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Apple, Fitbit, Fossil, Samsung: How to choose the right smartwatch

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Apple, Fitbit, Fossil, Samsung: How to choose the right smartwatch

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You might think twice about using a fitness app to keep up with your workouts.
USA TODAY

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – Psst … looking hard for a smartwatch? So this could end up being just the season.

In fact, the theme for this year's full-featured wearables crop is less about generating new features like last year, and more about including the latest technology at lower prices. Apple introduced the Apple Watch Series 5 at its traditional $ 399 and $ 499 premium price points. But by announcing the Series 5, the market leader also recognized the growing value segment by lowering the watch's price. Series 3 for $ 199 in GPS version and $ 299 in cell phone.

Fitbit and Samsung, the next two largest smart watch suppliers in the US, maintained their premium lines and instead targeted the top prices with new products: Fitbit's Versa 2, for $ 199, and US $ 299, Samsung Active2.

Today, all of this is not just good news for your wallet. It's also a sign that the parade of new technologies is slowing down, which means you won't feel that the watch you bought this season will be obsolete next season.

A handful of watches, from left to right: Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2, Fitbit Versa 2, Apple Watch Series 5, Fossil Gen 5. (Photo: Mike Feibus)

I evaluated the latest devices from all three vendors, as well as Fossil's Gen 5 Carlyle, Google's top Wear OS partner, priced at $ 295.

Here is my opinion:

Apple Watch Series 5

The 5 Series is certainly an attractive and attractive smartwatch. That said, the Series 4 enhancements pale in comparison to last year's model jump over the Series 3. Which probably explains why Apple kept the Series 3 as its basic option and pulled out the Series 4.

Interestingly, while the Series 5 retains the brand's soft-rectangular style, choosing the new one-wrist watch on a schedule has never been easier. Thanks to the new screen always active for this.

The always-on feature also sets the Series 5 apart from the smartwatches reviewed here. It displays a blank on black version of the watch face you have selected and is even readable under the bright Arizona sun. The others also have an always on option. But they offer similar outdoor visibility or clock flexibility, but not both.

The Apple Watch Series 5 is the first Apple Watch to offer an "always on" Retina display – without affecting the battery. (Photo: 2019 Apple Inc. All rights reserved.)

The company added two more hardware features. One is an integrated compass. Works well and would undoubtedly be useful for wild activities such as hiking out of the way.

The other is called the international emergency, a borderless extension of the SOS feature of earlier watches. This, coupled with fall detection and the Series 4 integrated ECG, is helping to attract older consumers who have not shown as much interest in smart watches as younger buyers.

As with all Apple Watches, the 5 Series is sleek, capable and easy to use. Notifications, for example, often extract more media and formatting from the original phone alert than others. Like my CBS Sports alerts, which display photos that come with Apple Watch, but not the other devices.

Sleeping at work? New Apple Watch, but still no sleep tracking

The Health app incorporates some metrics that others also offer, such as high and low heart rates and resting heart rates – which I find particularly valuable for measuring fitness levels over time. And of course, Apple is still alone in offering applications with irregular heart rate detection and associated ECG.

Certainly, Apple is a leader in the healthcare space in many ways. This is why it is so surprising that neither Apple nor third-party developers have advanced sleep quality assessment beyond motion detection. To add more advanced quality metrics, Apple would need to incorporate heart rate. It is not for lack of quality detection.

I suspect it has more to do with battery life, which is similar to generations before 18 hours. Samsung and Fitbit did not begin incorporating the most sophisticated sleep tracking until they began offering battery life smart watches of several days, one and two years ago, respectively. Perhaps the same will happen soon at Apple.

Fitbit Versa 2

While Fitbit is a pioneer in the fitness tracker space, it is new to smartwatches, introducing its first just two years ago. This product, Fitbit Ionic, is still available for $ 249.

Instead of upgrading Ionic, Fitbit followed up with more popular products at a price of $ 199: Versa in 2018 and this season Versa 2. With Versa 2, the company also reduced the price of Versa Lite, a lower cost spinoff from the original to $ 159.

You can read my full review of Versa 2, but briefly: It's a compelling sequence, with a much improved screen and even longer battery life. It builds on Fitbit's heritage in fitness tracking and, as such, is still the best at providing details and insight into exercise, fitness and sleep. I find Fitbit's new Sleep Score feature an attractive enhancement.

That said, the health gap between Fitbit and others is narrowing. Samsung has made great strides and Apple, as mentioned, is also making headway.

Before Apple Watch, there was Fitbit: A decade following our steps

What makes Fitbit increasingly vulnerable is that, with its weight loss advantage, it doesn't keep up with the first smartwatch vendors, you know, the smartwatch stuff.

How CBS Sports Looks Like Fitbit (Photo: Mike Feibus)

Versa 2, for example, is now the only device in the price range without a built-in speaker or GPS. Fitbit integrated Amazon's Alexa and added a microphone interface. The microphone is off by default, so you must press and hold the side switch to activate. I see this as a feature rather than a bug, for privacy reasons. And the lack of a speaker doesn't bother me. I am pleased to read Alexa's answers on screen, especially in crowded areas.

Other smartphone-style efforts are also lacking. The new Spotify app, for example, is little more than a play / pause / forward / rewind remote control. Spotify apps on the other three smartwatches offer much more.

And while the always-on screen is visible from the outside, Versa 2 displays little more than time. And the only way to wake up the clock is to press the side button.

Aesthetically, calendar alerts, call notifications, and other flags in Versa 2 are the weakest in the group. In contrast to the original Apple Watch alerts, for example, CBS Sports updates often truncate the score, so I usually see only the visiting team's score, as listed first.

If your main interest is health, fitness and sleep, this is all a small change. Versa 2 deserves your attention.

Fossil Gen 5

The Fossil Gen 5 – particularly the Carlyle model with the stainless steel strap I was sent for review – is undoubtedly a men's watch.

It is heavy and formidable. Like a real watch. The screen is also beautiful. The interface is clean and user friendly. The navigation is simple. The notifications are attractive. Gen 5 works well. What is saying something for Google Wear OS watches.

How CBS Sports Appears on the Fossil Gen 5 Smartwatch (Photo: Mike Feibus)

But I found the equal parts clock frustrating and satisfying. The dial is the weakest of the watches here. During the initial setup, the screen was actually so dark that I could barely read the instructions. I suspect this has something to do with battery life management, which consistently was the poorest in the group. Sometimes Carlyle only lasted 12 hours. Never exceeded 20.

There are other battery saving tricks employed. The watch only shows your heart rate once every 20 minutes, for example, unless you are exercising. And it doesn't monitor sleep using heart rate, just movement. At least I couldn't find an app that uses heart rate for sleep.

So apps. If you assumed that an open smartwatch platform with multiple hardware vendors would boast one of the richest sets of applications, well, you know what happens when you assume. The Wear OS library is nowhere near the depth and breadth of Apple or Samsung. Even Fitbit, the relatively new, has more to choose from.

And as frustrating as Generation 5 may be, I still enjoy it. It's hard to explain, I know. It is just a solid and very good watch. And what works, works very well.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2

The new Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 doesn't have a health and fitness suite as rich as the Versa 2 battery. But it's close. It also doesn't have such a sleek user interface or feature-rich hardware as the Apple Watch Series 5. But, again, it's close.

But who is complaining? It is full of features. It does just about everything fitness-focused and smartwatch competitors do. It still has built-in cellphone. And it costs $ 299 for the larger 44mm (40mm, $ 279) version, just $ 100 more than the Versa 2 – and $ 200 less than the mobile-enabled Apple Watch Series 5.

Now, you may wonder why Samsung launched Active2 just six months after launching the original Active. Because Samsung did not replace the original. It is selling both devices, the first for $ 199, $ 100 less than Active2.

The source of the confusion is the generational designation. I could have called something like Active XL or Active Ultra. But anyway.

In addition to incorporating cellular capacity, Samsung has also doubled the number of heart rate sensors to eight, a move no doubt designed to help improve accuracy. In my tests, I noticed a difference in Active2's ability to maintain continuous readings, even with a twisted wrist to allow more ambient light to penetrate under the watch dial. He also managed to register …

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