Smartwatch makers upgrade premium watches

Mike Feibus, Special to USA TODAY
Published 6:00 a.m. CT Oct. 4, 2020


Apple took the wraps off a new discounted watch and a next-generation iPad during a virtual event held Tuesday. New iPhones are expected later this year. (September 15)

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Smartwatch makers have caught up with each others’ innovations. So if you have your heart set on a watch with built-in ECG or blood-oxygen sensing, or SpO2, then Apple or Fitbit, respectively, aren’t your only choices anymore.  

The major brands now all have ECG, SpO2, fall detection/SOS and VO2 Max, an important fitness measure.

Of course, the real value comes not so much from collecting more data, but how well the devices help you translate what the numbers mean for your health and what you can do to improve.

With all the new capabilities, it’s easy to forget these devices are built first as smartphone extensions, with notices, app controls and even the ability to do full-on smartphone duty for times when you leave the phone behind.

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For this roundup, I’ve focused on four new models: premium models from Apple, Fitbit, Samsung and Garmin’s first-ever mainstream model.

With all of these new capabilities, it’s easy to forget that these devices are built first as smartphone extensions. (Photo: Mike Feibus, Special to USA TODAY)

Apple Watch Series 6 (Starts at $399)

The Series 6 is a beautiful device that, when right-side up, is visually indistinguishable from the now-discontinued Series 5. Under the hood, though, is a more powerful processor for zippier response, a real-time altimeter and an upgraded suite of biosensors, including the new SpO2 for gauging blood-oxygen content.

Apple still has the best approach to ECG with its Heart app, which alerts you to take an ECG whenever it notices anything unusual.

The two main shortcomings of the Series 6: lack of sleep quality insight and poor battery life. Fast charging helps ease the pain.

On the smartphone companion side, the Series 6 is about as good as it gets. But you need an iPhone.

Fitbit Sense (Starts at $329.95)

The Fitbit Sense is the fitness tracking pioneer’s first premium smartwatch in three years, proving that sometimes taking your time is the right approach.

Fitbit has filled all the holes in its previous offering. It now has ECG and also added two smartwatch-industry firsts: an electrodermal activity, or EDA, sensor for gauging stress, and a skin temperature sensor to help spot illness even before you feel sick.

The Sense does have one of the most accessible health suites, tending more toward insights than streams of data.

Garmin Venu Sq (Starts at $199.99/$249.99 for the Music Edition)

Unlike Apple or Fitbit, it’s immediately clear from the looks of Garmin’s Venu Sq that you’re buying the mainstream model. The Venu Sq, the first-ever mainstream smartwatch from fitness-focused Garmin, has a workhorse feel. It’s not flashy and maybe a little boxy even. Alerts and other smartwatch features are functional, if unexciting. And the display is the dimmest of the bunch.

But under the hood, there’s a rich set of metrics, some of which belie the price point. I love the “Body Battery” metric, which gives you a real-time look at how much you’ve got in the tank. Working out drains the Body Battery in the short term, but helps preserve energy levels in the long run.

The higher-priced Music Edition adds storage for songs from your own library as well as Spotify or Deezer playlists. That gives you the option of connecting a Bluetooth headset to the Venu Sq and listening to music on the run without your phone.


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Samsung Galaxy Watch3 (Starts at $399/$429 as tested)

After two years, Samsung is upgrading its premium offering with the Watch3.

I’m evaluating the larger 45mm device, which is a sturdy, attractive smartwatch with a big, bright display. It also has some of the best, most engaging alerts and smartphone extension widgets. And if you happen to pair the Watch3 with a Samsung phone, some apps work even better together.

Samsung’s ECG app was just cleared by the FDA and is now being pushed to the Watch3. SpO2 is available, but for measurement only. Samsung does apply some metrics to more interesting insights, like stress.

Samsung does have the second-shortest battery life of the bunch, barely stretching to two days between charges. That said, it does track sleep stages and now offers up a sleep score as well.

Bottom line

The Apple Watch Series 6 and the Samsung Galaxy Watch3 are the most compelling pure smartwatches. And take a hard look at the new Fitbit and Garmin devices if fitness and wellness insights are paramount.

USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm, and producer of the Privacy Now interview series on YouTube. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.

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