My Tech Monkey and lack of brand loyalty have compelled me to end up with all of the major smartwatch operating systems. From the first gen Gear S1, Sony Android Wear, and Apple watch to the current equipment; I’ve had them all and witnessed their evolution. How do they stack up in the real world? I’ve worn them in every conceivable situation: work, work-outs, hikes, vacations, date night and everything in between.
I’ll start by declaring that I like them all. For my lifestyle there’s a best fit, but they’re all useful pieces of gear. Second, I must say that I’ve always enjoyed gadget watches. Calculator watch? Check. TV remote control watch? Got it. Casio Databank? I have two. I also had the Timex DataLink. I mention this because it causes a bias in my overall opinion when comparing smartwatches and standard time pieces.
My grandfather sparked my interest in time pieces at an early age. He was an antique watch trader and often took me to watch shows, pigeon swaps, and other various gatherings to obtain some of most beautiful pocket watches and clocks you can imagine. Railroad pocket watches with cases of multi-colored gold and jeweled internal mechanics were his specialty. Some of them were able to show the time, date, and phase of the moon with nothing more than spring powered gears.
Why wear a smartwatch in the first place? They don’t do anything that your phone can’t already do better. This is what more than a few members of my social group think. The valuation is accurate. They really don’t do anything that your smartphone won’t. But isn’t that true for lots of tech? What does your iPad do that your iPhone or laptop can’t? For me, the point of a smartwatch is not to provide unique functionality but to augment your other devices and to look cool while doing it. Seriously, the best feature of smartwatches from my point of view is the ability to change the watch face at will. I often match my watch to my clothing on any given day just because I can.
I use my watch to primarily do the following (no particular order):
- Fitness Tracking – Specifically I need to track my heart rate, distance, and ideally my location.
- Notifications – Text, email, and calendar alerts are the biggies here, but Facebook, Xbox Live, PSN, Skype and Instagrahm are appreciated.
- Directions – I spend a lot of time navigating various downtown areas and have found glancing at my wrist for the next turn to be safer than having my phone up in my face.
- Tell the time – This would include all of your basic watch functions; stopwatch, timer, alarm, ect.
All three of the major operating systems can perform these functions as can most of the secondary vendors like Fitbit, Garmin, and Pebble (if you can still find one). So what ends up setting the devices apart are the looks and secondary features that are most helpful to you. I’m not going to spend much time discussing specifications, there are countless articles on-line to enlighten you about the hardware options. In a nutshell Apple is square and Android is round, LOL. The watches themselves break down just like their phone counterparts.
The Apple Watch is the easiest to use right out of the box; strap it on your wrist and pair it with your phone. That’s it. Sure there are apps you can install for everything under the sun, but most people don’t need them and won’t use them. The design is elegant, but I’m not a fan of square wrist watches in general. The fit and finish on Apple’s wrist computer is second to none. The tolerances between components are minuscule and the case feels like a premium device. My biggest complaint about the Apple is that you’re stuck with the watch faces they give you. If it wasn’t for this limitation, it could have ended up being my favorite.
You can use the Apple Watch with an Android phone, albeit in a limited fashion. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing one specifically to pair with an Android device, but it’s a nice option for people who are moving between platforms. My wife is the Apple fan in our home, so the Apple Watch belongs to her. I borrow it from time to time just to see what Apple has changed on it . I really enjoy wearing it, but the lack of 3rd party watch faces is maddening to those who’ve grown accustomed to the ability. It does everything else on my list of requirements exceptionally well. The Medical ID feature could prove invaluable to someone with drug allergies or other need-to-know health conditions.
Android Wear, now renamed to just Wear OS, matches its phone counterpart. Rather than a hardware and software solution like the Apple Watch, Wear OS is an operating system that many manufactures use on their watches. Not all Wear OS devices are created equally! They can have drastically different features, functions, and shapes. Due to these differences, you need to be careful when choosing a device to be sure it has the hardware to support the functions you are after. For example; choosing a Wear watch that doesn’t have an integrated GPS receiver will prevent it from tracking your run locations unless you take your phone along.
Wear OS takes more work and know how to get up and running. You will be installing apps on both your phone and the watch before it is fully functional. It is more difficult to use but ultimately offers more functionality than the Apple Watch, assuming you got top-end hardware. Plus, you can load different watch faces to your heart’s content! Up until a few weeks ago my everyday watch was a Wear based Moto 360 Gen 2. It’s Google voice functionality is the best of the voice assistants and having the full Google maps was great. You can pair most Wear OS watches with an Apple phone but you’ll get less functionality if you choose to.
Samsung wasn’t happy with Google’s Wear OS so, they created their own. Like Wear OS, Tizen is a Linux-based smartwatch operating system. Similar to Apple’s approach Samsung makes both the hardware and the operating system for the Gear S3 series of watches. If you are pairing it with a Samsung phone, the process is just as easy as Apple’s. No apps to install and configure, just pair the devices and go. Of course Samsung has their own app store full of apps for you to fiddle with, but most of the main features are controlled by the built-in software. The watch can be paired with any Android or even Apple phone.
I’ve just recently switched to a Gear S3 and for my lifestyle its the best choice of the three systems. It doesn’t have as many apps as Google’s Wear OS, and isn’t as simple as the Apple Watch; it sits comfortably in-between them. For me, the always online LTE connection and excellent fitness app (Samsung Health) are the best features. It offers some truly excellent watch faces (not as many as Wear) and looks nice. The LTE connection means I don’t need a phone at all when I head out for a run, I can stream music, track my run and heart, and even take calls and texts all from the watch. The bad news is that it requires a service plan from your carrier. I was also disappointed in the S Voice assistant and had to learn to use a new map provider.
Smartwatches aren’t for everybody but they can be a life saver if you rely on tech for your livelihood or are required to be in constant communication. They don’t do anything your phone already doesn’t, but they do extend your digital life to something that is always visible. I’ve stopped wearing out my pants pockets since I’ve started wearing them, LOL.