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

<p>We tested for efficiency, design, reliability, battery life and sheer wearability</p> (The Independent)

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

(The Independent)

It seems that everything is smart these days, so why not watches? A smartwatch will do the very thing a regular watch does, tell the time, but it’s likely to do it much more accurately than many regular 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 – though be warned that answering that call on your watch may not sound as good as on your phone, it’s on speakerphone unless you have headphones connected.

Read more: 10 best fitness trackers that encourage motivation and better sleep

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.

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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.

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.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

The best smartwatches to buy in 2021 are:

Best Apple smartwatch – Apple watch series 6: £379, Amazon.co.uk

Best android smartwatch – Samsung galaxy watch3: £399, Samsung.com

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Apple watch series 6

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.

Buy now £379.00, Apple.com

Fitbit sense

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.

Buy now £285.10, Amazon.co.uk

Withings scanwatch

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.

Buy now £208.29, Withings.com

Samsung galaxy watch3

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.

Buy now £349.00, Samsung.com

Huawei watch GT2 pro

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.

Buy now £249.99, Consumer.huawei.com

Oppo watch

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.

Buy now £229.00, Amazon.co.uk

Apple watch SE

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. It also includes neat software elements, such as advanced mapping capabilities, including routing for cycles. And, a happily timely feature, and it automatically recognises when you’re washing your hands from 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.

Buy now £269.00, Apple.com

Huawei watch fit

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.

Buy now £79.99, Amazon.co.uk

Samsung galaxy watch active 2

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.

Buy now £229.00, Samsung.com

Zepp E circle

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.

Buy now £179.00, Amazon.co.uk

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.

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.

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

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