Guidemaster: The best smartwatches you can buy in 2020


Enlarge / The Apple Watch Series 5.

Valentina Palladino

Update: Our Smartwatch Guidemaster was originally published in February 2018. But recently, we’ve been looking back at all of the smartwatches we’ve tested in the past two years in order to update our picks. Below is our guide to the best smartwatches you can buy in January 2020.

If you hate looking at your smartphone all day, you should consider getting a smartwatch. While it may seem counterintuitive to get a new gadget to lessen your dependency on another, it can be more effective than you think. Smartwatches take the most crucial parts of a smartphone—call and text alerts, app notifications, and quick controls—and put them on your wrist.

That means no more fumbling with your smartphone during a meeting to silence a call, no more checking Twitter or Facebook every two minutes for the newest post. Instead of absentmindedly staring at your smartphone’s display, the most important information hits your wrist as it happens. As wearables, smartwatches can also track daily activity, and some even double as high-end fitness watches equipped with heart rate monitors, GPS trackers, music storage, and more.

Today, your smartphone remains the biggest factor to consider when you buy a smartwatch. Most smartwatches must pair to your phone to receive information, so the smartwatch you choose must be compatible with your handset either through its operating system or a companion mobile app. So to make the selection process easier for would-be watch wearers, we’ve revisited all of the smartwatches we’ve reviewed in recent years and picked out the best ones for all types of users with all types of phones.

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

The short version

  • The best smartwatch available now is the Apple Watch because it combines all the necessities a smartwatch should have with some surprising yet useful features. The essentials are all there, and they’re all executed well: the Apple Watch is a solid activity tracker and workout monitor thanks to its always-on heart rate monitor, onboard GPS, and its killer Workout app. The newest models take health tracking one step further with features including ECG measuring and fall detection, both of which will be new essentials for those with specific health concerns. The Watch is made better by watchOS, which lets you customize many parts of the on-screen experience including watchface, notifications, and more. The software makes it easy to respond to the messages and alerts that you want to, and ignore the ones that aren’t pressing. For all of its power, the Apple Watch still manages to last about two days on a single charge. We lament its high price tag and the fact that it only works when paired with an iPhone, but even with those restrictions, it’s the best smartwatch you can buy right now.
  • Garmin’s Vivoactive 4 takes the runner-up spot because it’s just as good (if not better) than the Apple Watch when it comes to fitness tracking, and it also works across many operating systems. That means you could have an iPhone or an Android phone and use the Vivoactive 4 with either, no questions asked. Not only has Garmin made its smartwatches more attractive over the years, but they continue to make them more powerful as well. The Vivoactive 4 will serve most people’s fitness needs with its heart rate monitor, pulse ox sensor, and onboard GPS, and unlike the Apple Watch, it has native sleep tracking as well. It tracks a plethora of sports (including water sports), and it now supports music storage by default (you don’t have to pay extra for it), NFC for Garmin Pay, menstrual tracking, custom workouts, and much more.
  • If spending over $200 on a smartwatch isn’t your style, the best budget smartwatch you can get is the Fitbit Versa Lite. Coming in at $119, the Versa Lite has the same design as the regular Versa, which is to say that it’s an attractive rounded-square timepiece that tracks all-day activity, sleep, and workouts. Fitbit OS lets you do things like change the watchface and download apps as well. Fitbit had to cut a few features to make this a “lite” version of the Versa, so you won’t get music storage, NFC, or an altimeter. Nevertheless, it’s a good smartwatch at a great price that does a lot more than most think.
  • Lots of runners want a device they can use to train and the best runner’s smartwatch we’ve found is the Garmin Forerunner 45. The entire Forerunner family is designed for these athletes in particular, and the Forerunner 45 keeps things simple and relatively affordable at $199. It has Garmin’s heart rate technology as well as built-in GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo positioning technology to map runs and outdoor workouts. It also has incident detection, which can alert emergency services if you’ve fallen while training (as long as you have your smartphone with you), and Garmin’s LiveTrack lets you share your real-time location with family and friends in case you want others to know where you’re going for a run.
  • Samsung’s Gear Sport is the best smartwatch for Android smartphone users, mostly because Samsung’s Tizen is a solid alternative to Google’s WearOS. It’s the closest thing Android users will get to an Apple Watch alternative as it has robust fitness tracking features as well features like NFC for Samsung Pay and downloadable apps that let you to do things like check the weather, play music, and more. The Gear Sport is a few years old at this point, so you can opt for the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 if you want the newest version.
  • Sporting a tiny screen on your wrist isn’t for everyone, and Fossil’s Q Commuter smartwatch is the most stylish smartwatch for those that like a more traditional look. It’s an analog watch that looks like any of Fossil’s normal watches, but it’s made a bit smarter with embedded technology. It tracks daily activity and uses its subeye to show step counts, message and calendar alerts, and more. You can also customize its three side buttons to do things like remotely take a photo with your smartphone.

Best overall

Apple Watch

Apple Watch Series 5.
Enlarge / Apple Watch Series 5.

Valentina Palladino

Specs at a glance: Apple Watch
Price Starts at $199
OS watchOS
App store Yes
GPS/HRM Yes/yes
Music storage/streaming Yes, streaming only available models with LTE
NFC payments Yes, Apple Pay
Waterproof Up to 50 meters
Sizes 40mm, 44mm (case sizes)
Battery life  About 2 days

The Apple Watch is the obvious choice for iOS users, but it’s also the best smartwatch you can get right now. Over the past few years, Apple has worked on making its Watch as streamlined as possible, and it has succeeded in making a smartwatch that beats the rest with superior hardware and software.

It may look like a tiny iPhone, but the Apple Watch has a design that’s relatively subtle but can be personalized with bands in different colors, textures, and styles. That’s important in a device you wear on your body every day, but arguably more important are the hardware features that lie under the hood.

The newest model, the Apple Watch Series 5, has an always-on display, a water-resistant body, a slew of fitness sensors including an always-on heart rate monitor, an onboard GPS, and an updated accelerometer for fall detection, NFC for Apple Pay, and optional LTE. All of those things, save for the always-on display and fall detection, are also features of the Apple Watch Series 3, so you don’t have to pay top-dollar for the newest model to get most of the key features.

WatchOS makes the Apple Watch easy to interact with when you want to and easy to ignore the device when you don’t. You could choose to view and reply to all notifications that beam from your iPhone to your wrist, or enter Do Not Disturb mode when you need to concentrate. The new on-Watch App Store lets you download Watch apps directly to the device, so you no longer need a companion iPhone app to do so. You can choose to have your favorite vacation photos as your watchface, or pick a design with numerous complications so you can see a lot of information at a glance. There’s a lot of customization you can do in watchOS, and that makes it easier to make your Watch feel more like your own personalized timepiece.

The watch delivers all of this with battery life that can easily last up to two days on a single charge. The biggest downsides of the Apple Watch are its price and its limited compatibility. The newest Apple Watch Series 5 models will set you back at least $399, which is not chump change (the Series 3 is still around for $199, tough), and the fact that watchOS only works fully when connected to an iOS device basically shuts out all Android device users. However, if you have an iPhone and want the best wearable you can get, the Apple Watch is the way to go.

The Good

  • Comprehensive smartwatch that gets software right with easy replies to messages, Apple Pay, onboard GPS, and accurate heart rate monitoring.

The Bad

  • Only works with iOS devices.
Apple Watch product image

Apple Watch [Series 3, Series 5]

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Runner up

Garmin Vivoactive 4

The Garmin Vivoactive 4s.
Enlarge / The Garmin Vivoactive 4s.

Valentina Palladino

Specs at a glance: Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music
Price Starts at $349
OS Garmin’s proprietary OS
App store Yes
GPS/HRM Yes/yes
Music storage/streaming Yes
NFC payments Yes, Garmin Pay
Waterproof Up to 50 meters
Sizes 40mm, 45mm (case sizes)
Battery life  4-7 days

No matter if you have an iPhone or an Android phone, or if you switch platforms regularly depending on your mood, the $349 Vivoactive 4 will work with most of them. WearOS and watchOS have the OS limitation—if you’re not paired to the right smartphone, not every feature of the smartwatch will work. But since Garmin makes mobile apps for both Android and iOS, the Vivoactive 4 is fully compatible with a wide range of smartphones.

The Vivoactive 4 delivers all smartphone alerts to your wrist, supports Garmin Pay, and has music controls, standalone apps, and watch faces you can download from the Connect IQ store. It also has onboard storage space for music, so you can download personal tracks and playlists from music streaming services like Spotify onto your wrist. Combine that with its onboard GPS, and you have a wearable that you can go for a run with, safely leave your smartphone at home, and still listen to music, track your progress, and pay for a coffee on the way back.

Garmin added pulse ox to this smartwatch so you can monitor your blood oxygen saturation all day or while sleeping. This will be useful for a specific group of users, but it’s also interesting to see where your pulse ox levels are at any given time. This feature does affect battery life though, but thankfully it’s not detrimental. Garmin estimates the Vivoactive 4 will last up to seven days on a single charge, and I got four days and nights with the device with pulse ox turned on while sleeping. Additional new features include breathwork exercises (that aren’t your typical, boring guided breathing exercises), workout animations, menstrual cycle tracking, and more.

The smartwatch also does everything more affordable Garmin wearables do: track all-day activity and sleep, monitor continuous heart rate, rep-count for some gym-based exercises, and more. Garmin also supports sport profiles that many other devices don’t, including skiing and stand-up paddle-boarding, so there’s a good chance that the device can track even your most obscure physical hobby.

The Good

  • Long-lasting smartwatch with built-in GPS, music storage, and NFC that works on Android and iOS.

The Bad

  • Garmin Connect IQ doesn’t have many useful apps.
Garmin Vivoactive 4 product image

Garmin Vivoactive 4

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Best Budget

Fitbit Versa Lite

The Fitbit Versa Lite smartwatch.
Enlarge / The Fitbit Versa Lite smartwatch.

Valentina Palladino

Specs at a glance: Fitbit Versa Lite
Price Starts at $119
OS Fitbit OS
App store Yes (app gallery)
GPS/HRM No (connected GPS only)/yes
Music storage/streaming No
NFC payments No
Waterproof Up to 50 meters
Sizes One size
Battery life  More than 4 days

You don’t have to spend more than $200 to get a solid smartwatch now that Fitbit has the Versa Lite. A stripped-down version of the original Versa, the $160 Versa Lite does everything you’d want a basic smartwatch to do. It tracks daily activity and sleep, records workouts with both on-screen profiles and using Fitbit’s SmartTrack auto-recognition feature, and delivers smartphone alerts to your wrist. While doing all of that, it should last at least four days on a single charge.

You can also download third-party Fitbit OS apps to the watch to do things like control smart light bulbs directly from your wrist. The selection of apps isn’t as robust as what you’ll find for WearOS or watchOS, but it’s still better than nothing. Developers have also made a bunch of unique watch faces for Fitbit OS devices that anyone can download and use.

Fitbit recently added menstrual tracking to its mobile app, and those who choose to use it can track symptoms from their wrist using on-screen prompts. The Versa Lite’s full-color touchscreen is a breeze to use, and the experience is made even better by Fitbit OS’ use of full-color photos and clever animations.

We like the Versa Lite for its minimalistic design and its reliable health tracking sensors, including a solid heart rate monitor. It doesn’t have a built-in GPS, but it can connect to your smartphone’s GPS to map outdoor workouts when you have your smartphone with you. It also doesn’t have NFC for Fitbit Pay or onboard music storage—those advanced features are reserved for the Versa and the Versa Special Edition watches. The only thing we wish the Versa Lite had is an altimeter because that would allow it to track floors climbed. Otherwise, though, it’s a capable smartwatch with an attractive price tag.

The Good

  • Lightweight, full-featured smartwatch that comes in at less than $200.

The Bad

Fitbit Versa Lite product image

Fitbit Versa Lite

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