Smartwatch Round Up 2021

Introduction

I’ve been into wearables since they hit the market with force, which is to say, 2014-2015; or about 6 years.  I jumped on this category of devices pretty quickly, as I knew… I KNEW, that this category of device was going to make a serious impact on how we organized our day, how we communicated with friends and loved ones, how we exercise, and keep ourselves well.  I thought smartwatches were so important, and 2015 was such a banner year for the introduction of smartwatches, I spent the year writing a smartwatch round-up of sorts.

In fact, I wrote feature reviews on a number of different devices.  Here are the links to the original, and in some cases, multi-part, feature reviews:

There’s a lot of dust on these articles and it CLEARLY shows now, but they’re important to review so that we see where we’ve come from. I’m going to try to highlight differences between the original device reviews and what they offer now, and then compare the before and after of each to their latest versions; and then against each other.  I’m also going to do my best to keep the verbosity filter set too high (meaning, I don’t want this to be too long).

There is one thing that I want to make clear, however.  I’m going to be writing this roundup from the point of view of an iOS user.  Since hell froze over and Google released Android Wear for iOS AND Samsung released the Galaxy Watch in all its myriad editions and flavors, iPhone is the one platform where all of these major players in the smartwatch market can be used. There’s no other platform where this can be said.  Apple has not made a smartwatch app for Android, so iPhone and iOS remain the only platform where you can use Apple Watch.

Given all that, let’s get into it…

Apple Watch

Of all the smartwatches I was able to get my hands on in 2015, only the Apple Watch remains.  All of the others have been replaced by other models (in the case of the Fitbit Surge) or have been discontinued. The one that hurt the most was the Olio Model One. It was the most expensive and the most technically sophisticated of the group, with a technology set that rivaled the Apple Watch, for as much as it was different.

I have an Apple Watch Series 4, Space Gray, 44mm watch that I’m currently wearing with a 3rd party space gray link band. Since the introduction of the Watch six years ago, the device has gone from a capable device to an advanced extension of Apple’s mobile ecosystem. It’s come a long way.

Ecosystem extension aside, the Apple Watch Series 7 is very nearly a cellular health monitoring system all its own. A full, but consolidated feature list can be found below.

  • 41mm or 45mm Case Size
  • GPS/GNSS with A-GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, QZSS
  • Compass
  • Barometric altimeter
  • Water-resistant – 50 meters
  • Electrical heart sensor
  • Optical heart sensor
  • Blood-Oxygen Sensor (Pulse-Ox)
  • International emergency calling
  • Emergency SOS
  • Accelerometer – up to 32 g-forces with fall detection
  • Gyroscope
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Speaker
  • Microphone
  • Apple Pay – NFC Payments
  • 18+ hour battery
  • LTE & UTMS Cellular Connectivity

The Series 7 screen has reduced the display’s bezels to 1.7mm.  This gives you use of nearly the full Watch display.

watchOS 8.x took the available hardware and added some really cool, new features to the Watch.  Some of these distinguished the Watch over its competition; but at what some would call a huge, but justifiable premium. watchOS 8.x includes the following advanced features.

  • Portrait Photo Support
  • Assistive Touch
  • Better Messaging Tools
    • Scribble
    • emoji Selector
    • Full keyboard Support
    • “Swipe-Style” text input
  • Contact Entry and Editing
  • FindMy on watchOS
  • New Workouts
    • Pilates
    • Tai Chi
  • Mindfulness App
  • Sleep Respiration Tracking
  • Digital ID Support

Apple Watch Cost and Bands

When combined together, watchOS 8 and the noted hardware features create a health monitoring, activity tracking, communications tool that allows you to stay connected to friends and loved ones.  Apple Watch complements your iPhone, making it much easier to use and stay connected.  The system is really very elegant and sophisticated. Its among the most intelligent of pairings that I’ve ever seen. If you sit and think about it, its very futuristic.

However, the future really does come with a high cost. Apple Watch starts at $399 for the 41mm GPS only, aluminum case model.  The aluminum case Watch maxes out at $599 for the 45mm GPS-LTE model.  Apple offers a few different casing options.  The stainless steel model maxes out at $799 for the 45mm GPS-LTE model.

So, regardless of watch bands (Apple Watch bands are outRAGEOUSLY over priced. I mean who pays $349 (Silver) or $449 (Black) for a stainless steel link watch band?? And don’t get me started with Hermes leather bands…no matter how decorative or ornate they are, no matter how comfortable they may be, NO strip of leather between 4-7 inches long is worth $339-$539. None. EVER.), Regardless of case, (Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Titanium, etc.) the internals of the Apple Watch have been EXACTLY the same within each Series (Series 0, Series 1, Series 2, etc.).  The higher prices users pay is ONLY for just a very few things

  1. Watch size  – 41mm vs 45mm
  2. GPS vs. LTE Functionality
  3. Different case types
  4. Different bands

Let’s be clear, however – Apple Watch is the gold standard and is considered by many to be the model to meet or beat in terms of functionality.  I truly feel that nearly every smartwatch that is still on the market today was designed to specifically compete with Apple Watch.

And again, I want to be clear – Aside from one or two of the four (4) smartwatches that I reviewed in 2015, there have been few candidates on the market that have been able to be as successful as Apple Watch.  While each Watch Series has introduced new hardware and software functionality, what the Watch does really hasn’t changed much since its introduction. Yes, the introduction of additional sensors has improved the functionality of the Watch; but there has only really been one REVOLUTIONARY change to Watch in the past five years.  Every other change has been more EVOLUTIONARY than anything else.

While some may disagree with this, careful analysis of the sensors and features on the Watch today compared to each Series introduction will show that the functionality growth has progressed logically from revision to revision.  There hasn’t been anything introduced in Series <New> that would compel me to upgrade from Series <New – 1> or even Series <New – 2>, which clearly demonstrates an evolutionary path.  Nothing introduced with Series 7 is going to push me to upgrade from Series <Old> to Series <New>.

Features like ECG/EKG are REVOLUTIONARY. Since its introduction, there have been numerous articles on how the feature has alerted users to some arrhythmia problems with their heart.  The version of Watch that can automatically detect, monitor and track blood sugar levels will push the entire world to either purchase a new Apple Watch.  More Americans have diabetes than nearly any other disability. If Apple can get this sensor into Watch, they are assured a huge payday.

TicWatch Pro 2020

The biggest competitor to Apple Watch is likely an Android Wear or WearOS watch; and there’s more than one type of product here, from more than one vendor. Last year, I wrote a shootout between WearOS and watchOS.  If you’re interested, you can read that here.  It’s as close to a review of the TicWatch Pro 2020 as I was able to get, up to this point.  That article not withstanding, I’m going to cover some specifics as they compare to the Apple Watch hardware, here.

In order to understand how the two devices compare, we need to see some technical information on what the TicWatch Pro 2020 offers its users.  While this is a WearOS watch and of course works with all Android smartphones, what most iOS users don’t know or understand is that the TicWatch Pro 2020 works with iPhones as well.

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100
  • Display: 1.39 inches AMOLED with 400×400 pixels resolution Gorilla Glass 3
  • Operating system: Google Wear OS
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: 4GB internal storage
  • Bands: 22mm leather/silicone hybrid
  • Connectivity
    • Bluetooth 4.2 LE
    • 801.11 b/g/n WiFi
    • GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou
    • NFC
  • Sensors
    • Accelerometer
    • Heart Rate Sensor
    • Gyro Sensor
    • Geomagnetic Sensor (Compass)
    • Ambient Light Sensor
  • Rugged ratings: IP68 dust/water resistant rating and MIL-STD 810G shock resistance
  • Battery: 415 mAh non-removable
  • Dimensions: 45 x 45 x 12.6mm and 222 grams
  • Colors: Shadow Black and Liquid Metal Silver

The TicWatch Pro 2020 is a SOLID WearOS smartwatch. If you’re looking for a professional looking smartwatch, this is a good choice.  The TicWatch Pro 2020 is meant to be an upgrade to the original TicWatch Pro.  The 2020 version has a better processor as well as twice the amount of RAM as the original TicWatch.

The 2020 version also sported support for Military Standard 810G.  This is new for the TicWatch Pro; and was one of the major new features of the upgraded smartwatch.  Devices that support this military standard can withstand temperature shocks of between -30℃ to 70℃.  The device is operational between -20℃ to 55℃, 57kpa pressure, and 44℃ solar radiation.  The device can also withstand up to 95% humidity, can resist salt fog, sand and dust with its IP68 rating.

At the time of the initial release of the TicWatch Pro 2020, there was no cellular/ LTE version planned or available with the new specs.  That’s still the case. If you want a TicWatch Pro with LTE, you have to purchase the TicWatch Pro 4G/LTE.  The 4G version now sports 1GB of RAM and the same 4GB of storage as well as the 810G moisture, dust and temperature protection. However, if memory serves correctly, the spec upgrades to the 4G/LTE version happened AFTER the Pro 2020 was initially released.

Of all the WearOS watches that I’ve seen up to this point, the TicWatch Pro 2020 is a REALLY great choice for a smartwatch; and satisfies all the reasons why someone would want one, too. It provides notifications, can make and accept phone calls, can send messages and has NFC with support for Google Pay, GPS and heart rate sensors.

The TicWatch Pro 2020 is a bit bulky, however, and is very thick.  While it gives the device a very solid feel, its not something that you’re going to sleep with, which is just as well as the battery life I get with mine last about 2-3 days.  Not bad for a smartwatch as activity and sensor rich as the TicWatch Pro 2020.

The TicWatch Pro 2020 is also a SOLID contender for anyone looking for a very affordable and very capable smartwatch.  While TicWatch has released the TicWatch Pro 3 ($255 USD), its not that big of an improvement over the Pro 2020 that I have, to warrant an upgrade.  However, if I didn’t already have the Pro 2020, I would order a TicWatch Pro 3 without question.

Galaxy Watch 3

Samsung is going out of their way to be more competitive with Galaxy Watch.  This year with the introduction of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3, Samsung is attempting to push the ragged, hairy, bleeding edge of connectivity and with their ecosystem with Galaxy Watch 4 and Galaxy Watch 4 Classic.

So… Why am I including Galaxy Watch 3, clearly LAST YEAR’S smartwatch release as opposed to Galaxy Watch 4?  Dude… That’s simple – the Galaxy Watch 4 Series only works with Galaxy smartphones.

Yes.  Okokokok… So, why am I not using Galaxy Watch 4 Classic (because I’d choose the classic, with the metal band, movable, electronically functional bezel with the new Galaxy Z Flip 3..??  That’s also simple – I’m not dumping $400+ dollars into a watch that can only be used with a Galaxy smartphone when that smartphone is NEVER going to be my daily driver.  Ever.  I’m not an Android and won’t be again, … unless Apple really screws the pooch.

Let’s not forget kids, that Android 10/11/12 requires monthly security patches in order to keep it from getting hacked and to keep the malware demons away.  I’m not entrusting my digital wallet (credit cards, ID cards, etc.), my banking data or any of my personal data to an OS that must have monthly security patches.  That’s a disaster just waiting to happen, but… I digress.  So… back to the Galaxy Watch 3…

The Galaxy Watch 3 is Samsung’s (likely) last Tizen-powered smartwatch, as the Galaxy Watch 4 series watches all run WearOS.  While that’s not a reason to snub the GW4C, it is a point that needs clarification – why did Samsung dump Tizen in the very successful, very not Android malware-ridden Galaxy Watch Series – that’s very simple, actually… KakaoTalk, or KaTalk for short.

In South Korea, KakaoTalk is THE messaging app to have if you want to “reach out and touch someone.”  The Tizen ecosystem was severely lacking in apps and KakaoTalk has clearly stated that there won’t be a Tizen-compatible version of their app for Galaxy Watch.  As such, it clearly doesn’t make sense for Samsung to continue to support an OS that won’t be used by (literally) 90.2% of the entire South Korean population (46M of 51 million people).  So, for as much as Tizen was as a capable and more secure mobile OS than WearOS… buh-bye Tizen.

 Samsung Galaxy Watch 3
Display45mm: 1.4-inch AMOLED
41mm: 1.2-inch AMOLED
Corning Gorilla Glass DX
Dimensions and weight45mm: 45 x 46.2 x 11.1mm
53.8g (stainless steel), 43g (titanium)
41mm: 41 x 42.5 x 11.3mm
49.2g
Colors and materials45mm: Mystic Black (stainless steel or titanium), Mystic Silver (stainless steel)
41mm: Mystic Bronze (stainless steel), Mystic Silver (stainless steel)
Battery45mm: 340mAh
41mm: 247mAh
WPC-based wireless charging
ProcessorSamsung Exynos 9110, Dual-core, 1.15GHz
RAM1GB
Storage8GB
ConnectivityLTE (available in select models)
Bluetooth 5.0
Wi-Fi b/g/n
NFC
A-GPS/GLONASS/Beidou 7
SensorsAccelerometer
Gyroscope
Barometer
Optical heart rate sensor
ECG
Ambient light sensor
Durability5ATM + IP68
MIL-STD-810G
SoftwareTizen OS 5.5
CompatibilityAndroid: Android 5.0 or higher & RAM 1.5GB or above
iOS: iPhone 5 and above, iOS 9.0 or above

 

Much like its predecessors, the GW3 is an awesome choice. It’s solid; but not too heavy. I actually think it feels lighter than the original Galaxy Watch, which continues to be a favorite of mine.  It’s faster and provides a great display and decent battery life.

 

Fossil Gen 6 Smartwatch

To be honest I was surprised by the Fossil Gen 6 Smartwatch. It is by far the best WearOS watch I’ve put my hands on.  The watch is solid, stylish and very functional.  I find this a bit surprising, despite the fact that Fossil has been selling watches for years.  But that’s the rub, isn’t it?  Fossil is a regular, non-smartwatch company.  They’ve been making non-smartwatches with both analog movements for decades – literally. It’s not often that you find a regular watch company with a smartwatch that doesn’t, well… suck.  And the Fossil Gen 6 Smartwatch is definitely cool.

  • Operating System: Powered by WearOS (version 2)
  • Compatibility: Works with both Android and iOS smartphones
  • Processor: Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ Wear 4100+
  • Memory: 1GB RAM, 8GB Storage
  • Display: 1.28″ Color AMOLED / 416 x 416 / 326ppi
  • Input:
    • 2 Additional Push Buttons (configurable),
    • Rotating Home Button,
    • Touchscreen,
    • Voice
  • Sound/Actuator:
    • Loudspeaker,
    • Microphone,
    • Vibration
  • Connectivity:
    • Bluetooth 5.0 LE,
    • GPS,
    • NFC SE,
    • WiFi
  • Sensors:
    • Accelerometer,
    • Altimeter,
    • Ambient Light,
    • Compass,
    • Gyroscope,
    • Off-body IR,
    • PPG Heart Rate,
    • SPO2
  • Battery: 24 Hr + multi day Extended Mode
    • **Varies based on usage and after updates install**.
    • USB data cable with magnetic dock snaps to split rings on the watch case back and spins 360 degrees for ease of use.
    • Approximately half an hour to reach 80%.
  • Water Resistance: 3 ATM

The device has got decent specs and is fast and responsive. The screen is clear and bright and easy to read in both indoor and outdoor lighting… and this leads to the device’s biggest problem – battery life.  In its regular mode, the device – depending on how you use it, the number of notifications you get, how much you use the speaker, if you use it as a Bluetooth hands-free device for calls – you’ll be lucky to get 6-8 hours of battery life out of it.  In its Extended Mode, it should last you most of the day, though this too will likely depend on how many notifications you get.  The battery life on this device just sucks; and it’s a huge bummer, as it really requires you to make certain you have a charger with you, especially if you’re active. You’re going to want and need to find some time to charge during the day. Thankfully, it charges quickly (though it seems to deplete itself rather quickly too.

If the battery life on this watch were just a bit better – if it could last 12 to 18 hours in real-world use – it would be a clear winner over just about any and every other (at least WearOS smartwatch) on the market today.

This device has some of the best native watch faces I’ve seen and includes a Pulse-Ox sensor that I’ve found to be accurate and extremely handy as I am an asthmatic and have had a hard time with my asthma, lately.  My doctor was rather impressed that my smartwatch allowed me to track this metric, and I’m grateful I’ve had it.

 

Conclusion

Any and ALL of these watches are decent picks in today’s more mobile-centric and health-conscious world, especially if you’re wanting to keep track of the exercise you’re trying to get to get rid of that pandemic-bod” or to not go crazy because the COVID-19 Pandemic, sedentary lifestyle is starting to make a noticeable difference in the size of sweatpants you’re wearing to “the office.”  The biggest thing you need to keep in mind is that you should really choose the smartwatch that best complements your smartphone’s ecosystem unless you’re looking for something different.

This means that if your daily driver smartphone is an iPhone, Apple Watch is likely your best bet.  There are a bunch of Apple-only features (like unlocking your iPhone with your Apple Watch when you have a mask on)…very important right now, due to the pandemic. However, if you don’t have the money for Apple Watch, or want a watch with some REALLY cool watch faces (tools like Facer (iOS/iPadOS, WearOS, Legacy Tizen) and WatchMaker (iOS/iPadOS, WearOS, Legacy Tizen) work with watchOS), but work MUCH better with either WearOS or Tizen based smartwatches.

I’ve had a great deal of trouble getting Facer or WatchMaker faces show up on an Apple Watch display, but have had a great deal of success with both Tizen and WearOS watches.  Let’s face it, Apple Watch wants you to use native watch faces, and that’s all.  And to be honest, Apple Watch native watch faces are the MOST boring watch faces in the world, especially when you compare them to watch faces like this:


Now… As far as me and what my favorite and recommended watch is… that’s a difficult one.  I like all of the watches I’ve reviewed and compared here.  All of them. I swap them out day after day, wearing a different watch with a different watch face – either Facer, WatchMaker or Native (one that either came with the watch or is available in the Watch’s native Market Place) as my mood changes and suites me.
If you’re into seeing all of the information that your watch is collecting on you and has on your current geographic area, then you will likely appreciate all of these (and more) in both the Facer and WatchMaker apps.  Some of these, are REALLY very good.

Right now, I think my favorite is the Fossil Gen 6, a WearOS smartwatch, even though I carry an iPhone 12 Pro Max.  The native faces are the best I’ve seen on any watch.  The watch is meaty, with both weight and substance, and has awesome curb appeal. Its heavy enough to feel like I have a watch on, but light and portable enough not to be cumbersome and difficult to wear.

As far as which watch I recommend, I’d have to say that I recommend the one that works best with the ecosystem you live in. Apple Watch for iOS, WearOS for any Android phone and Tizen/Galaxy Watch 4 Series for any Samsung phone.  Staying in your lane makes the most sense and provides the best compatibility and biggest feature pool for you to work with.

 

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