Technology

Product overview

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Smartwatches

15dec smartwatches hero default

We look at the growing smartwatch market.

Some companies have been dabbling with smartwatches for years, but it’s only been recently that their popularity has taken off. Before you take the plunge and get a high-tech upgrade for your wrist, the most important question you should ask is “why do I want one?”

From our test

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Why a smartwatch?

Why pay hundreds of dollars for a watch that requires daily charging, software updates, and might be obsolete in a few years? Like any tech purchase, you need to think about how you would use it.

Smartwatches are good for receiving notifications, checking the weather, and sending short simple messages. Some of your favourite apps might be compatible with the watch. Some models can control audio from your phone or TV.

Fitness tracking is a big part of almost every smartwatch, so in this way they are like more powerful versions of fitness trackers like Fitbits. Nearly all watches record basic data like steps taken, but some measure more sophisticated movements as well as heart rate. For example, the Apple Watch can track if you are running on a treadmill as opposed to running outside.

All watches get your attention by vibrating, usually with a small tap on your wrist. They buzz longer for more important notifications, such as phone calls. Some watches can give audible "dings".

And they tell time. To activate the screen, you either tap it or make an exaggerated movement with your wrist. Some watches allow the screen to stay on continuously in a low-power state.

Many watches offer different watch faces, from classic analogue faces to colour-changing digital options. Some watch faces have customisable options known as “complications”. This means you can have the weather, your next calendar appointment, or other information all showing alongside the time.

Should you get one?

Right now, smartwatches aren’t a necessity. They can be useful for checking and replying to notifications but overall, we advise waiting to see what the next iteration of the technology can do.

What to look for in a smartwatch is its battery life, how good its screen is and how well it integrates with your phone – and if it will even work with your phone at all. Operating systems are still being developed and all of them have drawbacks.

There are two main operating systems (OS) in the market: Watch OS and Android Wear. Watches not using these systems have their own bespoke OS – such as Samsung’s Tizen system – which requires the matching app on your phone.

To find out what our test of 12 smartwatches found, become a paying Consumer member or log in at the top of the page.

Reliability survey

Apple was streets ahead in wearables reliability, with just 3% of its products needing repair or replacement.

79% of Apple owners were very satisfied and 83% would buy the brand again. Just 54% thought the product was excellent value for money though.

Fitbit recorded the worst reliability for wearables, the only brand below average with more than a quarter (27%) of products needing repair or replacement. As a result, we no longer recommend any Fitbits.

  • Above-average: Apple, Samsung, Garmin
  • Average: TomTom
  • Below-average: Fitbit

Total number surveyed: 1280

For more on wearables reliability, see our survey.

Apple Watch

Apple Watch is managed through an app that comes with the latest versions of iOS and only works with Apple phones. The Watch OS is now on its second iteration, which has more functionality and more watch faces.

Apple Watch has the usual touch interface that most people expect of smartwatches, but it also has a crown (like an analogue watch), which is used for scrolling, zooming and controlling volume. This means it’s important the Apple Watch works for both left and right handers – covering the face with your hand every time you use the physical controls is a pain. Apple Watch is the only smartwatch we tried that asks which hand you wear your watch on.

To open an app you need to find the right icon from a hexagonal cluster of dots (which you can customise via your phone). It can be difficult to find the right app, especially if you have a lot of them.

Apple Watch comes with a variety of watch faces and most are customisable. There are more apps available for Apple Watch than on Android. For example, Air New Zealand even had an app for the Apple Watch before it was released in New Zealand.

Apple Watch comes in two sizes and three different models. Each model is available in a variety of metals with different band types to choose from. Which combination you choose determines the watch’s price. We tested the basic option of the Apple Watch Sport and Apple Watch.

IP ratings

If you plan on taking your devices out and about with you, it’s important they can withstand the elements. Ingress Protection (IP) ratings indicate how resistant a device is to water and solids (dust/dirt).

IP ratings have two numbers. The first relates to solids, such as dust, and has a maximum rating of 6. The second relates to water and goes as high as 8. An X rating means it hasn’t been assessed for that type of protection.

Examples:

  • IP55 and IP65 – Protected from most dust and low-pressure sprayed water
  • IP67 – Dustproof and resistant to water up to a metre in depth
  • IPX7 – Hasn’t been tested on dust particles, but is resistant to water up to a metre in depth.

See here for more on IP ratings and the different levels of protection.

How we test

Performance: All the tests are to be carried out with the smartwatches set on the original factory settings. The watches are then paired with a smartphone with the latest version of the operating system(s) they work with. Before testing starts, the smartwatches are updated to their latest OS.

The test shall only check applications which are either present on the smartwatch or made available via the manufacturer. Software from third party retailers are not be taken into consideration.

Telephone: The functionality using the watch for incoming and outgoing calls, with and without a headset. This includes the various controls on the watch and the call quality.

Text messages: An assessment is to be made of the handling and the ease of reading received and sent text messages.

Step Counter/Fitness Tracker: The tester wears at least four smartwatches on each arm. The tester walks, including up and down stairs for at least 15 minutes with all the paired smartphones in range. The tester then runs for at least 15 minutes without all the paired smartphones in range. The final results are compared against the actual amount of exercise.

Display: The testers look at the setting options and the ease of reading in different situations, e.g. in sunlight, in the dark etc. Any display characteristics that can be measured are checked e.g. contrast, black level etc.

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