Not so long ago, Google rolled out a new product called Google Glass — a pair of smart glasses that would mimic a wearable computer. It didn’t stick, and few bought into the idea.
But when the idea of a “smart” watch came about, quite a few companies took on the challenge.
The best smartwatches under $500 come from the most recognizable brands, including Apple and Samsung. But other brands are also following suit, including Fitbit and Fossil. It all comes down to the operating system, health and fitness monitoring, and other factors, such as connectivity and application availability.
Continue reading to learn more about the history behind the smartwatch and how to find the right one for you without breaking the bank.
The History Behind the Smartwatch
Today, nearly everyone has some version of a smartphone. It seems as if managing daily tasks would be almost impossible without one. But, it’s not only a smartphone that makes our hectic daily lives overrun with innumerable to-do lists easier to manage.
Smartwatches have become increasingly popular since Apple rolled out its first iteration in 2015 (source).
And while the earliest models of smartwatches were designed to perform basic tasks — such as calculations, time, and data entry — today’s models are much more akin to our hand-held devices, essentially mini-computers attached to our wrists at all times.
The earliest smartwatch was developed by a company called Seiko way back in 1983. In comparison to today’s smartwatches, its capabilities were nothing to get too excited about, but, at that time, it was cutting-edge technology.
The Seiko Data-2000 was the first digital watch with a keyboard, allowing users to enter and store data and memos (source). This version was the follow up to an earlier release that allowed users to not only tell time but watch TV as well — so long as you stay attached to an adapter.
Fast forward a few years, and Seiko would release the “Message Watch” in 1995. This one could actually relay updates and information about sports, stocks, and even the weather. While it could only send and receive short messages, similar to a pager, we’d be remiss not to give it a nod of appreciation for what it could accomplish.
By 2000, we’d see prototypes developed by IBM that ran operating systems designed to communicate with computers and cell phones, display email messages, and receive short communications, so the race was on.
A wearable device that would allow us to stay connected was no longer a figment of the tech world’s imagination. However, quite a few flaws had yet to be worked out, including limited battery life, excessive size and weight, and yearly subscription fees that the general public wasn’t all that excited about.
The initial idea of the smartwatch needed some finesse over the course of the next few years to reach the level of capability that would launch it back into mainstream popularity. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t take long for us to see a plethora of personal devices released by technology companies hoping to outpace one another.
Once companies like Garmin and Nike introduced devices designed to better your fitness by tracking steps while measuring distance, calories, and even pace, we’d soon find more attempts at a newer, better smartwatch that would become the companion device we’d all been hoping for.
Sony introduced their first attempt in 2012 — the Sony SmartWatch. In 2013, we’d be introduced to the “Pebble.” You likely haven’t heard that name before, as most of us haven’t, but the Pebble is the device that gave the smartwatch the momentum it needed.
The most-funded Kickstarter project in history, the Pebble smartwatch touted applications, notifications, and even a remote-control device for your smartphone. Unfortunately, the company did not survive and was eventually bought out by Fitbit (source). But that did not stop others.
In 2014, Samsung would introduce their own concept, the Samsung Gear S, allowing users to operate the watch without any accompanying smartphone. By 2015, the Apple Watch was officially introduced and quickly became the top-selling wearable device in the US and globally.
Still, Apple is not the only company offering smartwatches capable of doing everything we need them to do these days. Next, we’ll find out more about what consumers are looking for in a smartwatch and the companies whose watches boast price tags under $500.
Smart Watches: The Value Proposition
It’s no surprise that the Apple Watch is the most popular smartwatch in the world. Apple has dominated the world of wearable technology and other smart devices with a new series released quicker than we can fully appreciate the old one.
But that is part of what makes Apple a cutting-edge technology company — they are quick learners, answering the needs and wants of consumers with ongoing, in-depth market research and devices that continually keep us addicted to staying connected.
The smartwatch industry, no doubt, answers a consumer need with a marketing matrix that identifies the most important aspects customers are looking for in a wearable device while at the same time creating a system of interconnected devices that result in increased brand loyalty.
In our ever-changing, technologically driven world, the 4P Marketing matrix — product, placement, price, and promotion — is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to maintaining market share (source).
The smartwatch solves a consumer problem by addressing a particular need, often one we didn’t even know we had until it presented itself via a new piece of technology.
Simple aspects of the smartwatch, such as checking the time in a dark conference room, may not jump out as a number one need, but nobody wants to be caught with a lit-up cell phone during an important meeting.
Other aspects of the smartwatch that provide a value-added proposition to consumers include the ability to track activity and fitness, sending and receiving alerts and message notifications, the capacity to make phone calls, as well as navigation and even payment features.
More recently, the smartwatch has become a fashion accessory on top of its resourcefulness with interchangeable bands and other accessories.
The most popular smartwatches range in price anywhere from $150 to over $1000 (source).
For the most part, the price is dictated by the number of features the watch carries and whether it has the cellular capacity. For some, the more features, the better. For others, the number of superfluous features results in a preference for a device that maintains simplicity and ease of use.
Whatever your preference, there are clear advantages to having a smartwatch, and you can find one that is right for you for less than $500. Even if you no longer want to wear your old watch, you can learn more about how long it will last in “Do Mechanical Watches Last Forever?”
Front-Runners: Smart Watches Under $500
While we’ve already mentioned a few Smart Watches brands that have dominated the industry, there may be a few less-recognizable names that you’ll want to look into.
For most, the ability to connect your smartwatch to your smartphone is integral to your decision, but the good news is that you can connect many smartwatches to various devices, whether you already have an Apple, Samsung, or something else.
Below, we’ll break down a few models under larger umbrella brand names so that you have the information you need to make a purchase decision that best fits your lifestyle. It seems suitable to start with Apple since, after all, they do carry the bulk of the market share.
Apple Watch Series 6
Apple offers a range of smartwatches, new and old, that boast quite a few interesting benefits. The Apple Watch Series 6 (link to Amazon) is one of the most popular and newest from Apple on the market right now.
With many of us looking for more efficient, easier ways to get and stay healthy, the Series 6 Apple watch can take your fitness program and motivation to the next level.
You can measure your blood oxygen level, see and share your fitness metrics, keep track of your sleep time and patterns, and measure your heart rate.
The newest feature is an application that can provide you with results similar to an electrocardiogram (ECG) that you would traditionally get at your doctor’s office, but on your phone, your results appear with a simple touch of a finger.
Another problem solved with the Series 6 is the ability to clearly see the display screen without having to move your wrist to awaken your smartwatch — it never sleeps. That means that when you are in the middle of a meeting, you can easily access the information that is most important to you with a screen that is 30 percent larger than earlier models.
A few other features of the Series 6 Apple Watch are listed below:
- A customizable face that matches your mood
- Family set-up, allowing you to keep everyone connected
- GPS and GPS plus Cellular availability
- Apple Pay, Siri, Maps, and other traditional applications
- Customizable bands and cases
- 32 GB storage capacity
If you are especially into fitness and want something to motivate your healthy lifestyle, the Apple Series 6 is a solid choice, and it starts at $399.
If you are looking for an Apple watch that is slightly lower in cost, you may want to check out an earlier series. Series 6 is the newest, but the Series 5 and Series 4 are comparable with similar features, though lower storage capacity once you get to series four and earlier.
The Series 5 (link to Amazon) is comparable in price, while the fourth series is lower in cost — around $250, depending on where you purchase it. The Series 3 watch (link to Amazon) is much cheaper, starting at $199.
Apple Watch SE
The Apple Watch SE (link to Amazon) is a less intricate model from Apple, but it certainly carries many of the features of Series 6. It has the same larger screen display, but you do need to “awaken” it by moving your wrist up or down.
The main difference between Apple’s newest version and the SE is the blood oxygen and ECG application — you won’t find either of these on the SE. Still, if that is not something you want or need, most other features are similar, including emergency SOS, international emergency calling, and fall detection.
This watch also supports the family set up as well as GPS and GPS plus cellular. The physical features of the watch are a bit different, however. The SE is made of recycled aluminum and ion-X glass display, whereas the Series 6 comes in stainless steel and titanium as well, with a sapphire crystal display.
As far as price, the SE is a lot lower in cost, starting at $279.
Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 and Watch 3 Titanium
Most people are loyal to a particular brand, whether Apple or Samsung or something all-together different. If you don’t have an iPhone, there may not be much reason to get an Apple watch.
So, when it comes to the best smartwatches under $500, the runner up brand on the list has to go to Samsung. Their newest model, the Galaxy 3 (great price on Amazon) and Galaxy 3 Titanium (Check the latest price on Amazon) can range pretty widely in price depending on the features you select and whether or not you are trading in an older phone.
Most of the time, there are deals out there, so you’ll want to do some research, particularly if you are making a purchase near or around the holidays. If you are an educator, first responder, or part of the military, you can likely get a discount as well.
The Galaxy 3 is Samsung’s newest model and boasts a titanium design with a battery that can last longer than 24 hours without a charge. It also has a unique rotating bezel. There are similar features to the Apple Series 6 and SE regarding your health, including fitness tracking and coaching insights, as well as sleep and stress monitoring — the latter offering breathing guides to help bring you a sense of calm.
You’ll get heart rate and oxygen level monitoring, an app that will record an ECG for 30 seconds, and a way to send for help quickly should you fall or otherwise experience an emergency during a workout.
Additional features are outlined below:
- Voice command for texts, calls, and streaming
- Samsung Pay — leaving any need for a wallet behind
- Seamless pairing will all Android devices
- GPS and WiFi/Bluetooth technology
- Cellular connectivity — not available with the Titanium Watch 3
- 41 and 45-mm sizing
- Stainless Steel
- 1 GB RAM plus 8 GB internal memory
Samsung’s Galaxy 3 will range in price depending on your selection, but the basic model starts at $139 without the option for cellular and around $400 with cellular. The Titanium Watch 3 runs a bit more, starting at $299 and increasing from there.
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2
Samsung’s Galaxy Active 2 is designed for fitness-oriented people — there’s even Under Armor and golf editions available. If you are interested in a tool that helps you track steps and calories and provides insight into every workout, this one may be the model right for you.
What you are looking at with the Active 2 is a streamlined watch compared to the Galaxy 3, offering something a bit lighter, slimmer, and for the sportier crowd.
The tracker included with the Active 2 allows you to track your progress with walking, running, biking, rowing, elliptical training, dynamic floor workouts, and swimming. If you are aiming for a particular heart rate zone, your watch will tell you when you reach it or if you need to work a bit harder to get there.
When it comes to battery life, your watch can last for days on a single charge, which is a definite perk. There are options for LTE connectivity, allowing you to do many of the things you would normally do with your phone, or wallet, including calls, texting, streaming, and paying for purchases.
It’s also Android or iOS compatible and allows for voice functionality, but bear in mind that there is limited functionality with this watch if you are attempting to pair it with iOS. If you are aiming for LTE connectivity, you’ll likely look at a price starting at $230. With Bluetooth and WiFi only, you can purchase an Active 2 starting at around a mere $30.
Fitbit Sense Smart Watch
If you recall, we mentioned earlier that Fitbit is the company that bought out Pebble a few years back. They’ve maintained a high level of success when it comes to fitness tracking devices. The Fitbit Sense (Good value for money on Amazon) is next on the list and quite possibly the best smartwatch for monitoring your health.
This iteration follows the Versa line of watches offered by Fitbit and comes with more advanced features. One of the main advantages of the Fitbit is that it works with both iOS and Android operating systems, so you don’t need to decide between the two if you’d prefer not to purchase a Samsung or Apple watch.
The Fitbit Sense will provide you with a more comprehensive, FDA-approved ECG and blood-oxygen reading and the ability to measure electrodermal activity (EDA) and skin temperature.
You probably didn’t know that you’d like to know your EDA, a measurement of the changes in electrical conductance of your skin in response to how much you are sweating (source). But it is a feature that gives Fitbit a leg up on providing users with a more holistic understanding of their health and wellness.
As far as measuring your skin temperature, the Fitbit monitors changes over the course of three days, which could indicate something as simple as a change in your bedroom temperature or something more significant as it relates to your health.
While the resolution on the Fitbit is less than the Apple Watch, it’s still easy to see and read outdoors — with three different settings that allow you to alter the illumination level of the screen.
The downside of this smartwatch is that, when it comes to applications and accessibility features for banking or making calls, the Fitbit won’t provide the same features as an Apple or Samsung watch.
You can store music on your Fitbit, but you cannot download directly from Spotify or Apple to the watch, which could be a drawback for some.
But as far as battery life is concerned, the Fitbit claims six consecutive days, unless you are running GPS in the background, beating out both Apple and Samsung when it comes to battery longevity.
Pricing for the Fitbit Sense Smart is comparable, sitting at about $330.
Fitbit Versa 3
The Fitbit Versa 3 is one of the newest Fitbit smartwatches, released in September of 2020. This watch has quite a lot of the improvements consumers were looking for when compared to the prior version, the Versa 2.
It’s absolutely affordable, costing about $229, a lot less than some of the top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung watches. Unlike its predecessor, the Versa 3 does have GPS tracking and Google Assistant, which was a complaint by many of the Versa 2 users.
The Versa 3 also brings Active Zone minutes, which allows you to monitor the amount of time you are spending in your peak heart rate zone during your workout. While it can detect and monitor your heart rate, it does not have ECG capabilities like the Sense.
Because Fitbit smartwatches are compatible with both iOS and Android, one of the upgrades for the Versa 2 is both built-in Alexa as well as Google Assistant compatibility — something the Versa 2 lacked.
With an upgraded design and three color options — black, pink/gold, and midnight/soft gold — with interchangeable banks, the Versa 3’s design features softer edges and a touch display button.
Like many of the other smartwatches on the market previously mentioned, you can make calls directly from your wrist with the Fitbit Versa 3. At the end of the day, the applications and features are not what you are going to get with an Apple Series 6, but that doesn’t mean the Fitbit isn’t just as good for what it claims to do — at a lot lower price, too.
One other option if you are looking at Fitbit is to go with the Fitbit Versa lite. If you are a beginner in the world of smartwatches and want something simple that will monitor your health and fitness without being overwhelming, you can save a few dollars by going with the lite version.
The average price for the Fitbit Versa Lite is $125 — just bear in mind that, with this version, you cannot store music, though you can do most other things that you can do with upgraded versions, including connecting with your smartphone to see alerts and messages and download a few applications.
Fossil Gen 5 Smartwatch
Not long ago, Google announced that it would be partnering more closely with Fossil, paying a hefty price tag for intellectual property related to its many variations of the smartwatch.
While Google is not buying the company outright by any means, there is a clear partnership that allows both companies’ tech side to work together to better the technology related to smartwatches.
Fossil offers a few different iterations of the device, but if you are looking for the highest value at a lower cost, you may want to go with the Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch (Amazon offers the watch at a low price).
It is stylish and sleek in design, which most have come to expect when purchasing a Fossil. It’s one of the best-reviewed when it comes to “Wear OS” devices, which are, essentially, watches that run on a Google Android operating system (source).
However, while this smartwatch will match nearly any attire, it’s not going to provide you with the same level of health monitoring when compared with other brands and models.
The Google Fit app is the main resource for simple statistics when it comes to tracking your fitness, so while you aren’t going to get your blood-oxygen level, for instance, it will tell you your heart rate, how far you’ve traveled, and the number of calories you burned in a workout.
As long as your phone is nearby, you can also make Bluetooth phone calls as well as utilize Google Assistant voice commands and Google Pay. Notifications are easy to see and pop up from the bottom. With solid battery life and ease of use, it’s not a bad choice at all, and it comes at a cheaper price than either Apple or Samsung at around $279.
In its debut, the Fossil sport (Check the latest price on Amazon) carried a price tag similar to that of the current Fossil Gen 5, but now you only need to drop around $100 for this much more simplified version of the Fossil brand of smartwatches.
With improvements to the Wear OS system, it’s faster and holds a longer battery life — about a day or so longer than the previous 18-hour charge capacity. If cheap is what you are looking for, the Sport is a great choice.
With the Sport, you’ll get GPS, a heart rate monitor, water resistance, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, and Google Assistant, as well as the ability to download some apps. While there is a bit of a lag in response time, the watch does what it is supposed to do and at a bargain price.
There are innumerable smartwatches available, and, for many, the choice comes down to the smartphone brand you already have. With other smartwatches able to operate and connect with both iOS and Android devices, it’s not a bad idea to do a bit of homework before succumbing to the pressures of brand loyalty.
The reality is that the right watch for you depends on your main purpose for purchasing one. If it’s intense health monitoring, the Apple 6 is likely your best bet. Many others also offer close, if not equal, features and applications that give you the fitness specs you need to either change or maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Whatever your choice, smartwatches are not going anywhere. In all likelihood, they will continue to improve over the next few years as companies work to meet consumer demand and improve the technology behind all of our smart devices.
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