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While digital watches have been around for decades — some with abilities like calculators and unit converters — only in the 2010s did tech companies begin releasing watches with smartphone-like abilities.

Apple, Samsung, Sony, and other major players offer smartwatches on the consumer market, but a small startup actually deserves credit for popularizing the modern-day smartwatch.

At the same time, advances in silicon miniaturization opened the door to other kinds of dedicated-purpose smartwatches. Companies like Garmin, for example, support smartwatches like the Fenix, which are more rugged and are optimized with sensors and trackers to support back-country expeditions. Likewise, companies like Suunto released smartwatches optimized for scuba diving that withstand extended time at significant depths.

What Do Smartwatches Do?

  • Notifications: Smartphones display notifications to alert you of important events or activities. The types of notifications differ; devices connected to a smartphone may simply mirror the phone’s notifications on your wrist, but other smartwatches display notifications that only a wearable could provide. For example, the newest Apple Watch includes a fall sensor. If you fall while wearing the watch, the watch senses your subsequent movement; if it doesn’t detect any, it’ll send a series of escalating notifications. Fail to respond to the notification, and the watch will assume you’re injured and alert authorities on your behalf.
  • Apps: Beyond displaying notifications from your phone, a smartwatch is only as good as the apps it supports. App ecosystems vary, and they’re tied to either Apple’s or Google’s environments.
  • Media management: Most smartwatches paired with smartphones can manage media playback for you. For example, when you’re listening to music on an iPhone using Apple’s AirPods, you can use your Apple Watch to change volume and tracks.
  • Answer messages by voice: Remember the old Dick Tracy comics, where the hero detective used a watch as a phone? Modern smartwatches running either the watchOS or Wear OS operating systems support voice dictation.
  • Fitness tracking: If you’re a hard-core athlete, a dedicated fitness band is likely a better choice than a smartwatch. Still, many smartwatches include a heart rate monitor and a pedometer to help track your workouts.
  • GPS: Most smartwatches include a GPS for tracking your location or receiving location-specific alerts.
  • Good battery life: Modern smartwatches feature batteries that will get you through the day, with normal use, with a bit of juice still left to go. Battery use varies.
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