What you need to know before buying a smartwatch

By B.D. Scheffel

Watches these days can do so much more than tell time. Connected devices from Apple, Samsung, Pebble, Motorola and others offer a number of useful features accessible with a tap to the wrist.

Fifty million people will be buying smartwatches this year, according to tech research company Gartner Inc. If you’re thinking about joining this crowd, here’s some things you should know about how smartwatches work and what they can do.

Many of the things a smartwatch does you’re probably already doing with a smartphone – answer calls, read and send messages, get directions, play music or pay for things with Google Wallet or Apple Pay. You won’t want to use a wearable device the same way you use a phone, however. Reading the news over breakfast on a screen that’s not much bigger than a postage stamp is impractical, but if you like to keep up to date on what’s going on in the world you can have headlines and sports scores sent to a smartwatch. If you wish to read more, a tap sends it to your phone, where you can read the story in a web browser.

Aside from telling time, the primary function of a smartwatch is to receive notifications. It may seem like frequent alerts about a text message, email or an appointment on your calendar would be an intrusion, but by controlling exactly which notifications get sent to your wrist, a smartwatch can be a productivity tool. Think about how many times a day you pick up your phone and press a button to see why it buzzed or to check for missed messages. A smartwatch eliminates a lot of distraction. A gentle tap on the wrist tells you and only you – it’s silent – that you have a notification. Simply glance at your watch and if it isn’t urgent, carry on with what you’re doing.

Many wearers are attracted to smartwatches’ fitness features. Step counters and heart rate monitors for measuring workout intensity are common. Most fully featured models use mapping technology to track activities with a higher degree of accuracy. Some have built-in GPS allowing you to leave your phone at home when you go for a run, but most rely on a smartphone connection. It’s important to note that not all watches that have these fitness features are true smartwatches. Fitness trackers, including most Garmin, Fitbit and Jawbone models, are a separate product category.

Good smartwatches are designed with simplicity in mind. Most have a touch-screen interface similar to a smartphone or tablet. A few models, including some made by Pebble, feature an e-paper display like what you find on an Amazon Kindle or other e-reader. E-paper smartwatches are limited in their ability to display images, but usually have longer battery life.

Taps and swipes are used to control smartwatches. Some can tell the difference between a deep press and a light tap. Controls vary from watch to watch, but a soft tap, for example, may be used to confirm a command, like pressing the Enter key on a keyboard. A firmer press may be used to open an app. Swipe left or right to flip between apps or messages.

Many smartwatches have motion sensors that allow the wearer to control them by making certain movements with the wrist. Raising your arm as you would to check the time on a regular watch, for example, will activate the screen and display notifications. A flick of the wrist skips to the next song on a music player. Some watches also have voice-activated controls.

Most smartwatches allow customization, such as swapping digital watch faces and installing apps from an online app store. With more basic smartwatches, you’re limited to pre-installed applications. Some watches have detachable bands, allowing the wearer to change the look and feel.

Smartwatches connect to smartphones via Bluetooth or radio-frequency identification technology called Near Field Communication. The setup is simple and you should only have to do it once. It’s similar to pairing a device to a wireless headset. Once a watch and phone are paired, they’ll continue to “talk” to each other until you tell your phone to “forget” the connection.

You’ll need to be sure the watch you buy is compatible with your smartphone. Many, but not all, watches work with both iPhones and Android smartphones, but some manufacturers will only allow you to use their smartwatch with their smartphones. An Apple Watch will work only with an iPhone, but it’s not the only watch option for Apple users.

The need to own a smartphone to use a smartwatch is a drawback for some, but perhaps the biggest limitation is battery life. Many require charging every day or two. Some claim to last more than week, but there may be tradeoffs like bulkiness or limited features.

Expect to pay around £299 ($400) and up for a fully featured smartwatch. More basic watches sell for much less, even some of good quality, but be sure any smartwatch you buy has all the features you want. For the fashion-minded, designer smartwatches can run into thousands of pounds/dollars.