Best smartwatches of 2021: Apple & Samsung
Shopping for a smartwatch might seem easy at first, but it can quickly become daunting. If you’re an iPhone user, you clearly think of the Apple Watch first — but it’s 2021 and there are three models to pick from: Series 3, SE and Series 6. Or maybe Fitbit’s Sense or Versa that mixes heavy health features with some communication convenience catches your eye. And if you’re on Android, is the Samsung Galaxy Watch worth a look with the redesigned Wear OS?
Well, we’ve done the legwork by continually testing smartwatches day by day, week by week and month by month this year. As each new model hits the market, we strap it to our wrist and put it through the wringer. Of course, that means this guide is ever evolving, evidenced by a new winner. After copious testing, here are the best smartwatches out now:
Best overall smartwatch
The Apple Watch Series 6 isn’t just the best smartwatch for the iPhone; it’s the best smartwatch period. It’s the fastest smartwatch we’ve ever tested and it not only tracks countless activities but can also take an electrocardiogram (ECG), measure heart rate, track blood oxygen levels and detect if you’ve fallen.
Best Android smartwatch
The Galaxy Watch 4 is the first watch to use Google’s Wear OS instead of Tizen OS, with better access to Google’s apps and services. than any previous Galaxy Watch. Plus, the redesigned sensor makes the Watch 4 a more useful fitness tracker than ever. And while not yet on par with the Apple Watch, the new version of Wear OS is the most stable and satisfying to use so far.
Best budget smartwatch
The Apple Watch SE gets you the modern Apple Watch design and everyday usability for a good price. It’s lacking the always-on display and core health features like ECG and blood oxygen readings, but at the end of the day, it’s a great entry point to the smartwatch world.
Apple Watch Series 6
Earlier this year, our top overall pick for the best smartwatch was the Series 5. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the Apple Watch Series 6 now takes that honor. It keeps the same base price of $399 (though you can currently find some models available for $349.99 on Amazon) and nearly all of the features, plus adds in a few more — namely the ability to monitor blood oxygen levels from your wrist, an always-on altimeter for tracking elevation and a brighter display.
Let’s be clear, though. As we said in our full review of Series 6, if you don’t see the need for the new health features, you can stick with your Series 5. The Series 6 got a few smaller features that can make a big impact rather than a wild new feature or design change.
The other key point is that Apple Watches work only with iPhones. You’ll set them up via the Watch app, which comes preinstalled on an iOS device and handles setup, settings and more. It offers incredibly deep integration and one of the best experiences found on any wrist. Your messages, calls, apps, contacts, favorite photos and more are all accessible. And with iOS 14.5 and watchOS 7.4, your Apple Watch will let you unlock your iPhone with Face ID while you’re wearing a mask. In fact, this works with any Apple Watch dating back to the Series 3.
Apple’s watchOS 7 powers the experience on Series 6, and the upgraded S6 processor delivers subtle speed improvements and more efficiency. With the latter, simple user interface elements, like opening an app or starting a fitness activity, just happen faster. It just feels a bit more refined. And alongside fitness, well-being and health have become staples of the Apple Watch ecosystem. As much as the watch is a tool for communication, these other features start to tip the scale.
You can track a plethora of workouts like cycling, dance, meditation, running, hiking, elliptical and even boxing. In some cases, the Apple Watch can auto-recognize your workout and start tracking results. Directly from your wrist, in real time, are the calories burned, length of workout and heart rate. The watch tracks this data and syncs with your connected iPhone to safely store the data.
The Apple Watch can also alert you of an increased heart rate, along with the ability to take an ECG, using both an optical and electrical heart rate sensor built into the backside of the watch and the Digital Crown. The Series 6 can still monitor noise levels for hearing health, detecting falls and tracking your sleep.
That sensor on the back has some extra LEDs and photodiodes this year to enable blood oxygen monitoring. We stress-tested this against pulse oximetry, or pulse ox, readers, essentially the small devices that clip onto your fingers and test blood oxygen or SpO2 in the same fashion. In total, we tested more than 20 times a day over a two-week period and found the Series 6 to be in line by about a digit compared to the pulse ox readers. (As with all these health features, the Apple Watch is not a doctor and is not meant to replace one.)
And the Series 6, as of this publishing, is the only available Apple Watch with the always-on display. In a workout, when you can’t always raise or tap to wake, it’s great to see your core stats. The always-on display truly makes it feel like a real timepiece.
The Apple Watch Series 6 delivers an impressive amount of features and elegant design, in a complete albeit pricey package. If you’re focused on health and want that always-on display along with everything the Apple Watch can do, the Series 6 is the ultimate choice. We just wish it worked with Android.
Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 is the best smartwatch for Android users — it’s a step up from previous Galaxy watches in nearly every way, with a more refined design, cleaner user interface and a new operating system. The proprietary Tizen OS is out, and Google’s Wear OS is in, so for the first time, Google apps and services — along with the huge library of third-party apps from the Play Store — are supported on the Galaxy Watch 4.
Even better, the close collaboration between Samsung and Google means this is the best Watch OS implementation yet. Watch OS is finally a cohesive experience, with a tile-like interface that lets you swipe away from the watch face and into an app experience. This way at a touch you can see your activity for the day, control music playback or even view your calendar. You can swipe down for quick settings, up for the app drawer, to the left for different app tiles and to the right for notifications. The updated Wear OS feels more seamless, and the integrated processor handles all tasks swiftly. We struggled to make the Galaxy Watch stutter or hiccup in our testing.
The move to Wear OS also means that the Galaxy Watch 4 works as well with a standard Android device as it does with a Galaxy phone. We tested on several, including a Pixel 5a, and encountered no issues. You’ll just need to download some specific Samsung apps to get the ball rolling. Plus, Wear OS means access to Google’s apps and services, like Google Pay and Fit, which are simply better developed and more useful in more situations than the Samsung-specific versions. (Some Android and Wear OS apps aren’t yet updated for compatibility with the Watch 4, but the Play Store will let you know if there’s an alternative and install that on your phone.)
Like its predecessors, the Watch 4 has a circular aluminum housing with a flush bezel watch face. Two physical buttons on the right side let you navigate or trigger an action, while a 4-in-1 health sensor lives on the back. It’s the classic Galaxy Watch experience.
Last but not least, the new 4-in-1 BioActive Sensor gives you more complete health and fitness monitoring, with heart rate, AFib monitoring, Vo2 levels (blood oxygen), electrocardiogram (ECG) and measure body composition. These more complex measurements are alongside steps taken, calories burned and active minutes. The Watch 4 can still automatically identify a workout and track hundreds of them. As always, though, the Watch 4 (like any smartwatch) should not be used for medical diagnoses.
Is the experience on par with an Apple Watch? Not quite yet, but it is more intuitive to use than any previous Wear OS watch, and unlike previous Galaxy Watches integrates smoothly with any Android phone. In side-by-side tests the health and fitness data derived was on par with that of the Apple Watch Series 6 and SE. And unlike previous Wear OS watches, such as the Fossil Sport, it doesn’t crash while making calls or launching apps.
Whether you have the latest Samsung Galaxy, a Pixel 2XL or some other Android device, the Galaxy Watch 4 is the best smartwatch you can pair with it. This new flavor of Wear OS combined with Samsung’s watch interface makes for a stellar experience that lets you get the most out of this wearable on your wrist.
Starting at $279 and offering many of the standout features of the Series 6, the Apple Watch SE retains the modern Apple Watch design with a larger display compared to the Series 3 and the S5 processor that debuted in the Series 5.
The Apple Watch SE also boasts the Apple-made S5 processor — the same one inside the Series 5. Put simply: That means that the SE delivers big value.
Our favorite new feature is real-time translations via Apple’s virtual assistant. It’s quite handy to get a quick translation right from your wrist and without opening a dedicated app. Most impressively, it shows how capable the S5 chip inside really is.
Apple Pay works just as well — and as quickly — as with the Series 5 and Series 6. And, thanks to watchOS 7, the Apple Watch SE can track hand-washing just the same as the Watch 6. The microphones specifically listen for water from a faucet, hand motions and even the sound of soap being pumped from a bottle. And when it detects you’re washing your hands, you’ll see a countdown appear on your wrist. Once the 20 seconds is up, you’ll feel a vibration and hear a short jingle. You can also choose to receive a reminder once you’re back home to wash your hands. This taps into the GPS built inside and some improvements to Apple Maps.
Sleep tracking is on board as well and allows you to set a goal for the number of hours you want to sleep and tracks whether or not you’re hitting that goal. You won’t find data about different cycles like you might on a Fitbit, but it’s the same sleep tracking experience as on the Series 6 or any other Apple Watch that supports the feature. It just won’t track your blood oxygen periodically overnight.
The fitness aspects on the SE are essentially the same experience you’ve had on every other Apple Watch with move and exercise goals you can track. You can also use the Workout app to pick from a plethora of exercises — indoor or outdoor cycling, functional strength training, barre, dance, running, jogging, surfing and countless others — that the Apple Watch SE will accurately track through an array of sensors. We didn’t notice any slowdowns or tracking differences between the SE and Series 6. Both were able to get an accurate number when it came to calories burned, minutes exercised and heart rate tracked throughout.
The Watch SE features heart rate tracking, noise level monitoring, fitness tracking and fall detection. What’s sacrificed here, compared to the Watch 6, is a faster processor, quick charging capability, a brighter display, ECG readings, blood oxygen monitoring and the always-on display.
We missed the always-on display the most. It just makes the Apple Watch feel more like an actual wristwatch. Secondly, the health features like blood oxygen and ECGs (as well as a more advanced heart rate sensor) might make you opt for Series 6.
The Apple Watch SE delivers a tremendous amount of value with minimal compromises — as any Apple SE product should. If you can look past no electrical heart rate sensor, blood oxygen monitoring and an always-on display, it’s the clear choice when looking for the most value.
As Underscored does with any product we test, we went deep on these watches. In many cases, it’s using them as any consumer would, wearing them daily, using them for workouts, maxing out the battery and, of course, seeing how they hold up to normal wear and tear.
Any wearable, including a smartwatch, is a very personal product, and your preference can be heavily dependent on your phone of choice. That’s why we tested every watch with an iPhone SE, an iPhone 11, an iPhone 11 Pro, an iPhone 11 Pro Max, a Galaxy S20 and a Pixel 4 XL (except, of course, the Apple Watch Series 6, Series 3 and SE, which only work with an iPhone).
We carefully went through the setup process, noting any necessary apps and extra steps each watch required. (For instance, how easy was it to set up notifications, one of the key features of a smartwatch?) We also considered third-party app and watch face availability, along with the ability to customize the overall look of the watch face.
We asked ourselves how easy it was to complete routine tasks, like viewing a weather forecast, checking daily agenda or sending a message. With everything set up, we wore each watch for several days, monitoring battery life with normal usage with the occasional workout mixed in, and continued to note how easy each watch was to use and any signs of wear and tear.
We paid close attention to activity tracking and health features. With the latter, we established a baseline with consumer-facing devices that are designed to just track those metrics (i.e., SpO2 or heart rate).
Once we had a good enough understanding of a watch, we rated it.
Apple Watch Series 3 ($169, originally $199; amazon.com)
The Apple Watch Series 3 currently starts at $169 on Amazon and offers almost everything the Series 6 and SE do. But then we considered that the hardware that makes up this watch is now three years old, and as watchOS continues to grow and progress, the Series 3 will begin to slow down as Apple adds more features to watchOS or, even worse, support for future updates and features will eventually leave the Series 3 behind. That doesn’t mean that the features it has now will go away — and it’s a fine watch with these features — but to future-proof your investment, the Series 6 or Watch SE are better choices.
Fitbit Sense ($329.95; amazon.com)
Fitbit’s latest watch has more health-related sensors and features than any watch we’ve ever tested. It can measure how stressed you are, track blood oxygen levels and monitor your skin’s temperature while you sleep, and a future update will enable ECG readings to check for irregular heartbeats. Of course, it does all of the staple fitness tracker stuff that Fitbit helped pioneer, like counting steps, active minutes, workouts and sleep. But after testing it, the Sense feels more like a medical device than a smartwatch. You have to use a specific watch face at night in order to track your Sp02, for example. There’s a ton of potential with Sense, but the overall experience needs to be refined. And then you need to know what to do with all of that data. If you want a watch that can give you more health info than almost any other smartwatch available right now, then Sense, well, might make sense for you.
Fitbit Versa 2 ($178.95; amazon.com)
The $178.95 Fitbit Versa 2 is a very good but very basic smartwatch. Its primary focus, and what it does best, is tracking activities and sleep — but after that, it falls short of what the Apple Watch Series 3 or Galaxy Active 2 can do.
Garmin Instinct Solar ($399.99; garmin.com)
The Garmin Instinct Solar has the unique feature of being able to recharge itself using solar power. That’s right — the watch face is a miniature solar panel that sips on sunrays to slowly replenish the battery. As such, Garmin estimates 24-day battery life off a single charge, as long as you’re outside for three hours a day in direct sunlight. In our testing, 12 days of use between charges was the norm. (We clearly need to get out more.) Tracking workouts, hikes and walks via the watch and dedicated GPS was simple once we got the hang of the watch’s interface. Where the Instinct Solar fell short was with its smartwatch capabilities. You can’t limit which apps send alerts to your watch — it’s all or nothing. If you spend a lot of time outdoors and you want a watch that’s built and designed for an active lifestyle without the often unnecessary smartwatch features like granular alerts, then the Instinct Solar makes a compelling offering.
Garmin Venu ($349.99; garmin.com)
The $349.99 Garmin Venu is well designed, but its battery life is subpar, and we found the operating system to have a steep learning curve. Interacting with notifications was a confusing experience that we never truly got the hang of. This is clearly a watch designed by runners for runners, based on its durable design and health stats like pulse ox or energy monitoring built right in. If that sounds like what you want, you’ll be happy with the Venu.
OnePlus Watch ($159; oneplus.com)
OnePlus took a different approach with it’s $159 OnePlus Watch. Instead of using Google’s Wear OS to power the watch, they created a a custom operating system. After two weeks of testing, it’s clear the software is what’s holding back an otherwise great-looking smartwatch.
You can’t install third-party apps and are stuck with what is included out of the box. So if you prefer Spotify over the OnePlus Music app, well, you’re out of luck. There are also several syncing issues between the watch and the OnePlus health app. For example, our nightly sleep metrics are only visible on the watch, and the same can be said about our step counts. Oddly, there’s also no way to change the clock from keeping time in 24-hour format to 12-hour format.
Walks and runs do sync over to the OnePlus Health app, but we have questions about the overall accuracy of step counts and distance. One highlight of our testing has been battery life —- the OnePlus Watch truly does offer up to 14 days of use off a single charge. OnePlus told us the company is working on software updates. Right now though, the OnePlus Watch is better viewed as a first-generation device that needs a lot of work to compete with an activity band, let alone a smartwatch.
Skagen Falster 3 ($295; skagen.com)
The $295 Skagen Falster 3 is also powered by Google’s Wear OS platform, but it surpassed our overall expectations. There’s not a lot Skagen can do about the shortfalls of Wear OS as a whole, suffering from some of the same issues as the Fossil Sport — it’s confusing to navigate and offers only mediocre battery life — but it’s a good-looking watch, with performance that was able to keep pace with whatever we threw at it. Tasks like messaging, taking calls, tracking steps and playing music didn’t result in any slowdowns. Perhaps the biggest downside to the Falster 3 is its price tag. At nearly $300 for a Wear OS watch, you have to really love Google’s ecosystem to spend that kind of cash.
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