What is a smartwatch?

A smartwatch is a wearable computing device that closely resembles a wristwatch or other time-keeping device.

In addition to telling time, many smartwatches are Bluetooth-capable. The watch becomes a wireless Bluetooth adaptor capable of extending the capabilities of the wearer's smartphone to the watch. The wearer can use the watch's interface to initiate and answer phone calls from their mobile phone, read email and text messages, get weather reports, listen to music, dictate email and text messages, and ask a digital assistant a question.

smartwatch features graphic
Smartwatches offer unique insights into users' location and health data that smartphones are less adept at collecting.

Other smartwatches are standalone devices with a specific purpose. For instance, some smartwatches collect data about the wearer's health, monitoring the wearer's heart rate, for instance. Others provide Global Positioning System (GPS) data, providing the wearer with walking or driving directions.

What features do smartwatches offer?

Smartwatches offer many features. Among them are the following:

  • health informatics, such as heart rate, blood oxygen level, blood pressure and temperature monitoring;
  • contactless payment and digital wallet applications;
  • messaging and calling features, similar to those on a smartphone;
  • emergency calls for assistance if the watch detects the wearer has fallen;
  • social media and other notifications from synchronized smartphone applications;
  • games, music, photos and other entertainment options;
  • location features, such as maps, a compass and an altimeter; and
  • GPS tracking.

Smartwatches typically integrate with a user's smartphone. Many of the same features and applications available on the phone are available on the watch and can synchronize with it. Apple Watch requires that users also have an Apple iPhone.

Some smartwatches have features for special uses. For example, police officers and firefighters might use a smartwatch application to receive alerts from dispatch. Pilots in the U.S. Air Force have smartwatches with special satellite navigation features.

Apple Watch Series 7 photo
Apple Watch Series 7 provides health information features, like ECG and electrical heart sensor applications.

Types of smartwatches

There are a number of general-purpose smartwatches on the market that provide a collection of features. Examples of these include the following:

  • Apple Watch is Apple's general-purpose smartwatch.
  • Wear OS watches are available from multiple vendors that design and sell watches using Google's Wear operating system (OS).
  • Tizen watches use Samsung's proprietary smartwatch OS.
photo of Samsung Galaxy Watch4 smartwatch
Samsung Galaxy Watch4 is a general-purpose watch that features a rotating bezel and a pseudo-analog display that mimics a traditional watch.

There are also several smartwatch options available for specific uses, such as the following:

  • Hiking and climbing. These watches are engineered for durability and are made to withstand drops, dust and water. They also collect basic vital signs and can forecast the weather.
  • Diving. These waterproof watches provide divers with important indicators such as depth, time remaining and temperature.
  • Aviation. Optimized for pilots, these watches have logbooks, GPS-powered maps and weather tracking.
  • Visual assistance. Braille watches enable visually impaired users to tell time and receive notifications.

Top smartwatch products

The following are some examples of prominent smartwatches:

  • Apple Watch SE is a less expensive Apple Watch model.
  • Apple Watch Series 7 is a general-purpose smartwatch with a QWERTY keyboard and large display.
  • Fitbit Sense includes a comprehensive set of health and wellness features.
  • Fitbit Versa 3 comes with custom training programs, sleep analysis and a fitness tracker.
  • Garmin D2 Delta PX is a high-end, general-purpose watch with GPS flight navigation for aviators and health tracking features.
  • Garmin Descent Mk2 Series is a specialty diving watch with Bluetooth.
  • Garmin Vivoactive 4 has GPS, a built-in sports app, fitness tracking and contactless payment features.
  • Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3 is a general-purpose smartwatch with 1 gigabyte of random access memory and sleep, heart rate and fitness tracking.
  • Motorola Moto 360 is a fitness tracking watch that is waterproof to 30 meters.
  • Samsung Galaxy Watch4 is a general-purpose, Android-compatible smart digital watch with a rotating bezel.
  • Suunto 9 Baro is a specialty hiking and outdoor sports watch.
photo of Fitbit Sense smartwatch
Fitbit Sense is designed to collect and monitor health and fitness data.

History of smartwatches

Smartwatches can be traced back to the early 1970s. Hamilton Pulsar was one of the first digital watches, released in 1972. This marks the point in history when computers became small enough to fit in a wristwatch. Another early digital watch was the Calcron calculator watch, which featured a nine-digit display.

Another smartwatch predecessor was Seiko Data 2000, which came out in 1983. It could store two memos of 1,000 characters each and could be attached to a keyboard that came with the watch, which was used to type memos.

photo of Seiko Data 2000 smartwatch
The Seiko Data 2000 is a smartwatch predecessor that came with a separate keyboard.

Seiko RC 1000 was released in 1984. It connected to a personal computer. In 1990, Seiko released Receptor MessageWatch, a watch that received pager messages. Throughout the 1990s, wearable computers had increasingly complex data storage capabilities and battery lives.

Some of the first smartwatches were based on Microsoft's Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT). Fossil and Suunto introduced the first SPOT watches in 2004. The watches were able to receive news, weather and stock updates, as well as email and instant messages using frequency modulation transmitters.

Smartwatches gained popularity in the 2010s. Popular ones such as Apple Watch -- released in 2013 -- began to take on a role in the mobile computing market. Google developed Android Wear, a mobile OS, in 2014.

Future of smartwatches

Smartwatches have changed a lot in the last 50 years. They can now track, store and transmit complex data about the wearer.

One area that many smartwatch manufacturers are focusing on is biometric data. Smartwatches can monitor fitness information, like steps taken in the day and body composition. They can also monitor and spot potential medical conditions. Manufacturers are continually focusing on ways to include more health-related technologies in smartwatches.

The healthcare focus is in part related to the increase in chronic diseases that require constant monitoring. Smartwatches are helpful in this area. In addition, with their combined GPS, health and portability features, smartwatches are useful for identifying exposure to COVID-19 and contact tracing.

With more real-time insight into a patient's health data, doctors can provide more personalized care and identify illnesses before they get serious. Research and Markets predicted that the global wearables market will grow by 19.48% from 2021 to 2026.

There may be cybersecurity risks related to collecting health data from wearables. Learn what security administrators and healthcare organizations can do to protect sensitive health data gathered from wearable devices.

This was last updated in February 2022

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