Do You Need LTE Support on Your Smartwatch?

An in-depth look at the specifics of LTE support

Cellular connectivity is a sought-after 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 the Google Wear OS.

LTE Smartwatch Technology

Smartwatches that include an LTE radio connect to cellular networks automatically. These devices 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 the phone. Because the radio, antenna, and battery are smaller in a smartwatch than in a smartphone, you may find that a wrist device doesn't perform as well in marginal cellular connections.

Multiple Smartwatches on one arm
Elias Villagran / Flickr

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

Depending on the vendor, you can pair an 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 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 main benefit of the more expensive LTE variant is portability. If you plan to be in places or situations where you need to be connected for messaging or music but can't keep your smartphone handy–for example, while hiking or jogging–an LTE-enabled smartwatch makes sense.

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 the monthly carrier fees.

LTE Smartwatch Options

You can choose a smartwatch from two major ecosystems—the Apple watchOS and Google Wear OS.

Devices With watchOS

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. Because of its deep vertical integration, the Apple Watch series of devices pairs perfectly with other Apple hardware, and the platform has nearly 38% of the smartwatch market in North America.

Apple Watch
Apple, Inc.

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

Devices With Wear OS

The Google-developed Wear OS is a multi-platform smartwatch operating environment optimized for voice commands and swiping. Wear OS devices ship in several models by a variety of manufacturers, and they work with both Android and iOS phones and tablets.

Using a Wear OS smartwatch to view a weather app
Hinterhaus Productions / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Other Smartwatches

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