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Thinking about a smartwatch? It may be time to take the plunge

Thinking about a smartwatch? It may be time to take the plunge
The Apple Watch remains the one to beat, but a slew of non-Apple smartwatches have arrived that deliver plenty of digital bang for less buck. (Getty Images)

If you’ve been on the fence about getting a smartwatch, your time may have come.

This fall marks a coming of age for the smartwatch industry, with impressive offerings from all the leading players. Don’t be surprised if all these nifty new devices result in some competitive pricing for the holidays.

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The big dog in the kennel remains the Apple Watch, which is simply superior to all other smartwatches for both hardware and software. The new Apple Watch Series 4, true to form, doesn’t disappoint.

But what if an Apple wearable isn’t for you? What if you’ve got an Android phone and want to keep things in the Google family? With those thoughts in mind, I decided to check out some of the leading non-Apple smartwatches available.

Most of the top wearables run Google’s Wear OS software, which works best with Android phones but also syncs with Apple’s iOS if you’re an iPhone user. Wear OS recently was upgraded and offers more versatility than Apple’s walled garden of curated functionality.

All smartwatch makers will tell you they think health- and fitness-related apps are the main driver of sales, but I’m not so sure. Yes, people with certain medical conditions will greatly appreciate the ability to monitor cardiac performance, say, or blood sugar levels.

I suspect, however, most users are attracted to wearables for more benign purposes. The devices are cool mainly as a handy way to receive notifications, and because it’s fun to be able to change watch faces to match your mood or wardrobe.

This is where going the non-Apple route really pays off. Whereas Apple allows for relatively few watch faces, Wear OS offers hundreds, most for free, some costing only a buck or two.

Also, Wear allows for an always-on mode that the Apple Watch doesn’t yet have. Yes, it will run your battery down faster, but isn’t the whole point of a timepiece to be able to easily tell the time?

I find always-on generally means I have to recharge every couple of days, which is pretty much the same frequency as the sometimes-on Apple Watch.

So let’s check out some of the more noteworthy devices.

Samsung's Galaxy Watch can be navigated with a rotating bezel.
Samsung's Galaxy Watch can be navigated with a rotating bezel. (Samsung)

If the Apple Watch is the Mercedes of smartwatches, the Samsung Galaxy Watch is the Lexus. Designed to work with both iOS and Android phones, the Galaxy Watch runs on its own proprietary Tizen operating system, which limits to some extent available apps. But it still offers one of the best wearable experiences around.

The round-faced Galaxy Watch, like many non-Apple wearables, has a more “watchy” appearance, which I like. And along with a touch screen, it has a rotating bezel that makes it easy to interact with.

It takes a little while to get the hang of turning the bezel to navigate the screen, but once you get accustomed, it becomes second nature.

Samsung wants you to be monogamous with its ancillary services, so the Galaxy Watch features Samsung Health rather than the Google Fit of Wear OS devices, and Samsung Pay instead of Google Pay.

I tested the Galaxy Watch with a Samsung Galaxy S9 phone, which allows you to get the most out of the wearable. I’d never played much with an Android phone before this, and I have to say: the S9 is really impressive. There are tons of ways to personalize the handset and it’s fairly easy to customize.

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I used the Galaxy S9 with all the Wear OS watches I test drove, and it worked great with every one of them.

The Galaxy Watch comes in 42-mm and 46-mm sizes (I like the 42), and ranges in price from $300 to $320.

Fossil's Q Explorist, left, is the more macho cousin to the Q Venture.
Fossil's Q Explorist, left, is the more macho cousin to the Q Venture. (Fossil)

Fossil Group has emerged as a powerhouse on the smartwatch scene, with its own branded devices as well as licensing agreements with the likes of BMW, Chaps, Diesel, Emporio Armani and Puma.

The fourth-generation, or Gen-4, Fossil watches are very slick. I wore the Q Explorist, which is the more macho cousin to the smaller Q Venture.

The Q Explorist is a great midrange device that packs all the Wear OS kick you could want in a wearable. Despite its 45-mm screen, it also boasts a slimmer profile than many other smartwatches, thus enhancing its overall watchiness.

The Skagen Falster 2 features a stylish, minimalist design.
The Skagen Falster 2 features a stylish, minimalist design. (Skagen)

Though the Q Explorist is impressive, the Fossil Group offering that totally blew me away was the Skagen-branded Falster 2, which I think is the best-looking smartwatch currently available.

With its minimalist design, 40-mm case and European sense of style, the Falster 2 has an understated quality that’s rare in the wearable world — it doesn’t have to shout to get its point across.

My only beef about both the Explorist and the Falster is their relatively short battery life. You’ll be plugging these babies in on a nightly basis.

How to choose? If your smartwatch needs center on sports and fitness, or you’re looking for a slightly more casual image, the Fossil Q Explorist is the way to go. If your needs are more button-down, you’ll want the Skagen.

The Fossil Q Explorist costs $255 to $275. The Skagen Falster 2 runs between $275 and $295.

Mobvoi's TicWatch Pro is a great mid-range choice.
Mobvoi's TicWatch Pro is a great mid-range choice. (Mobvoi)

The TicWatch Pro from China’s Mobvoi is another midrange wearable worth considering. While a little on the chunky side, the TicWatch Pro packs in a lot of functionality and comes at a price point below that of many competing manufacturers.

Maybe its biggest selling point is dual-screen technology that allows the battery to last as long as a month, providing you use a bare minimum of functionality. This can be a plus when traveling.

The TicWatch Pro, with a 45-mm screen, is one of the larger wearables available, but it still manages to be stylish. The numbered bezel (which, unlike the Galaxy Watch, doesn’t turn) gives it a dive-watch vibe.

The TicWatch Pro costs $250.

Huawei's Watch 2 is a rugged, sporty alternative.
Huawei's Watch 2 is a rugged, sporty alternative. (Huawei)

If you want something with a sportier sensibility, the Huawei Watch 2 is worth a look-see. To be honest, this wasn’t my favorite of all the watches I played with — it seemed a little “plasticky” for my business-casual tastes — but it was the one watch I felt comfortable exposing to the elements at the gym and out hiking.

The 45-mm Watch 2 conveys a general ruggedness and doesn’t appear to mind any rough stuff. Its built-in GPS will be attractive to runners.

Maybe with a nicer band I’d give it higher marks, but my overall impression was that this was more of a starter watch, rather than one you’d settle on for the long haul. Huawei has just introduced a nifty new wearable, the Watch GT, but I haven’t yet tried it out.

The Huawei Watch 2 lists around $300, but I found it online for less.

Withings' Steel HR Sport is a classy hybrid with analog and digital features.
Withings' Steel HR Sport is a classy hybrid with analog and digital features. (Withings)

For those who with old-school sensibilities, you may like the new breed of hybrid smartwatches — traditional analog timepieces that have a digital component on the face.

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Top of the line is the gorgeous Withings Steel HR Sport, which offers the best of both worlds in a 40-mm case. The analog hands are about as watchy as you can get, while there’s a small digital complication that can handle basic fitness tracking, such as sleep, step count and heart rate.

This isn’t a device for people with lofty digital ambitions. The electronic portion runs on proprietary software, which means you’re not going to have access to lots of apps.

But if you’re looking for a wearable that makes a strong statement, lasts for a few weeks on a single charge and accomplishes a handful of basic, Fitbit-type functions, this one rocks.

The Withings Steel HR Sport costs $200.

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