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12 January 2021

How we test smartwatches

From battery life to notifications and fitness tracking accuracy, we test it all so you can pick the perfect smartwatch for you.
Christina Woodger

It isn't easy for a smartwatch to earn our Best Buy recommendation – we only recommend models that offer genuine benefits above and beyond simply using your smartphone alone. 

If a smartwatch is difficult to use, uncomfortable to wear, lacks key smart features and needs constant charging, you may well find you never wear it. 

Smartwatches from all the big brands, including Apple, Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei and Samsung go through a raft of tests both in and out of our lab. The very best smartwatches will have brilliantly clear and reactive screens and plenty of useful smart features – and be able to track your activity accurately, too. 

To find out which models aced our tough tests, head over to our round-up of the best smartwatches

Smart features

Smartwatches all receive text messages, call notifications and calendar alerts, and most receive email and social media notifications, too.

But we’ve found differences in the level of detail you can see and how easy these notifications are to view. Some simply tell you that you've received a notification, so you’ll have to dig around for your phone to find out exactly what’s happening, whereas others make it easy to reply and even allow you to make calls directly from the watch. 

And many give you the option to filter which notifications get pushed from your phone to the smartwatch, whereas it's all or nothing with others. 

Many offer music control, so you can listen via Bluetooth headphones while out and about, or use your watch to control music playing from your smartphone. In other cases, you can store music directly on the watch or stream music from services such as Spotify. 

Some smartwatches have great accompanying apps that are easy to navigate and offer useful, detailed information. Others are clunky, hard to find your way around or slow to update. 

Our expert testers compare the smart features of each smartwatch, as well as any annoying niggles. We also test how reliably each smartwatch receives notifications from your smartphone by checking if all alerts are received. 

All of this will help you to decide whether it’s worth forking out hundreds for a smartwatch, or whether you’re better off just using your phone.

Settings and customisation

Everyone's different, and smartwatches need to be able to adapt to give you the features you need the most. Maybe aesthetics are important to you, or you want plenty of choices of watch face to suit the occasion. 

Or maybe you want the option to be able to download third-party apps for more advanced fitness tracking, or for adding extra features and functions. 

We delve into the settings of each watch, and their accompanying smartphone apps, to find out which are the most versatile and most capable of being tailored to do exactly what you need them to. 

Battery life

If your smartwatch takes hours to charge up, you'll probably find yourself often leaving home without it. And if it doesn’t last long enough on each charge, you’ll fall out of love with your watch quite quickly.

In our lab we check how long it takes for the smartwatch battery to charge from dead to 100%. The best charge in less than an hour, while the worst take more than three hours. 

We also check how much battery life you'll get from a 30 minute charging session – useful if you only realise it's dead when you wake up in the morning, for example, and want to give it a quick burst before heading off to work. 

And of course we also test how long the fully charged battery will last by putting each device through a series of tests – we replicate typical daytime and nightime scenarios both in and out of our lab, including sending two phone calls and 35 messages to the phone linked to the watch. 

Screen quality and scratch-resistance

The best smartwatches are designed to be worn day-in, day-out. But that means these pricey devices could be put through all sorts of situations – whether that’s hopping on and off public transport, wearing it during a difficult workout session, doing a bit of DIY or, for those built for sports such as hiking, taking on tough terrain. 

So your device needs to be comfortable, well-built and suitable for both indoors and outdoors use. 

Our reviews can tell you if the watch seems solid and durable, based on the materials it's made from. Some look strong and sturdy – or glamorous and premium – in the PR photos, but appear much more cheap and flimsy up close. 

We can also tell you whether the screen is clear, bright and high-resolution and easily readable in dark and low light, and how easy it is to wake up so you can quickly tell the time.

Scratch resistance gets a workout too with a dedicated scratch-test tool, which applies a set force to the watch. These are pricey devices, so you don't want to end up with unsightly marks on the screen. 

Fitness-tracking accuracy

Many smartwatches include a variety of sensors to capture your fitness data. Some – which are also called fitness watches or sports watches – are specifically targeted at exercise enthusiasts, and come packed with fitness tracking capabilities. Even those that are more about fashion and staying connected will generally track things like your steps, number of floors climbed, heart rate and, increasingly, aspects of your sleep. 

Seeing your activity – or how inactive you’ve really been – right there on your wrist can be a great motivator to exercise more. But only if you can rely on the readings your smartwatch provides, which is why we check the accuracy of the fitness functions of each device.

Our reviews can give you information such as:

  • how accurately a smartwatch tracks the number of steps you've taken
  • whether a smartwatch tracks your distance travelled using GPS (which often makes it more accurate) or using your step count
  • if it has heart-rate tracking, and whether it can track your heart rate accurately

To measure steps, for example, our testers go on a 10 minute walk and a 10 minute run, and take part in a range of household activities, including sitting reading a magazine, packing and unpacking a dishwasher, sweeping the floor, going up and down stairs and carrying shopping bags. We compare the smartwatch data to a trusted reference step counter. 

For measuring distance, we walk and run routes with known distances and check if the smartwatch can accurately tell us how far we've travelled. Our walking and running routes include woodland areas, giving GPS watches more of a challenge. 

To measure heart rate, we test a smartwatch during low and high intensity running, and while resting. If the watch struggles – gives no heart-rate data or really abnormal heart-rate data, say – we take a second reading. We compare results to chest belts, as reference devices, which use an electrical measurement method that is known to be more reliable – so we know we can trust their data. 

73% The score a smartwatch needs to earn to be considered as a Which? Best Buy

Should I buy it?

Each of our assessments goes some way to making up a smartwatch total test score – the overall percentage figure we award to each smartwatch.

Some factors are more important than others, so we weight each result to ensure that the smartwatch features you’re likely to use most are the ones that contribute the highest proportions to the total test score. The score is broken down as follows:

  • 25% smart features
  • 25% fitness features
  • 20% ease of use
  • 15% battery
  • 5% quality of the accompanying app
  • 5% build quality
  • 5% features

A smartwatch needs to score at least 73% in our tests to become a Best Buy.

Make sure you don't spend your money on an inaccurate, uncomfortable and clunky smartwatch. Use our smartwatch reviews to find your perfect model.

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