clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Best smartwatches of 2016

Apple, Asus, Casio, Fossil, Garmin, Razer and Samsung

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The smartwatch remains a bit of a technological boondoggle for all but the most ardent fans of high-tech timepieces. But that has been slowly changing.

The first crop of major smartwatches, which arrived with the Pebble and then the Apple Watch and others, required a lot of fussing and didn’t always deliver the best experience. This year’s entries show a vast improvement in hardware design, software use and sometimes both. Where last year, I warned all but the most dedicated to steer clear of the smartwatch, this year I feel that there are enough choices and enough improvements to recommend the devices to anyone with the interest.


Table of Contents

In looking across the array of smartwatches on offer this year, I’m struck by several significant things. Apple’s latest smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 2, doesn’t do nearly enough to stay in front of the competition, though its operating system does. There are a number of fantastic, better-than-Apple Android-driven smartwatches out there, most of which are seriously hindered by Google’s antiquated Android Wear operating system. Hybrids — watches designed to notify and do a little tracking, but which usually can’t install and run new apps — are becoming a serious contender.

What’s that mean for you?

It depends on the sort of phone you own and what you’re hoping to achieve with a smartwatch.

The Apple Watch remains the best watch for iPhones, though perhaps the belated delivery of an Android Wear update could change that. As much as I hope Google really opens the doors to Android Wear on the iPhone, I don’t see it happening, at least not yet. So that leaves you with the slick WatchOS and the half step forward of Apple Watch Series 2.

If you’ve got an Android phone, then you’ve got a lot of watches to choose from, though my current favorite is — and this is as big a surprise to me as it may be to you — the Asus ZenWatch 3. Asus came out of nowhere following last year’s bottom-of-the-barrel economy model to deliver a stellar follow-up that leads the charge in new Android Wear smartwatches.

But what if you don’t want a tiny smartphone strapped to your wrist, constantly buzzing, preoccupying your time and generally making you miss out on everything around you? Then you might want to look into a hybrid. I checked out two for this guide and liked both quite a bit. The Razer Nabu Watch, if you’re into the sort of look it delivers, is an odd beast with two LCD screens and lots of battery life. If you’re looking for something more traditional, I’d highly recommend the Fossil Q Nate, though maybe avoid the black-on-black design that made it so hard for me to see anything but the time.

No matter which watch you choose, welcome to the wonderful world of smartwatches; it won’t be long until you’re buying your second or third and maybe plunking down way too much cash for a smartwatch designed to mimic something straight out of Escape From New York.

Apple Watch Series 2

Apple Watch Series 2 | Apple
Price $369 to $1,099
Size 38.6 mm x 33.3 mm x 11.4 mm to 42.5 mm x 36.4 mm x 11.4 mm
Weight 28.2 g to 52.4 g depending on case
Display 272 x 340 or 312 x 390 Retina display
Water Resistance Up to 50 m
Compatibility iOS
Battery Life A bit more than a day
Sensors heart rate, accelerometer, gyroscope, ambient light sensor, built-in GPS
Audio speaker and microphone
Other Digital Crown, Force Touch

The Apple Watch Series 2 is a completely forgettable piece of tech.

That is to say, like the watch, the smartphone, the computer: The Apple Watch’s complete ubiquity blends so innocuously into your everyday life that it’s easy to overlook.

That ability to become an integral part of a person’s life without requiring major change is the earmark of a technology’s success.

Modest but important changes, like the addition of waterproofing and built-in GPS, were delivered with the latest model of the Apple Watch, helping it to achieve that role of necessary, forgettable technology. Now Apple just needs to focus on design.

When the original Apple Watch hit the market, it was easily the most mainstream-ready of all of the smartwatches on the market. To deliver that ease of use, though, it remained firmly planted inside Apple's walled garden of content. There were, and are, no other watches that rely entirely on Apple's operating system, and to get an app onto the Apple Watch a developer still has to go through Apple. Apple sets the limitations of those apps, and of how much of the watch's sensors and other hardware a developer can use.

The result, then and now, is a watch that seamlessly integrates with the iPhone. But that’s no longer the exception; most of 2016’s new smartwatches are better integrated into the phones they use, and some are even more mainstream than the Apple Watch.

Where the Apple Watch Series 2 refined an already solid experience, most of its competitors reinvented the wheel, catching up with or sometimes even outclassing the Apple Watch.

Series 2 (top), Apple Watch Hermes (bottom left), Apple Watch Nike (bottom right) | Apple

Apple’s 2016 line of smartwatches includes the Series 1 — which is essentially the original watch upgraded with an ambient light sensor, slightly stronger face and improved processor — and the Series 2.

The Apple Watch Series 2 brings with it a much stronger processor, now capable of things like 3D graphics, built-in GPS, brighter display and waterproofing up to 50 meters, meaning you can swim with it.

The hardware changes mean that you’re now more likely to keep your Apple Watch on throughout your waking day, including through a workout, a swim, a shower. The built-in GPS makes the watch a much handier device for walks and runs, and that brighter display smooths away any moments of wrist twisting that might have occurred with previous iterations as you tried to see what your watch wanted to tell you.

The hardware additions, while useful in removing some of the original Apple Watch’s main downsides, do very little to push the device forward. I was most disappointed by the fact that Apple stuck to its odd little smoothed rectangular design instead of introducing a round body as well. Of course, that’s most likely because the shape and ratio fit neatly into the design ecosystem of Apple’s other mobile products, all of which are rectangles. And introducing a round face would mean having to introduce an entire second line of apps for the watch, something Apple is unlikely to ever do.

The hardware, thanks to that faster processor, is definitely much zippier than the original Apple Watch, while retaining the device’s surprising stability.

The biggest changes to come to the watch are in software, though — both in the changes Apple delivered with a massive update to the operating system, and in Apple’s tweaks to the rules it sets forth for developers.

Developers now have access to much more of the watch’s sensors, and can now do more with complications, the little icons that can deliver information from an app to a specific watch face.

Apple Watch faces | Apple

The most notable software change comes to the user interface. The Apple Watch features a touchscreen, a push-button dial and a rectangular push button. You can also interact with it through motion.

Previously that rectangular button was used to bring up a shortlist of your favorite contacts. It was a neat idea, but also wasted a physical button. With WatchOS 3, that button brings up a collection of what you have decided are your favorite apps. Those apps remain running in the background, so they’ll always be the most responsive of the things you use on the watch. It’s a smart idea that has a major impact on the everyday use of your watch.

Other changes to the software include the addition of a "Breathe" app to Apple’s "Stand" app. I was, I’m sure, among the many Apple Watch owners who originally thought very little of the Stand app. But over the past year, I’ve definitely seen the impact it has had on me with its ability to get me up and moving. We’ll see if Breathe, designed to get you to take a moment to relax during the day, will be as impactful.

The built-in workout app now includes more activities like swimming, and allows you to track up to five metrics, such as heart rate and active calories.

Apple has also overhauled its Watch messenger, which now supports stickers and one-letter-at-a-time handwriting.

Of course, the Apple Watch still includes a base level of notifications, which makes it easier to keep your phone in your pocket. But the watch can also do a few things when you don't have your phone around. If your watch is connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your phone, you can still use all of your apps. And if you're phone-free out of the house, you can use your watch to buy things, track your heart rate or amount of exercise, or even play the music you loaded onto the watch, through Bluetooth headphones. And with the loss of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7, I can see wireless headphones becoming much more common now.

While I found the entire experience of the new Apple Watch much faster, more robust and friendlier, I’m still annoyed that Apple continues to block developers from creating their own watch faces. A wide array of custom watch faces is one of the main areas that the Apple Watch lags far behind compared to what you will find on virtually every other smartwatch on the market.

Ultimately, though, the Apple Watch Series 2 still remains my smartwatch of choice. That’s chiefly because I own an iPhone. If Google were to create more robust ties between its iOS version of the Wear App and support third-party apps, I could see that changing quickly.

Asus ZenWatch 3

Asus ZenWatch 3's eclipse design | Asus
Price $229.99
Size 45 mm x 45 mm x 9.95 mm
Weight 55 g to 60 g
Display 400 x 400 AMOLED touch display
Water Resistance IP67
Compatibility Android and limited iOS
Battery Life A bit more than a day
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor
Audio None

What a difference a year makes.

Last year’s ZenWatch 2 was a smartwatch designed to be a low-cost, just-good-enough option in a market packed with pricey models. This year’s model, coming in at $230, nearly doubles the price of the watch, but also delivers one of the top Android devices on the market.

The most obvious change to the new ZenWatch is its shift from a rounded rectangle to a fully round watch. That means the face doesn’t have the flat-tire look that chops off the bottom of the circular display and drives some people, including me, nuts.

The new design isn’t just a change in shape, it’s also an obvious change in philosophy. Everything about the previous ZenWatches looked and felt cut-rate; the ZenWatch 3 is pure luxury. The face features a bronze diamond-cut bezel laid inside a stainless steel body, giving the ZenWatch the look of a solar eclipse. An Italian stitched-leather band disappears into two stainless steel cusps molded into the watch body. The watch has three buttons. The top is customizable to provide quick access to a specific feature or app. The bottom switches the watch into a battery-saving Eco mode and the larger middle button, which is bisected by a thin line of copper, is used for a variety of basic functions, like brightness boost and as essentially an enter button.

Combined with the fully round 1.3-inch AMOLED display, the luxurious look of the ZenWatch 3 makes it among my favorite of all smartwatches I’ve tested.

Fortunately, the guts of this watch hold up to the standards set by its looks.

Asus ZenWatch 3 | Asus

This time around, Asus’ smartwatch features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 2100 processor — a faster version of what last year’s model used, but more importantly, a processor that uses 25 percent less power. Combined with the watch’s Eco mode, which turns off networking and notifications, this can boost the battery life of the watch by more than 200 percent.

That said, I found that the watch still only lasted me about a day of heavy use. As with most modern smartwatches, you’re going to have to get used to removing it every night and charging it. The good news is that the ZenWatch 3 uses something called "HyperCharge," which can give the watch a 60 percent charge in 15 minutes.

While the ZenWatch 3 comes with its own free Asus ZenWatch Manager, which delivers six custom themes and more than 50 exclusive watch faces for use on Android phones, the smartwatch mostly relies on Google’s Android Wear. The bad news is that Android Wear hasn’t seen much improvement since last year. The good news is that in theory, the increasingly outdated operating system is getting a major overhaul with Android Wear 2 early next year. Either way, iOS support through Android Wear remains even more behind the times than the base operating system — so much so that I’d say if you’re looking for a smartwatch for your Apple phone, you should steer clear of the Android-based ones for now.

But if you own an Android phone, I think the ZenWatch 3 is one of the clear winners for the operating system. Unlike the ZenWatch 2, which was clunky and slow to respond, the ZenWatch 3 is a zippy device that is instantly reactive to your pokes and button presses. Coupled with the slick new design — did I mention it comes in a jewelry box fit for an expensive ring? — the Asus ZenWatch 3 is currently my favorite among the non-Apple-supported watches.

Casio Smart Outdoor Watch

casio smart outdoor watch

Casio Smart Outdoor Watch | Casio
Price $500
Size 61.7 mm x 56.4 mm x 15.7 mm
Weight 93 g
Display 1.32-inch dual-layer display
Water Resistance 50 m
Compatibility Android with limited iOS support
Battery Life One day to one month
Sensors Directional, atmospheric and gyrometer
Audio Microphone
Other Tide graph, fishing timer, sunrise, sunset timer and direction, activity graph, and military-standard shock resistance

Casio, arguably the creator of the smartwatch, finally released its own take on the modern device with a focus on outdoor recreation. Technically, the WSD-F10 isn’t really a smartwatch; it’s a smart outdoor watch, a sign that the company is taking seriously the mandate to focus on one very specific, relatively underserved segment of the smartwatch market.

Casio has a long history of developing surprising, intriguing bits of technology; many of those creations end up getting strapped to a wrist. Over the years, Casio developed database watches, remote control watches, fitness trackers, blood pressure monitors, even a watch that helped Muslim owners figure out in which direction they could find Mecca for daily prayers. The company also released a popular line of game watches.

casio watch
Tracking elevation | Casio

For its first modern smartwatch, the company decided it wanted to find a specific focus to help set it apart from the growing competition. The result is a chunky, resilient watch designed around ease of use during exercise and active outdoor activities. The watch is built around military-standard endurance tests, which means it can withstand a lot of punishment, from freezing rain and temperature drops to vibrations, humidity and falls. It also means that the watch is one of the bulkier smartwatches on the market, but it embraces that design with a simple aesthetic built around the oversized round watch face. The bezel is held in place with four screws, and it gently, subtly slopes away from the screen to avoid any issues created while swiping across the face of the watch. The microphone is tucked neatly between the watch and the urethane band. Three large buttons on the right side of the watch allow you to return to the watch screen, bring up a designated app or launch the watch’s unique software tools. The left side of the watch houses a round port for the charger and another port for reading barometric pressure.

Significantly, this is one of the only smartwatches I’ve tried that makes use of a clever dual-layer display. The watch’s screen includes both a monochrome LCD and a color LCD layered on top of one another; the watch switches between them depending on what is needed. It’s a smart way to accomplish a couple of things. First, and most noticeably, it makes the watch easy to read, even in bright sunlight. The monochromatic display sheds glare in a way that it’s almost unnoticeable. The monochromatic display also cuts down on battery use, extending your battery life from about a day of active color screen use to nearly a month if you’re just using it as a standard watch. It’s an impressive feat backed up by smart design that recognizes that there are times when the only thing you want out of your smartwatch is for it to be a watch. When needed, the color LCD easily stands up to the competition, even outdoing many because of its large size and rich colors.

I was disappointed to discover that the monochromatic display doesn’t include any sort of lighting, an odd decision for such a powerful timepiece.

Because Casio’s Smart Outdoor Watch is designed with a very specific type of person in mind, the company didn’t stop with the hardware. Casio also designed several pieces of software, apps designed to highlight the watch’s abilities as a support tool for those who love to adventure in the outdoors.

The tool button launches a watch face with a number of specific uses including a digital compass, which can also be used to set a bearing; altitude measurements, which can be displayed in a current number or on a graph; atmospheric pressure measurement, which can be shown on a dial or as a graph to track weather changes; sunrise and sunset times; a tide graph; and finally, an activity graph which breaks down the exercise you’ve done during the day by four categories.

The tool button and those unique features help to turn your watch into a sort of Swiss Army timepiece, a basic tool that quickly expands to offer up a number of much more specific tools useful in the outdoors.

The watch includes two other neat tool sets: activity and moment setter.

casio
Tracking weather | Casio

Activity is a grouping of three different watch faces and tools that can be used while fishing, cycling or trekking. Each offers unique data for the activity at hand. For instance, the trekking tool shows the current time, elapsed time, traveling speed and altitude remaining until you hit your preset goal. The cycling app includes distance traveled, and fishing measures atmospheric pressure changes.

The moment setter is used in conjunction with the activity tools to set up alerts for specific events happening while you’re doing an activity. You can use this to do things like remind yourself to eat or drink, when the sun rises, or the best time for fishing.

The tool, activity and moment setter features all rely on a Casio app only available on Google Play for Android phones. That means that while this watch will work on the iPhone with some functionality, the bulk of what sets the Smart Outdoor Watch apart from the competition is only accessible if you own an Android phone and download the free app.

Of course, Casio’s watch also supports the slew of third-party apps available through Google’s store, and includes 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB of internal storage.

While I like the fit and feel of the watch, I did find it sluggish at times when using Android Wear and third-party apps. I also was surprised to find that while the watch is packed with measurement tools, it doesn’t include GPS. It also manages to, despite a large design and round face, still cut off a bit of the bottom of the display in what many people call the "flat tire" design.

The saving grace of the Smart Outdoor Watch is that it doesn’t need to be particularly smart to be useful if you’re out and about. Those built-in trekking tools, along with some of the other abilities, like being able to get accurate barometric measurements and graph them, turn this smartwatch into something a little bit different from your standard wrist wearable. Add to that the inclusion of a low, low battery mode and that dual-screen technology, and you have a watch that can live up to your expectations or go to sleep and simply deliver the time.

Now if they could work on getting that price down and maybe including a hidden LCD game or two...

Fossil Q Marshal

Fossil Q Marshal | Fossil
Price $315
Size 45 mm x 45 mm x 14 mm
Weight 175 g
Display 1.5-inch LCD display
Water Resistance IP67
Compatibility Android with limited iOS support
Battery Life About a day
Sensors Motion and accelerometer
Audio Microphone

Fossil is going big this year with wearables, really big. The company announced in March that it hoped to launch 100 wearables across all eight of its brands by the end of the year.

The company’s approach to smartwatches, according to Fossil, is to start with the watch design and then work in the technology. It sounds like a smart idea for folks worried about the sometimes ugly look of a smartwatch, but given my time with Fossil’s devices and the latest crop of non-Fossil smartwatches, it appears that is easier said than done.

Fossil’s name brand releases smartwatches in two categories: the full, touchscreen sort, and hybrid smartwatches. There are four Fossil smartwatches currently on the market. I checked out what appeared to be the top of the line, the Q Marshal.

The loaner Fossil sent me was a gorgeous stainless steel design (you can also get the Marshal in smoke stainless steel, brown leather and black silicone). All of the Marshals feature a neat, easy to use tool-less watch strap system that makes swapping out compatible 22 mm straps as easy as pushing in two pins with your fingers. Sure, this means you need to buy straps that work with Fossil watches, but it does make a person more willing to change straps on a whim.

The watch itself is a chunky affair, a timepiece with a surprising amount of weight and heft. The watch face features a rugged bezel, which unfortunately can’t be used to interact with the watch. The stainless steel bezel surrounds a 45 mm face that has a black frame encircling it under glass. The decision to not make the usable screen stretch to the edges of the glass is made worse by the flat-tire design, which cuts off the buttom curve of the round face.

While I like the stainless steel look and feel of the watch, I was surprised that it is so thick, coming in at 14 mm, or 4 mm thicker than Asus’ ZenWatch 3.

The four designs of the Fossil Q Marshal | Fossil

Finally, the design is wrapped up with a single crown on its side, though oddly, while the shape and appearance of the crown makes it look like it will twist, it’s simply a push button.

It’s these sorts of design decisions — a single-button, flat-tire screen, unsightly thickness — that ultimately undermine any argument Fossil might be trying to make with design first, technology second.

Like the ZenWatch 3, the Marshal uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 2100 processor, giving it a longer battery life than many of last year’s models, and a much snappier response time.

The Marshal includes an array of custom Fossil watch faces, but for the most part relies entirely on Google’s increasingly dated Android Wear.

During my time with the watch, I liked its physical design — though it is slightly too thick for my tastes — but found the day-to-day use of the watch acceptable at best. Having to rely on a single button and the touchscreen is disappointing when compared to the array of other input methods other watches offer, from multiple buttons to digital crowns to a rotating bezel.

The Marshal also lacks a heart rate sensor and any form of built-in GPS, and you can’t swim with it on. One could certainly argue that’s because it’s a watch obviously not designed for working out, but those are the sorts of features increasingly becoming the norm with smartwatches.

There’s just too much missing from a technology point of view for the stylish, yet flawed, aesthetic design of the watch to make up for. If you’re in the market for a smartwatch that doesn’t look like a smartwatch, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a high end, classy tech-packed smartwatch, this isn’t it either.

Fossil Q Nate

Fossil Q Nate | Fossil
Price $215
Size 55.4 mm x 45 mm x 13.5 mm
Weight 141 g
Display Standard watch, no touchscreen
Water Resistance 50 m
Compatibility Android and iOS support
Battery Life Six months
Sensors Accelerometer
Audio None
Other Vibration

Fossil delivered two sorts of new smartwatches to the market this year. The more traditional touchscreen smartwatches didn’t quite land for me, but what about the company’s hybrid smartwatches?

Hybrid smartwatches are an interesting category. They strive to work and look like traditional watches, delivering days or weeks or months of battery life on a single charge or battery, while still trying to offer some high-tech solutions like notifications from your phone or activity tracking.

Fossil’s take on the hybrid is meant to look like a watch and act like a smartwatch. That means, according to Fossil, that it uses standard batteries, which deliver about six months of life, and features built-in activity tracking, some notifications and multiple time zones.

Look at that hand go | Fossil

The company sent us a Q Nate hybrid black stainless steel smartwatch to test out. The watch features a black stainless steel link bracelet that uses the same easy, tool-less interchangeable straps as the Q Marshal. The body is also black stainless steel with a rugged bezel, two buttons on the right side of the watch and a third functioning crown that can double as a button.

Coming in with a larger case than the Marshal and an ever-so-slightly thinner design, the Nate is a much more aesthetically pleasing watch for me. Unfortunately, this particular design has one major flaw.

The traditional face of the watch is black with gray numbers, lettering and markers, and it has no light source. That means, with my perhaps aging eyes, I struggle to see much of anything on the watch beyond the current time. This is exacerbated by the fact that the watch has no backlight. Fortunately, the Nate comes in three colors, including a more traditional stainless steel with white lettering and numbers.

Fossil Q Nate | Fossil

Why does it matter whether I can see anything beyond the big and little hands? Because this is a smartwatch of sorts, and a very cleverly designed one to boot.

The Nate has built into its very traditional design just the right amount of tech to keep you informed, but not constantly tinkering with your watch. For instance, it includes the ability to track your steps, general activity and sleep. You can also set the bottom button to one of four actions: ring your phone, take a picture, track a pre-established goal or control your music. Once selected, a press of that button triggers the action.

The watch also has a really interesting way of subtly alerting you to notifications from up to six apps and six contacts. When you receive an alert from any of the people or apps you selected, the watch buzzes, and the hands on the watch move to the hour marker you selected. So, if I can only keep straight the fact that my son Tristan is two and my wife is one, I know when the watch buzzes and the hands swing to one, who just texted me. It’s a really neat way to help you filter out your day without reading every single thing that comes your way.

Pressing the bottom button shows the date by swinging both hands to the correct number. The crown, also a button, allows you to toggle between time zones, your alarm and the last alert you received.

All of this is managed through an app that works equally well on Android and iOS.

You use the app to set up the notifications, your extra time zone and — my personal favorite — to create custom goals.

You'll need good eyes | Fossil

As I mentioned earlier, the bottom button can be tied to one of four different actions. One of those actions allows you to track your progress toward a goal. You go into the app and create a new goal, and then activate it so that a press of the bottom button tracks you having achieved one part of that goal.

In my case, I decided to create a goal that I would drink a glass of water eight times a day, which is about the recommended amount. Now, every time I drink a glass of water, I simply press the bottom button and it marks it. When I hit all eight, the app lets me know with a message. It’s super basic stuff, but also the sort of thing you’re pretty likely to use.

During my time with the watch, I found myself missing some of the deeper connections that the more powerful smartwatches deliver. That said, the Nate Q is certainly the sort of watch I could see myself wearing out on a night when I’m not interested in being disturbed, but do want to know when someone important, like my son, is trying to reach me.

Where Fossil’s design-first philosophy fails in its smartwatches, that approach helped to create a wonderful hybrid device.

Garmin Fenix 3 HR

fenix 3 hr

Garmin Fenix 3 HR | Garmin
Price $599.99
Size 51.5 mm x 51.5 mm x 16 mm
Weight 86.1 g
Display 1.2-inch transflective MIP display
Water Resistance 10 atm
Compatibility Android and iOS with Garmin app and store
Battery Life 16 hours to two weeks
Sensors GPS/GLONASS, barometric, compass, heart rate
Audio None
Other Advanced fitness training features, outdoor navigation features, wide variety of exercise profiles

Garmin’s Fenix 3 HR smartwatch may be both my favorite and the most frustrating watch I’ve ever tested.

The Fenix 3 HR is a chunky, solid piece of tech that looks like the sort of gadget you’d take into the wilderness to increase your odds of survival. And in many ways that’s exactly what it is. Packed with an abundance of sensors (GPS/GLONASS, barometric, compass, heart rate, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ANT), 10 atm water resistance and a surprisingly long battery life that can squeeze out two weeks, this is the sort of watch you’d want on your wrist when you go camping.

Its relatively sleek design also means that it looks just as fine on the wrist of someone willing to sport a G-Shock every day. It also runs equally well on Android and iOS, forgoing both app stores for its own modest yet meaningful store of first- and third-party watch creations.

But in an attempt to do so much on so small a device, Garmin manages to gum up the experience itself, making even the most basic of tweaks to the watch the sort of lengthy, button-pushing experience that will stop you in your mountain-hiking tracks.

Fenix 3 HR
Heart rate chart | Garmin

As with Casio’s outdoor-centric smartwatch, the Fenix 3 HR features a PVD-stainless steel bezel and buttons encircling a sapphire-lens round watch face. The watch doesn’t support touch controls, but the five buttons give you plenty of ways to interact with it … maybe too many. The screen uses a high-resolution color display with LED backlighting, which makes for great visibility at night, inside or even in bright sunlight. Most noticeable, though, is the watch’s long battery life. With normal settings and the GPS on, it manages 16 or so hours. You can get 40 hours by using a mode that auto-switches the GPS on and off when needed, or two weeks if you’re just using the smartwatch mode.

Unfortunately, the watch has neither a microphone nor a speaker. The more you dive into the device, the more clear that becomes. The Fenix 3 HR is designed with sports and activity in mind first. That means even with the support of add-on apps, you’re not going to find a lot of the abilities you might have come to expect with less focused smartwatches.

There is no way to store music on the watch or check Twitter, Facebook or email, for instance. While there are a number of games, there are very few general apps that aren’t designed around an activity. Instead, you’ll find a wide assortment of robust hiking, swimming, biking, triathlon, skiing, rowing and golfing apps. Because the watch measures heart rate, and can track and graph it right on your watch face, you’ll also find a lot of heart rate data apps. The watch is, in general, very good at saving, presenting and reusing data.

Where Casio’s first smartwatch is obviously activity-centric, it still feels like you’re using a watch. The Fenix 3 delivers the sort of performance that you’d expect from a computer or trainer. With the help of an add-on, for instance, it can gauge the degree of bounce in your step, measure your running symmetry and air time, and look at cadence and stride length. It can even track your stress levels while you’re working out and alert you to your lactate threshold (when your muscles are basically exhausted). It’s an impressive array of technology packed into a device that doesn’t stand out much on your wrist.

The Fenix 3’s sheer volume of features and apps is also, to some degree, the watch’s downfall. The menu system, all controlled with the watch's five buttons, is contorted, confused and often time-consuming. If, for instance, I want to switch to a new watch face using my watch and not the app, I have to press and hold the middle left button to bring up a menu, press the top right button to select settings, press the bottom left to scroll down to watch faces, and then press the top right button twice to first select that and then select the sort of watch face I want. Then, I use the left middle and left bottom buttons to scroll up and down through the list of faces, and press the top right button to select my choice. From there, I have to either manually back out with several presses of the bottom right button, or just hold the bottom left button to return to the home screen on my watch.

Fenix 3 HR
Heart rate sensor | Garmin

I have to confess, I’ve discovered that between switching watches and just my regular busy, often hectic day, I lack the mental acuity, dexterity and memory to not screw this process up at least once almost every single time. That’s a minimum of once. It’s not unusual for me to spend a minute or two staring at my watch in frustration and saying awful things about it as I go through the button pressing like it’s some sort of technological incantation.

The complexity of the watch doesn’t stop with navigating its user interface, unfortunately. Everything about this watch seems unnecessarily confusing at times.

Where most watches provide downloadable apps, the Fenix 3 lets you download apps, watch faces, widgets and data fields. The distinctions between some of these downloads are still relatively lost on me, but they’re all grabbed using your computer or the smartphone app from Garmin’s Connect IQ Store.

The buttons of the device are a bit less than intuitive as well. The top left button is your power and light button. The middle left is your up button, but is also used to bring up the menu with a long press. The bottom left is your down button, but a long press also returns you to the watch’s home screen. The top right is the start/stop/reset button, which also serves as essentially the enter button in a menu. The bottom right is the lap button, and the back button in menus.

There is the ability to select what long presses do on the two right buttons, but the options are oddly minimal. For instance, you can’t set either button to bring up the watch faces or apps, which seem like they could be the two most common functions for some types of users. Instead you can choose to, for instance, have a long press on the top button launch a Wi-Fi sync and a long press on the bottom button launch GPS.

On the one hand, Garmin makes up for this by offering all of the downloads for the watch for free and even opening up the development software and the store to third parties, who are free to create their own apps. But on the other, the storage on the watch dedicated to apps and watch faces is strikingly low. It offers just 32 MB, compared to, say, the 4 GB found in the Casio.

Despite all of the negativity I just heaped on the Fenix 3 HR, I remain blown away by its battery efficiency, design and utility in a very focused area. I don’t see this smartwatch becoming my daily device — in fact, I took it on a trip to Italy and hardly used it, because it lacked a lot of the apps I like to use from my wrist when traveling — but I can see it becoming my go-to device for workouts, hiking and the like.

My personal love of watches and desire to get the most out of wearable tech leads me to believe that this sort of very focused approach to smartwatches may become more popular as the technology and its popularity broaden.

Put another way, Garmin seems to have set out to build the perfect activity smartwatch, and the company has come very close with the tech on hand. Garmin also helped push forward the argument for owning not just one smartwatch but several, each designed with specific duties or functions in mind.

Razer Nabu Watch

Razer Nabu Watch | Razer


Price $199
Size 44 mm x 51.8 mm x 13.4 mm
Weight 51 g
Display Standard watch display and 128 x 16 OLED secondary screen
Water Resistance 5 ATM
Compatibility Android or iOS
Battery Life 12 months, seven days for secondary
Sensors accelerometer
Audio None
Input five buttons

The Nabu Watch isn’t exactly a smartwatch; instead, it’s a sort of hybrid.

The chunky design looks like something created by Casio for hiking and sports. Four buttons arranged around the outer edge of the watch allow owners to slip through timers, a stopwatch, world time and alarms, all shown on the watch’s face. A second, smaller rectangular screen, located beneath the main screen, is used to display fitness information and notifications from an Android phone or iPhone. Owners cycle through the smaller screen’s information with an inset button located beneath that screen.

The watch has two batteries to power the two screens. The main watch screen uses a standard battery with a life of about a year. The notification screen uses a rechargeable battery that seems to last about a week.

Two faces | Razer

The result is a not-too-smart watch with an impressive battery life, just enough information to be better than a standard watch, and a rugged design that stands out for the right reasons.

The team at Razer actually calls the Nabu watch the "not a smartwatch."

The distinction and its particular design come from the Razer engineers going through the "trials and tribulations" of owning a smartwatch.

The team decided to make a watch that offered easy-to-access notifications that were quick to pop up, and which had a battery life that lasted as long as possible. And by giving the watch two batteries, it meant that an owner would always be able to at least tell the time.

Razer Nabu Watch | Razer

It looked like the sort of half step that, as a longtime smartwatch owner and aficionado, I just wouldn’t appreciate. So I was surprised to find that once I had one on my wrist, I was reluctant at times to switch back to my smartwatch of choice.

The winning factors for me were the ability to shower and swim with the watch on; the quick, streamlined notification system; and that impossibly long battery life. I often went a week without worrying about the battery. Knowing that even if the notification battery died, I’d still have a functional watch, also helped to reduce even further any worries I had about charging.

The biggest selling point, though, was the look of the thing.

Checking notifications | Razer

The Nabu Watch is big, but well put together. It features the sort of design that looks purposeful. However, it’s not made to encase a tiny touch computer, but rather, to match an outdoor lifestyle. That such a rugged watch is meant to be designed by gamers, for gamers, could almost be ironic to the nongaming crowd. Which is another reason I sort of like it. While the watch does include a minimal version of Razer’s three-headed snake logo and the company’s black and neon green colors, those not familiar with the brand wouldn’t likely recognize it as a bit of gaming culture.

The subtle callout to Razer and the focused attention on being a watch that’s smart, but not too smart, results in a device that could become one of my favorites to wear.

Samsung Gear 3

Samsung Gear S3 Classic (left) and Frontier smartwatches Samsung
Samsung Gear S3 Classic (left) and Frontier | Samsung


Price $299
Size 46 mm x 49 mm x 12.9 mm
Weight 63 g
Display 360 x 360, 278ppi sAMOLED touch display
Water Resistance IP68
Compatibility Tizen
Battery Life About three days
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light, barometer, gyroscope, heart rate monitor, NFC, GPS
Audio microphone and speakers
Input rotating bezel and two buttons

The best watch for the iPhone isn’t made by Apple. It’s a Samsung creation.

I was already a big fan of the Gear S3 Frontier when it came out late last year, but Samsung’s decision to add robust iOS support to its latest smartwatch has pushed my enthusiasm for the device over the top and the Apple Watch from my wrist.

The Gear S3 comes in two designs, classic and Frontier. The Frontier is one of those chunky watches, like something you might wear while hiking or going for a run. It’s slightly thick for a regular watch, but considering the fact that it can also function as a stand-alone phone, I’m willing to overlook the additional bulk. Besides, that never really bothered me.

The watch includes a bezel that can be rotated to interact with apps, a heart rate sensor, two buttons and a round, vibrant touchscreen face. It’s also a clear step up from the Gear S2, Samsung’s 2015 smartwatch, which is an important distinction when you start comparing it to Apple’s approach to the smartwatch.

In 2015, the Apple Watch was the clear winner among the slew of smartwatches that hit the market that year. While the Pebble, a strong contender with support across platforms, was a close second, it was also the sort of tech that required an admiration for how and why it was built to truly appreciate it.

Samsung Gear S3 Frontier Samsung

The Apple Watch, on the other hand, was the most mainstream-ready of all the smartwatches on the market at the time. In my review from 2015, I called that out, along with the Apple Watch’s chief problem.

"Thats the good news; the bad news is that the reason it is the easiest to understand and use is because it remains firmly planted inside Apples walled garden of content," I wrote. "There are no other watches that can rely entirely on Apples operating system, and to get an app onto the Apple Watch a developer has to go through Apple. Apple sets the limitations of those apps and of how much of the watchs sensors and other hardware a developer can use."

There were other issues, to be sure. The Apple Watch wasnt the nicest-looking smartwatch, it wasn’t waterproof and for some reason, it didn’t allow for custom watch faces or for developers to tap into a lot of the basic functionality of the watch.

But all of that changed last year with the Apple Watch Series 2. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say some of it did.

The S2 opened the doors on development. It made the watch waterproof and … well, unfortunately, there isn’t really an and. While it was a step in the right direction, it increasingly felt like too little, too late, as other smartwatches began to hit the market. The Apple Watch didn’t bring any major new improvements, it didn’t include many watch faces and its rounded-edge rectangular look felt distinctly dated.

Then Samsung decided to open the door to its watch working in a real way on the iPhone, and that was that. I went from wearing my Apple Watch every day, to wearing it every week, to now only wearing it when I forget to wear the Frontier.

The only thing preventing me from putting the Apple Watch away in my watch case is that Samsung’s own app store is still missing some crucial apps.

Samsung Gear S3 Frontier Samsung

But first, the good.

It’s fat, but it also looks and feels like a watch not a smartwatch, but a watch. That’s thanks to some nice design elements like the stainless steel body and bezel, and the silicon band. That bezel is also one of my favorite ways to interact with a smartwatch. I appreciate Apple’s smart crown, but the bezel’s larger size makes it a bit easier to use, and it feels more precise.

The watch also features a great selection of built-in tech like GPS, an SOS service that can quickly send out a location beacon to pre-selected people, an accelerometer, gyro sensor, barometer, ambient light sensor and a heart rate sensor. It also includes fairly robust IP68, water and dust resistance.

Now lets talk about the battery, one of the major sticking points for any smartwatch owner. Because the Gear S3 can operate as a stand-alone cellphone, or use Bluetooth to connect to your phone or use Wi-Fi to connect to a nearby signal, battery life is sort of all over the place. What I’ve found is that when it’s using just Bluetooth, it lasts about two full days. When it’s being used as a stand-alone phone, it barely lasts eight hours. That’s a wide spread, but it gives you a sense of what to expect from. Typically, I fall in the two-day zone, except when the watch loses connection with my phone.

Which brings us to the bad.

The Gear S3 is designed to work with Samsung’s phones. That’s how the company made it; it’s probably also why the company made it. So the best use cases are always with those phones.

When you use it with an iPhone, well, your experience may vary.

The Samsung Gear S3 app for iOS is pretty straightforward. Once you connect your watch to your phone, it tells you the battery life and communicates all sorts of data back and forth. For instance, it can send with your permission your health data to the phone, and can send notifications to the watch.

Samsung Gear S3 Classic Samsung

Unfortunately, I periodically found the watch disconnecting. I believe this has something to do with the app running in the background on the phone. That works, but if it ever crashes or I close it, the connection is lost. It’s not a huge deal, but it does impact battery life.

You can also use the phone to browse the app store for the watch. You can do this with the watch, too, but it’s much easier on the phone.

While the store currently has a huge selection of watch faces, including some amazing game-themed ones, it’s a little light, a little spotty on the other stuff.

There are a bunch of workout apps and games. My favorite game right now is a fantastic adaptation of Fruit Ninja that uses the touchscreen of the watch for play. But I can’t load up Spotify or Twitter. Yelp is there and so is CNN, but not Apple Pay or Samsung Pay.

And it’s unclear if or when any of these will show up. I do find new things popping up occasionally, but mostly it seems to be watch faces.

With a bit more support in the apps department, Samsung’s Gear S3 could easily become the best smartwatch on the market. It’s technically already there, if you look just at the watch, but hardware is really only as good as the software it supports.

Of course, that said, Android Wear 2.0 is coming, along with new watches, next month. Among the many improvements the OS system is bringing is the ability to download apps directly to a watch, no matter which sort of phone you have it connected to.

Samsung better get going if it wants to cement its enviable position.

Water Resistance

Is your watch waterproof? Can you go diving with it? How about swimming, taking a shower, washing your hands or even walking in the rain?

Some smartwatch makers can be a little circuitous in their answers when it comes to how much wetness their watches can stand up to. That’s likely because they don’t want to overpromise. Instead, they usually leave the decision-making up to owners based on an IP code given to a watch by the International Electrotechnical Commission.

An IPC is usually denoted as the letters IP followed by two to three numbers. The first number references what sort of protection a device has against solids, like dust. The second is what sort of seal the watch has against liquids, like water. The third number, not found in any of the watches we looked at, references a watch’s ability to withstand a drop or hit.

An X in the place of any of those spots simply means the watch wasn’t tested for that.

Now, here’s how to interpret those codes:

All but the Apple Watch list a 6 for solid particle protection, meaning that they are essentially dust-tight.

For the second number, the one that refers to water resistance, all but one of them fall into the 7 or 8 category.

Technically, a 7 means that a watch can be submerged for up to 30 minutes in water that is up to 1 meter deep. This basically means that your watch is fine if it gets wet, but you really shouldn’t submerge it on purpose or keep it submerged. Since the watches with a 7 don’t have ratings for protection against water jets (5 or 6), it also means you shouldn’t shower with them.

A watch with an 8 rating means it can stay under deeper water for longer, but again, isn’t designed for swimming or showering.

And then you have the Pebble. The Pebble Time forgoes the IP certification for the ISO 22810 certification. This is a single standard which, if a watch earns it, means you can swim or shower with the device at up to 30 meters (or a water pressure of 3 atmospheres.)

Time Killers: The strange history of wrist gaming

The 40-year history of watch gaming shares a common root with all portable gaming: the calculator.

In this collection of stories, we trace the roots of watch gaming and look to the future for what wearable gaming has in store for us.