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10 best smartwatches that do much more than just tell the time

To help make your life a little easier, tech experts like Apple and Samsung have the wearables you need to know   

David Phelan
Tuesday 17 August 2021 12:11
<p>We tested for efficiency, design, reliability, battery life and sheer wearability</p>

We tested for efficiency, design, reliability, battery life and sheer wearability

It seems that everything is smart these days, so why not watches? A smartwatch will do everything a regular watch does, but it’s likely to do it much more accurately than many standard timepieces. The Apple watch is accurate to hundredths of a second, for instance.

Beyond that, a smartwatch can deliver messages, emails and even phone calls to your wrist. Be warned though, answering that call on your watch may not sound as good as on your phone, and it’s on speakerphone unless you have headphones connected.

Managing notifications is important: if too many emails or other messages land on your wrist, it can be overwhelming. But it’s also true that a quick glance at your watch means it’s much easier to stay present than fishing your phone out of your pocket and losing yourself in it.

One of the key aspects of a smartwatch is its health and fitness capabilities. Pretty much any smartwatch will count your steps and encourage you to exercise a little more. Some have a GPS on board so you can record your run without being weighed down by your phone. They can also spot certain activities, so you don’t need to tell it you’re cycling, running or swimming.

Many have heart rate sensors to give you a spot reading of your heart rate or to monitor it continuously in the background. A few do much more, such as letting you take an ECG on your wrist or measuring your blood oxygen levels. Another metric is VO2 max, which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise and reflects cardiorespiratory fitness.

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How we tested

We tested for efficiency, design, reliability, battery life and sheer wearability. Some smartwatches have cellular connectivity so you can make phone calls even without your companion phone to hand, and we’ve assessed how well this works. We also checked how easy it was to change a strap, noting whether the display really did spring into life when you raised your arm, or was always-on, for instance.

The best smartwatches for 2021 are:

  • Best Apple smartwatch – Apple watch series 6: £379, Apple.com
  • Best for fitness – Fitbit sense: £239, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best for sleep tracking – Withings scanwatch: £219.95, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best for Galaxy phones – Samsung galaxy watch3: £305.97, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best design – Huawei watch GT2 pro: £179, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best for working out – Oppo watch: £179.99, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best budget Apple smartwatch – Apple watch SE: £269, Apple.com
  • Best under £100 – Huawei watch fit: £59.99, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best android smartwatch – Samsung galaxy watch active 2: £188.19, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best for counting steps – Zepp E circle: £179, Amazon.co.uk

Apple watch series 6

Best: Apple smartwatch

  • Screen size: 1.5in, 1.78in
  • Screen shape: Rectangular
  • Case size: 40mm, 44mm
  • Operating system: watchOS 7
  • Battery life: 1 day
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate, ECG, blood oxygen, VO2 max
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone

Apple’s watch is a distinctive and upscale smartwatch with a pin-sharp digital display that you use to interact with the touchscreen and hundreds of apps – from airlines to weather. The best apps are those by Apple, which include sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring, blood oxygen tracking and even ECG measurements. Then there’s the fitness app – three concentric rings which you close when you hit a chosen calorie target, minutes of brisk exercise and hours when you’ve stood for a minimum of a minute. It’s a simple system which is persuasive and appealing, driven on by onscreen badges you can earn.

The Apple watch is easily the classiest smartwatch with gorgeous design and immaculate build quality. It’s easy to control how many (or better, how few) emails, texts, calls or other notifications come through to your wrist. Battery life is enough to get you through a full day. If you use it for sleep tracking, the series 6 recharges much more quickly than before, so you can top up the charge while you’re showering or having breakfast. It also has an always-on display, so you don’t need to raise your wrist to make the screen light up, as is the case with many smartwatches. Apple pay means you can use the watch as a digital wallet, too.  

It comes in two sizes – 40mm and 44mm – and in wifi or wifi plus cellular versions; the latter means you can leave your iPhone at home and still make calls, order an Uber, dictate a text or set a reminder. It’s also available in three metal finishes – aluminium, stainless steel and the high-end option, titanium. All are the same, though the aluminium uses a strong glass over the display, while the more expensive stainless steel and titanium use tougher sapphire crystal.

Fitbit sense

Best: For fitness

  • Screen size: 1.58in
  • Screen shape: Rectangular
  • Case size: 40.5mm
  • Operating system: Fitbit OS
  • Battery life: 6 days
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate, blood oxygen, ECG, stress detection, skin temperature
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phones

Similarly to the Apple watch series 6, the brand new Fitbit sense has a brilliant range of health sensors including the SpO2 (which measures oxygen saturation), ECG and heart rate monitoring. But it also has an electrodermal activity sensor which is designed to detect how stressed you are. The app will show a stress management score and, if that’s high, you can take part in meditation sessions. It also measures your temperature, a rather timely and highly useful extra.

It also tracks your sleep and has a smart wake feature, which cleverly wakes you when it spots you are going from deep to light in a 30-minute period before your alarm time, aimed to help you wake up feeling refreshed.

Fitbit’s operating software is easy to use and has very good battery life of up to six days. The brand is also known for the accuracy of its measurements.

Withings scanwatch

Best: For sleep tracking

  • Screen size: 1.4in, 1.6in
  • Screen shape: Round
  • Case size: 38mm, 42mm
  • Operating system: Withings
  • Battery life: 30 days
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate, ECG, blood oxygen, VO2 max
  • GPS? No, uses smartphone’s GPS
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phones

Most smartwatches use touchscreens and backlit screens, but the Withings range is more traditional at first glance, with real analogue hands under a curved glass. But there’s a secondary dial which counts your steps towards your goal and a small circular screen towards the top of the device that shares notifications, shows menus and more.

Tap the face and you can launch an ECG measurement, check your heart rate or measure blood oxygen levels. The battery lasts 30 days, so wearing it at night for sleep tracking is easy. It even has smart wake up feature, where the watch monitors for when you’re moving from deep to light sleep and wakes you at the optimum moment in the cycle.

Samsung galaxy watch3

Best: For Galaxy phones

  • Screen size: 1.2in, 1.4in
  • Screen shape: Round
  • Case size: 41mm, 45mm
  • Operating system: Samsung tizen
  • Battery life: Up to 2 days
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate, blood oxygen, VO2 max
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phones

The galaxy watch3 has a distinctive style – like a conventional watch, it has a rotating bezel, here used as a way of interacting with the watch’s menus and apps. The Samsung design is very slick, with a bright, colourful display and a range of watch faces that are highly realistic. Compared to some in this round-up, it is large and chunky: it looks good but may be a little heavy for some to wear at night for sleep tracking. Like the Apple watch, it’s available in a 4G version so you won’t be dependent on your phone being nearby. It works well with Android and iPhone, but most seamlessly of all with Samsung galaxy phones.

Huawei watch GT2 pro

Best: Design

  • Screen size: 1.39in
  • Screen shape: Round
  • Case size: 46mm
  • Operating system: Huawei LiteOS
  • Battery life: Up to 10 days
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate, blood oxygen, VO2 max
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phones

The latest smartwatch from Huawei has just landed and is a great looking watch with excellent design, with its titanium casing and sapphire crystal display cover. The display is sharp and easy to read in even bright light.

It has one unique feature: unlike other watches, which require being put on the dedicated charging unit, this can also be charged using the same wireless charging pads you can use for many phones. The fitness tracking is comprehensive, working across 100 activities including triathlon and skiing.

There’s also a new mode called driving range which is designed to help you perfect your golf swing. It has one other unique feature which is very clever: the GPS routing has something called route back – so, if you’re running or hiking, it can track your route even without your phone, handy if there’s no phone signal where you are.

Thanks to recording the way you came, if you do get lost, it can guide you the same way back to where you came from. It’s all done on the watch. It also uses a barometer to spot sudden changes in atmospheric pressure to warn you of incoming severe weather.  

Oppo watch

Best: For working out

  • Screen size: 1.6in, 1.9in
  • Screen shape: Rectangular
  • Case size: 41mm, 46mm
  • Operating system: Android Wear OS and Oppo Color OS
  • Battery life: 1 day
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phones

At first glance, this could be mistaken for the Apple watch, though perhaps not as high end. Look more closely and you’ll see there’s no digital crown, instead, it features two buttons on the right edge. There are plenty of fitness features, including five-minute workout apps, such as morning energiser and bedtime stretches. As well as heart rate monitoring, there’s sleep tracking, though without the level of detail found in the Fitbit versa, for instance. Battery life is 24 hours, but it recharges quickly. If you have it in power saver mode it will last for weeks, but you miss a lot of the functionality. There’s an option for cellular connectivity so you don’t need to carry your phone with you. The Oppo watch is released on 7 November and is currently available to pre-order.

Apple watch SE

Best: Budget Apple smartwatch

  • Screen size: 1.5in, 1.78in
  • Screen shape: Rectangular
  • Case size: 40mm, 44mm
  • Operating system: watchOS 7
  • Battery life: 1 day
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone

This is a more affordable version of the Apple watch series 6. There is one even more accessible, the Apple watch series 3, which costs from £199 but this is a better deal. The SE lacks the blood oxygen and ECG features of series 6, and there’s no always-on screen here, but in most other ways it’s not far off. Like the pricier model, it can give you notifications if your heart rate is unexpectedly high or low, or otherwise irregular. It also has fall detection so if you take a hard tumble and don’t get up for a minute, it can phone a contact or the emergency services. There’s even neat software elements, such as advanced mapping capabilities, that include routing for cycles.

A rather timely feature automatically recognises when you’re washing your hands as well. It works this out by reacting to your hand movements and the sound of soap being squished and encourages you to keep going for a full 20 seconds. It’s also worth saying that Apple’s range of optional bands and straps is second-to-none. For example, the new solo loop, a single strip of soft, smooth silicone, is sensationally comfortable.

Huawei watch fit

Best: Under £100

  • Screen size: 1.64in
  • Screen shape: Oblong
  • Case size: 46mm x 30mm
  • Operating system: Huawei
  • Battery life: 10 days
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate, blood oxygen
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phones

As you’ll spot from the title, this is a watch geared towards fitness. The tall screen is used, for example, to show animations of exercise to guide you. It has 96 workout modes and provides metrics for 11 professional sport modes including running, swimming and cycling. It’s very light – just 21g – so it’s easy to wear it all day. And it recharges fast: just five minutes of charge gives you most of a day’s use. As well as sleep tracking, it also has a stress tracking algorithm so it can spot if you’re feeling tense and offers breathing exercises.

Samsung galaxy watch active 2

Best: Android smartwatch

  • Screen size: 1.2in, 1.4in
  • Screen shape: Round
  • Case size: 40mm, 44mm
  • Operating system: Samsung Tizen
  • Battery life: 2 days
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate
  • GPS? Yes
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phone

The Galaxy watch active 2 has a smooth round edge and, like the Galaxy watch3, a searingly bright display. The fitness apps measure up to 39 different activities. The watch has hardware capable of taking an ECG, but Samsung doesn’t yet have for clearance for this in the UK. It comes in various special models, including an Under Armour version and a golf edition. The basic version also comes in a variant with 4G connectivity. There are also aluminium and stainless steel finishes available.

Zepp E circle

Best: For counting steps

  • Screen size: 1.28in
  • Screen shape: Round
  • Case size: 42mm
  • Operating system: Zepp app
  • Battery life: 4 days
  • Water-resistant? Yes
  • Health metrics: Heart rate, blood oxygen
  • GPS? No
  • Works with: Apple iPhone, Android phones

Zepp has previously been best known for its golf and baseball monitoring sensors which you wear in your glove. This is for the wrist. The display is highly attractive and seems to stretch almost all the way to the edge. Like the Apple watch, it has an appealing interface of concentric circles for steps and activity. Sleep tracking is also good, including REM sleep monitoring, and not just light and deep sleep. Battery life is stated to be seven days, but we found it to be shorter, even without the always-on display activated.

Smartwatch FAQs

What is a smartwatch?

Offering greater functionality and connectivity on top of the features of an ordinary watch, it’s an electronic device, often with a touchscreen interface, that can connect to your smartphone, be that Android or Apple, enabling you to receive messages, calls and social media notifications. While the functionalities vary per device, smartwatches have other advanced features, such as offering health metrics, including heart rate, monitoring sleep and GPS tracking, as well as controlling music and Bluetooth connection.

Smartwatch vs Fitness tracker: Which should I buy?

Simply put, a fitness tracker is focused on monitoring your health. Basic devices track things such as steps and your heart rate, while high-end models having built-in GPS, are able to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood or even record an ECG. Typically the screens are smaller and they’re often cheaper to buy.

Alternatively, a smartwatch tends to be more expensive, with a bigger focus on style. They also typically feature fitness monitoring technology and are compatible with your smartphone. Smartwatches allow you to receive calls, send text messages and manage your social media notifications.

Deciding which type of watch or tracker to buy all comes down to what you need the gadget for. If you’re uninterested in using your watch as an extension of your phone and just want to track health metrics, opt for a fitness tracker. But if you want more general tech and style from your wristwear, plump for a smartwatch.

Which smartwatches are compatible with my phone?

The smartwatch you choose should be one that’s designed to work best with the type of phone you’ve got. Thankfully, the big players of the tech industry decided to play nice and ensure that their smartwatches are at least basically compatible with their rival’s phones, so it matters less these days that the phone in your pocket matches the watch on your wrist.

Still: the Apple watch works best with the iPhone, and will only have limited functionality when paired with an Android phone. Samsung, Huawei, Garmin and Fitbit all have their own smartwatch software, but you can expect most Android phones to be compatible with most non-Apple smartwatches. For example, Samsung’s watches run on Tizen OS and are designed to work particularly well with Samsung phones, but you should still get full functionality with almost any Android device.

If in doubt, check the smartwatch manufacturer’s website for a full list of compatible devices.

What is a hybrid smartwatch?

A hybrid smartwatch looks like a traditional watch but has some of the functionality of a smartwatch. Hybrid smartwatches are designed to be fashion accessories rather than pure fitness trackers, and usually have a classic round face rather than a touchscreen display.

The Withings scanwatch (£187.46, Withings.com) is a good example of a hybrid smartwatch. It has physical hands, a full suite of heart rate monitors and sleep sensors, and disguises its digital screen as the upper subdial.

What features do I need on a smartwatch?

Smartwatches are increasingly crammed with sensors, some of which you might not need if you’re not planning on training for a half marathon any time soon. These are some of the most common sensors you’ll find in a smartwatch’s feature list, and what they do.

  • Step counter: uses an accelerometer to measure the number of steps you’ve taken in a day.
  • Heart rate monitor: uses light to measure your pulse through your skin.
  • Sleep monitor: combines readings from your heart rate monitor and accelerometer to measure the quality of your sleep.
  • VO2 Max: uses light to estimate the rate at which your body can process oxygen, a measure of overall aerobic fitness.
  • ECG: measures the electrical impulse of your heart to detect signs of an irregular heartbeat.
  • GPS: allows the smartwatch to know its own location without needing to be paired with your phone.
  • Altimeter: uses barometric pressure readings to gauge altitude for more accurate workout tracking.
  • Data: smartwatches with mobile data or LTE can make calls and send messages without needing your phone.

The verdict: Smartwatches

The Apple watch series 6 is hands down the best smartwatch, though the Samsung Galaxy watch3 is highly accomplished, too. If you prefer a more traditional look, the Withings scanwatch has a lot going for it.

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If you’re looking for an accessory that tracks exercise, read our review of the best fitness trackers

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