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Best Smartwatches 2021: The 12 Best Smartwatches for Every Type of User

Best Smartwatches 2021: The 12 Best Smartwatches for Every Type of User

 November 18, 2021 at 8:23 pm   |     Author:   |     Technology  

The Apple Watch Series 7 (left) and Series 6 (right).
Enlarge / The Apple Watch Series 7 (left) and Series 6 (right).

Corey Gaskin

With the holiday shopping season starting up, we’ve updated our guide to the best smartwatches you can buy. The Apple Watch Series 7 now takes the top spot from the Series 6, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 replaces the Galaxy Watch 3 as a top pick for Android users, and we’ve swapped in a couple new Garmin watches as running- and style-focused recommendations.

Believe it or not, there are smartwatches worth owning besides the Apple Watch. If getting important (or not so important) notifications on your wrist sounds appealing to you, there’s great news: most smartwatches can now do that for you. And you have options when it comes to style, form factor, and more dedicated wearable purposes.

There are smartwatches that emphasize style and a classic timepiece aesthetic, others that help you train for competition in specific sports, and everything in between. From casual exercisers to those who want every bit of data and guidance they can get, the smartwatch landscape has matured. And recently, we revisited some of our favorite options and tested the latest releases in an effort to help you nail down the best smartwatch for your needs.

The short(er) version

  • The Apple Watch Series 7 is still the best all-around smartwatch available. No other wearable offers close to the app variety, ecosystem cohesiveness, and third-party support that the Apple Watch does. Battery life is just okay at roughly one day per charge, but charging from zero to 100 now takes just over an hour. The new, bigger screen offers larger font sizes and more space to read fitness data and notifications, too. Fitness tracking could still use more context, but the Series 7’s all-around package is tough to beat. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch SE can save you a few bucks depending on your needs.
  • Our runner-up is the Fitbit Sense. It doesn’t have the Apple Watch’s extensive app support, but it offers nearly the same level of fitness hardware (ECG, blood oxygen sensors, heart rate, GPS), week-long battery life, a more in-depth companion app, and actual Android support, all in a stylish design.
  • If you can find it for less than $200, the Fitbit Versa 3 is another option we like. It has a nice combination of sleek smartwatch looks (in both software and hardware) and the requisite fitness tracking and notification capabilities we expect at that price point. There’s no ECG sensor, but it should have you covered with basic to moderate health insights otherwise.
  • Garmin’s Forerunner 745 is our top runner’s watch for its deep training stats, useful yet easy-to-read analysis for all athletes, and suite of dedicated runner’s tools. It lacks a touchscreen, but with GPS, 24/7 heart rate, all-day blood oxygen monitoring, and music storage for up to 500 songs, it’s a capable companion for running, swimming, biking, and most other sports.
The Apple Watch Series 7 is a relatively minor upgrade over the slightly smaller Series 6 it replaces, but it's still the best all-around smartwatch we've tested.
Enlarge / The Apple Watch Series 7 is a relatively minor upgrade over the slightly smaller Series 6 it replaces, but it’s still the best all-around smartwatch we’ve tested.

Corey Gaskin

  • The Garmin Forerunner 55 and 245 Music are two less-expensive options worth a look for moderate runners. Those who love the 745’s approach but don’t need things like music storage, blood oxygen monitoring, or running-cadence analysis can save a significant amount with a Forerunner 45. The Forerunner 245 Music, meanwhile, may be better for those who don’t need an altimeter or tracking for hikes and other outdoorsy activities but want to retain the lion’s share of 745’s activity-tracking features.
  • Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 is the best all-around wearable for Android users, especially Samsung phone owners. Its classic watch styling looks good, and its rotating bezel controls are intuitive. Some of its more advanced health-tracking features require a Galaxy phone, but it’s still a very capable fitness tracker on the whole. Its collaboratively created software from Google and Samsung means it keeps the polish Galaxy watches were known for while adding a growing list of popular apps to support it.
  • We also have a few stylish smartwatches we like from Garmin. The Vivomove Luxe, Style, and 3/3S share elegant looks and premium materials at varying price points, making them nice pieces of jewelry that don’t compromise too much on moderate fitness tracking. The Garmin Lily, meanwhile, is an especially great choice for women or those with smaller wrists. It requires a phone for GPS, but it delivers useful stats for all sorts of activities and notifications with a fashionable aesthetic.

The best smartwatch overall

Apple Watch Series 7

Apple's new watch face emphasizes the more expansive screen.
Enlarge / Apple’s new watch face emphasizes the more expansive screen.

Corey Gaskin

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

If you have an iPhone and you’re looking for a smartwatch, the Apple Watch is your obligatory first stop, and for good reason. Simply put, it’s the best smartwatch you can buy. Is it the best fitness tracker? No. Is it the most stylish smartwatch? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all, but…not really. It’s not the most versatile wearable, either, as it only works with iPhones.

But if you want a (general) mirror of your phone on your wrist and you just need the requisites for fitness tracking—heart rate, blood oxygen, GPS, and some bonus features like ECG scans—then look no further than the Apple Watch Series 7. It offers true “leave-your-phone-at-home” usefulness, with wide first- and third-party app support and LTE connectivity.

The Apple Watch Series 7’s app support is unrivaled by a near-insurmountable margin, and now basic tasks like texting are even easier with the aid of a full QWERTY keyboard. The Series 7 has a slightly bigger screen and watchcase than the Series 6, with 40 percent thinner bezels. That means the always-on display is expansive enough to allow new luxuries like that on-screen keyboard in addition to simply giving more space to view and interacting with apps.

The Series 7’s facelift is hard to see if you don’t have it side-by-side with a Series 6, and if you already own the latter, the newest model isn’t worth the upgrade. But the Series 7’s faster charging speeds are quite noticeable. New charging coils, paired with a USB-C Apple Watch charger, have cut zero-to-100 charging times in half, from 2.5 hours to 1.25 hours. This makes quick dashes on the charger much more effective. That said, overall battery life remains at 18 hours, or roughly a day’s worth of use.

Fitness-wise, the Series 7 has its bases covered with over 50 different activity-tracking modes and an easy way to see your health vitals from exercises, sleep, and everyday life via Apple’s Health app. The app focuses mostly on trends, so it’s not the most insightful, and it doesn’t offer the most guidance of any watch in this guide. But consistency is key to any health regimen, and guidance via Apple Fitness+, Apple’s paid fitness subscription (priced at $10 a month or $80 a year), helps to provide a bit of that missing guidance. Five ATM water resistance and IPX6 dust resistance—the latter of which is new to the Series 7—along with sturdier screen geometry make this the most durable Apple Watch yet.

As mentioned, the Series 7 is essentially just a faster-charging and face-lifted Series 6 that starts at $400. While stock lasts, you can often find the Series 6 for around $50 less than an equivalent Series 7 model. Alternatively, if you’re not in need of the always-on display, blood oxygen sensor, and ECG sensor, then you can save a nice chunk of change with the otherwise similar Apple Watch SE, which retails for $279.

Then there’s the Apple Watch Series 3. It lacks the same sensors just mentioned in the SE’s omissions, it’s a good ways slower than either the SE or Series 7, and it further loses the always-on altimeter, though intermittent altimeter readings are available. But it’s still an attractive buy for the basics at its MSRP of $200, and it’s often on sale for less than that. Just be aware that users have experienced issues updating their Series 3s with the watch’s limited 8GB storage. It’s also better viewed as a smartwatch than a health or fitness tracker given all the features it lacks compared to the Series 7, Series 6, and most of their competitors.


Fitbit Sense

Fitbit's Sense has all the sensors you could ask for in a fitness tracker and deeper health insights and guidance than Apple Watches offer, especially with Fitbit's Premium membership.
Enlarge / Fitbit’s Sense has all the sensors you could ask for in a fitness tracker and deeper health insights and guidance than Apple Watches offer, especially with Fitbit’s Premium membership.

Corey Gaskin / Ars Technica

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

With at least three worthwhile Apple Watch options at descending price points, it’s hard to create a ton of separation among the runners-up. The Fitbit Sense’s main draw, though, is having almost all the fitness and health sensors of the Apple Watch Series 6 but with universal compatibility for use with Android, iPhone, and even computers. It also has between two and three times longer battery life than the Apple Watch, which translates to almost a full week of use.

Stylistically, it certainly looks similar to an Apple Watch, with its shiny square case, bright and vibrant display, and silicone band. Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see the differences, though. The band latches differently and connects to the watch with a proprietary, still seamless mechanism, but the all-around feel is just as comfortable as an Apple Watch. You can also shop around for a variety of leather, silicone, and fabric bands, some made of recycled materials or with reflective fibers for hikers and runners.

The Sense also offers cutting-edge fitness-tracking hardware, like an ECG monitor and blood oxygen readings, although the latter doesn’t offer spot readings unless you pay for Fitbit Premium. Without that, the sensors are used only during sleep. Requisites like GPS, heart rate monitoring, and an altimeter are all on the Sense, as are skin temperature monitors and electrodermal activity sensors for stress measurement.

As far as smartwatches go, the Fitbit Sense covers the requisites well, allowing notifications from most any app for iOS or Android. But being universally compatible means shallower integrations, especially with first-party functions like responding to texts or emails. You won’t be able to reply to text messages or emails from your iPhone, but you can reply to texts with an Android phone using quick replies or voice dictation. Phone calls on the Fitbit are also possible with either iPhones or Android devices.

If that’s about all you need from your phone, then the Fitbit Sense is a strong contender. Just don’t expect a bevy of bespoke app complications or shortcuts to specific functions, as the Sense’s only mainstream third-party apps are a handful of music services, like Spotify (which doesn’t stream from the watch, but rather just controls streaming on another device), Deezer, and Pandora.

Inexplicably, the Sense loses the ability to download your own music files onto your device (which the Versa 2 can) unless you have either a Pandora Premium or Deezer Premium account (neither of which is widely popular). So, if going for hikes or runs without your phone is important to you, this and the lack of cellular connection capabilities may be important to consider.

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