What Is a Smartwatch?

Everything you need to know about smartwatches

Close up of woman using smart watch
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A smartwatch is a portable device that's designed to be worn on a wrist. Smartwatches — like smartphones — use touchscreens, offer apps, and often record your heart rate and other vital signs.

The Apple Watch and Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) models prompted more consumers to appreciate the usefulness of wearing a mini computer on their wrists. In addition, specialty smartwatches for outdoor activities often supplement other, bulkier devices in an adventurer's tool kit.

Short History of the Smartwatch

While digital watches have been around for decades — some with abilities like calculators and unit converters — only in the 2010s did tech companies begin releasing watches with smartphone-like abilities.

Apple, Samsung, Sony, and other major players offer smartwatches on the consumer market, but a small startup actually 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.

At the same time, advances in silicon miniaturization opened the door to other kinds of dedicated-purpose smartwatches. Companies like Garmin, for example, support smartwatches like the Fenix, which are more rugged and are optimized with sensors and trackers to support back-country expeditions. Likewise, companies like Suunto released smartwatches optimized for scuba diving that withstand extended time at significant depths.

What Do Smartwatches Do?

Most smartwatches — whether they're intended for daily use (as with the Apple Watch) or for specific purposes (as with the Garmin Fenix) — offer a suite of standard features:

  • Notifications: Smartphones display notifications to alert you of important events or activities. The types of notifications differ; devices connected to a smartphone may simply mirror the phone's notifications on your wrist, but other smartwatches display notifications that only a wearable could provide. For example, the newest Apple Watch includes a fall sensor. If you fall while wearing the watch, the watch senses your subsequent movement; if it doesn't detect any, it'll send a series of escalating notifications. Fail to respond to the notification, and the watch will assume you're injured and alert authorities on your behalf.
  • Apps: Beyond displaying notifications from your phone, a smartwatch is only as good as the apps it supports. App ecosystems vary, and they're tied to either Apple's or Google's environments. Smartwatches with a dedicated purpose, such as for hiking or diving, generally support the apps they need to accomplish that purpose without the opportunity to add other kinds of apps.
  • Media management: Most smartwatches paired with smartphones can manage media playback for you. For example, when you're listening to music on an iPhone using Apple's AirPods, you can use your Apple Watch to change volume and tracks.
  • Answer messages by voice: Remember the old Dick Tracy comics, where the hero detective used a watch as a phone? Modern smartwatches running either the watchOS or Wear OS operating systems support voice dictation.
  • 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.
  • GPS: Most smartwatches include a GPS for tracking your location or receiving location-specific alerts.
  • Good battery life: Modern smartwatches feature batteries that will get you through the day, with normal use, with a bit of juice still left to go. Battery use varies; the Apple Watch typically gets 18 hours of normal use on a single charge, while the Pebble gets two or three days.

    Types of Smartwatches

    Broadly speaking, smartwatches occupy two niches in the wearables market. First, a general-purpose smartwatch — like the Apple Watch and most Google-powered Wear OS devices — blend form and function. They're designed to replace mechanical wristwatches and are heavily smartphone-dependent. Think of them as a support device for your phone that you happen to keep on your wrist.

    You'll see vendor-specific classes of general-purpose smartwatches in the consumer market:

    Man hand with Apple Watch and app Icon on screen
     
    • Apple Watch: Designed and sold by Apple
    • Wear OS watches: Designed and sold by many vendors, using Google's Wear OS operating system
    • Tizen watches: Proprietary operating system designed by Samsung for its popular Galaxy line of smartwatches

    The other niche includes specialty devices intended for specific-use cases. These devices often offer a more robust version of a fitness tracker, insofar as they bleed between a phone-dependent smartwatch and a stand-alone fitness tracker like a Fitbit.

    Examples of these specialized devices include:

    Garmin vivofit, sport fitness tracker and clock
    franckreporter/Getty Images
    • Hiking watches: Intended for remote travel and featuring solid battery life, GPS tracking and navigation, basic vitals, and weather forecasting. Often engineered for advanced durability to protect against bumps, drops, dust, and water. Examples include the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus, the Suunto 9 Baro, and the TomTom Adventurer.
    • Diving watches: Connect your first-stage regulator to a Bluetooth transmitter to use a diving watch. Garmin's Descent Mk1 and Suunto's DX offer depth, time-remaining, temperature, and other important indicators.
    • Flying watches: A niche market, but Garmin's D2 Delta PX offers on-wrist pulse Ox, a logbook, a GPS-powered moving map, and NEXRAD weather.

    Market Growth

    Smartwatches appear to be settling into a steep growth curve in the late 2010s in terms of global market adoption. Data from Statista show that sales have risen from 5 million units worldwide in 2014 to an estimated 141 million in 2018. Apple's market share rose from 13 percent to 17 percent from the second fiscal quarter of 2017 to the same period in 2018; Apple experienced year-over-year growth of more than 38 percent for its Apple Watch Series 3 — despite that the Series 4, a major upgrade, was already on the horizon. During the same period, specialty vendors like Garmin saw a 4.1 percent increase in year-over-year growth, while fitness-tracker-only vendors like Fitbit saw a nearly 22 percent market plunge.