From staying in touch to sleep tracking, how to get the most out of your smartwatch
Whether you ever thought about it or not, some of the biggest tech companies in the world are duking it out for a spot on your wrist. But should you actually offer it to Apple, Google or Samsung?
The answer to that will be shaped by your life, your priorities and the relationship you want with the companies that make these things. For now, though, let's start with the most basic truth about smartwatches: not everyone needs one. For the most part, they make some things you'd normally whip out your phone for - like checking your messages, controlling your music and taking quick calls - more convenient.
But there's plenty of depth available if you need more than just the basics. Over the years, smartwatches have become sophisticated tools for exercise and health tracking and they can run versions of many of your favorite apps to glance at on the go.
I wear a smartwatch every day because I like being able to glance at my (many) incoming Slack messages, though I could pretty easily live without it.
Whether a smartwatch actually makes sense for you really depends on what you care about as a person. And if you already have a smartwatch, how do you make the most of it? To that end, we've put together a guide to help you figure out if one of these wrist-worn gadgets could fit into your life, sorted by personal priority.
If you don't already have a smartwatch, there are a few things you'll have to keep in mind. First up: compatibility.
IPhone owners can use the Apple Watch, along with smartwatches like the Fitbit Sense and Garmin's Forerunner models, but are not compatible with watches that use Google's Wear OS software. The reverse is also true, so Samsung and other Android phones aren't compatible with the Apple Watch. (Fitbits and Garmins are a-okay, though.)
The other thing to think about is privacy - after all, these wearables live on your body and, among other things, track your personal health information. One of the best resources we've seen for figuring out how potentially problematic wearables can be is Mozilla's Privacy Not Included guide, but if you're really concerned about your privacy, the best bet might be to not wear a smartwatch at all.
If all you really want is to stay on top of your incoming messages and notifications, then you're in luck - that's one thing every smartwatch out there can do. In fact, you might not even have to go with a full-blown smartwatch at all, since many fitness trackers (like Fitbits and Garmin's Vivosmart series) can also alert you when someone texts or calls you.
Just beware: looking at your watch to check your new messages while talking to someone can look ruder than glancing at your phone.
That said, Apple Watch and wearables that use Google's Wear OS software are more sophisticated with how they manage notifications compared to, say, a basic Fitbit. Let's say you're a news junkie: if you have The Washington Post app installed on your smartwatch, you can configure your watch to display news alerts you'd normally see on your phone. That same can be said for just about any app you use that creates notifications on your phone, but be aware: that can lead to an avalanche of notifications on your wrist. Here's how you can make sure you only get the ones you want:
For Apple Watches:
- Open the Apple Watch app on your iPhone
- Tap the "Notifications" button
- Toggle notifications on or off for the apps listed under "Mirror iPhone alerts from"
For Google Wear OS watches:
- Open the Wear OS app on your Android phone
- Scroll to the "Settings" section and tap "Notifications" then "change watch notifications"
- Tap an app to allow or disable notifications
This is another thing that nearly all smartwatches can do to some extent, but exactly how they track your exercise depends on what kind of software your watch has.
Apple Watches are well-known for their three rings, a quick visual indicator that lets you know how close you are to meeting your daily step, exercise and stand goals. But there's a lot more to the exercise experience than just that: using the built-in Fitness app, you can tell the watch to track different kinds of workouts, from long walks, to weight training to Tai Chi. No matter what type of exercise you're doing, the Apple Watch will show you your current workout duration, heart rate and calories burned.
Samsung's Galaxy Watches, which only work with Android phones, offer many of the same workout tracking features. But there's a twist. Let's say you're in the gym lifting weights: unlike the Apple Watch, which only gives you the basic stats I mentioned earlier, Samsung's watches also offer guidance on the correct form for exercises like bicep curls, as well as count your reps for you.
But there's another question at play here: if tracking exercise is your main concern, do you really even need a smartwatch? That's debatable. You can find a slew of wearables for $100 or less designed solely to count your steps, monitor your heart rate and even compete with your friends - Fitbit's new Charge 5 quickly springs to mind.
At the end of it, it all boils down to the level of sophistication you're after. If your big priority is just being generally more active, you could easily get away with a cheap Fitbit. But for deeper insight into your workouts, a smartwatch is a better bet. And if you're a really serious athlete - say, an avid runner or triathlete - you might want to consider a more specialized smartwatch like one of Garmin's Forerunners.
Many companies have crammed a bevy of sophisticated sensors and features into smartwatches so they can help you keep tabs on your well-being. Here are a few you might find in your next (or first) smartwatch:
- Optical heart sensor: These basically use light to measure your blood flow and are used to help show you how fast your heart is beating. (Available in all versions of the Apple Watch, all versions of Samsung's Galaxy Watch, all of Garmin's Forerunner smartwatches, and Fitbit's Versa 2, Versa 3 and Sense watches.)
- Electric heart sensor: Instead of just tracking your heart rate, these are used to take electrocardiograms and can help flag irregularities in your heart beat. (Available in Apple Watch Series 4-7, Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active 2, Galaxy Watch 3 and Galaxy Watch 4, and the Fitbit Sense.)
- SpO2 tracking: This feature often relies on a smartwatch's optical heart sensor to figure out how much oxygen is in your blood. In general, healthy people have oxygen saturation levels between 90 and 100 percent. If your readings are consistently lower than that, consider seeing a doctor. (Available in Apple Watch Series 6 and 7, Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 and 4, and the Fitbit Sense.)
- Fall detection: Nearly all smartwatches use sensors called accelerometers inside to measure movement, but only a few use those sensors to tell when you've taken a hard fall. If a watch with this feature senses one, it will give you options to contact emergency service or loved ones. That said, this feature can be very hard to trigger - even when you're specifically trying to set it off. (Available in Apple Watch Series 4 and newer, and Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active 2, Galaxy Watch 3 and Galaxy Watch 4.)
When it comes to your health though, just be sure to keep one thing in mind. Smartwatches, even really sophisticated ones, don't always have approval from the Food and Drug Administration for some of the health features they offer. That's often thanks to a well-known loophole: If a smartwatch maker markets something as a "wellness" feature instead of a tool for medical diagnosis, it doesn't need the FDA to sign off on it. Blood oxygen tracking is a good example of a feature that generally doesn't have to be cleared, but all watches with electrocardiogram features in the United States have been evaluated by the FDA.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems. If you're one of them, a smartwatch might be able to help you understand why. Many popular options offer sleep tracking features that keep an eye on troublesome sleep behaviors you might not be aware of.
The Apple Watch Series 3 and newer can, for example, detect how long you were asleep and track your breathing throughout the night. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Most of Garmin's Forerunner smartwatches monitor your blood oxygen levels while sleeping, and your respiration, too. It'll even attempt to measure how much time you spent in different sleep phases - light, deep or REM (rapid eye movement) - in order to give you a sleep "score" in the morning, plus some advice on how easy you should take it that day.
Fitbits were among the first fitness trackers out there to support sleep tracking and the company's smartwatches - like the Fitbit Sense - continue to carry that torch. The Sense features all of the same tracking tricks that Garmin watches do, but with one helpful addition: a "smart wake" mode that will wake you up to 30 minutes before your alarm if it thinks you aren't sleeping deeply anymore.
Meanwhile, Samsung's new Galaxy Watch 4 can monitor blood oxygen and track your progression through different sleep stages like the other, but it also has a sleep tracking trick we haven't seen in a wearable before: snore detection. That might sound a little silly, but it's more helpful than you might think. If your stats say you've been snoring and your blood oxygen levels are unusually low, you may want to see a specialist - those might be signs of a disorder like sleep apnea.
Tips for getting the best sleep data:
- Make sure your watch band is as snug as it is comfortable. That helps ensure the sensors that work while you're asleep are in a good position to take readings.
- Charge your smartwatch before bed. You're not going get any good sleep info if your watch dies before you wake up.
- Turn off notifications for the night. Most Samsung smartwatches have a "Good night mode" that mutes all notifications except alarms. Apple Watch owners can set up and enable "Sleep mode" on their iPhones, which also turns on Do Not Disturb. On a Fitbit smartwatch, swipe your home screen to the left and tap the moon icon to enable "Night mode." Meanwhile, Garmin Forerunner owners have to turn on Do No Disturb.
Be aware of your watch's specific foibles. For example, some of the sleep features mentioned above aren't enabled by default on Samsung's Galaxy Watch 4, so you need to turn them on manually. And Garmin says you need to be wearing its watches for two hours before sleeping to get the best data.
Many common wearables - Apple Watches, Samsung's Galaxy Watches, Fitbits like the Sense and Versa and more - can pull double duty as tiny speakerphones when you don't want to pull out your smartphone. Call quality can vary depending on what kind of watch you're wearing, but it's generally good enough for quick conversations. (Talking into your wrist can look a little silly, but if Dick Tracy can pull it off, so can you.)
But again, proper smartwatches have an edge if you want to do more than just take phone calls. The Apple Watch has a neat, built-in Walkie Talkie feature that lets you trade quick voice messages with other Apple Watch owners. (Even better, you have to specifically request someone's consent - and vice versa - before you can swap voice memos).
Samsung's latest Galaxy Watch 4 offers a similar feature, but with a catch: it only allows you to share voice messages with other people whose watches run the latest version of Google's Wear OS software, and there aren't very many of those available right now.