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Apple Watch buyer’s guide: What you need to know about Apple's smartwatches
Apple’s hugely popular smartwatches are on many iPhone owners’ wrists for a reason. They offer unmatched smart features, good fitness tracking, and receive regular updates. This is your guide to the Apple Watch.
What is an Apple Watch?
The Apple Watch is a smartwatch made by Apple, the same company that makes the iPhone. Apple Watches are extremely popular around the world. They’re only compatible with iPhones — sorry Android users — and offer many tie-ins with Apple’s ecosystem. Whether you’re talking with a friend in iMessage or navigating with Apple Maps, the Apple Watch will provide the best smartwatch experience for your iPhone.
Unlike some other major smartwatch platforms, Apple produces the hardware and software for the Apple Watch. This means the company can issue major hardware refreshes and regular software updates without the need to wait on a third-party company for approval. This contrasts with Google’s Wear OS platform; Google is in charge of the Wear OS software, but it doesn’t actually make Wear OS hardware. Thus, the Apple Watch tends to offer a more polished, cohesive experience.
Also read: The best smartwatches you can buy
Why buy an Apple Watch?
There are many reasons to buy an Apple Watch over competing smartwatches. If you own an iPhone, the Apple Watch is the smartwatch you should check out first.
First and foremost, the Apple Watch is a great smartwatch. It comes with Siri, allows you to control smart home devices from your wrist, and you can even answer calls and respond to messages. There are plenty of third-party apps, too, so most of the apps you use on your iPhone are likely available for the Apple Watch.
Also read: The best running watches you can buy
Apple’s wearables are also great fitness trackers. The Apple Watch Series 6, for instance, has the most accurate heart rate sensor we’ve ever used on a wrist-based wearable. Apple Watches can track various sport profiles and give you lots of health data to dig through.
The Apple Watch is also a good pick for those who like to style their wearables. Apple offers a ton of first-party watch straps and a handful of nice case colors, letting you dress up your watch for work or make it more durable if you’re going to the gym.
What experts think of the Apple Watch
We have no issue saying the Apple Watch Series 7 is the best Apple Watch out there, though it’s not the one most people should buy. Still, it represents the best of Apple’s hardware chops and has the software to back it up. We love the big, high-res, always-on display, and robust app ecosystem. We found heart rate monitoring to be slightly more reliable on the Series 6 than on the Series 7 but we’re hopeful Apple will continue to make adjustments.
Most people should buy the Apple Watch SE. It’s far cheaper than the Series 7 but still offers plenty of advanced features. The battery life isn’t very good, but essentially, all other hardware aspects are a win. It has a bright display and feels just as high-end as the more expensive options.
Engadget’s Cherlynn Low said the Apple Watch SE is “a polished introduction to smartwatches.” She noted that the SE’s design is comfortable, the performance is smooth, and that the watch has a comprehensive feature set for the price. She also points out the lack of an always-on display and limited sleep-tracking capabilities. Still, she says, “People contemplating their first smartwatch will find the Watch SE a polished, well-rounded introduction to the category.”
Buying the right Apple Watch for your needs
It’s important to consider all options when buying an Apple Watch. Most Apple Watches have the same or similar software, but do you really need the latest hardware? Could you live without an always-on display, or is that a make-or-break feature for you? Check out an overview of our Apple Watch recommendations below:
- The Apple Watch Series 7 is the best Apple Watch to buy if you want the best of the best Apple has to offer. It has all the latest hardware advancements like an SpO2 sensor, ECG, and a bigger, brighter always-on Retina display than ever before. It’s also available in a cellular-connected variant.
- The Apple Watch Series 6 is the best Apple Watch to buy if you want all of Apple’s top tier sensors, but don’t need the absolutely latest model device. In fact, if you can find the Series 6 on sale, we think its a better buy than the Series 7.
- The Apple Watch SE is the best cheap Apple Watch. There’s no always-on display or advanced health sensors like an ECG or pulse oximeter, but it offers about 90% of the Series 7’s features out of the box.
- The Series 5 shares many similarities with the Series 6 but can often be found for hundreds of dollars cheaper. Read more about the Series 5 in our full review. At this point, we wouldn’t recommend this option.
- The Apple Watch Series 4 is also a decent device, but we feel it’s not worth buying compared to the Series 6 or SE.
- We don’t believe anyone should buy the Apple Watch Series 3, despite Apple still selling it alongside the Series 7 and SE. You can do much better for your money by going with the Series 5 or even 4.
What fitness, health, and safety features does the Apple Watch offer?
Fitness and health features vary from device to device. Most Apple Watch devices support all the features on the list below, though there are some exceptions.
- Steps: All Apple Watches will keep track of your step count throughout the day. During walking activities, your Apple Watch can also track your double support time (% of time both feet are on the ground), step length, and walking speed.
- Distance: Apple Watches will track your running and walking distance. The Apple Health app lets you view your distance in miles or kilometers. All Apple watches except the first-gen and Series 1 models will keep track of your distance during activities with standalone GPS. Series 1 and first-gen models only support connected GPS, so you’ll need to bring your iPhone on a run if you want decent distance data.
- Floors climbed: Modern Apple Watches will track the number of floors you climb during the day. Series 3-5 have altimeters built-in. Series 7, 6 and SE models sport an always-on altimeter, which will update more frequently throughout the day — perfect if you’re into hiking or trail running. Apple Health will also display the speed at which you ascend and descend flights of stairs.
- Calories burned: Apple Watches will track your resting and active calorie burn throughout the day, using your age, height, weight, and gender. If you want to track your food intake or nutrition, we suggest downloading a third-party app like MyFitnessPal instead of using Apple Health’s built-in Nutrition tab.
- Standing time: Apple’s Health app makes standing/moving time a big priority. Your total standing time throughout the day is recorded by your Apple Watch.
- VO2 max: Apple Watches estimate your cardio fitness level, aka VO2 max. This is the maximum amount of oxygen your body uses during exercise at your maximum performance. This data is calculated using your heart rate levels during exercise.
- Heart rate: Speaking of heart rate, all Apple Watches come with an optical sensor for measuring resting and active heart rate throughout the day. The wearable can also notify you if your heart rate is too high or too low during times of inactivity. Irregular heart rhythm notifications are also supported.
- Heart rate variability: Apple Watches also track your heart rate variability or the variation in the time between heartbeats. Interestingly, Apple Watches don’t natively track stress via heart rate variability. You need to download a third-party app for that.
- Blood oxygen saturation (SpO2): The Series 7 and Series 6 can measure your oxygen saturation with a built-in pulse oximeter during the day and night. You’ll see an SpO2 graph in Apple Health, which can also tell you useful information like your daily average.
- Sleep: Apple Watches can natively track sleep in the Sleep app but the data collected is limited. You’ll want to download a third-party sleep app if you want more details.
- Sinus rhythm (ECG): The Apple Watch Series 4, 5, 6, and 7 have a built-in electrocardiogram (ECG) to keep track of your sinus rhythm. ECG data can help you keep an eye on your heart health and potentially discover irregularities. Read all about the Apple Watch’s ECG here.
- Menstrual cycle tracking: Apple Watches can track your menstrual cycle with the Cycle Tracking app. You can track your cycle timeline, symptoms, and get estimates on your next period or fertility windows.
- Fall detection: The Apple Watch Series 4 and later can detect if you’ve taken a hard fall. If you’re immobile, the watch can even connect you to emergency services.
- Emergency SOS: Speaking of emergency services, the Apple Watch has a feature called Emergency SOS that can be used to contact local emergency services if you’re in trouble. Non-cellular Apple Watches need to have a connected iPhone nearby to use the feature.
- Handwashing timer and notifications: If your Apple Watch senses you’re washing your hands, it’ll automatically start a 20-second timer. It’s quite useful.
- Environmental sound levels and noise notifications: Apple Watches Series 4 and later measure ambient sound levels in your environment. If levels surpass a certain decibel threshold, you’ll receive a notification.
We can’t talk about the Apple Watch’s fitness features and not discuss the rings. The Apple Watch’s activity rings (shown above) are available in various watch faces and in the Apple Fitness app. The activity rings slowly close throughout the day as you move your body. Many Apple Watch users say closing the rings is highly addicting.
First, you can close the red ring by burning your personal goal for active calories burned. Next, you can close the green ring by completing 30 minutes of activity at or above a brisk walking pace. Finally, close the blue ring by getting up and moving for at least one minute during 12 hours of the day.
The Apple Fitness app attempts to further incentivize you by giving you awards for completing certain milestones. You can also start competitions with your friends to see who does a better job at closing their rings throughout the week.
What smartwatch features do Apple Watches offer?
Apple Watches are, first and foremost, smartwatches. They support customizable watch faces and a host of first- and third-party apps. Plus, because this is Apple, most of the Apple Watches sold right now are running on the same software and thus have similar software features.
Without further ado, here’s a comprehensive list of the Apple Watch’s smartwatch features:
- Smartphone notifications: The Apple Watch relays your smartphone notifications. All first- and third-party apps are supported. You can dismiss messages from your wrist and reply to notifications from a variety of messaging apps.
- Siri: Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, is available on the Apple Watch. It’s no Google Assistant, but you can summon Siri to ask about the weather, control smart home devices, identify music playing around you, and more. This is made possible by the Apple Watch’s built-in speaker and microphone.
- On-wrist phone calls: You can make and receive phone calls on your Apple Watch. Bluetooth + Wi-Fi-only Apple Watches need to be connected to your iPhone to make calls, while LTE-capable models can handle calls when you’re not anywhere near your phone.
- Offline music playback: You can listen to music, podcasts, and audiobooks offline on your Apple Watch or stream them from your iPhone. You’ll need to mostly rely on Apple’s services, though. You can download music from Apple Music, podcasts from Apple Podcasts, audiobooks purchased from Apple Books, or load your own music onto the watch. Spotify support is rolling out now, too.
- You’ll need a pair of Bluetooth headphones to listen to music on your watch. Check out our favorite true wireless options here.
- iPhone controls: The Apple Watch can control music playing on your smartphone, act as a remote shutter button for your iPhone’s camera, and control your Apple TV device.
- First-party watch faces: Apple offers a variety of first-party watch faces for the Apple Watch. You can customize most of them. There’s bound to be a watch face out there for most people, whether they prefer data-rich, simple, professional, or fun watch faces. Unfortunately, the Apple Watch still doesn’t support third-party watch faces, which is frankly a shame.
- First- and third-party apps: The Apple Watch supports a dedicated App Store. Simply select the App Store icon on your watch, search for the app you want, and download it. This is one of the Apple Watch’s best features — its app ecosystem trounces what you’d find on Wear OS or Samsung watches.
- Onboard maps and navigation: This is worth mentioning because, surprisingly, not all fitness watches support onboard maps. On the Apple Watch, you can download and navigate with Apple Maps or Google Maps.
- Apple Pay: Apple has its own contactless payments service called Apple Pay. Apple Watch users can pay for things in stores with only their smartwatch. We’ll explain this feature in more detail later on.
- Walkie-Talkie: Sure, it’s a niche feature, but it’s something we don’t normally see on smartwatches. You can use your Apple Watch to talk to other Apple Watch owners, walkie-talkie style.
- Wi-Fi+Bluetooth and LTE models: You can buy most Apple watches in two connectivity variants: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-only, or Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and LTE. The former will need to be connected to another iOS device via Bluetooth or to a Wi-Fi network to upload data. The latter can do the same but also hold its own LTE connection, allowing you to make calls, send texts, and more without your phone nearby.
The latest public version of Apple’s smartwatch operating system is watchOS 8. WatchOS 7 however, brought Family Setup, a way for you to set up an Apple Watch for your kids or older family members who don’t own an iPhone. Each family member can have their own phone number, so you can always stay in touch.
Apple’s watchOS 8 is compatible with Series 3, Series 4, Series 5, Series 6, SE, and Series 7 watches. It brought support for portrait mode watch faces, photo sharing, new smart home controls, support for digital home keys, and much more. Read more about watchOS 8 here.
The Apple Watch app
You’ll use the Apple Watch app to pair and sync your Apple Watch, customize watch faces, change various settings, and more. It’s not an app you’ll use every day, but it’s an essential tool for all Apple Watch users. The Apple Watch app comes preloaded on all iPhones, so you shouldn’t need to download it from the App Store.
The app is split up into three tabs: My Watch, Face Gallery, and Discover. My Watch is where you’ll find your installed watch faces, apps, and settings menus. It’s essentially a big list of everything you can change on your smartwatch. It’s pretty straightforward.
If you want to search for a new watch face, select the Face Gallery tab. This tab houses every single watch face Apple offers for its watches. Each watch face style has its own row, where you can swipe through and select the one that suits your needs. Once you find one, tap on it, customize it to your liking, then tap Add. The watch face will be sent to your Apple Watch almost immediately.
Most people will ignore the Discover tab. It houses a small list of “getting started” guides like “What’s new in watchOS” and “Apple Watch User Guide.” There are tips on how to customize your watch, how to use the Health & Fitness apps (more on that later), and how to discover new Apple Watch apps. This can be helpful for new users, but once you know your way around the watch, you can leave this tab be.
The Apple Health app
The Apple Health app, which also comes preloaded on all iPhones, provides you with all your fitness and health data from various sources. It collects everything — activity data from your Apple Watch or other compatible wearable, sleep data from your Withings Sleep mat, meditation sessions from Headspace — and displays it in one easy-to-manage place.
Apple Health supports all types of metrics: steps, calories, weight, active minutes, standing minutes, resting and active heart rate, blood oxygen, heart rate variability, distance, floors climbed, and ECG recordings. It even supports data from devices that can deliver blood glucose, blood pressure, and body temperature. It’s the catch-all health-monitoring app of your dreams.
We encourage you to check out our detailed guide on the Apple Health app for information on using it, which apps work best with it, and more.
The Apple Fitness app
The Apple Fitness app is an essential part of the Apple Watch experience. This is where you’ll find all the fitness data collected by your Apple Watch.
The main Summary tab shows you an overview of your activity for the day. Here, you’ll see your calorie burn, exercise minutes, and standing minutes, with daily graphs for each metric. Your step count, distance, and floors climbed metrics are also displayed here.
You’ll also find your recent workouts listed on the Summary page. Tapping on an activity will pull up all the details your Apple Watch collected during the event, like heart rate, GPS route, weather, cadence, and more.
Again, we urge you to check out this guide, which covers Apple Health, Apple Fitness, and Apple Fitness Plus in detail.
Apple Fitness Plus: What is it, and do you need it?
Speaking of Apple Fitness Plus, Apple’s paid fitness platform offers Apple Watch owners guided workout videos from some of the top trainers in the world. Almost all the workouts can be done at home, provided you have the necessary equipment like a treadmill or stationary bike. Plenty of guided workouts are provided, including HIIT, yoga, core, strength training, treadmill, cycling, rowing, and many more.
Apple Fitness Plus costs $9.99 a month or $79.99 a year. Apple also offers a one-month free trial to new subscribers, so give it a shot if you’d like some help workout out at home.
Once again, we have a guide that lays out the important information you need to know about Apple Fitness Plus, including its comparison to other fitness platforms. Check it out here.
What is Apple Pay?
Apple Pay is Apple’s contactless payment service. You can use it to pay for things in stores, on the web, and in apps. You can also use it to send and receive money to and from your contacts. When used in stores, it utilizes your device’s NFC chip to authenticate payments.
Apple Pay works on all Apple Watches, from Series 1 to Series 6. iPhone compatibility isn’t as comprehensive, though, so you’ll need to check this page to see if your phone is compatible. (It probably is.)
Apple Pay also works with many credit and debit cards from the most popular banks. Hundreds of banks support Apple Pay in the US alone.
Using Apple Pay on the Apple Watch is easy and convenient. Once set up, just double-tap the side button on your watch, hold the watch close to the payment terminal, and wait for a chime or vibration. You may need to enter your PIN or sign on the terminal, but it really couldn’t be easier than that. The draw of using it on your watch, of course, is that it allows you to pay for things much quicker than you could if your phone is in your pocket or bag.
What Apple Watch accessories are available?
Surprisingly, one of the biggest draws to the Apple Watch is the number of quality first- and third-party accessories.
If you want the best Apple Watch bands, you’ll want to check out Apple’s website. The company offers stainless steel, leather, nylon, sport, sport loop, solo loop, and braided solo loop bands for its smartwatches in various styles. Apple also partnered with fashion brand Hermès for exclusive Apple Watch bands, if you don’t mind spending a bit more (okay, a lot more).
Of course, Apple charges an arm and a leg for its first-party options. An easy way to save some money is by shopping for replacement bands on Amazon or other third-party retailers. We’ve linked to some popular options below.
- 38mm Apple Watch replacement bands on Amazon
- 40mm Apple Watch replacement bands on Amazon
- 42mm Apple Watch replacement bands on Amazon
- 44mm Apple Watch replacement bands on Amazon
As far as other accessories go, Apple also sells replacement chargers, docks, carrying cases, and more on its website. Again, a far cheaper way to go about customizing your watch is to buy from a third-party retailer. See below for some of our suggestions.
Problems and solutions
No matter how reliable Apple Watches tend to be, something can always go wrong. Many of the most common Apple Watch issues revolve around notifications and syncing. Luckily, many of them can be fixed with a few software resets.
If notifications aren’t appearing on your Apple Watch, you have a few options. First, check to make sure your watch isn’t in do-not-disturb mode, and make sure notifications are enabled in the Apple Watch app on your phone. If those aren’t the culprits, try restarting your Apple Watch, or try unpairing and re-pairing your Apple Watch to your iPhone. You can see the full instructions here.
You’d be surprised how many issues are caused by bad Bluetooth connections. If your watch doesn’t stay connected to your phone, try toggling on/off Bluetooth connectivity from your iPhone. If that doesn’t work, activate airplane mode on your phone, then deactivate it to restore the connection.
Further reading: The most common Apple Watch problems and how to fix them
If you’re sure your problem is caused by rogue software and you’ve already tried unpairing your device, you may need to resort to factory resetting your Apple Watch. Check out this guide for instructions on how to reset your Apple Watch.
Apple offers some of the best tech support in the business. Apple’s Watch support page is a good resource to help you troubleshoot your problem. Or, you can create a Genius Bar appointment if you need a little extra help. Apple is usually pretty good about helping people out with repairs. And if you pay for AppleCare Plus, you should be able to get your device fixed even if you accidentally damaged it.
Apple Watch vs. the competition
Competition is fierce in the smartwatch landscape. While Apple may have the iPhone market cornered, there are many capable alternatives for those who want something a little more out of their smartwatches. Apple’s main competitors include Garmin, Fitbit, and Samsung. Mobvoi also provides a nice Wear OS alternative, and Huawei has a low-cost option for those who want to save some cash.
- The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 is the best Apple Watch Series 7 alternative. It’s customizable and stylish, and currently the only device running Google’s latest Wear OS 3.
- The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 is the best Apple Watch SE alternative. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a little older at this point, meaning you can find it quite a lot cheaper than the Watch SE.
- The Garmin Venu 2 Plus is the best Apple Watch alternative for fitness tracking, thanks to its accurate fitness tracking and crisp AMOLED display. It’s also a very well-rounded smartwatch overall
- The Fitbit Versa 3 and Fitbit Sense are the best Apple Watch alternatives for health tracking. Both watches are capable sleep trackers and provide a useful snapshot of your overall health.
- The Huawei Watch GT 2e is a cheaper alternative to the Apple Watch. It provides lots of fitness-tracking stats and is reasonably priced.
Top Apple Watch-related questions and answers
Q: Which Apple Watch do I have?
A: It’s easy to find out which Apple Watch you have. Flip your Apple Watch over so you can see the heart rate sensor. Your Apple Watch’s Series number should be listed at the top (i.e., Series 7). From here, you can also check the size of your Apple Watch, what the casing is made from, and more. Alternatively, you can find your Apple Watch model number in the Settings app on your device. Select General, then select About. Your model number is listed in the Model tab, with a series of numbers beginning with the letter M.
Q: Are Apple Watch heart rates accurate?
A: No wrist-based heart rate monitor is as accurate as a heart rate chest strap, but the Apple Watch Series 6 and SE’s heart rate sensors are two of the most accurate ones we’ve tested. They’re able to report accurate data during periods of rest and during high-intensity workouts.
Q: Which Apple Watch is the best?
A: What a question! There are two ways to answer this. Ultimately, the one that suits your needs is the best Apple Watch. On the other hand, the highest-end option you can buy is the Series 7.
Q: Which Apple Watch size should I get?
A: That depends on three things: your budget, your wrist size, and how long you’d like your watch to last on a charge. Larger Apple Watches usually cost $30 more than their smaller counterparts, for some reason. If you have smaller wrists, you might want to consider the smaller Apple Watch size, otherwise, the case and straps might not fit your wrist. Finally, larger models have larger batteries and thus can last longer on a charge — not much longer, but there’s still a difference.
Q: Why is my Apple Watch not connecting to my iPhone?
A: The Apple Watch connects to your phone via Bluetooth, which can be unstable at times. If you’re having trouble connecting your watch to your phone, try restarting both devices. Additionally, you may need to re-pair your watch to your phone if that doesn’t work.
Q: Which Apple Watch has an ECG?
A: The Series 4, Series 5, Series 6, and Series 7 have ECG monitors.
Q: Where is the Apple Watch made?
A: Apple uses factories in various countries to manufacture its products. For example, some Apple Watches are manufactured in China, while others are made in Taiwan.
Q: Can the Apple Watch measure blood oxygen?
A: Yes, the Apple Watch Series 6 and Series 7 can measure blood oxygen levels (aka SpO2).
Q: Can the Apple Watch track sleep?
A: Apple’s wearables can track sleep, but not very well. In short, if you track sleep with your Apple Watch, we recommend downloading a third-party app to handle the data.
Q: Can my Apple Watch charger charge my iPhone?
A: No, your first-party watch charger cannot charge your iPhone, despite the fact that iPhones now support Qi wireless charging.