As someone who enjoys a reasonable amount of my time being at least a little bit lost, a smartwatch gives me comfort. It helps me on my way as well as recording all the important meta-details of whatever I’m doing for future reference. It lets me concentrate on soaking in the real-time experience.
The latest batch of smartwatches are virtually infallible nerve centres that weigh less than 90g. They’re no longer a novelty or even a rarity at this point, and many of us have had plenty of time to road-test these tools in a variety of situations. So what’s the verdict on these pieces of wearable tech?
Smartwatches in 2017
Smartwatches these days are exactly as they sound: clever, high-performance, multifunctional wrist-hugging timepieces. Like phones, watches have been getting exponentially smarter for decades.
Functions vary according to the model, of which there are now many In essence you’re looking at a lightweight, GPS-equipped computer capable of measuring, recording, analyzing and communicating astonishing amounts of information while the wearer is on the move. Some also have speakers, SIM cards and in-built systems such as NFC (near field communication) and LTE (Long Term Evolution), which enable users to make and take phone calls, send text messages and emails (without having to carry a phone), listen to music and pay for stuff. And then there are more traditional ‘watch’ functions, from stopwatches and alarms to compasses.
The data that this tech collects about you is no joke. Information typically includes precise location and direction of travel, average and fastest speed, total moving time, altitude or depth reached, outside temperature, barometric weather analysis, calories burned, total amount of ascent and descent achieved, splits and heart rate info. You can mark points of interest (save the exact grid reference of just-discovered swimming holes, for example). You can also record your route across unfamiliar terrain for posterity (or to pass on to other travellers).
Over USB cables or wireless options, recorded information can be transferred to other devices, easily transcribed onto maps and into apps like Strava (www.strava.com), and shared with mates across social media channels.
If you’re looking for hardwearing, affordable, GPS-armed smartwatches, look no further than trail-blazing brands like Suunto and Garmin.
Suunto’s Ambit3 (suunto.com/ambit3) is available in three versions: Run (with single-sport functionality), Sport (which covers a range of activities and includes an inbuilt heart-rate monitor for swimmers) and Peak (the top model, armed with altimeter, barometer and temperature recording capacity, plus much longer battery life, making it the best tool for travellers interested in recording every minutiae of their mission). Think of it like a Swiss Army knife – the more you pay, the more tools it will have, but the bigger and heavier it gets.
The Ambit 3 Peak is a chunky monkey, standing 17mm proud from the wrist like a statement of intent, measuring 50mm across and weighing 92g. However, it’s very robust (water resistant to 100 metres), has high functionality and provides extremely accurate data, which is downloaded via Suunto’s user friendly Movescount app and is then transferable via GPX and KML (good for overlaying on Google Earth) files to various mapping programs and other apps.
Travel-friendly features include a tilt-compensated digital compass, easily operable (even in gloves) button-based navigation system, wi-fi connectivity and a ‘FindBack’ feature that will return you to the start point of your expedition if everything goes completely wrong.
Garmin’s fēnix 5 (garmin.com) has an even bigger suite of funky features, and its battery life is impressive even when the GPS is humming away (up to 36 hours, or 20 hours in UltraTrac juice-saving mode), but signal reception and data accuracy doesn’t quite match the Ambit in certain conditions. Again, there are three variations on the theme, with the 5S a paired-down version of the standard fēnix and the 5X the fully pimped model, complete with colour mapping.
This watch also comes loaded with standard activity tracking tools, but it really is a bag of tricks for fitness obsessed data-collection geeks, with a metronome to help with pacing, a swimming stroke detector and sleep tracking capability.
The price and performance differences between these two main players are marginal for most travellers (outdoor athletes might be more picky and typically have a long-forged fidelity to one over the other), but the market has blossomed enormously recently, with other tech brands attempting to grab a share of the wearable GPS market.
Tough travel tools
With a super-armored bezel and US military-grade shock and water-resistance, the Casio Trek Smart WSD-F20 (casio.com) combines brains with brawn. It uses Google’s Android Wear software, running Casio's Location Memory app to provide pinpoint positioning and has an innovative dual-layer display screen so maps can render in colour while other features display in black-and-white to conserve juice.
Also using Android Wear 2.0 is the LG Watch Sport (lg.com), which is LTE-connected, caters for Android Pay and hosts Google Assistant to answer your questions. This model offers various activity options, plus heart-rate monitor, wireless recharge, GPS chip and barometer. It has a microphone and speaker for phone calls, and a secret SIM card tray so you don’t need to cart your phone around. Again, however, it has limited water resistance, and isn’t great for swimmers, sailors and paddlers.
Some products have a distinct fitness focus. The Huawei Watch 2 uses a simple two-button and screen navigation and offers live GPS mapping, real time coaching, heart rate monitoring and myriad activity options. It has an antisweat strap and is relatively lightweight. This model only has limited water resistance, however, so wild-swimming explorers might want to consider another option.
The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier (samsung.com) (smarter, tougher big brother of the prettier S3 Gear Classic) packs plenty of travel-handy features including GPS, integral heart-rate monitor, water resistance, activity tracking, altimeter, NFC (for Samsung Pay) and even LTE. The OS is Tizen, rather than Android Wear, which does reduce the amount of apps you can use with it. The twisty bezel-based navigation system is neat and the Super AMOLED screen beautiful, but the ‘Always On Display’ mode, while pretty, sucks the juice out of the battery pretty quick.
If you’re looking for something more svelte, you might try the TomTom Adventurer (tomtom.com), which has a lower profile on your wrist (with a monochrome 22 x 25mm LCD display) and a tight focus on outdoor pursuits. A four-way button for flicking through functions sits on the strap below the screen for ease of use while on the move, and the display detaches from the strap for charging. It packs a barometric altimeter, accelerometer, digital compass, optical heart-rate monitor and gyroscopes for motion sensing.
Another skinny number, weighing just 45.6g, is the Apple Watch 2 (apple.com). The Series 2 has added built-in GPS to Apple’s toolkit and claims water resistance to 50 metres (with a speaker that shakes water out). You can’t take it diving, but swimming is one of its best performance areas – it’s capable of stroke analysis, with separate movement profiles for freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. Battery life, which drains after about five hours when the GPS is cranking, is another issue. The watch offers Apple Pay, removing the need to take money or a card with you if you want to travel super light.