Shopping for a smartwatch might seem easy at first, but it can quickly become daunting. If you’re an iPhone user, you clearly think of the Apple Watch first — but it’s 2023 and there are four models to pick from: Series 8, SE, Ultra and Hermès. Or maybe Fitbit’s Sense or Versa that mixes heavy health features with some communication convenience catches your eye. And if you’re on Android, is the Samsung Galaxy Watch worth a look with the redesigned Wear OS?
Well, we’ve done the legwork by continually testing smartwatches day by day, week by week and month by month this year. As each new model hits the market, we strap it to our wrist and put it through the wringer. Of course, that means this guide is ever evolving, evidenced by a new winner. After copious testing, here are the best smartwatches out now:
For those still rocking with a Series 4 Apple Watch or older, the Series 8 is a great upgrade and also a good choice for first-time smartwatch buyers. With a familiar feel, the Series 8 has excellent performance, beautiful design and lot of new features.
The Galaxy Watch 5 is the best Android smartwatch for most people, offering long battery life, good performance and plenty of fitness tracking capabilities.
Best overall smartwatch: Apple Watch Series 8
From $379 at Amazon and $399 at Apple
Some may be disappointed by how similar the Apple Watch Series 8 looks and feels to the Series 7, but Apple has nearly perfected its formula for a smartwatch, and there’s no need to fix something that isn’t broken.
The Series 8 still comes in 41mm and 45mm case sizes, which means all of your old bands will work with whichever model they’re designed for.The screens are also the same, nearly reaching the edges of each different Series 8 model with rounded sides. You also get the same level of durability as the Series 7 with a crack-resistant screen, IP6X dust resistance and WR50 water resistance (meaning it can survive at up to 50 meters underwater). It’s not as durable as the new Apple Watch Ultra, but it’s still enough for everyday use. The screen is beautiful to look at, it gets up to 1,000 nits bright and is great outdoors, the form factor is slim and doesn’t get in the way and its weight makes it easy to forget about when working out.
Despite the familiar feel, there are a lot of new features on the Series 8, mainly thanks to watchOS 9, the latest version of the Apple Watch’s software. New watch face options, upgraded Health stats especially for avid runners and triathletes, medication tracking, sleep tracking and personalized app notifications for you to stay up-to-date.
The Series 8 also includes Crash Detection, which appears to be one of the most advanced crash-detecting features available on a smartwatch. If it detects you’ve been in an accident, your watch will give you an option to make an emergency call. If you remain unresponsive, emergency services will be automatically contacted and provide dispatchers with your location.
Overall, the Apple Watch Series 8 doesn’t boast a huge load of features that make it different from our previous best smartwatch pick, the Series 7. But, the slight and simple changes do make it upgrade and deserving of a place on the wrists of those who don’t already have an Apple Watch or are coming from one that’s four to five years old.
Best Android smartwatch: Galaxy Watch 5
From $145 at Samsung and $280 at Best Buy
If you feel like you’ve seen the Galaxy Watch 5 before, you’re not mistaken. The design of the watch is basically identical to the Watch 4 from last year, down to the case and display sizes.
Mind you, that’s not a bad thing. The Watch 4 already has a great design, so it’s no big deal to see Samsung repeat it this year. There is one physical difference worth pointing out, also found on the Watch 5 Pro: the shape of the sensors on the bottom. Samsung made them slightly curvier this year so they sit a bit deeper on your wrist. This helps to improve their accuracy.
It’s also a pretty durable watch. You can use the water lock feature to lock the touchscreen to avoid any accidental taps from water drops during aquatic activities.
The Sapphire Crystal glass is a nice amenity and adds peace of mind in case you bump into something or drop your watch while putting it on. We also liked the touch-sensitive bezel, which lets you do things like scroll, zoom in and more without blocking the screen itself with your finger.
Where the Galaxy Watch 5 shines is in fitness. Samsung includes the same 3-in-1 BioActive sensor as the Watch 4 line, which combines optical heart rate, electrical heart signal and bioelectrical impedance analysis sensors into a single unit. These sensors power the features many come to expect from modern smartwatches like heart rate tracking, body composition monitoring, electrocardiogram (ECG) support and blood oxygen levels.
Samsung did increase the size of the batteries in the Galaxy Watch 5, and in our testing the battery life lasted about 30 to 35 hours. Compared to other watches like the Apple Watch Series 7, this is actually excellent battery life. The Watch 5 is easily one of the longest-lasting smartwatches on the market — that is, if you’re willing to adjust your usage patterns.
Best budget smartwatch: Apple Watch SE
From $249 at Apple
Starting at $249 and offering many of the standout features of the Series 6, the Apple Watch SE retains the modern Apple Watch design with a larger display compared to the Series 3 and the S5 processor that debuted in the Series 5.
The Apple Watch SE also boasts the Apple-made S5 processor — the same one inside the Series 5. Put simply: That means that the SE delivers big value.
Our favorite new feature is real-time translations via Apple’s virtual assistant. It’s quite handy to get a quick translation right from your wrist and without opening a dedicated app. Most impressively, it shows how capable the S5 chip inside really is.
Apple Pay works just as well — and as quickly — as with the Series 5 and Series 6. And, thanks to watchOS 7, the Apple Watch SE can track hand-washing just the same as the Watch 6. The microphones specifically listen for water from a faucet, hand motions and even the sound of soap being pumped from a bottle. And when it detects you’re washing your hands, you’ll see a countdown appear on your wrist. Once the 20 seconds is up, you’ll feel a vibration and hear a short jingle. You can also choose to receive a reminder once you’re back home to wash your hands. This taps into the GPS built inside and some improvements to Apple Maps.
Sleep tracking is on board as well and allows you to set a goal for the number of hours you want to sleep and tracks whether or not you’re hitting that goal. You won’t find data about different cycles like you might on a Fitbit, but it’s the same sleep tracking experience as on the Series 6 or any other Apple Watch that supports the feature. It just won’t track your blood oxygen periodically overnight.
The fitness aspects on the SE are essentially the same experience you’ve had on every other Apple Watch with move and exercise goals you can track. You can also use the Workout app to pick from a plethora of exercises — indoor or outdoor cycling, functional strength training, barre, dance, running, jogging, surfing and countless others — that the Apple Watch SE will accurately track through an array of sensors. We didn’t notice any slowdowns or tracking differences between the SE and Series 6. Both were able to get an accurate number when it came to calories burned, minutes exercised and heart rate tracked throughout.
The Watch SE features heart rate tracking, noise level monitoring, fitness tracking and fall detection. What’s sacrificed here, compared to the Watch 6, is a faster processor, quick charging capability, a brighter display, ECG readings, blood oxygen monitoring and the always-on display.
We missed the always-on display the most. It just makes the Apple Watch feel more like an actual wristwatch. Secondly, the health features like blood oxygen and ECGs (as well as a more advanced heart rate sensor) might make you opt for Series 6.
The Apple Watch SE delivers a tremendous amount of value with minimal compromises — as any Apple SE product should. If you can look past no electrical heart rate sensor, blood oxygen monitoring and an always-on display, it’s the clear choice when looking for the most value.
How we tested
As Underscored does with any product we test, we went deep on these watches. In many cases, it’s using them as any consumer would, wearing them daily, using them for workouts, maxing out the battery and, of course, seeing how they hold up to normal wear and tear.
Any wearable, including a smartwatch, is a very personal product, and your preference can be heavily dependent on your phone of choice. That’s why we tested every watch with an iPhone SE, an iPhone 11, an iPhone 11 Pro, an iPhone 11 Pro Max, a Galaxy S20 and a Pixel 4 XL (except, of course, the Apple Watch Series 6, Series 3 and SE, which only work with an iPhone).
We carefully went through the setup process, noting any necessary apps and extra steps each watch required. (For instance, how easy was it to set up notifications, one of the key features of a smartwatch?) We also considered third-party app and watch face availability, along with the ability to customize the overall look of the watch face.
We asked ourselves how easy it was to complete routine tasks, like viewing a weather forecast, checking daily agenda or sending a message. With everything set up, we wore each watch for several days, monitoring battery life with normal usage with the occasional workout mixed in, and continued to note how easy each watch was to use and any signs of wear and tear.
We paid close attention to activity tracking and health features. With the latter, we established a baseline with consumer-facing devices that are designed to just track those metrics (i.e., SpO2 or heart rate).
Once we had a good enough understanding of a watch, we rated it.
Other smartwatches we tested
Apple Watch Ultra
From $799 at Apple
If you’re a serious athlete or adventurer — or simply willing to pay up for the most advanced Apple Watch experience out there — the Apple Watch Ultra is worth the money. For everyone else, the Apple Watch Series 8 remains a great pick.
Google Pixel Watch
From $350 at Amazon
With a great balance of features, specs and fitness tools, the Google Pixel Watch is probably the closest Wear OS watch you can call the “Apple Watch for Android.” If you have a Pixel phone or you’re a fan of the Fitbit brand, snagging this watch is a no-brainer. But, if you own another non-Apple phone like a Samsung Galaxy, you should look toward the excellent Galaxy Watch 5.
Galaxy Watch 5 Pro
From $160 at Samsung
The Watch 5 Pro is a bigger, more durable version of the Watch 5 that also touts more advanced GPS tracking. It’s a good pick for people who do lots of biking or hiking, but most people are better off with the standard Watch 5.
Apple Watch Series 3
$229 at Walmart
The Apple Watch Series 3 currently starts at $229 at Walmart and offers almost everything the Series 6 and SE do. But then we considered that the hardware that makes up this watch is now a few years old, and as watchOS continues to grow and progress, the Series 3 will begin to slow down as Apple adds more features to watchOS or, even worse, support for future updates and features will eventually leave the Series 3 behind. That doesn’t mean that the features it has now will go away — and it’s a fine watch with these features — but to future-proof your investment, the Series 6 or Watch SE are better choices.
From $187 at Amazon
Fitbit’s Sense watch has a ton of health-related sensors and features. It can measure how stressed you are, track blood oxygen levels and monitor your skin’s temperature while you sleep, and a future update will enable ECG readings to check for irregular heartbeats. Of course, it does all of the staple fitness tracker stuff that Fitbit helped pioneer, like counting steps, active minutes, workouts and sleep. But after testing it, the Sense feels more like a medical device than a smartwatch. You have to use a specific watch face at night in order to track your Sp02, for example. There’s a ton of potential with Sense, but the overall experience needs to be refined. And then you need to know what to do with all of that data. If you want a watch that can give you lots of health info then, well, the Sense might make sense for you.
Fitbit Versa 2
$150 From $107 at Amazon
The Fitbit Versa 2 is a very good but very basic smartwatch. Its primary focus, and what it does best, is tracking activities and sleep — but after that, it falls short of what the Apple Watch Series 3 or Galaxy Active 2 can do.
Garmin Instinct Solar
$400 $320 at Garmin
The Garmin Instinct Solar has the unique feature of being able to recharge itself using solar power. That’s right — the watch face is a miniature solar panel that sips on sunrays to slowly replenish the battery. As such, Garmin estimates 24-day battery life off a single charge, as long as you’re outside for three hours a day in direct sunlight. In our testing, 12 days of use between charges was the norm. (We clearly need to get out more.) Tracking workouts, hikes and walks via the watch and dedicated GPS was simple once we got the hang of the watch’s interface. Where the Instinct Solar fell short was with its smartwatch capabilities. You can’t limit which apps send alerts to your watch — it’s all or nothing. If you spend a lot of time outdoors and you want a watch that’s built and designed for an active lifestyle without the often unnecessary smartwatch features like granular alerts, then the Instinct Solar makes a compelling offering.
$159 at One Plus
OnePlus took a different approach with it’s $159 OnePlus Watch. Instead of using Google’s Wear OS to power the watch, they created a a custom operating system. After two weeks of testing, it’s clear the software is what’s holding back an otherwise great-looking smartwatch.
You can’t install third-party apps and are stuck with what is included out of the box. So if you prefer Spotify over the OnePlus Music app, well, you’re out of luck. There are also several syncing issues between the watch and the OnePlus health app. For example, our nightly sleep metrics are only visible on the watch, and the same can be said about our step counts. Oddly, there’s also no way to change the clock from keeping time in 24-hour format to 12-hour format.
Walks and runs do sync over to the OnePlus Health app, but we have questions about the overall accuracy of step counts and distance. One highlight of our testing has been battery life —- the OnePlus Watch truly does offer up to 14 days of use off a single charge. OnePlus told us the company is working on software updates. Right now though, the OnePlus Watch is better viewed as a first-generation device that needs a lot of work to compete with an activity band, let alone a smartwatch.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: