When you wear a smartwatch, you have the ability to stay connected and multitask in ways that are efficient and convenient. Smartwatches sync with your smartphone, passing on information to your wrist that is noteworthy to you. Common notifications can be incoming calls, messages, email and more. That means you have the chance to keep your phone out of your hands, without missing out on what’s important. And that’s all on top of how smartwatches track activity and exercise. This guide can help you learn about how a smartwatch can suit your lifestyle.
What can a smartwatch do?
Smartwatches are watches first, meaning they tell you the time, but what makes them smart is everything else they do. Think of it like you’re wearing an extension of your smartphone on your wrist. When you’ve set a reminder, alert or alarm, your watch will notify you. When notifications appear on your watch, you don’t have to pull out your phone to take a look. It’s all there to see on your wrist—the same way you look at the time.
They are also equipped to be activity trackers, helping to keep tabs on how much you move and exercise on a daily basis. You could even track your sleep to gain insight on how well your slumber is every night. Some also have deeper exercise tracking for working out at the gym, running, cycling, hiking, swimming and various other activities.
Smartwatches generally connect via Bluetooth to maintain constant connectivity when paired with an Android or iOS handset or tablet. Some also support Wi-Fi, which you can utilize for certain features where necessary. Others take it further with LTE support, letting them operate independently of the phone itself.
It’s not always practical or appropriate to reach for your phone, and that’s where smartwatches really can bridge the gap. They are more discreet and private in that you can glance over quickly and easily without diverting your attention completely. You can stay on top of what you need, and act on a notification when you need to at your convenience.
Smartwatch operating systems
Like phones and tablets, smartwatches run on their own operating systems as well. This can have an impact on compatibility, as in which devices they can pair and work with. Generally, most smartwatches work with both Android and iOS, but there are instances where it will only be one of those.
The Apple Watch runs on watchOS, an operating system specific to that device, which can only work with an iPhone or iPad. Only apps that work on those devices are compatible with the watch, so it is not possible to use the Apple Watch with an Android phone or tablet.
That level of close compatibility doesn’t apply for other smartwatches on the market. Google’s Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) is an open platform that a number of manufacturers have adopted. It works with both Android and iOS devices, though may not have the same level of integration that the Apple Watch has with an iPhone or iPad.
Tizen is Samsung’s own operating system for its wearables, including its line of smartwatches. It is designed to integrate tightly with Samsung phones and tablets, but is not exclusive to them. You can use those watches with other Android devices and get a similar experience. They also work with the iPhone, albeit with more limited integration.
Fitbit has also used its own operating system for the smartwatches it has produced to date. They focus a lot on activity and exercise tracking, but also include a certain degree of app support. Garmin smartwatches don’t have an extensive operating system because they are more specifically focused on tracking, though they can display notifications and helpful information coming from your phone.
Health and fitness
Smartwatches will track all of your basic activity metrics including steps, distance, speed, pace, calories burned, and in some cases, elevation. It compiles all of the data you track for easy access on your watch, but in many cases, you’ll also be able to sync your data with an app on your phone. That data lets you see your improvement over days, weeks, months, and years.
Basic activity tracking
With built-in pedometers and accelerometers, smartwatches will track all types of activity. Some will track swimming and have 5 ATM water resistance, while others offer multi-sport tracking to precisely track your workouts including hiking, biking, running, HIIT training, weight training, and more. There are some models of smartwatch that will offer you step by step workouts right on your wrist.
There are many smartwatches with built-in altimeters, letting you track elevation or how many stairs you climb every day. Smartwatches with heart rate monitoring keep an eye on your heartbeat during your workout as well as let you know your peak heart rate, resting heart rate, and on some models, how long you were in one heart rate zone during your workout.
Advanced activity tracking
If you’re interested in getting more out of your workouts or monitoring your health, a smartwatch can help. If you’re a runner or you cycle, advanced features are helpful for improving time and endurance. Some models have built-in GPS to monitor your workout location, accurately track your elevation, and keep an eye on your pace or cadence so it can offer you coaching for improvement. You can also find smartwatches with connected GPS, and to use GPS features with those watches you’ll have to have your phone along for your run or ride.
Automatic exercise recognition is a perk on many smartwatches, and your watch will notice if you’ve begun a workout and begin tracking without you having to tap. There are a few smartwatches that offer a Pulse Ox sensor, monitoring blood oxygen saturation levels, while others have a VO2 Max sensor on board. VO2 Max is the total milliliters of oxygen that you can process per minute, and it’s an important metric for runners who want to see how their current fitness level improves over time.
Your heart is a good indicator of your overall health, and heart rate monitoring on a smartwatch can be basic or advanced. The Apple watch offers advanced heart rate monitoring and works as an electrocardiogram to show sinus rhythm, low or high heart rates, and atrial fibrillation if you have an irregular heartbeat.
Style and display
Like any watch you wear on your wrist, it’s ideal to find a smartwatch that will feel comfortable to wear and look appealing when you have it on every day. It’s also important that it functions the way that works best for you. These are some of the details worth considering:
One of the great things about smartwatches is that they can come in a variety of styles and designs when it comes to the bands and straps. Certain watches may use standard lugs common with regular watches, making it possible to use bands from existing watches. But there is an active market supporting smartwatches with various styles made of different materials.
Many of these are inspired by traditional watches, which is why you will find bands with classic looks that include leather or stainless steel. Others are made of fabrics for a nice, casual feel that can fit in a variety of situations. Then you get some made of silicone offering the maximum flexibility and durability, making them great options for being outdoors or doing fitness-related activities.
OLED and AMOLED
OLED (organic light emitting diode) and AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) displays are common in smartphones, and with certain smartwatches as well. These displays don’t require a backlight to illuminate them, and that allows them to produce deeper blacks and higher contrast ratios. They also carry the additional benefits of being thinner with lower power consumption than other types of smartwatch displays. One difference between them is that OLED screens can come in single or full colour variants, whereas AMOLED screens are always available in full colour.
LCD (liquid-crystal display) are also a common display technology. They require a backlight to illuminate the display, which often means there will be an additional layer of thickness. While the additional light can’t replicate the deep black levels and contrast ratio of OLED and AMOLED, they are easier to see in bright sunlight and other similar settings.
Black and white
These screens lack the colour that makes others look dynamic, but they have an advantage in improving battery life considerably. Some black and white displays are OLED, though there may be others that use E-Ink displays typically used in eReaders. These are legible in bright environments without glare, but would need a light source to be visible in the dark.
Smartwatches will often offer always-on displays, where you can keep the screen active at all times. Other times, they can only light up when activated by motion to preserve battery life.
Smartwatches will offer varying degrees of water-resistance and waterproofing to ensure they can still function when exposed or submerged. That additional protection is great for engaging in outdoor activities where rain or snow might be in the mix. A waterproof smartwatch can help you track swimming without worrying about a malfunction. Just be sure that the watch specifications allow for use in both clear and saltwater.
Smartwatches will sometimes use the same type of fortified glass smartphones do. Corning Gorilla Glass is renowned for its ability to handle daily wear and tear and reduce instances of scratches and blemishes. It’s still susceptible to cracks if hit with very hard impact, but is quite durable in its own right. If you plan to use your smartwatch in rigourous conditions, it could be good to have that added protection.
Most smartwatches use touchscreen displays, letting you tap and swipe for easy, intuitive navigation. Sometimes, there are gesture-based commands that can work, like flicking your wrist up to light up the screen for a quick glance at the time or a tracking statistic.
Buttons and bezels
Not every move you make on your smartwatch has to require tapping the display. Smartwatches will usually have physical buttons that let you better navigate the interface and get around faster. These can be shortcuts back to the home screen, or a way to manage specific apps in tandem you’re your phone, like snapping a photo or answering a call. Other models may have a rotating bezel around the display that can take you through the different menus and act as an alternative navigator.
Smartwatches can simplify your phone usage by displaying notifications in a convenient way. These can include calls, messages, emails, social media posts, reminders, alarms and much more.
It’s up to you as to which notifications you ultimately want to see pop up on your watch. They are customizable, letting you choose what you want your home screen to look like, and which apps take priority when something comes through.
You can keep it basic by only seeing a portion of an incoming message, or see it in its entirety—all without touching your phone. If you prefer to maintain a greater level of privacy, you could have notifications alert you without showing anything, or keep them quiet altogether for a certain period of time. You can also decide whether you want the watch to beep or vibrate, depending on your preference.
Smartwatches with built-in speakers may offer the option to make and receive calls directly without having to pick up the phone itself. The watch would have to be within Bluetooth range when paired with your phone, or have its own LTE data connection to enable that.
Smartwatches are growing in sophistication, and that means some additional features could be part of the feature set. These can vary from device to device, but here are some that are usually available:
Voice commands are an increasing part of a smartwatch now, letting you ask or demand things in the same way you would from your phone. These include popular voice assistants, like Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa, depending on the watch and associated brand.
You may have the option to store your own music on your watch’s internal memory for playback without a data or Wi-Fi connection. In some cases, you can pair Bluetooth headphones directly with the smartwatch and listen to music without the phone. There may also be tighter integration or support for popular music streaming services that let you control music playing on your phone through your watch.