The best smartwatches of 2021: Which is right for you?

Whether you like to play hard and need a watch that will keep up, or need a sleek business watch that makes work simpler, there are some great options for wearable fans this year.

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2021 has been flying by fast, and with it has gone the release of a glut of smartwatches from tech giants and traditional timepiece manufacturers alike. There are a lot to choose from, and it can be hard to pick. 

Knowing which smartwatch to get, either for yourself or as a holiday gift, comes down to more than just knowing what kind of processing power, storage space, or bells and whistles a wearable device has. It means knowing what fits the niche in your life that a smartwatch could occupy. Those needs are going to differ greatly from person to person and professional to professional; these are just a few types of users who may find their perfect match in these best smartwatches of 2021. 

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One quick note: You might notice that there isn't a "best fitness wearable" category in this list, and that's intentional. A modern smartwatch without fitness tracking capabilities isn't much of a smartwatch at all, and it's safe to assume that if you're shopping for one you probably assume it's going to have those capabilities, which all the devices in this list do. 

The best smartwatch for Android users

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The Samsung Galaxy Watch4 series.

Image: Samsung

The mobile wars have, in many ways, come down to a similar divide that we had in the early days of Mac and Windows: Apple was (and still is) a walled garden, while Windows PCs were more open, leading to security issues but allowing for more customization. 

We're in that place now with iOS and Android, mimicking Mac and Windows, respectfully. If you use an Android device there's no better watch to choose from than the new (as of August) Samsung Galaxy Watch4.

The latest generation of Samsung smartwatches has optical heart rate, electrical heart and bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) sensors that Samsung said make it capable of measuring blood pressure, track irregular cardiac rhythms, and measure blood oxygenation. It's BIA sensors also enable body composition tracking for measuring weight, BMI, skeletal muscle, body water and basal metabolic rate, among others. 

Along with its sensors, the Galaxy Watch4 also connects perfectly with an Android phone, be it from Samsung or another manufacturer. It's available now and starts at $249.

The best smartwatch for Apple users

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The Apple Watch series 7.

Image: Apple

The Galaxy Watch4 did something that sets it apart from earlier WearOS devices: It eliminated compatibility with iOS devices due to the inclusion of Google Mobile Services in WearOS 3. That means the best smartwatch for Android won't connect to an iPhone, putting it in the same position as the Apple Watch 7, the seventh in a series of Apple Watches that has absolutely zero support for Android devices. 

Simply put, WearOS and Watch OS devices aren't compatible, so iPhone users have a very limited pool of devices to choose from. Of those devices, none is going to do as much as the Apple Watch 7 series, so as long as you don't want to miss out on the latest hardware features it's the best choice for an Apple user.

That's not to say the Apple Watch series 7 isn't a good device: The Apple Watch is arguably the best smartwatch available right now, if not just the top selling. It has a larger screen, continuous edges on its wraparound screen, and new blood oxygen tracking capabilities. If you're an Apple user who doesn't want to leave the Apple ecosystem there's really only one choice, and it's on sale now starting at $399.

The best smartwatch for people that don't want one

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The Fossil Gen 6 smartwatch, exploded view.

Image: Fossil

There's a certain thing about smartwatches: They're noticeable, and that's not always a good thing if you're going for a different aesthetic. Enter Fossil's Gen 6 smartwatch, which has the look of a traditional wristwatch while being loaded with WearOS features that make it great for keeping track of health metrics and upcoming events.

Like other smartwatches, the Fossil Gen 6 features sensors that make it a useful fitness tool, including a blood oxygen sensor that's new in the Gen 6. Otherwise, there's nothing particularly stand out about the hardware on the Fossil Gen 6: This one's all about classic watch aesthetics without sacrificing functionality.

The Fossil Generation 6 is available now and starts at $299.

 The best smartwatch for the field worker/adventurer

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The Garmin Instinct Solar smartwatch.

Image: Garmin

Those that work outdoors, or want a watch that can double as a long-lasting outdoor adventure companion, would do well to avoid the previous devices: They can do a great job performing the functions you need, but they're neither rugged enough nor do they have a battery life able to last more than a day or two. 

If what you want is a watch that can last 54 days on a charge, top up its battery using the sun, is mil spec 810 rated for thermal, shock and water resistance, can be paired with a satellite phone and can even make recommendations based on health metrics as to when you may want to rest while doing strenuous activity, then you need a Garmin Instinct Solar. 

The Instinct Solar uses the sun to keep itself charged, and Garmin even said it can last forever if kept in battery saver watch mode. Otherwise, it's built of a fiber-reinforced polymer, has a monochrome display that uses a transflexive memory-in-pixel (able to be seen clearly in light, allows solar energy to pass through display, reduces power consumption) and can theoretically get you through a small-scale apocalypse, provided the sun is still shining. 

The Garmin Instinct Solar is available now, starting at $399.

The best overall smartwatch of 2021

When I started writing this, I intended to put the Apple Watch here as the best smartwatch of 2021, but I changed my mind. That's not because the Apple Watch isn't the best smartwatch on the market right now — there's a good case to be made for just that. 

The reason I dropped the Apple Watch as the best smartwatch of 2021 is because of something that most every list like this makes me think about: The best smartwatch of 2021 is the one that suits your needs and fits into your existing tech ecosystem, lifestyle and professional situation. I'm not going to recommend an Apple Watch to a dedicated Android user any more than I would recommend a Galaxy Watch4 to an iPhone owner, and I doubt either one would want to read my recommendation for the other device if they had no intention to switch.

SEE: Samsung Galaxy S21 Series: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There's no one-size-fits-all to smartwatches: They're a personal accessory, not a desktop PC, and buying one can't be thought of in the same way. Instead, think of buying a smartwatch like you would buying a regular watch: It needs to be able to handle your needs, be they fancy dress, backwoods trekking or scuba diving.

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