The five must-have features that make smartwatches worth buying are currently 1. wrist-based heart rate measurement, 2. sleep tracking, 3. sports tracking, 4. GPS for distance and speed measurement and 5. smart notifications.
I have been asked many times: are smartwatches worth buying? Yes, I think so. You might be surprised by all the things you can do with smartwatches. Smartphones were initially high-end devices that few felt the need to buy and nowadays I couldn’t really imagine not having a smartphone since the benefits are so obvious. I think eventually the same thing will happen to smartwatches but we are currently still at the stage where you might be thinking do the benefits really outweigh the cost.
A decent smartphone can cost from anywhere from $100 to $1000. Smartwatches used to cost $250 and above but there are some good lower-cost options out there as well, even for under $100.
Features that make a Smartwatch worth buying
I’m listing the features based on what are the things I use the most and what I think is essential in a smartwatch. For you, the list might be in a totally different order based on your preferences. I like to do sports and also health-related features are high on the list for me.
1. Heart Rate monitoring
For me, wrist-based heart monitoring has become essential. I find it so valuable to be able to track my resting heart rate since that’s an indication of my physical condition and how my training has effected. A lower resting heart rate is an indication of better physical health. Also seeing the heart rate when going for a run or cycling or any other activity is great and something I expect to have in my fitness tracker or smartwatch.
It was back in 2015 when the Fitbit Charge HR came out and I got used to having this feature I haven’t ever wanted a device without it.
Also if you consider the possibly life-saving health benefits that heart rate monitoring might have in the future I think this is just a must-have. I was researching how smartwatches can be used to detect heart attacks and discovered that there is some really interesting research going on where heart rate monitoring data is being used to detect abnormal heart rhythms and other conditions. You can read about it in my article about smartwatches and heart attacks here.
2. Sleep Tracking
I was amazed by the accuracy of the sleep tracking features on the Fitbit Charge HR back in 2015 and found this data to be really useful. Studies have shown how important sleep is and if you are having trouble getting enough sleep due to staying up too late perhaps it might be a good idea to start tracking your sleep amount and getting motivated to correct your sleeping rhythms.
Almost all smartwatches have sleep tracking nowadays and for me, it’s also important to have a good smartphone app where I can easily see how much sleep I’m getting. I feel that this is such an important feature that I have put it high up into my top 5 must-have features.
My favorite sleep tracking feature is the Polar Nightly Recharge which I reviewed recently.
3. Sports Tracking
Sports tracking features have existed in fitness trackers before smartwatches and I still feel that this is something really important. I think it’s really motivating to see am I meeting my goal of doing sports 3 times per week and how many active minutes I have per week.
During the summertime, I like to run, roller skate and go cycling. I like to compete with myself and why not with my peers as well and what better way to do this than track my distance and speed each time and try to beat my previous exercises.
I prefer not having multiple devices for different purposes so why not combine it all in one device, a smartwatch, I wear all the time every day.
Smartwatches have recently also gotten better at tracking sports. My Fitbit Charge HR wasn’t really water resistant so swimming was out of the question. My next device was the Polar A360 that allowed me to swim but not really track my swims. Next, I got the Garmin Vivoactive Hr and then the Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music (my review here) which both allows me to track my swims distance and time and get really accurate results for my pool swims. This helps since I don’t have to keep count of laps and I can also compare my swims from one week to another and see progress.
4. GPS for Tracking Distance and Speed
I’m listing GPS as a must-have feature for myself since it’s so important for me to get the speed and distance for my outdoor sports. I was doing a lot of biking during high-school and college from 1999 to 2005 and I was using one of those bicycle odometers that showed the distance and speed and was always fascinated with tracking my results. Next game smartphones with GPS and Nokia Sports tracker app around 2005 and now GPS chips are so small and inexpensive that it makes perfect sense putting them on smartwatches.
On the Fitbit Charge HR there was no GPS and using the smartphone GPS was possible but inconvenient and sometimes not as accurate. When buying a smartwatch if sports is at all important to you I would recommend getting a smartwatch which has GPS.
5. Smart Notifications
Getting my smartphone notifications on my smartwatch has become surprisingly useful for me. Before actually using this feature I used to think it’s kind of a gimmick. But now after having used this feature for multiple years, I have started to rely on this feature more and more.
I do understand why some say on Reddit that this is a must-have feature for them.
On most devices, you can choose which notifications you want to get on your smartwatch. I find it really useful to get my incoming call, WhatsApp, SMS and calendar notifications. I don’t want to have my wrist vibrating and interrupting me all the time so I disable all the social media notifications immediately.
6. Offline Music support
It’s still quite rare to have offline music support on smartwatches, but it’s becoming a feature to look for when considering a smartwatch purchase if you like to workout without your smartphone.
If you are using Spotify or Deezer it’s most convenient to get a smartwatch that supports syncing your playlist on to your device. In this case, you don’t need to own your music and you don’t need to deal with music in a different way when you want to listen to it via your smartwatch. Smartwatches that support offline Spotify and Deezer can be found mainly from Garmin, Samsung, and Fitbit. I have used the Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music smartwatch and syncing the music and playback is pretty straight forward. If music playback is important for you, my review of the Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music will surely be of interest.
There are also devices that don’t support music services like Spotify and Deezer but still allow you to transfer your own music to the device. For example, the Amazfit Stratos has storage for music and you can transfer the music from your PC on to the smartwatch.
7. Telling time
A pretty obvious feature on a smartwatch is the capability of telling the time. People often say they don’t need a watch since they can tell the time by checking their smartphone. That’s true but it’s much more convenient to check it on your wrist rather than pulling out your phone from your pocket. In addition to the time, I often check the date on my watch.
8. Contactless Payment
Contactless payment first became available on debit cards and then on smartphones with Apple Pay and Android Pay. Later smartwatch manufacturers came out with Samsung Pay, Fitbit Pay, and Garmin Pay. These mobile payment systems work with contactless payment readers so that you can pay without your card or phone. Basically, it should work at any store offering contactless payment.
I think contactless payment on the smartwatch is not really a must have and I haven’t tried it yet. Contactless payment with the debit card is really handy though and I use it each time if the purchase is under the limit it works with. I can see though how it would be helpful to enable it on my watch so that I don’t need to pull out my wallet or I could go for a run and pop by the store to get something to drink without bringing a debit card or smartphone with me.
9. Calling directly from the Smartwatch
Cellular smartwatches with LTE are available and I would really enjoy this feature if it weren’t for the downside of having a shorter battery life. I like to be reachable by my family even if I go to the gym or for a run so if I had a cellular smartwatch then I could leave my smartphone at home. Surely I wouldn’t like to talk on my watch for extended periods of time but on the other hand, if I’m going out for a run I would have a set of Bluetooth headphones and talking via those would be convenient.
Many smartwatches have some sort of navigation features providing you with arrows and distance but some even offer a map and turn by turn navigation like you are used to on the smartphone. The Apple Watch even provides a more discreet way of directing you with vibrating in different ways to tell you should you turn left or right. This might come in handy if you are visiting a new city and want to get walking directions and look at the views at the same time.
11. Blood pressure measurement
Some smartwatches provide blood pressure estimates with sensors. Estimates might not be very useful but there are also FDA approved medical device grade blood pressure measurement options like the Omron Heart Guide smartwatch which was recently released at CES 2019. I imagine this would be really handy for someone who needs to track their blood pressure multiple times per day.
The Omron device is quite expensive and doesn’t combine all the other features into the device so it isn’t my favorite choice though.
Conclusion and devices to consider
As you have read there is a multitude of features that come with smartwatches that make them worthwhile. There are many things like heart rate monitoring and sports tracking which your smartphone just can’t do and other features which just are more convenient on the smartwatch or perhaps you want to leave your bulky smartphone in the locker room while doing a workout just with your smartwatch.
I think Garmin and Fitbit provide some of the most advanced features for health savvy users and Apple Watch has perhaps the best smart features. These devices can range from anywhere from 150USD to 500USD. If you are looking for something less expensive you could have a look at what Xiaomi and Amazfit provide. You can find my recommendations on my recommended gear page.