Friends often tell me they’re afraid to spend hundreds on a smartwatch because they’re worried their investment will be obsolete in a year. If that’s been holding you back, then this could be the best year to take the plunge in quite some time.
I’ve been testing the most popular smartwatch vendors’ latest offerings – the Apple Watch Series 8, Fitbit’s Sense 2 and the Galaxy Watch5 Pro from Samsung – and as a group, it is the most complete, refined crop I’ve ever seen.
They’ve all got advanced biometric sensors to better gauge fitness, sleep and stress. They’re all dustproof and water resistant down to 50 meters. They’ll wake you up, play music and keep you up to date all day. They’ll even help you wind down at night.
Best of all for the obsolescence averse, those are all refinements of existing capabilities. The flow of new features has slowed to a trickle. Which means that this season’s wearables aren’t just dust and water resistant. Practically speaking, they’re also buyers’ remorse-proof.
Of course, there are some key differences between them. Here’s what you need to know.
How does the Apple Watch Series 8 stack up?
The Series 8 ($399 to $529 for 45mm, LTE) is a great watch. It’s both sturdy and elegant, with advanced biometrics for health and wellness. Communications are visually pleasing and intuitive. And the new watch faces are cool.
But in many ways, it’s the same great watch as its predecessor, the Series 7. The displays are identical for both the standard 41mm version and the 45mm option, which I’ve been testing. There’s no real boost in processor performance. Claimed battery life remains at 18 hours, the shortest of the bunch.
That said, there is a bare-bones low-power mode that will get you to 36 hours between charges. In my testing, I’ve had no trouble getting a full day out of the device in full-power mode. And fast charging will get you whole again in under an hour, just like the Series 7.
There are a couple of capabilities that are new to Apple, if not to wearables. The first is a pair of temperature sensors, one on each side to help pinpoint skin temp variations by weeding out environmental influences. The sensors are being used to deliver more precise ovulation tracking and forecasting for those who ovulate.
The other is sleep stage tracking, which is a far better gauge of sleep quality than logging how long you stayed in bed and how much you moved during the night. Others have been tracking sleep stages for a few years, and it’s so nice that Apple’s doing it now as well. The Series 8 uses the temperature sensors, by the way, to help home in on your sleep stages.
There is one notable industry first in the Series 8, and that’s crash detection. Crash detection inevitably will save some lives by sensing wrecks and summoning help when people can’t.
But like built-in airbags, most of us will never see the feature in action. And given that more vehicles are coming equipped with the same capability, it’s not clear how many of us even need it.
The Series 8 device I’ve been testing includes built-in LTE, which is not new. But it’s great for times when you want to leave your phone behind. And the on-its-own connection keeps getting better with more and more app support.
Remember, the Series 8 – like all Apple Watches – only works with iPhones.
What does the Fitbit Sense 2 do?
Fitbit historically has excelled at fitness and wellness stats and insights, but lagged on other smartwatch capabilities and overall durability.
The new Sense 2 ($299.95), which is available today, has closed the gap on features like music streaming, storage and notifications. The screen also seems brighter and sharper than the original Sense. And from what I’ve seen so far, pedestrian annoyances like pressing the side button and securing wristbands seem to be resolved.
The Sense 2 is replacing the original Sense, which came out two years ago. Even so, the hardware upgrades are nuanced. But that’s more a sign of market maturity than anything.
With the Sense 2, Fitbit is doubling down on stress monitoring and management. The device features an upgraded electrodermal activity, or EDA, sensor that continually watches for signs of stress.
In addition to monitoring sleep, the tracker pioneer has also been ramping a readiness gauge to let you know how prepared you are for a day of training and problem solving. Fitbit’s metric is improving, though it’s still not as good as Oura Ring, the gold standard for recovery.
The Sense 2 has by far the best battery life of the bunch. Fitbit promises at least six days. I’ve been getting at least a week on a single charge. It’s also the only one that works on both Android and iOS.
Samsung Galaxy Watch5 Pro Review
Unlike the Apple and Fitbit, which more or less stood pat with their hardware designs, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch ($449.99, $499.99 with LTE) series has been undergoing some changes.
With last year’s Galaxy Watch4, Samsung switched to Google’s Android Wear OS. And this year, the electronics giant redesigned the hardware.
The Watch5 Pro is not only more attractive, but its new shape makes better skin contact for more accurate biometric readings. Among other things, that’s helped improve the Pro’s sleep stage tracking and companion insights, which are now on par with the more mature Fitbit and Oura Ring offerings.
And with the addition of sapphire crystal glass and titanium case, the Watch5 Pro is more durable. The battery is larger as well. In testing, I safely got three days between charges, and the new fast charging is about as fast as Apple’s.
The Watch5 Pro will only pair with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
The verdict between Samsung, Fitbit and Apple smartwatches?
There are far fewer differences between what smartwatches can do today. So if you want to judge a smartwatch by its cover, then by all means feel free.
At under $300, Fitbit’s Sense 2 is the clear budget choice. And it will work with pretty much any smartphone available today. The Samsung Galaxy Watch5 Pro and the Apple Watch Series 8 are both great smartwatches, but they’ll only work with their manufacturers’ phones. So unless you’re thinking about switching sides, you only have one choice between them.
Whichever you choose, know this: You’ll still feel just as good about your purchase in a year, when the 2023 models arrive.
USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.
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