What Is a Smartwatch?

Everything you need to know about smartwatches

Close up of woman using smart watch
Tim Robberts / Getty Images

A smartwatch is a portable device that's designed to be worn on the wrist, just like a traditional watch. Smartwatches, however, like smartphones, have touchscreens, support apps, and often record heart rate and other vital signs.

The Apple Watch, as well as a number of other Android Wear models, have more and more consumers seeing the value of wearing a mini computer on their wrist. After all, humans have been wearing timepieces for centuries, so it makes perfect sense to package the latest mobile technology into this convenient form factor.

Whether you’re new to smartwatches in general or are looking to find the perfect device for you, this overview should give you a solid understanding of this emerging wearable category.

Short History of the Smartwatch

While digital watches have been around for decades, tech companies only recently began releasing watches with smartphone-like abilities.

Apple, Samsung, Sony and other major players have smartwatches on the market, but it’s actually a small startup that deserves credit for popularizing the modern-day smartwatch. When Pebble announced its first smartwatch in 2013, it raised a record amount of funding on Kickstarter and went on to sell more than 1 million units.

What Do Smartwatches Do?

It’s important to assess your needs, aesthetic taste and budget when choosing a smartwatch, but at the bare minimum a smartwatch should display messages and notifications from your smartphone.

Beyond that, look for the following features in a smartwatch:

  • Apps: Beyond displaying notifications from your phone, a smartwatch is only as good as the apps it supports. Luckily, both Google and Apple-powered watches will give you plenty of choices. For example, the Apple Watch will launch with an Uber app, letting you hail a cab from your wrist, along with airline apps that will let your watch act as a digital boarding pass.
  • Good battery life: A smartwatch is supposed to make life easier, so you shouldn’t have to recharge it constantly. Look for a model with long enough battery life to get you through at least one day. Some models, including the Pebble Steel, will last for several days, but the downside is a black and white (rather than color) display.
  • Answer messages by voice: Things get really get good when you have the ability to answer messages without taking your phone out of your pocket. Google’s Android Wear operating system, which you’ll find running on smartwatches from LG, Motorola and many others, allows users to reply to texts by voice.
  • Fitness tracking: If you’re a hard-core athlete, a dedicated fitness band is likely a better choice than a smartwatch. Still, many smartwatches include a heart rate monitor and a pedometer to help track your workouts.

What's Next for Smartwatches

Smartwatches are slowly but surely becoming more mainstream gadgets. While the popularity of the Apple Watch is helping the category grow, so are developments and design tweaks that make smartwatches work more seamlessly with a user’s smartphone.

Companies face another challenge in bringing smartwatches to the mainstream: design.

Most people won’t slap just any old watch on their wrist, so it’s important that these wearables look good in addition to offering advanced functionality. The LG G Watch Urbane, Motorola Moto 360, Pebble Steel and Apple Edition are all examples of smartwatches with classier-than-average looks, and you should expect many more fancy models over the next few years.

While some smartwatches, such as the Apple Watch Edition, will set you back more than $1,000 USD, good-looking options will increasingly become available at much lower price points, too.