Do You Need LTE Support on Your Smartwatch?

An in-depth look at the specifics of LTE support

Cellular connectivity is today's killer smartwatch capability. An embedded LTE radio helps smartwatches stay connected in more places, even if Bluetooth and Wi-Fi aren't working well or if a connected smartphone isn't within range.

The two major players in LTE-connected smartwatch platforms are Apple, with the Apple Watch running watchOS, and a broader vendor ecosystem reliant on Google's Wear OS.

LTE Smartwatch Technology

Smartwatches
Image © Elias Villagran/Flickr.

Smartwatches that include an LTE radio connect on their own to cellular networks. They use apps and receive and send messages, even if your phone is far away. In addition to requiring an LTE radio, a smartwatch must connect to the same carrier as your phone. Because the radio, antenna, and battery are smaller in a smartwatch than in a smartphone, you may find that the wrist device doesn't perform as well in marginal cellular connections.

Carriers generally provision LTE-capable smartwatches with a separate data plan and a dedicated phone number, which usually subordinates to the primary phone number for your account. Thus, when someone calls your smartphone, your smartwatch may—if you wish—also ring, and you can even place or accept voice calls through the onboard microphone and speakers of the smartwatch.

Depending on the vendor, you can even pair your LTE-enabled smartwatch with wireless earphones. Pairing an Apple Watch with Apple AirPods, for example, lets you play music and conduct phone conversations using the AirPods rather than the Watch's microphone and speakers.

Carriers also usually charge a bit extra for the voice-and-data component of an LTE-enabled smartwatch, so expect your monthly bill to increase.

Are LTE Smartwatches Worth It?

Smartwatches come in two variants: devices that include an LTE radio, and devices that rely solely on a Bluetooth tether to a connected smartphone.

The use case for the more-expensive LTE variant distills to portability. If you plan to be in places or situations where you need to be connected for messaging or music, but you cannot keep your smartphone handy, then an LTE-enabled smartwatch makes sense. For example, hikers or joggers.

If you rarely have your smartphone out of your line of sight, the extra features of the LTE-enabled smartwatch likely won't be worth the extra cost for the device and for your monthly carrier fees.

LTE Smartwatch Options

The two primary device ecosystems—Apple's watchOS and Google's Wear OS.

Devices Running watchOS

Apple Watch
Apple

At present, watchOS is only available on the Apple Watch series of devices released by Apple, Inc. It's hard-linked with the iOS smartphone operating system and the iPadOS tablet operating system. Thanks to its deep vertical integration, the Apple Watch series of devices pairs perfectly with other Apple hardware, and the platform as of August 2019 has nearly 38 percent of the smartwatch market in North America.

Apple releases both LTE and non-LTE versions of the Apple Watch, with a $100 price differential.

Devices Running Wear OS

Wear OS

Wear OS, developed by Google, is a multi-platform smartwatch operating environment optimized for voice command and swiping. Wear OS devices ship in several different form factors by a variety of different manufacturers, and they work with Android smartphones as well as with iOS devices.

Other Smartwatches

In 2019, a land-grab for wrists erupted across many different manufacturers. Although many different vendors have developed proprietary operating environments and unique devices over the years—think of Fitbit or Pebble or Samsung's home-grown option—there's a growing push to incorporate LTE capability to free athletes, in particular, from having to carry a full smartphone.