Looking for a decent smartwatch? Adrian Weckler has the top four
Looking for a decent smartwatch? Heading into 2019, technology editor Adrian Weckler picks four of the best you can buy, from do-all devices to fitness-specific models.
1. Apple Watch Series 4
Price: from €439 (40mm) and €469 (44mm)
What’s the best selling individual watch in the world? Believe it or not, it's actually Apple’s smartwatch. The newest Series 4 is a big upgrade on the Series 3 (itself an excellent smartwatch and still on sale from €279).
The biggest improvement is the display screen, which is considerably larger than the previous three generations, even though the Watch itself is around the same size. This is because Apple has thinned out the bezels, meaning the non-active parts at the side of the display. That means 44mm instead of 42mm, or 40mm instead of 38mm.
Everything also feels much, much faster thanks to beefed up power. One of the most talked-about features of the new Watch is the built-in ECG function, an ability to monitor your heart’s health.
Alas, even though it’s technically built in to the device, it’s not available to us in Europe yet, for regulatory reasons. Apple sells two variants of its Watch, a GPS and GPS+Cellular version. In the US, UK and other countries, the cellular version works with your phone contract, allowing you to make or take calls, send SMS messages or access online services on your Watch while you’re out and about and your iPhone is at home. So far, no Irish operator has done a deal with Apple to make this happen here. And no, it won't work if you buy one in the UK (or the US) and use it over here, partly because the cellular function on the Apple Watch doesn’t roam (at all).
When it comes to fitness, the Watch Series 4 builds on the big leap it took for the previous Series 3 model. It’s still waterproof and there’s a ton of information that you get for running, walking, swimming or doing intense workouts. It works really well with some of the most common sports apps, such as Runkeeper, Strava, Runtastic and Map My Run. It’s not as good for sleep tracking, if that’s important to you.
Battery life on the Apple Watch is a good deal beyond what you got with the first model in 2015 (one day) but is still only solidly two days. (I sometimes get close to three full days on it, if I don’t use it for music or messaging.)
Lastly, it probably goes without saying that this is designed to be used squarely with an iPhone -- there's little point in buying one if you use an Android device.
2. Garmin Fenix 5 Plus
If sports and fitness is your avowed aim, you’ll get by reasonably well with an Apple Watch, Samsung Gear or Fitbit. But if you really want to max out on metrics and functionality, you’ll probably want to look at Garmin.
The Fenix 5 Plus tracks just about any kind of sport you can think of. It even does a good job of assessing off-kilter activities such as yoga, should you decide to partake.
But it’s especially good for running. The data it feeds back is unparalleled — everything from pace and distance and elevation to things like cadence. It has a metric called Performance Condition, which gives you an overall indication of whether your body is capable of the training routine you’re setting out for it. There’s also a ‘Training Status’ Data set that assesses how you’ve done (relative to all your other data metrics) over the last seven days.
These are examples of the type of advanced fitness feedback that keeps Garmin at the premium end of the scale.
As for keeping score of your workouts, this synchronises with some major apps such as Strava.
There are others like this that you can try (Fitbit has one called the Ionic that costs quite a bit less and does a reasonably good job). But of all the premium, dedicated sports and fitness smart watches out there, this is probably the king.
3. Samsung Gear S3 Frontier
This is a circular smartwatch with a clever way of navigating through features. The front-facing rim of the watch rotates to control certain things. It’s a very intuitive way of getting around the watch and is unique to Samsung when it comes to the main smartwatch brands.
Another relative advantage it has over Apple’s Watch is an always-on display, meaning you don’t have lift the watch face toward you to spark it to life. This is a small thing but not having an always-on display irritates some people.
The Gear S3 doesn’t run as many apps as Apple’s Watch. This may be a disadvantage to some, but if you’re mainly interested in sport and fitness, you might not care. For running, its native functionality absolutely does the job, integrating nicely with Samsung’s S Health platform. With GPS and an accelerometer, it’s very solid when it comes to tracking.
4. Fitbit Charge 3
If a slim, fitness-friendly device with a reasonable amount of basic smart functions is your aim, Fitbit’s Charge 3 is excellent. While its core functionality is measuring steps and sleep, with full reporting and the ability to synchronise with a number of common running of fitness apps, this also has social and SMS messaging alerts. But it doesn’t go over the top on it, as it’s primarily a text-based device. Because it’s a relatively slim, monotone device, it has a decent battery life of around five to six days.
There’s also a premium version of the gadget (which costs €20 extra) that now supports Fitbit Pay (though that’s only useful if you happen to bank with KBC or AIB).
So with this, you’ll have your basics covered and a reasonable amount of extras at a price that hopefully won’t kill your budget.