If you are committed to the iPhone and want a fully capable smartwatch that can both manage notifications and track workouts, your best option—really, the only one worth considering—is the Apple Watch. Apple’s own smartwatch offers the deepest integration with your iPhone of any smartwatch, and its apps can do far more than those of its competitors. It also does a good job of tracking most kinds of workouts, while looking a whole lot better than most fitness trackers. The Series 1 is our pick for most people, as it shows notifications, tracks (and encourages) physical activity, and boasts a huge selection of apps, at a significantly lower price than the Series 2. However, if you want to accurately track your location during runs and bike rides without having to carry your phone, or track swimming or use the watch for other water sports, the Series 2 is worth the $100 upgrade.
Compared with the original Apple Watch, the Series 1 has a significantly faster processor and a price that’s $100 lower; add the much-improved watchOS 3, and this year’s Apple smartwatch has broader appeal to those who want to look at their phones less, better track their physical activity and fitness, or view (and respond to) notifications more quickly. Besides appreciating its lower price, we like the fact that this version is aluminum, which makes it feel lighter on your wrist, and its less-dense body (versus stainless steel) makes the watch’s haptic taps easier to feel. Its screen is also a bit easier to read in sunlight than the sapphire glass on pricier-material models.
The Apple Watch Series 2 has three features that make it far more useful than the Series 1 for outdoor or water exercise: onboard, no-phone-required GPS, a waterproof design (up to 50 meters in fresh or salt water) that can handle swimming or surfing, and a brighter screen that’s easier to see outside. Combined with the watchOS 3’s improved Health app, these improvements mean the Series 2 watch can compete with fitness trackers and running watches while also being stylish enough to wear in casual and work settings.
If running is your sport, the Apple Watch Nike+ is identical to the aluminum Apple Watch Series 2, but with model-specific ventilated versions of the Sports band and Nike+ watch faces that make it easier to view the time on the move and access the Nike+ Run Club app. Otherwise, you get the same notification options, daily-life features, waterproofing, and built-in GPS of the Series 2. (The Nike+ bands and faces aren’t currently available for other models, even as separate purchases.)
Very few people need a smartwatch—yet—and only some people are going to actively improve their lives by wearing one. We offer some advice on that topic below. But if you’re going to buy a smartwatch to pair with your iPhone, it should be an Apple Watch. We’ve tried most of the other smartwatches that are technically compatible with an iPhone, but we’ve found them to be too limited on their own, as well as in how they interact with your iPhone, to be a useful alternative to Apple’s watch. This is largely by Apple’s own design, but it’s not something that’s easy to get around.
Kevin Purdy is a Wirecutter staff writer and former Lifehacker editor; he’s also the author of our Android smartwatch guide. Senior editor Dan Frakes is Wirecutter’s Apple editor and a former senior editor at Macworld; he’s been reviewing tech gadgets for almost two decades.
Other contributors to this guide include Jacqui Cheng, Wirecutter editor in chief and former senior editor at Ars Technica; Brian Lam, Wirecutter founder and former editor in chief of Gizmodo; Nick Guy, Wirecutter accessories writer and former accessories editor at iLounge; and Jim McDannald, Wirecutter fitness writer, residency-trained podiatrist, distance-running coach, and the author of our fitness tracker guide.
Most of us have been wearing an Apple Watch since its debut; the others have each spent significant time with an Apple Watch for the purposes of testing it and comparing it head-to-head with other smartwatches and with dedicated fitness trackers.
Smartwatches are still in their early days, even three years after the release of the first Pebble watch. Their usefulness will vary greatly depending on which of their features you take advantage of. This means that, unlike a mobile phone, most average buyers don’t “need” one (though that may change in the years ahead as they become more affordable and gain features that replace smartphone functions).
A smartwatch is a watch, of course, but beyond that it’s an extension of your smartphone. You pair a smartwatch with your phone (via Bluetooth) so that the watch can show some or all of your phone’s notifications. Many smartwatches also track your fitness, let you control music playback, and help you perform other non-complex tasks. Most recent models also support third-party apps that extend what you can do.
When a smartwatch does its job well, it reduces how frequently you must pull your smartphone out of your pocket to respond to notifications, send a quick text, or check apps. It can show you calendar reminders, text messages, phone call alerts, important emails, and social media updates when you glance at your wrist. You can dismiss these notifications, send quick replies, or decide that you need to grab your smartphone and deal with a particular task in a more focused way. A good smartwatch will allow you to know what’s going on while keeping you from getting drawn away from whatever you’re doing in the non-virtual world.
If all you want is fitness tracking, you can find considerably less expensive devices for tracking your running, cycling, steps, and heart rate. If you want more foolproof operation with physical buttons and a constant display of your running stats, you should upgrade to a GPS running watch, and possibly a chest-mounted heart monitor. Similarly, if you regularly need more than quick glances at emails, messages, and the like, you’ll likely still end up taking your phone out of your pocket whenever a notification appears. A smartwatch may not be for you.
If, however, you like the idea of wearing a watch that also helps you reduce the amount of time you spend looking at your phone, provides quick access to useful information, and lets you handle some discreet tasks you’d otherwise need to pull out your phone to do—paying for goods at some stores, showing your boarding pass at the airport, toggling lights or your security system, or getting directions while walking, for example—you might find a smartwatch appealing.
The most important thing to remember about a smartwatch, however, is that it’s a watch, not a miniature smartphone. It won’t do everything your phone can do, nor can it do things your phone can’t. But smartwatches have improved dramatically over just the past two or three years, in both looks and functionality, and the Apple Watch is currently about as good as it gets when you consider the whole package: looks, features, and the overall user experience.
If you want a smartwatch for managing your phone notifications, tracking activity and recreational exercise, and doing the gee-whiz things you can accomplish with apps (like texting, checking sports scores, and adjusting your smart thermostat), the Apple Watch Series 1 is your best bet. It has most of the same components as the Series 2, including the same stainless steel and ceramic body options—it only skips the newer model’s built-in GPS and swim-ready waterproofing—and it can use any of Apple’s many watchbands. We also think the base aluminum model is fine for most people, and especially those who want to try out a smartwatch: Unlike with most Apple products, buying the higher-priced models of the Apple Watch doesn’t get you more power or features—just different materials and style.
At $270 for a 38-millimeter body and $300 for a 42-millimeter body (these measurements are the vertical size of the watch body—we have more advice on that topic below), the Series 1 is not a cheap accessory, and it’s notably more expensive than most fitness trackers. But the fit and finish on all Apple Watch models are impressive, and the watch is lightweight and comfortable. Like all Apple Watch models, the Series 1 is comfortable and doesn’t make you look like you have a geeky computer strapped to your wrist.
If Apple’s recent history is any indication, chances are good that Apple will release a new, better version of the Apple Watch in the next year or two. There was no upgrade or trade-in offer for owners of the first Apple Watch upon the release of the Series 1 and 2 models, and we don’t have any reason to believe that will change (though you’ll at least get software updates that increase your watch’s performance and functionality, as owners of the original Apple Watch did with watchOS 2 and 3). So spending less on the Series 1 now means that if you decide to upgrade in a year or two, you’re not out quite as much cash.
Across all smartwatches, for iPhone and Android, the Apple Watch is the best overall package. The phone’s screen is large and clear enough for text to be easily readable, even on the 38 mm size (and people who normally need reading glasses can increase text size in the Watch’s settings app). The watch’s Digital Crown—which looks like a traditional watch crown but turns smoothly with a fingertip—makes scrolling through text and other interface elements convenient.1 (If you’ve used a smartphone or tablet, you’ll be tempted to swipe the screen to scroll at first. That works in some apps, but not all. Use of the Digital Crown means smoother scrolling and keeps your finger from blocking what you’re trying to read.) And all Apple Watch models include 8 gigabytes of storage, with 2 gigabytes of that space set aside for music2 and 75 megabytes available for storing synced photos. You can use the rest of the storage to hold third-party apps and data.
As we noted when reviewing the original Apple Watch, once we spent the necessary time (using the Apple Watch app on the iPhone) configuring which apps on the phone should send notifications to the watch,3 we found that getting notifications on your wrist was more appealing than we expected—even the most jaded among our staff ended up appreciating the convenience. (If you don’t spend this initial setup time, you may find yourself bombarded by every notification your phone produces, no matter how inconsequential.)
But since its launch, the Apple Watch has gained much more capability in sending and responding to messages, making it more useful. You can send and reply to text messages with voice-to-text dictation, emoji, prewritten stock messages, a recording of your voice, or text written out, letter by letter, by scribbling with your finger. We’ve found that for most text messages, the prewritten replies cover 90 percent of what you need to say while you’re busy. And while voice dictation and finger writing are not perfect (as you’d hopefully expect), the Apple Watch’s response offerings far outshine what notification-passing fitness trackers, Android Wear watches, or other smartwatches let you do―which is mostly just dismissing messages.
In a pinch, you can answer phone calls on the Apple Watch, though the quality isn’t nearly as good as when you take the call on your iPhone. While the watch’s microphone is pretty good, its tiny speaker is mediocre, so hearing callers without holding the watch near your ear can be difficult. Still, it’s quite doable and an okay make-do feature for when your hands are occupied.
The Apple Watch version of Siri (activated with a long press on the Crown) is more limited than the iPhone version, but can be useful. You can use Siri to send text messages, create reminders and calendar events, pull up the latest sports scores, create timers, see the weather forecast, and even get directions. You can also use it to launch Apple Watch apps, which can be more convenient than finding a single, tiny app icon among a sea of similarly tiny app icons.
The Apple Watch inherits your iPhone’s Wi-Fi settings, so when the watch is too far from the phone to maintain a Bluetooth connection, the two devices can use Wi-Fi to communicate as long as they’re on the same network—say, at home or at work. This is a fairly rare feature among wearables, and it keeps the Apple Watch from feeling like it’s tethered with a heavy chain to your phone: You can run across the house to grab something, or leave the phone charging in your bedroom while you’re in the living room, and still get your messages, use apps, and make and take calls.
We really like the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine and Force Touch features, too. The Taptic Engine physically alerts you to notifications by making it feel as if the watch is very lightly tapping you on the wrist. It’s actually rather pleasant, and we think it’s less annoying than the binary buzzing feeling you get from most smartwatches. We also like that the screen doesn’t automatically turn on when you get a notification: You feel a tap, but only when you raise the watch to look at it does the screen show the notification. Most smartwatches light up immediately, wherever your arm happens to be.
Apple uses these “taps” for more than just notifications. For example, when you’re using the Maps app on your phone (or on the Apple Watch when your phone is nearby), the watch taps you on the wrist when you’re approaching a turn. Apple says you should be able to tell, from the pattern of tapping, whether to turn left or right, though we haven’t found these patterns to be distinctive enough—or memorable enough—to rely on them.
Force Touch (a feature also on Apple’s latest iPhones and laptop trackpads) gives you an additional way to interact with apps and notifications: Press firmly on the watch face, for example, to customize it or to switch to a different face, or press firmly on the notifications screen to quickly clear all notifications—something you still can’t do on the iPhone.
The Apple Watch’s battery life is better than we expected. Apple promises up to 18 hours, enough to get through each day when you charge the watch each night—and in normal use, we’ve seen at least that. Over many months of testing the original and Series 1 and 2 Apple Watches, we’ve encountered very few drops to Power Reserve during a normal day’s use, usually having at least 30 percent of a full charge remaining. Days where we tracked long exercise sessions, or kept Apple Maps open for navigation on long car rides, were the days when our Apple Watches got closer to empty.
Charging a watch every night isn’t so taxing at home, where you’re likely charging your phone, too. But it does require you to bring another cord when you travel. Still, considering the far more useful screen on the Apple Watch, it’s understandable why its battery life doesn’t match the multiday longevity of some minimalist smartwatches.
Similarly, when it comes to water resistance the Apple Watch Series 1 has proven to outperform its own promises. Apple states that the Series 1 is “splash and water resistant” with an IPX7 rating. That rating implies that a 30-minute submersion at 1 meter’s depth shouldn’t harm the device (though Apple states that “submerging is not recommended”). We’ve left a few (original) Apple Watches dunked in water for a few minutes and never encountered any problem, and the Series 1 has the same level of protection. That said, if you’re looking to swim with an Apple Watch to track your workouts, you should upgrade to the Series 2.
Apple’s clever band-attachment design is the most frustration-free of any smartwatch we’ve tested. Swapping between bands is an easy and quick task. To remove each side of the current band, you press a small button on the bottom of the watch body and then slide that part of the watchband out of a small groove in the watch. You attach the new band by sliding it into the same grooves. If you’ve ever dealt with tiny, spring-loaded rods on a traditional watchband, you’ll love this mechanism.
Apple Pay on the Apple Watch is especially convenient, while still being secure. Once you set up your credit cards on the watch, a double press of the watch’s side button brings up Apple Pay on the watch’s screen; you then hold your wrist near the store’s payment terminal to pay. You must separately set up your cards on the watch (using the Watch app on your phone), even if you already did so for your phone—for security reasons, the phone doesn’t sync that data with the watch. In our experience, Apple Pay is even easier to use with the Watch than with the iPhone, because you don’t have to pull out your phone and use Touch ID. (You need to enter a passcode—or use Touch ID on your phone—to unlock your watch when you first put it on; that authentication lasts until you take off the watch.) Another nifty security-related feature: If your Mac is running macOS Sierra, you can configure the computer to automatically log you in when your Apple Watch is “very close.”
At least 10,000 iPhone apps include Apple Watch companion apps, and with the latest watchOS 3 software, most of them are quick to launch with fresh data, and snappy in responding to your input. Some are perfect for glancing at on your wrist: The ESPN app and its scores/times for your favorite teams, the quick list and check-offs of Things and Wunderlist, and the one-tap car hailing of Uber. You install these apps from the iPhone’s Watch app, choosing to automatically add all the apps on your phone that have Watch counterparts, or picking which apps should copy over. It’s a far smoother process than with Android Wear’s automatic installs that are not obvious to find and launch.
Some members of our staff wear their Apple Watch every day, using their phone less because of it, and taking it off for incompatible or potentially damaging exercise (like basketball or weight training). Others elected to stop using their Apple Watch after few days or weeks with the original models—for some people, the Apple Watch may not provide enough utility for the price. Still, we’re certain that the Apple Watch Series 1 is the best smartwatch for most iPhone-toting people, and we’ve found that once you learn its deeper conveniences, and make peace with its limits, it can be a very handy tool for day-to-day life.
The Apple Watch Series 2 is essentially identical to the Series 1 on the outside, but it has a few notable upgrades for those who need serious exercise tracking; it’s also available in higher-priced styles. Most significantly, the Series 2’s $100 price premium gets you built-in (no phone needed) GPS, swim-friendly waterproofing, and a brighter screen that’s easier to see outside. Beyond that, you can pay another $200 for a stainless steel body, or nearly $800 more for ceramic. (The Series 2 also includes a charger; with the Series 1, you provide your own charger or use your computer’s USB port.)
Plenty of other wrist-worn devices can track your outdoor running, hiking, cycling, or other activities with built-in GPS, including some very good GPS watches and fitness trackers. But there are some good reasons to choose a smartwatch over a dedicated fitness device. The Apple Watch looks and feels much better to wear all day; you won’t have to switch devices to work out (though you may want to switch bands); and you’ll keep all your fitness data in one application and system that’s deeply integrated with your iPhone. (We cover more specifics about the Apple Watch’s effectiveness as a fitness tracker below.)
The Series 2 also has a few other upgrades compared with the Series 1, some more noticeable than others. The aforementioned brighter OLED screen (1,000 nits versus the 450 nits of the Series 1) doesn’t seem “twice as bright” to our eyes, as Apple claims, but it’s definitely brighter, especially in direct sunlight. An internal graphics processing unit (GPU) provides snappier visual response and advanced animations in some applications. The Edition and Hermès versions of the Series 2 have a harder sapphire glass than the Series 1’s (already plenty hard) Ion-X glass. And paying for a Series 2 allows you to pick something other than the Sport band for your first band: Woven Nylon, or the steel or leather bands (but not Hermès leather). You can then pay extra for the Sport band, which most Series 2 buyers will need for fitness use.
The Nike+ version of the Series 2 costs the same as the aluminum Series 2, but comes with a few running-focused watch faces and a neon-accented, ventilated version of the Sport band. Both the faces and the bands are exclusive to the Nike+ model; you can’t even purchase them separately. But since any Series 2 Apple Watch with the Nike+ Run Club app gives you the same features (with just a slightly less ventilated band), the main reason to get the Nike+ Apple Watch is because you really like the band—or the branding.
When it comes to exercise and fitness tracking, all Apple Watch models have one major advantage over many wrist-worn fitness trackers, GPS running watches, and heart-rate monitors: Because it looks and works like a traditional watch, you’re likely to wear it all the time (or at least whenever you’re awake and the watch isn’t charging). Having a good enough version of all those other devices on your wrist, combined with the Apple Watch’s motivational nudges (more on that below), makes the Apple Watch the only fitness tracker some people will need.
The Apple Watch’s Activity app tracks your day-to-day movement and habits, and it performs well on the tracking side if not on the analysis side (more on that in a bit). After you give the Activity app some basic personal stats, and walk with the Watch and your iPhone for at least 20 minutes to help calibrate the Watch to your gait, the Watch starts counting your steps with notable accuracy, even beating some dedicated trackers. It also taps your wrist once an hour to get you to stand up and move, until you’ve hit 12 hours with movement that day—a worthwhile goal, given that continuous sitting is very bad for you. And using both occasional notifications and a circular progress indicator displayed on the screen, the Watch also nudges you to hit a recommended calorie-burning goal, which it adjusts week to week based on your activity from the prior week.
That progress indicator displays circles for standing, steps, and brisk exercise, filling up as you progress toward each goal. You can view the indicator in the Activity app on your watch, in the Dock on the watch, in a complication on the watch face, or in the companion Activity app on your iPhone—whichever format you choose, it’s an easy way to quickly survey a lot of information. You can also see how many consecutive days you’ve met each goal, and once you’ve built up a nice streak, you won’t want to break it. A number of Wirecutter staffers have found that both the visual display and the streak-tracking feature are effective motivational tools—most of us who own or have tested an Apple Watch have been pressed to do something different: stand up and move, fill an exercise ring, take longer dog walks, and so on.4
You can track heavier and dedicated workouts in the Exercise app. After you launch the app on the Watch, you choose your workout type (from a list of several common options, or Other) and set a goal (distance, time, calories, or Open); you do have to remember to quit the activity when you’re done. As with its casual wearing, you have to lift the watch with a deliberate gesture to see your progress; doing so is easier with some activities, such as running, than with others, like cycling in traffic.
Whether the Watch will complement your workouts depends on what you do. You may not be able to wear it—depending on league rules, for instance, or because of the risk of damage—when playing some team and contact sports, such as football, soccer, and basketball. (A clip-style tracker will be the better option in those situations.) And for everything that isn’t running, cycling, walking, swimming, or movement-based exercise, the Watch can monitor only your heart rate, using educated guesses as to how many calories you’ve burned.
If swimming is more your thing, the Apple Watch Series 2 is an appealing package. Few general fitness devices we’ve tested have offered swimmers both indoor and outdoor workout tracking in a device that’s fully waterproof, let alone a device you can wear out to dinner after you’re done with your laps. To accomplish this, the Series 2 incorporates a couple of unique features: It locks its screen to prevent water drops or pressure from activating the touchscreen during a swim, and when you’re done with your workout, it uses sound to expel water from its speaker/microphone openings.
How accurate is the Watch in exercise tracking? It depends on whether you’re using the Series 1, without built-in GPS, or the Series 2. It also depends on your need for pinpoint accuracy, and what feedback you require during your activity.
As a running companion, the Series 1 Watch is better suited to running for fitness than for pace. Once you calibrate the Watch by taking three 20-minute outdoor runs with your iPhone—a procedure that uses the phone’s GPS circuitry to estimate distance and thus estimate your stride length at different paces—the Watch can track your runs on its own. Wirecutter staffers and other reviewers saw differences of between 0.05 and 0.4 mile on their runs after calibration when compared with GPS-equipped phones or running watchers.
The Series 2 watches, with their built-in GPS circuitry, are more accurate here: Running a 5-kilometer (3.107-mile) race with the Series 2 watch, we saw only a 0.07-mile difference between the track’s certified distance and the Watch’s recorded distance―certainly within the margin of error for a community race.
How does it work for tracking swims? Eric Slivka at MacRumors explains that the Series 2 likely works better for outdoor swimmers doing longer distances, as the tracking doesn’t have to separate resting periods from intervals. Graham Bower at Cult of Mac disagrees, finding the watch “pretty good” at lane swimming but inherently flawed at outdoor swimming, due to GPS technology needing an above-water connection. (The Series 2 does measure distance based on strokes, but we suspect the situation is similar to the accuracy of stride measurements versus GPS for running distances.) Both reviews indicate that serious swimmers, the kind who want to know their strokes per length, or want to pause and rest between sets without getting out of the pool, would be better off with dedicated swim trackers. For those for whom swimming is casual exercise, rather than a competitive sport or their sole focus, the Series 2 will work just fine.
Accuracy aside, a few flaws make the Apple Watch less useful than it could be for people who want to track their exercise goals. The most notable flaw, inherent to the Watch, is the deficiency of having to swipe or precision-touch a touchscreen during active situations. Starting or pausing a workout while cycling at high speeds or in traffic, or while starting a run in a crowded field, is a bad idea, as one Wirecutter writer can personally attest.
In contrast to the initial release of the Apple Watch and its software, Apple has provided third-party developers with much more access to the watch’s hardware and sensors. You can now track a run with Runkeeper, for example, and see live stats on your run, along with GPS status and accuracy. Your activity logged to Runkeeper (or Strava, or Runtastic, or other compatible apps) now counts toward your Activity goals for the day. The downside, as evident from numerous discussions and complaints, is that back-and-forth syncing of data from your app to Apple’s HealthKit data store is hit and miss. How well this works, and how much it matters to you, will vary, but it’s an area in need of improvement.
With the release of watchOS 3, most of our complaints with the Apple Watch’s interface, and many of its app annoyances, have been addressed. Apps that previously took three to five seconds to launch, or just to do anything, now seem mostly snappy; the new Dock makes it easier to access your favorite apps; you can swap watchfaces with a swipe; the Control Center makes it more convenient to access many frequently changed settings; and more apps can place complications on watchfaces to display important information on the watch screen. Apple Watch’s software has come a very long way. What remains are issues with the ecosystem and a few hardware limitations.
First and foremost, the usefulness of Apple Watch apps varies widely. Though the most popular names are present, most people will find that some of their favorite iPhone apps lack Watch companions. In other cases, you may find your Watch apps do less than you might hope (as we found with Slack’s watch app, which doesn’t provide all the features of the iOS app). In other words, most people shouldn’t buy an Apple Watch specifically to run third-party apps. You should buy one for what it does on its own, and if you know of specific watch apps that are useful, those features will be a bonus.
While we appreciate the power-saving features Apple has implemented to extend battery life, a few of them affect the overall experience of using the watch. For example, the screen turns off whenever the watch thinks you’ve put your arm down, and it turns on whenever you raise your arm to look at the display. But some Wirecutter staffers think that the watch’s software is too aggressive in sensing the “arm down” motion: If you’re in the middle of using an app and you glance away for a second or two, or move your arm slightly, the screen turns off, and you have to do the Exaggerated Arm Raise (or tap the screen) to get it to turn on again. Similarly, sometimes when you raise your wrist to check the time, it takes a second or two for the screen to turn on. Android Wear watches with OLED screens feature a power-saving ambient mode that shows just the time until the watch is awakened—it would be great to see this come to the Apple Watch.
Finally, keep in mind that while the Apple Watch—like other smartwatches—may seem to be just a smaller-screen smartphone, it’s really a very different device. The first time you try the watch, your instinct will likely be to use the same gestures and actions as you would on your iPhone, but they won’t always work the same way. For example, though you can scroll some views by dragging your finger up or down the screen, doing so blocks the display; turning the Digital Crown with your fingertip lets you scroll smoothly without obscuring the watch face. And you don’t have a Touch ID sensor on the Apple Watch for using Apple Pay; instead, you double press the side button. It’s tough to call these things “flaws,” as we believe they’re mainly a matter of learning to use a new type of device. Just be aware that the Watch involves a bit of a learning curve—after a few days, it will all feel a lot more normal. Apple’s Apple Watch User Guide is quite useful for learning the ins and outs of the interface.
Before the Apple Watch debuted, Pebble smartwatches were the most widely known and well-reviewed smartwatches on the market, and they could pair with iPhones to provide limited interaction between the watch and phone. We never recommended a Pebble as an iPhone-paired smartwatch unless you were on an exceptionally tight budget and you were willing to put up with a lot of compromises, but the point is now moot: Pebble has ceased operations following a sale to Fitbit and will not sell or support Pebble watches after December 7, 2016.
Google announced on August 31, 2015, that the LG Watch Urbane and “all future Android Wear watches” will work with an iPhone through an Android Wear iOS app. Android Wear watches can receive notifications for phone calls, alarms, text messages, and calendar reminders, as well as for other apps that you select on your iPhone. And if you use Gmail, Google Calendar, or the Google search/Now app on iPhone, you get slightly richer notifications, and can reply by voice to Gmail messages. You can also say “OK Google” to your watch and ask Google about the weather, sports scores, sunset times, and other things you normally Google.
But in practice, using Android Wear with an iPhone is frustrating. We connected a first-generation Moto 360 to an iPhone 5S and wore the 360 for a week. We found that, having used an Apple Watch with an iPhone, we eagerly wanted to reply to text messages and do other things with notifications besides just dismiss them. If you use Apple’s Reminders or Siri, using Google Now reminders or contextual search feels redundant. Android Wear watches are also stripped down to a small subset of apps when paired with an iPhone: You get weather, alarms and timers (not tied to your phone’s alarms and timers), and Google apps. Put simply, it all feels like a beta test that costs upward of $150 to join.
Few other iOS-compatible smartwatches are available. A number of wrist-worn fitness trackers can relay notifications from your iPhone, but the functionality is so limited as to be of little use—you’ll want to consider these devices only if you want a good fitness tracker and you’re willing to give up all of the other things the Apple Watch can do. Similarly, a dedicated GPS running watch will best the Apple Watch at tracking your runs, but it isn’t a true smartwatch.
You can also find a few watches that look and function like traditional analog watches but provide a few smartwatch-like features. The attractive Withings Activité Pop offers basic fitness tracking but no notifications or other features. The same goes for the Mondaine Helvetica No. 1, which is available, but not seen on too many wrists.
If you’re happy with the look and fit of the original Apple Watch, there’s little reason to upgrade to the Series 1. The latest Apple Watch software, watchOS 3, is a free update for the original watch (check in the Watch app on your iPhone, under General and then Software Update) and fixes many of its software-related issues, such as poor app performance. The new OS also gives the original Apple Watch all of the features and the same improved interface you get with the Series 1—it’s like getting a new smartwatch delivered by Bluetooth. The Series 1 does have a faster processor (the same one used in the new Series 2 and Nike+ models) than the original Apple Watch, but we don’t think the improved performance is worth buying an entirely new watch. You’re better off saving that money for a bigger upgrade next year.
If you love your original Apple Watch, but wish it had better outdoor sport tracking without a phone, or let you track your swims, you might benefit from upgrading to the Series 2. Dedicated running watches, fitness trackers, and swimming monitors can fill those needs for less money, of course—it’s up to you whether having your serious-fitness tracker combined with smartphone essentials on your wrist is worth more than $300.
A common question among potential Apple Watch buyers has been which of the two sizes to get: 38 mm or 42 mm. (Those are vertical measurements of the watch case.) The quick answer is that the choice almost entirely comes down to personal preference and which size you believe looks better on your wrist.
The 38 mm version (of both the Series 1 and Series 2) is indeed physically smaller, but when you compare them directly against each other, the two sizes offer almost identical user experiences. The 38 mm model’s screen has a resolution of 340 by 272 pixels, while the 42 mm’s screen is 390 by 312, but side by side, it’s difficult to see much difference—apps look almost identical, and you see essentially the same amount of info on the screens. In terms of the watch body, the two sizes are also very close in width, at 33 mm for the 38 mm model and 36 mm for the 42 mm model. Even the weight differences are small―you’ll notice the difference in weight between the aluminum, steel, and ceramic models more easily than between two sizes of the same material. The gist is that the two sizes offer almost identical user experiences. If you’re not sure which size watch you would normally wear, we recommend trying on both models in the Apple Store.
All models of the Apple watch work essentially the same (apart from the aforementioned differences—GPS, waterproofing—between the Series 1 and Series 2). If you pay more for the stainless steel, Edition, or Hermès version of the Series 2, what you’re getting is a more durable and upscale set of materials.
The most obvious difference between the base-model Apple Watches and the more-expensive stainless steel, Edition, and Hermès models is the material of the watch’s body. The standard Series 1 and Series 2 watches are made from 7000-series aluminum with a matte finish. The stainless steel Apple Watch Series 2 models use cold-forged stainless steel, and the Edition is made from a ceramic alloy that the company says is “more than four times as hard as stainless steel.” After a couple of months of testing a stainless steel model of the original Apple Watch, we haven’t noticed anything more than the expected fine scratches you’d get on any metal watch from normal wear. We have yet to test a ceramic model; if you have, and you’ve noticed any unusual wear, let us know in the comments.
Buying the stainless steel or ceramic (Edition) Series 2 watch also upgrades the screen on your Watch from scratch-resistant Ion-X to sapphire crystal, the kind used in high-end Rolexes. Sapphire is a form of corundum, so it’s one of the toughest materials on Earth, just a step below diamond on the Mohs scale. In other words, unless you fall, wrist-first, into a pit of sharply cut diamonds, your watch’s face should remain largely free of scratches.
But if you don’t want to shell out the extra bucks for stainless steel or the Edition (ceramic) model, take comfort in knowing that you won’t have to spend your days fretting about a scratched screen. According to Consumer Reports, even the aluminum model’s Ion-X glass is impressively tough. In Consumer Reports testing, it took a pick with a tip rated at 8 out of 10 on the Mohs scale just to scratch Ion-X glass. Consumer Reports also tried to scratch the Ion-X glass with a steel key, to no avail. What’s more, the Ion-X glass on the cheaper models is easier to read in bright light or sunlight, according to tests by the respected Dr. Raymond M. Soneira at DisplayMate.
How do they look? Wirecutter staffers agree that as smartwatches go, the Apple Watch is the best-looking one around. Another consensus: The stainless steel models look nicer than the Sport models—the polished surfaces are a bit more upscale, and they look better with a wider range of bands—and the ceramic model looks even better. But you’ll have to spend at least $200 more for the stainless steel model than for the aluminum Series 2 ($300 more than the Series 1). (As for the Edition, if you’re willing to spend nearly $1,000 more for a custom ceramic Apple Watch, you don’t need us to tell you what we think about that material.)
The various body materials also have different weights that affect how they feel on your wrist, and how their feedback “taps” feel. The Series 1 models weigh 30 grams, while the 42 mm Series 2 in stainless steel weighs 52.4 grams, and the ceramic Edition models weigh 45.6 grams. Those differences don’t seem huge on paper, but the difference is immediately noticeable on your wrist when you switch from, say, an aluminum model to a stainless steel model. We also found that the Watch’s haptic-feedback feature provides noticeably stronger “taps” on the aluminum model than on the stainless steel model, even when both smartwatches are on the same Haptic Strength setting. We suspect this happens because the stainless steel body’s added weight and higher density make it move less given the same amount of haptic force.
Some people will undoubtedly prefer the looks of the stainless steel and Edition lines. But if you’re content with the style and appearance of the aluminum Series 1 or 2, you’ll save a bundle, and that bundle can buy additional bands.
The least-expensive version of the Series 1 and Series 2 includes Apple’s Sport band, but Apple also offers a slew of band options. We’ve tried many of these bands, and we’ve been using several (the Sport, Milanese Loop, Woven Nylon, and Leather Loop) over months of long-term testing. Here’s a quick summary of our impressions.
A quick Amazon search will net you hundreds of third-party bands. We obviously haven’t tested all of them, but here are a few favorites of Wirecutter staffers:
Originally published: December 16, 2016