-rate monitors. If you want a more advanced device for fitness or exercise logging, check out our fitness watch and activity tracker reviews.
At Which? we run all smartwatches through a section of our fitness-tracker test to see just how good any exercise-logging capabilities really are.
Good battery life: Most smartwatches use a rechargeable battery, but how long it lasts varies significantly between models. What features a smartwatch has will also have an impact on battery life – models with a large screen, heart-rate monitor or advanced sensors, for example, are likely to run out of juice quite quickly.
Internal storage: Most good smartwatches should have a reasonable amount of internal memory: look for 4GB or more. This not only allows you to download new apps, but also store music files so you can listen to tunes without a smartphone in tow.
Wi-fi: Another way to avoid relying on a smartphone for a connection. A watch with wi-fi can connect to local networks, so you can continue to receive notifications and use online functions away from your phone.
NFC (and MST): If you're looking to make contactless payments via your watch, make sure it has built in NFC (near-field communication). Also look for MST (magnetic secure transmission), which allows you to make payments at credit card terminals.
Built-in GPS: Most smartwatches will be able to use the GPS on your smartphone. If you like to exercise outside and don’t want to be tied to the GPS on your smartphone, though, built-in GPS is the feature to look for. This will let you track your route and distance while leaving your smartphone safely at home.
Accuracy: We put every smartwatch through the same tests as fitness and activity trackers, including checking the accuracy of step and calorie count, distance travelled, and the built-in heart-rate monitor. For those that have specific swim metrics, we put the accuracy of the tracking to the test in the pool too.
We know consistency is important too – if a smartwatch is accurate on some days but not on others it will be difficult to track improvements in your fitness levels. We repeat our walking test to see if the smartwatches consistently overstate, understate or hit the accuracy mark. Make sure you check out our reviews if you want a smartwatch that will accurately track your exercise and activity.
Waterproofing: Most smartwatches should be at least splashproof, and ideally IP67 or IP68-certified for immersion in water. Note that this doesn't meant the watch is suitable for swimming; this capability is usually measured in atmospheres (ATM). For example, 5 ATM means a watch is water resistant to a depth of 50 metres.
Built-in heart-rate monitor: Measuring your heart-rate is one of the best ways to track improvements in your fitness levels, as well as being a useful metric for those looking to burn fat. The best smartwatches for fitness will measure your heart-rate all day, as well as telling you when you’ve reached your active heart-rate zone during exercise. Some will even measure the time it takes for your heart-rate to return to a resting rate after exercise, which is indicative of your fitness.
4G connectivity: Also known as cellular connectivity and LTE. This allows you to make and receive calls, texts and other notifications without your phone nearby. It's not available for everyone, as you'll need your phone and smartwatch to use the same network carrier, and only a small number of network carriers offer LTE. For example, to use the Apple Watch Series 4 with 4G, you will need a contract with EE. Connectivity will also have a large impact on the battery life of the watch.
Built-in speaker: Most smartwatches have a built-in microphone (useful for dictating voice messages as responses, or using a voice assistant to issue commands), but it's less common to find a speaker. This won't be essential for everyone, but if you aspire to make phone calls using just your watch, it's a must have. It's also useful for alarms and reminders as an alternative to the vibration alert.
22mm watch strap: Some smartwatches (including the Apple Watch and older Samsung Gear watches) use a proprietary strap connection, which means you'll have to stick to fairly limited set of branded replacements (or passable imitations). Choose a smartwatch with a removable 22mm watch strap, and you'll find a massive range of designs and materials available, with prices starting from just a few pounds.
Here's a quick summary of how some key models compare in terms of price and features. Or you can head straight to our guide to the best smartwatches to see those that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Apple Watch Series 4 GPS - from £400
- Compatible with iOS
- Features: Touchscreen, ability to respond to notifications, water-resistant, built-in GPS, heart-rate monitor, Bluetooth, wi-fi and music control.
The fourth-generation Apple Watch has all the smart features you'd expect from a a watch of this price, plus a redesigned speaker and more sophisticated health and fitness functions than previous versions. It comes in two sizes: 40mm and 44mm. There's also a version with LTE, which will set you back £100 more, plus carrier fees.
Fitbit Versa - £150
- Compatible with iOS or Android
- Features: Touchscreen, water-resistant, heart-rate monitor, Bluetooth and wi-fi
The Versa could be a good choice if you love the 'squircle' design of the Series 4 but don't want to spend so much. It has a range of sports functions, plus sleep tracking.
It doesn't have especially advanced smart features - there's no way to respond to notifications and no in-built GPS, so you'll still need to carry your phone with you if you want those things. But it might be more than adequate for your needs. Check out our Fitbit Versa review to find out more.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 - £160
- Compatible with iOS or Android
- Features: Touchscreen, ability to respond to notifications, water-resistant, built-in GPS, heart-rate monitor, Bluetooth and music control
With its round face, this Garmin looks more like a traditional watch than the Apple or Fitbit above. It has a long list of fitness functions, including on-board GPS. It's a big watch, but we didn't feel it was too heavy when we tried it out.
Find out if it's the ideal watch for ticking both the smart and fitness boxes by reading our Garmin Vivoactive 3 review.
Huawei Watch GT - £130
- Compatible with iOS or Android
- Features: Touchscreen, water-resistant, built-in GPS, heart-rate monitor and Bluetooth
An expensive-looking watch for a fraction of the cost of the Apple. It has a large display screen and runs off Huawei's own OS. It offers a good range of sports and fitness features (including sleep monitoring and GPS) and a decent, but not vast, range of smart features.
Discover all its features, and get our verdict, by reading our Huawei Watch GT review.
Samsung Galaxy Watch - from £260
- Compatible with iOS or Android
- Features: Touchscreen, water-resistant, built-in GPS, heart-rate monitor, Bluetooth, wi-fi and music control
A beautiful-looking watch with no shortage of smart features and fitness sensors, including sleep tracking. There's also a version with LTE.
The Samsung Galaxy comes in two sizes: 42mm and 46mm (which is more expensive). We've reviewed them separately, and one edges slightly ahead of the other - so read our reviews of the Samsung Galaxy Watch (42mm) and Samsung Galaxy Watch (46mm) to see how they compare.