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Best smartwatch 2021: Top picks for your money

Best smartwatch 2021: Top picks for your money

The best smartwatches do more than let you know if you’re getting a call or text message on your wrist. They’re everything in one: a fitness tracker for getting healthier, a digital wallet and in some cases, it can act as a phone, even if your smartphone is nowhere nearby.

Smartwatches have gone beyond fitness tracking, and now have health features that can save your life. They can detect elevated heart rate alerts and automatically connect you to emergency services if you fall. Electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood oxygen (SpO2) readings are perks of certain models, too. The former detects signs of atrial fibrillation, while the latter is a good indicator of respiratory health.

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But the best smartwatches do all these things better than others. Some have huge numbers of apps you can download, and some have batteries that will barely last a day, while others can go nearly a week on a charge. And of course there’s style: The best smartwatches can be customized, from their straps to their faces, to best fit with your personality.

See all of the best smartwatches below, as well as our smartwatch buying guide for more tips on finding the ultimate wearable for you.

What is the best smartwatch?

After testing dozens of the best smartwatches, our top pick is the Apple Watch Series 6 ($399), which builds on the always-on display and built-in compass of the Series 5, and all of the advanced health features we loved about the Series 4, with a SpO2 monitoring and a faster charging.

The Apple Watch 3 ($199) remains a very good value as well, although the Apple Watch SE ($279) is a new option worth checking out, too. The SE is a slimmed down version of the Series 6, but it still has a compass, fall detection and GPS. You might want to wait for the Apple Watch 7 to come out, though.

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 ($399) is a worthy Apple Watch contender — in fact, it’s the best smartwatch for Android users. It offers a rotating bezel, plus a larger display with slimmer bezels. It introduces some life-saving features like FDA-approved ECG tracking and trip detection, all wrapped up in a stylish shell. However, its successor, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, just debuted. The latest smartwatch starts at $249.99 and introduces a new design, Wear OS software and body composition analysis.

The best smartwatch from Fitbit is the Fitbit Sense ($329). We like how it gives you a more rounded view of your body, rather than expecting you to self-administer readings and tests.

The best smartwatches you can buy today

1. Apple Watch Series 6

The Apple Watch Series 6 is the best Apple Watch yet. It builds on everything we appreciated about the Series 5, from the always-on display to the collection of health features, with an even brighter screen and added blood oxygen (SpO2) reader. Plus the Apple Watch comes in color for the first time — the exclusive blue and Product Red finishes are absolutely eye-catching. For these reasons, the Apple Watch 6 is one of the several smartwatches on this list we honored in the 2021 Tom’s Guide Awards for Health and Fitness.

While we would’ve liked to see the Apple Watch improve its 18-hour battery life, the Series 6 does benefit from faster charging. You can completely juice it up in just 90 minutes, which comes in handy for wearing, instead of charging, it overnight. Yes, the Apple Watch 6 has all the best Apple Watch apps and sleep tracking, too, thanks to watchOS 7.

Last year’s software updated also added new watch faces, mobility metrics and an automatic hand-washing timer, as well as Apple Fitness Plus support, and with watchOS 8 just revealed, expect more features to come to Apple’s watches later this year.

2. Samsung Galaxy Watch 3

The Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 is one of the most stylish smartwatches around, and one of the most functional, too. It’s available in two sizes — 41 and 45 mm — as well as in LTE variants, so you can leave your smartphone at home. The Galaxy Watch 3’s rotating bezel makes navigating the watch’s interface easy, while access to thousands of watch faces lets you customize the display to your liking.

Although the Galaxy Watch 3 has a shorter, 2-day battery life compared to the original Samsung Galaxy Watch, it introduces more music storage, FDA-approved ECG tracking and trip detection. Of course, you’ll get Samsung Pay for contactless payments, and some good fitness features too. Like the first Galaxy Watch, the Galaxy Watch 3’s biggest setback is that Samsung’s app store is limited compared to Apple’s, but Tizen is good.

3. Fitbit Sense

The Fitbit Sense is the company’s top-shelf smartwatch that comes with more advanced health and wellness features that the Versa line. Not only does it have an FDA-approved ECG sensor and blood oxygen reading, but the Sense has the ability to measure electrodermal activity and skin temperature, too.

As one of the best Fitbits, the Sense works with both iOS and Android, and comes with on-board GPS, a native app store, Alexa and more. No longer is Fitbit just a brand with products for tracking our steps: Fitbit devices like the Fitbit Sense show what it means to take a holistic look at our health.

4. Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2

As good as the Apple Watch is, the Galaxy Watch Active 2 can give Apple’s smartwatch a run for its money. Samsung’s watch works with both Android (and to a lesser extent) iOS smartphones, and features GPS, a heart rate monitor and LTE (for a premium). It also can automatically track your activity and sleep. (It’s much better at the former task than the latter.)

The Galaxy Watch Active 2’s circular design is visually appealing, whether you get the 40mm or 44mm model. Based on Samsung’s Tizen operating system, this Galaxy Watch boasts other useful features as Samsung Pay, onboard music via Spotify and heart health features. That includes a forthcoming ECG feature that recently earned FDA approval. But the biggest reason why the Galaxy Watch Active 2 is one of the best smartwatches for Android users is its excellent battery life.

5. Apple Watch SE

The Apple Watch SE is a hybrid of the Apple Watch Series 5 (which has since been discontinued) and the Apple Watch Series 3. The $279 smartwatch doesn’t have all the Series 6’s features, but still stands out for its speedy chip and safety features. It also offers an LTE option, making it a good choice for those interested in trying out Family Setup.

When choosing between the Apple Watch 6 and the Apple Watch SE, your ultimate decision will be if you want to spend an extra $120 for a brighter display with an always-on option, an ECG monitor, and an SpO2. If those tools aren’t deal-breakers for you, the SE is a highly capable option for iPhone users.

How to pick the best smartwatch for you

When looking at the best smartwatches for you, you’re somewhat limited by the smartphone you own. If you want an Apple Watch, for instance, you’ll need to have an iPhone. And while Wear OS watches work with both Android and iPhones, you get far less functionality when not connected to an Android device.

Samsung’s smartwatches offer the greatest in terms of cross-functionality, but even here, Android phone owners will get more in terms of replies to notifications and the ability to make and receive phone calls.

After that, when picking a smartwatch, you also want to get one that fits your wrist comfortably. Those with smaller wrists may find larger smartwatches — ones with case sizes larger than 44mm — to be too bulky and cumbersome to wear.

After that, you want to find a smartwatch that fits your style. Although the Apple Watch is limited to one shape, you can purchase it in different finishes. Samsung’s smartwatches offer a little more choice, while Wear OS watches, which are made by a number of companies including Fossil, Skagen, Kate Spade, Moto, Tag Heuer, Diesel, and others, give you many more options when it comes to their design.

How we test the best smartwatches

We test every new smartwatch to gauge its design and comfort. If it’s not stylish and comfortable enough to get you from an early morning workout to the office to a night out, you probably won’t wear it every day. Most smartwatches are also fitness trackers, so we put all of its sensors to the test, from step counts to heart rate to GPS (when applicable).

We install apps and use them to see if the device’s app store is robust enough to elevate it to smartwatch status. If the watch has built-in LTE, we test cellular connectivity and call quality to make sure the device can actually stand on its own without a smartphone nearby.

And we measure battery life using everyday scenarios — including workouts, using apps, and getting notifications — to make sure you can get through an entire day without needing to charge up.

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