Is it worth buying a smartwatch this holiday season? Or are you better off waiting for Apple and Google to enter the race? Well, though the product category is still evolving, we've enjoyed our time with most of the early smartwatches we've reviewed. Let's line some of them up, compare their features and specs, and see if it's worth pulling the trigger.
Update: the watches in this post are gathering cobwebs. For the most up-to-date group of watches, you can hit up our updated Smartwatch Comparison Guide for 2014.
Meet the smartwatchesThere really aren't that many smartwatches available just yet. But the nice thing about the early stages of a product's evolution is that you have huge companies sitting side-by-side with scrappy young startups. We think our group is a great reflection of that:
- Samsung Galaxy Gear
- Sony SmartWatch 2
- Qualcomm Toq
Before we jump in, keep in mind that the Martian smartwatch comes in two other flavors, but for simplicity's sake, we're focusing on the Passport model. Besides some minor size and weight differences, the biggest difference is the watch's look.
Also note that we're leaving out wrist-based fitness trackers, like the Jawbone Up, Nike Fuelband, and Fitbit Force. There's a little overlap there, but this guide is about the watches that have a broader focus.
Just to be crystal clear about what we're dealing with here, none of these watches do diddly-squat on their own. You'll need to pair each of them with a compatible smartphone, or else there won't be anything "smart" about it. These are smartphone accessories, not smartphone replacements.
All of these watches are compatible with at least some Android phones. Four of the five will work with just about any semi-recent Android handset. Each phone has its own companion app that you can download, usually from the Play Store.
The most limited is Samsung's Galaxy Gear, which is only compatible with a few Samsung phones. It syncs up with the Galaxy Note 3, along with Galaxy S4s and S3s that have been updated to Android 4.3. Not every carrier has pushed that update yet, so be sure to double check your version before plunking down for the Gear.
Quite a different picture for iPhone pairing, as only the Pebble and Martian smartwatches play nicely with Apple's handset. They each have App Store apps that will send some of your iPhone's smarts to your wrist.
Notifications are one of the biggest perks of having a smartwatch. Most of our watches will push all of your Android phone's notifications to your watch, vibrating your wrist. The only caveat here is that full Android notifications with Pebble and the Sony SW2 require third-party apps from the Play Store.
Pebble was recently updated to push all of your iPhone's notifications to the watch. Martian's iOS notifications are limited to calls, text messages, calendar events, reminders, Facebook and Twitter, and (non-push) email. Martian tells us that a future update, though, will expand that to all of your phone's alerts.
This is the Martian watch's killer feature, as it supports Siri on iOS and Google Now on Android. The watch acts like a Bluetooth headset, letting you use your voice to do things like send messages and emails, set reminders, check the weather, make reservations, get sports scores, and much more.
Samsung has its own S Voice assistant baked into the Galaxy Gear, but it isn't on the same level. S Voice is basically a lackluster Siri knockoff, and the Galaxy Gear version is even more limited than the full version found on Samsung phones.
We think voice is the most logical and natural way of interacting with a smartwatch (and probably any wearable computer). In that respect, the Martian watch is, for the moment, in a league of its own.
These are the dimensions for each watch's face. The Galaxy Gear is the biggest, but they're all somewhat big and beefy. For that reason, we think this first batch of smartwatches work well on men's wrists, but not so well on women's (typically smaller) wrists.
Weight isn't much of a concern here, as none of these feel too heavy on your wrist.
Qualcomm's Toq watch hasn't been released yet, and we aren't quite sure what build materials it uses. But we've had plenty of hands-on time with the other four, and all but the Pebble are metallic.
The Pebble and Galaxy Gear are sold in a bunch of colors, and all but Sony's SmartWatch 2 come in at least two hues.
The Martian smartwatch is the only one in this crop that is sold in several different styles. As we mentioned, we've been focusing on the retro-looking Passport model, but Martian will also sell you its more modern-looking Victory and colorful G2G designs.
Screen size and resolution
Four of the five watches have screens dominating their faces. The Galaxy Gear's is both the biggest and sharpest.
The oddball here is the Martian, which has a small horizontal screen sitting below a traditional-looking analog watch. This makes it the most incognito-looking smartwatch in this bunch ... well, at least until you start talking to it.
Three of the watches rely on touchscreens, while the Pebble and Martian stick with buttons on their sides for input. The Pebble and Martian are also the only watches in this bunch that lack color displays.
They all work pretty well in direct sunlight, and we didn't have any problems with any of them under extremely bright sun (not including the Toq, which we haven't tested yet).
If you dream of Dick Tracy-like phone calls on your watch, then the Galaxy Gear and Martian both deliver. We didn't have any problems with call quality on either watch.
The biggest difference is that the Gear's mic and speaker are on the strap, so you're better off holding it so the inside of your wrist is closer to your face. On the Martian, the mic and speaker live on the watch's main body.
The other three watches let you initiate and accept calls from the watch, but since they lack microphones, you'll need to use a Bluetooth headset (or your phone) for the actual call.
It's debatable whether a smartwatch needs a camera, but if you fancy one, the Galaxy Gear might be the watch for you. There's no front-facing cam for video chat, though. The Gear's camera is on its strap, so it's meant more for snapping quick pics without pulling out your phone.
Along with notifications and voice control, fitness tracking is one of our three favorite features to have on a smartwatch. None of these watches are dedicated fitness trackers, but four of the five offer some kind of pedometer functionality, either natively or through third-party apps like RunKeeper or Runtastic.
Battery life (estimated)
These are the manufacturer estimates for each watch. In our testing, we'd say the Pebble is going to last the longest. On the other end, the Galaxy Gear will probably need to be charged every night.
Until we get our hands on the Toq, we're left with Qualcomm's vague "multiple days" estimate.
Your watch needs to connect to your phone somehow, and that "somehow" is Bluetooth. Here the Pebble, Galaxy Gear, and Martian have the advantage with Bluetooth 4.0, including the Low Energy variant. If your phone supports BT LE (many high-end phones from the last year do) then the watch's drain on your phone's battery life will be minimal.
Qualcomm's Toq charges wirelessly, and you get a wireless charging dock along with your watch. It's hard to imagine an easier way to charge your watch at night.
We aren't yet sure about the Toq, but all of the others offer some kind of water resistance. The Pebble offers the best water protection, as you can go swimming while wearing it (we swam many times while wearing our review unit without any problems).
Near-field communication (NFC) could have some interesting applications for smartwatches down the road, like easy file sharing or even mobile payments. But for now, only the SW2 has an NFC chip, and it's only there to help with your initial setup.
If you aren't happy with your watch's default band, three of the five watches let you swap it for any standard 22 mm band.
It looks like manufacturers are still feeling out what customers are willing to pay for a smartwatch. Pebble is the only one falling under US$200, while the Toq will cap out at a relatively pricey $350.
Both the Passport (pictured) and Victory models of the Martian cost $300, while the G2G edition comes in a little cheaper, at $250.
Wristward bound?With our smartphone and tablet comparisons, the focus is exclusively on which product is best for you. With smartwatches, though, the first question to ask is whether you want a smartwatch at all at this point. They aren't for everyone. It's completely possible that the product category won't go mainstream until Apple or Google jump in (if it does even then).
But in testing four of these five watches in the last few months, we find it hard to go back to not wearing some kind of smartwatch. Notifications on your wrist let you leave your phone in your pocket or on the charger most of the time. The wrist is also the perfect place to quickly view fitness tracking info. And Siri and Google Now – exclusively the domain of the Martian right now – are tailor-made for hands-free computing.
As with all of these comparisons, the "winner" is going to depend on what you're looking for. The Galaxy Gear gives you the most features, but its phone compatibility is also by far the most limited in this group. Pebble lacks some of the Gear's more smartphone-like features, but it has a lot of software support and a great price. We're also pretty big fans of the Martian smartwatch, for its incognito look and Siri compatibility.
Whichever direction you choose – even if that means holding out for Apple's and Google's rumored takes on the smartwatch – hopefully you're a little clearer on what kind of bang the current crop gives you for your buck.
... and if you're still on the fence, you can hit up our individual reviews of these smartwatches (the Toq releases on Dec. 2, and we should have a review before long):