Smartwatches are all the rage these days, but they've actually been around since personal computing became popular in the 1980s, when companies like Casio added calculators and games like Frogger to their watches. Of course, these days the average smartwatch has more processing power than anything we could have dreamed up in the '80s.
Are smartwatches worth it?
You might wonder if you need a smartwatch if you already have a smartphone. Well, perhaps the most useful function a smartwatch provides is that if you can't find your phone (which happens to most of us at least once a week), the watch can ping it for you. Most watches will help you with directions (for driving and walking), stream music and take calls, if you still can't find your darn phone. And many smartwatches will helpfully remind you to take a deep breath for a minute or to go drink a glass of water. (Most Americans just aren't getting their USDA-recommended eight to 10 glasses a day.)
One of the most popular and useful features of smartwatches is that they can help you get in shape, thanks to the power of data. "While the metrics that a wearable or smartwatch tracks will vary by make/model and price point, the most common data points collected are heart rate and daily steps or movement," says Julie Brown, a Minnesota-based registered dietitian and personal trainer success coach at the online health resource Life Time. "Some devices also offer the opportunity to capture additional aspects of your daily movement, such as flights of stairs walked and whether or not you have stood up in the last hour, as well as some additional lifestyle variables like pulse ox, sleep data, and heart rate variability, better known as HRV, a metric that can be used to determine how well your body has recovered from day to day.”
Brown adds that "as a dietitian, I appreciate that these metrics allow people to measure their physiological changes and give them more than just body weight to be tracking."
Why is this data important? Well, Sarah Pelc Graca, a Detroit-based NASM-certified personal trainer and the founder, Strong with Sarah, says, "Tracking your heart rate will bring valuable awareness to your workouts. You can start to learn your individual trends for resting heart rate and compare that to the relevant data out there."
Graca adds: "For example, is your resting heart rate on par with the average resting heart rate for a man or woman of your age? Is it lower, which means you’re in ideal physical shape, or is it higher, meaning you can improve your heart physical fitness? You can also notice when workouts are super intense for you, based on how high your heart rate goes, or you can notice whether your heart rate is staying on the lower end of things and you should start pushing yourself more in your workout. In other words, you’re no longer going into your workout routine blind. You can better gauge which workouts give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to your individual body and fitness level."
Additionally, many smartwatches offer challenges that can make workouts fun — increasingly the likelihood that you'll exercise at all. "I have a Garmin watch and they do this thing where you get badges for completing different activities. So you’ll get a badge the first time you successfully complete a 5K or 10K, if you work out on different holidays, and one morning I received an ‘early bird’ badge for completing my workout before sunrise. Apple Watches have the rings and there is something so fulfilling about doing the monthly challenges where you close your rings a certain amount of times, or get a certain number of exercise minutes logged," says Graca. "What I’m getting at here is smartwatches have the ability to make exercise routines more fun, and that’s particularly useful for someone who is just beginning their exercise journey."
If fitness is your goal, here's what Brown says you should keep in mind in order to get the most out of your smartwatch:
- Will the device add value to your life or simply create distraction within your day? Many of these devices send notifications from your smartphone to the watch.
- How long does the device's charge last? Does the re-charging-cycle fit your lifestyle?
- Does the device have built in GPS if you plan to exercise outdoors?
- Is the device compatible with other technology you already use, such as your smartphone?
- >What are the most important metrics for you and your trainer to track within and outside of your workouts?
If you might be in the market for a smartwatch, then here are the best ones to consider, according to recommendations from fitness and technology experts.
The Apple Watch is the best-known smartwatch, and Shayne Sherman, an Indiana-based tech expert and CEO of the online PC resource Techloris, says there's a reason for the renown.
"It might be the obvious answer, but for a very good reason, the new Apple Watch is the creme de la creme of smartwatches," he says. "I haven't had the Apple Watch 6 long but already I couldn't manage without it and, with its advanced algorithms, I can track my workout perfectly."
Prices for the Apple Watch Series 6 depend on if you want to spring for luxury perks like designer leather. But Sherman adds that no matter what’s on the outside, all the watches come with "lots of helpful features. But the feature I personally find most useful is the new sleep app. I also like the always-on retina display and it is significantly brighter than previous models. It’s pricey, as Apple products always are, but you’ll get so much use out of it. The longevity and features make it worth every penny."
Don't assume that an Apple Watch is out of your price range. David Lynch, a Saranac Lake, New York-based Content Lead for Payette Forward, Inc., "a digital publishing company with a focus on cell phones and cell phone plans," says that "those looking for a smartwatch while on a budget should strongly consider the Apple Watch SE."
This budget Apple Watch has a regular price starting at $279, and there are often sales that discount the price further.
"The Apple Watch SE is great for people who want to track workouts and stay healthy. This smartwatch is compatible with Apple Fitness+ and has a bevy of other health features to make sure you're eating right, exercising often, and getting enough sleep," says Lynch. "It can also make calls, send texts, and use Apple Pay. For the price, you'll be hard-pressed to find a smartwatch that can do more than the Apple Watch SE."
"Smartwatches are becoming more and more relevant for the people on the go. What used to be mere accessories are becoming important life devices that keep you connected and in shape," says Tom Winter, a New York-based tech recruitment advisor and cofounder of DevSkiller, an online interview and evaluation platform for job candidates.
"The Fitbit Versa Lite is a great entry-level Fitbit that has the essential features of the famous smartwatch, but that’s about it," he says. "It’s great for workouts and running fashionably while you do it, if that’s what is important."
Smartwatches are typically viewed as a luxury item, but there are low-price options, especially when deals pop up during the Black Friday shopping season. Sean Allan, a Thailand-based Digital Marketing Manager for Aware Technology, likes the budget-friendly Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music.
"For me, I need something that is super cost-effective, but I also want great functionality that includes offline music so I can run without a phone," he says. He chose the Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music because "I wanted something that wasn’t too bulky, was understated so I could wear it to work but still had a big enough screen that I could really use the functionality. It's a great deal, I have offline music, a great jogging and golf application and it looks good, without being super flashy. A real nice multi-facility sport watch."
Ian Sells is the San Diego-based founder and CEO of the online discount resource RebateKey, and as such he knows how to spot a good value. "The Forerunner 935 has everything you’d want in a smartwatch, including text and call notifications, heart rate monitoring, sleep tracking, and more."
Sells adds that "what makes the 935 awesome, though, is the fact that this model supports a ton of different sports tracking and has a great companion software called Garmin Connect. Garmin Connect lets you track your workouts, design and plan your training schedule, and connect to other programs like Strava. As someone who loves sports, I really appreciate having this all-in-one solution."
Smartwatches may focus on utility, but if you're a fashionable sort who also cares about design, then Timothy Beck Werth, the Brooklyn-based managing editor at Spy.com, "a discovery and review platform that connects men with the latest in tech, grooming, health, style and fitness," has a recommendation for you.
"The Veldt Aarde isn’t like other smartwatches, and it has the most unique design of any smartwatch we’ve reviewed. The Aarde looks and functions like a luxury timepiece with quartz movement, traditional watch hands and a leather band," he says. "However, Veldt packed 24 hidden LED lights into the bezel, and so the watch can be custom programmed to display certain lighting cues and vibrations as notifications for calls, texts, email and social media apps. It’s compatible with iOS and Android, and users can create and share custom functions, too. Basically, it’s a traditional watch with smart functionality, and it’s perfect for guys who want something a little more modern, stylish and unique than the Apple Watch.”
Best Budget Smartwatches
Who doesn't like a great value? "The Amazfit Bip is a simple yet stylish option with great battery life and fitness options for cyclists and runners that make this an affordable choice for the everyday athlete," says Winter.
If you've got a good pair of sneakers, Winter says that "the Polar M200 is the ideal running watch, with an accurate GPS, long battery life, and affordability that will take you through your jogging adventure."