Although one in seven people own some type of smartwatch—it’s a gadget I couldn’t really understand. The thought of dropping a couple of hundred dollars on one from Apple or Samsung wasn’t something I couldn’t understand. That is until I spent some time with a cheap smartwatch on my wrist.
The whole concept just seemed like a mix of gimmicks and impracticality. I have a wristwatch and a cellphone. Why would I bother trying to combine the two and more than likely be left with something that probably isn’t as good as either?
As it turns out, though, my assumption was wrong—they’re actually pretty good! Here’s how I was converted.
Battery life is a concern when it comes to watches and wearables in general—hence me opting for a couple of watches from the Seiko Solar range up until this point. Those are great, and as long as they see some form of light at least once every six months, you don’t have to worry about winding, charging, or changing a battery.
Conversely, having to plug my phone in or slap it on a wireless charger at least once a day is a bit annoying. Sometimes I forget, and even when I don’t, it’s yet another task to complete (and yet another thing to worry about failing). I don’t need something small like my watch adding to my to-do list if I can avoid it.
Standalone smartwatches exist too, but to get the best out of many of them—including Samsung and Apple’s efforts—many need to be connected to a smartphone. My thinking was, why would you want a watch with only some of the functionality of your phone when you need to keep your phone on you for that functionality to work? Just pull the phone out of your pocket—it’s always going to be more functional than a watch is.
That said, even the best smartwatch is going to be limited by its size, so it makes sense to use them as an accessory to a far more powerful phone. The question then becomes, “What does the watch bring to the table?” If you choose a smartwatch with LTE capabilities, the answer is plenty. Many newer smartwatches feature LTE and GPS, which make it easy to receive texts, track where you go (say, if you love hiking), and send you health alerts.
A lot of the other functions also seemed gimmicky. Society as a whole seemed to look down upon folks who were chatting on those Bluetooth earpieces of the early 2000s. Having a chat with your watch like a low-rent James Bond doesn’t look as cool as it sounded when you were ten. So if you’re even slightly self-conscious, there go calls and texts—theoretically two of the less gimmicky, more practical features.
I tend to be quite active in my spare time. Hiking, calisthenics, VR boxing, and yoga are just a few of the things I get up to during the week. I wanted to better track my metrics and activity, and for this, a smartwatch with fitness tracking features seemed to make the most sense. Instead of adding worries, it would remove a bit of responsibility from my everyday life and make things a bit easier.
Standalone heart rate monitors are widely available and probably more accurate than most smartwatches at tracking your heart rate accurately. Amazon decided to wave the Amazfit Band 5 at me. It’s not top of the line, and it isn’t even the only option in that price bracket, but it looked like a bit of a bargain at around $30.
So, with my expectations about as low as you would expect, I waited for my first “smartwatch” to arrive, strapped it to my arm, got my head around the slightly awkward app that powers it all, then started taking a closer look at my workouts.
Due to a few app issues, my first moments with the Amazfit Band 5 weren’t exactly stress-free. A more expensive watch may have a more straightforward set-up process, but getting the app and finding the obscure menu where you add the device was frustratingly vague. And, of course, I had to create an account. However, these initial annoyances were soon dealt with, and the device almost immediately began to make it all up to me.
My anxiety about having to regularly charge the device disappeared quite quickly. The battery on this thing lasts for days, and it recharges in no time at all. Your mileage may vary depending on the watch you choose and how you use it—but with my cheapo wrist strap, I found placing it on the charger before I hopped in the shower did the job. It has yet to go below 50% battery. If I forget, it’s no big deal as there is enough juice to get me through, and the watch is waterproof anyway.
Call alerts are also more useful than I thought. I’m one of those people whose phone is always on silent or do not disturb, so a little buzz on my wrist is a very unintrusive way to make me more responsive. I responded to texts more quickly and actually answered the phone when people called me. The best bit is, it didn’t get annoying. Constantly hearing a text or ringtone bugs me for some reason, but a slight buzz on my left wrist is fine; it just makes me check my watch, then my phone.
As far as the fitness tracking goes, I have doubts about the accuracy of things like the heart rate monitor and step counter. This isn’t a shock, given the price of the device in the first place, but they do give me a way to roughly track things, which is good enough, and I believe the watch is accurate enough to help me keep myself in particular heart rate zones. Such a feature is great for targeting your workouts and would be difficult to do without any kind of heart rate monitor.
Many smartwatches have GPS functionality; this is either part of the device itself or piggybacking on your phone’s GPS. It should be helpful while hiking, though I’ve found it occasionally inaccurate. It is flatteringly inaccurate, though, despite giving me a couple of extra miles on some trails.
I would say a similar thing with regards to calorie tracking. The watch has data like your height, weight, heart rate, and distance traveled, so it should be able to make an educated guess when it comes to calories burned. Though this should be taken with a pinch of salt, though, so don’t rush to grab a milkshake on the way back from an easy five-mile hike.
The integration with Amazon’s Alexa is massive, too, though the handful of bugs I found was pretty frustrating. My device would randomly disconnect from the Alexa app, and I’d have to sign in again. Sometimes, once I gave a voice command, it told me I’d made too many commands, so I’d have to close and reopen Alexa again if I had a second command to give. Alexa also sets an alarm on both the watch and my bedside Echo Dot. Unfortunately, canceling the alarm via voice command or the Alexa app only canceled it on the Dot, so I had to go through the watch’s menus to cancel the alarm manually.
Still, issues aside, I found it incredibly convenient to have my voice assistant on my wrist. No more messing around with an app if I wasn’t near my Echo Dot or outside the home completely. Just a swipe to the left, and you can do pretty much anything you can usually do in your smart home, like having Alexa remotely turn off my lights, turn on my air conditioner before I get home on a hot summer day, and control my connected smart home gadgets.
Remember earlier when I said if a watch relies on a phone, the watch has to bring something to the table? Alexa integration is a delicious casserole.
Overall, I quickly came to like having a smartwatch, and features that I thought would be incredibly gimmicky actually turned out to be quite fun. Sleep tracking is the standout example of just such a feature, though it’s not even that accurate on more expensive devices. However, it can still help you get a rough idea of how you are sleeping and give you some of the tools you need to work out why you’re not getting an ideal night’s rest.
Alongside sleep monitoring, the Amazfit Band 5 also offers stress monitoring. This is based on your average heart rate and is even less of an exact science than sleep monitoring. Although the same idea applies here, and it’ll give you a visual confirmation that you may be a bit stressed, it could lead to you making lifestyle changes to reduce that stress. It’s an easy way for tech to help you be more mindful.
Furthermore, given recent global medical events, smartwatches’ blood oxygen monitoring capacity may also provide peace of mind (though if you have a genuine medical reason for monitoring your blood oxygen levels, please buy something specifically designed for that). If you’re just occasionally curious, then that feature is just another prong on your digital Swiss Army knife.
I’m one of those people that falls in love with a concept then obsessively chases the ideal version of it. I like the fitness tracking ability, GPS, sleep tracking, and smart home integration features my basic smartwatch offered me; now, I want to upgrade to something that does all of that, but with more accuracy. Fitness tracking was the reason why I gave it a go in the first place, so the more accurate the tracker is, the better picture I get of my fitness and progress. It’s worth the financial investment.
With better trackers also comes better app integration. The Band 5 has me using Amazfit’s Zepp app (Android/iOS), which isn’t great. Getting it to work with Samsung or Google’s fitness apps is more complex, but upgrading to a better smartwatch should fix that problem.
They also look a lot better. A simple black fitness tracker band doesn’t stand out and matches most clothing but can look cheap; that’s fine at the gym or on a hike but not ideal for every occasion. This thing has me obsessively monitoring things like my heart rate, so taking a night off to lob a dress watch on instead is frustrating.
So, in conclusion, don’t drop $30 on a cheap fitness tracker. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get hooked on the concept of a more powerful smartwatch and find that it’s worthwhile to splurge on one that’s far better and worth the extra cost). Here are our favorite smartwatches and fitness trackers: