The smartwatches are a new breed of gadgets which, similarly to the smartphones, have evolved from the traditional wearable (which has an incredibly long history) to a device more suitable for this century. While I won’t deny the usefulness of all the integrated technologies (fitness trackers, heart-rate monitors, integration with the IoT, pairing with a smartphone and more), there are some shortcomings that still plague all the smart wearable devices: the battery life has gone from years or battery life or indefinite (for mechanical watches) to days and even hours. But that’s something that we must accept as there isn’t yet a solution available in sight.
The concept of a smart watch is not really new, as engineers have tried many times, for many years, to strap a mini-computer to your wrist, but, the breakthrough into the consumer market came shyly with the Pebble series and it went into the mainstream with the emergence of the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Gear and Motorola 360 (along with the implementation of the Android Wear as a general OS for non-iOS smartwatches – some other third-party operating systems have also been developed afterwards).
In 2017, smartwatches don’t really need an introduction and you don’t have to explain to anyone what they’re good for and, while there’s a fairly large number of devices available, the focus of this article will be for the most rugged smartwatches which will survive a more harsh environment and all the punishment that comes from practising outdoor sports and activities. So, without further ado, let’s see which are the best, toughest, waterproof smartwatches on the market.
1. Garmin Fenix 5
After being away for a year, Garmin has returned in the spotlight with a new Fenix smartwatch, which, this time, includes three variants: the standard Fenix 5 (for whatever reason, Garmin jumped from 3 to 5), which is of smaller proportions than its predecessor, there’s also the Fenix 5S, which is even smaller and aimed at people with a thinner wrist and the Fenix 5X, which is larger and therefore, comparable to the Fenix 3. Despite being smaller, the Fenix 5 has kept everything that made the Fenix 3 a great, rugged, outdoors-oriented smartwatch and it has actually improved the formula by adding an optical heart rate monitor, featuring a better display, a better battery life and more.
If you put the Garmin Fenix 3 next to the more recent Fenix 5, you’ll notice that even if it retains the same structure, there are a lot of design improvements which renders the new device a lot more attractive and reasonably elegant to be suitable even for formal events (change the strap and you’re good to go). As before, Garmin features a round metallic bezel around the screen, which is fixed with exposed screws to the main body (a way to enhance the tough appearance), but there’s also an inner black bezel (with printed minutes and hour guides).
The outer metallic bezel is elevated above the display and provides a reliable barrier in case you hit the watch on a flat surface, otherwise, you would have to rely on the screen protection, which can be regular glass or sapphire (the latter handles scratches a lot better, but makes the device more expensive).
Note: Be aware that non-sapphire variants of the Garmin 5 are limited to only the Bluetooth connectivity and lack any WiFi capabilities.
I recently took a look at Casio WSD-F20 and it was a behemoth even compared to the beefier Fenix 3 (which measured 2.0 x 2.0 x 0.6 inches), but the Fenix 5 will look better on the wrist, being slightly smaller (2.0 x 2.0 x 0.6 inches), but I have noticed that it has gained some weight (going from the 2.9 ounces of its predecessor to 3.0 oz). By default, the Fenix 5 comes with a rubber strap, which is both durable and comfortable and, if you don’t find it elegant, the fixing mechanism is easy to operate, allowing you to quickly change the straps.
Garmin has placed three button on the left side (Light – can be used to turn on the device, view the widget wheel and turn the backlight on/off; Up-Menu – scroll up through menus; Down – scroll down through menus and the widget / view the watch face from any screen) and two buttons on the right side (Activity/Enter – select an option from a menu or start/stop an activity and view the activity list; Back/Lap – return to a previous window / record a lap, rest or transition during an activity).
In terms of sensors, the Garmin Fenix 5 doesn’t lack any important one, being equipped with a Compass, an Accelerometer, a Thermometer (which can be a bit inaccurate because of the body temperature), a Gyroscope, GPS (GLONASS), a Barometric Altimeter and a built-in Elevate optical heart-rate sensor (the smartwatch can also be paired with ANT+ and Bluetooth HR sensors). The heart-rate sensor is surprisingly accurate, but, this type of sensor is not really the best with high intensity training, so you can pair it with a chest strap (you may need to wait for a few minutes until you get accurate readings, though).
The Garmin Fenix 5 is water resistant to 10 ATM, which means that it can be submerged under water down to more than 300 feet, but, unfortunately, it does not have any shock / temperature / humidity resistance rating (that does not mean that it won’t survive short falls or the occasional bumps and scratches that can happen while performing any outdoor activities).
On the front, the Fenix 5 features a 1.2-inch LCD Chroma display, with a resolution of 240 x 240 pixels and a pixel density of 283 ppi (shares the same screen size as the 5X, while the 5S has a smaller 1.1-inch display with a resolution of 218 x 218 pixels). It’s worth noting that neither of the three variants has a touch-screen display and the only way to operate your Garmin smartwatch is by using the buttons. Some would argue that a touch-screen would drain the battery life faster and that an athlete may find it annoying to operate a touch-enabled display, but, while these points are reasonably valid, considering that this is a premium device, this omission can be a deal-breaker for some.
The screen is always on, but, to come easier on the battery, it has a transflective layer which has the role of brightening the display while using it outside, but, indoors, the screen will look quite dim (you can manually activate the back-light). Add the low-resolution to the equation and it becomes clear where lies the weakness of Garmin Fenix 5 (but that’s the sacrifice needed to be done to gain better battery life – similarly to how Pebble handled things).
Garmin Fenix 5 did not go the Android Wear route and created its own proprietary software. The UI offers the ability of tracking almost any outdoor activity, such as running (gives you scores, it monitors your heart rate, it tells you if you’ve been improving your fitness level, it shows a maps of the area you ran and so on), cycling, swimming (the smartwatch can’t record your heart rate while swimming; it can automatically record swim intervals and lengths), skiing (detailed stats of your skiing course, including the time and speed it took you to finish it), parachuting (it should not be used as a primary skydiving altimeter), hiking, golf (keeps scores, it gives you detailed hole information and other overall statistics) and triathlon.
Every data collected by the sensors can be accessed from the Garmin Connect app, which gives an almost user-friendly way of viewing summaries or detailed info about your activities (I say almost, because it doesn’t feel as seamless as the other dedicated trackers, such as Fitbit). The Fenix 5 can be paired with a smartphone using the Connect Mobile app (the two devices should be within 33 feet from each other), which opens up some new possibilities, such as receiving notifications, calls (you can not respond from the smartwatch), change what song is playing on your smartphone and, it can also be used in an IoT environment (specifically with Samsung SmartThings hub).
Note: The Fenix 5 is equipped with only 64MB of on-board storage (the smartwatch is compatible with the following radio protocols: ANT+ wireless technology, Bluetooth Smart and, if you have the sapphire screen version, it uses WiFi).
The battery life is one of the best features of the Garmin Fenix 5, because, if you disable the GPS and the heart-rate monitor and use the device only as a watch, you can get up to 2 weeks on a single charge. If you use the Fenix 5 with the GPS on, you’ll get up to 24 hours and if used in UltraTrac mode (it accesses the satellite once a minute), the battery will deplete in about 60 hours.
Note: It seems that Garmin has released a new proprietary cable for the Fenix 5, but the manufacturer ‘hopes’ that this will be the last change they will make for the smartwatch series.
2. Casio WSD-F20
The Casio WSD-F20 is the second attempt from Casio to create a tough smartwatch, suitable for outdoor sports and which would withstand the elements. The WSD-F10 was a rather unique smartwatch, as it retained the classical look and the toughness of the digital G-Shock series, but it also adopted most of the new smart technologies (by running Android Wear). The Casio WSD-F20 is not strikingly different than its predecessor, but some key improvements have been made to render it a better device (a more appealing design, it now includes GPS and more).
If you’re familiar with the Casio G-Shock watches, then the size and the thickness of the WSD-F20 will not come as a surprise to you, but it may come as a shock to anyone else when they come face to face with the 2.42 x 2.22 x 0.61 inches smartwatch. It seems that Casio retained the same dimensions as the previous generation, but it has very slightly reduced the weight from 3.28 to 3.24 ounces. As you can see, it’s almost as heavy as an Apple Watch, but it is double the size, while not really adding more screen real estate and the reason for that is to provide a superior protection, especially while practising outdoor sports or other similar types of activities.
I can see that Casio retained the design line of the previous generation, featuring two sets of large plastic bezels (with the outer one reminding you that it is part of the ProTrek series and revealing the location of each button and sensors), which are elevated and have the role of protecting the screen in case you accidentally hit it on a flat surface, otherwise, you’ll have to rely on the scratch-resistant screen glass. The bezels protrude from the main body and they have exposed screws which keep everything together (and enhance the feeling that you’re dealing with a tough, rugged device).
The metallic buttons are conveniently placed on the right side (Tool, Power ad App), while on the left side, there’s the Charging Terminal and the Pressure sensor. On the front, on the inner bezel, there’s a small Charge LED light and, towards the bottom, there’s a water-resistant microphone (up to five atmospheres). The whole smartwatch can be submerged underwater down to 164 feet (obviously, the touchscreen will not work while submerged and I would suggest against wearing it in high humidity / high temperature environments) and it is MIL-STD-810G rated, therefore it survived the transit drop and general vibration tests, it can withstand a moderate level of humidity, solar radiation and it should also be resistant to multi-cycle shocks from constant extreme temperatures and icing/freezing rain (and more).
Furthermore, the back of the smartwatch is a simple brushed metal fixed with visible screws and, while I have no complaints about the longevity of the plastic strap, it does feel quite rigid and I had a hard time detaching it (so, it’s not easy to swap between different straps). In terms of sensors, the Casio WSD-F20 is equipped with a magnetic sensor for direction, a pressure sensor, an accelerometer, a gyrometer and a low-powered GPS. You can use the aforementioned Tool button to swap between the info given by each sensor, which includes a tide graph (useful for fishing, but not recommended for navigation purposes – use the official charts for that), a compass, sunrise and sunset, the altitude, a coloured map of your location and more.
On the front, the main attraction is the 1.32-inch TFT LCD dual-layer display with a resolution of 320 x 300 pixels and a pixel density of 332 ppi. So, there are actually two displays, with the TFT LCD one positioned underneath a semi-transparent low-power monochrome display that becomes active during the Timepiece mode (which simply displays the time – a useful feature for people that dislike having the display turned off most of the time, but taking on the battery life). Overall, WSD-F20’s display is not really the best I’ve seen on a smartwatch, lacking a bit in terms of brightness (something really annoying especially while travelling), but it was reasonably vibrant and colourful.
The WSD-F20 uses the Android Wear 2.0 OS and some of the main applications are the Activity app (useful for tracking the current progress of your usual activities, such as fishing or trekking), the Casio Watch Faces (choose between Location, Traveller, 2 Layers, Authentic, Altitude, World Time, Field, Multi or Combination), the Location Memory App and the Tool app. Pairing the smartwatch to an Android phone is done really fast and it opens up a whole new set of features (such as answering a call, getting notifications, listening to locally stored music and more). The WSD-F20 will pair with an iPhone, but the features are very limited.
Note: The smartwatch is equipped with a dual-core 1.0GHz Cortex-A7 CPU, 512 MB RAM, 4 GB internal storage (it also equipped with low-energy Bluetooth V4.1 tech and the WiFi 802.11 b/g/n).
The one major weakness of the Casio WSD-F10 was the battery life, which would barely reach a day with very light use. Unfortunately, the Casio made no real progress with the WSD-F20, since you can get about 8 hours with every sensor active. If you turn them off (when you don’t need them) and with light use (the dual-layer display can help a lot), you can get up to a full day of use (about 24 hours). One other complaint is the charge magnet, which is very weak and it is difficult to keep it attached to the smartwatch (a dock could improve things, but Casio needs to step up its game in this department).
3. Samsung Gear S3 Frontier
The great old battle between Samsung and Apple has transcended the smartphone market and entered the smartwatch realm where each manufacturer tries to create the perfect smartwatch suitable for a broader audience. At the end of the 2016, Samsung released the Samsung Gear S3 as a reaction against the Apple Watch Series 2 (which was launched two month earlier and has been very well received by the public) and it was available in two variants: the Gear S3 Classic (as the name suggests, this is a more elegant watch, suitable for formal events) and the S3 Frontier (a more rugged variant, which is suitable for outdoor activities). Of course, I’m going to focus on the latter.
While the S3 Classic has gone pretty far from the design of the Gear S2, the S3 Frontier maintains some resemblance with the S2 Classic, having a similar watch gear bezel made of stainless steel which rotates and gives easy access to your data (it’s worth pointing out that the mechanism is incredibly smooth and will give a satisfying feeling while rotating it). The bezel sits a bit more elevated from the screen, which gives the watch an increased protection against accidental hits (although I would be careful with hits against sharp objects – the screen is not made of sapphire, but it is protected by Gorilla Glass SR+). Besides the bezel, the rest of the body is also made of stainless steel and, while, it lacks the elegance of the S3 Classic, it still looks and feels like a premium device.
Both the Samsung Gear S3 Classic and the Frontier are larger than the previous generation (the Frontier measures 1.81 x 1.93 inches) and each variant has also gained a bit of weight (the Classic weighs 2.0 ounces, while the Frontier is heavier at 2.18 ounces). It’s true that the S3 Frontier is a step up from the 1.72 x 1.57 x 0.45 inches of the Gear S2 Classic, but, compared with the other popular rugged smartwatches on the market, it is quite average – it’s smaller than both the Garmin Fenix 5 and Casio WSD-F20 (I know, I know, it’s larger than the Apple Watch Series 2, which is the main source of user complaints, but don’t forget that the Frontier is also more rugged).
Besides the rotating bezel, the S3 Frontier also has a Back button located on the right side of the smartwatch and, underneath it, there’s a Home/Power button (press it to open the Apps or Watch screen / press and hold it to turn the device On or Off). As expected the S3 Frontier is equipped with all the important sensors: a Light sensor (to properly adjust the display brightness and contrast), a GPS, a Heart Rate sensor (S Health), an Accelerometer, an Altimeter / Barometer and a Gyroscope (it lacks a Magnetometer, so no Compass and there’s no Thermometer).
At first, the heart rate monitor did not really seem that accurate while jogging, but, I noticed that after I tightened the strap on my wrist, it has greatly improved the accuracy of the readings.
Note: The Gear S3 Frontier is also equipped with a microphone (useful for voice commands) and a speaker (a rarity among smartwatches).
The S3 Frontier is IP68 certified, which means that the smartwatch is dustproof and waterproof (it can be submerged underwater down to 5 feet for up to 30 minutes). Furthermore, it is also MIL-STD-810G rated and it has survived 10 specific conditions, which includes low pressure, high altitude, drops from 4.9 feet, vibration and shock and extreme temperatures. One major difference between the Gear S3 Classic and the S3 Frontier is the strap: the former features a leather strap, while the latter comes with a rubber strap and it seems that both smartwatches are compatible with any 22mm straps, while the mechanism makes it very easy to swap them.
On the front, Samsung has equipped the S3 Frontier with a 1.3-inches Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen display that has 16 million colours, a resolution of 360 x 360 pixels and a pixel density of 278 ppi (an upgrade over the 1.2 inches display of the Gear S2). As expected, Samsung did not disappoint in this department and the display is vibrant, the contrast levels are proper, it’s bright enough for sunny days and the blacks are very deep (normal for an AMOLED). Additionally to the rotating bezel, the touchscreen feels appropriately reactive and fast (and there’s no flat-tire!).
The Gear S3 Frontier allows you to set the display to be always on, which slightly dims the screen and it supports a wider range of customization, but, it also has a heavy impact on the battery life. That’s why I prefer the screen to turn on when I raise my wrist (the process is very fast and you won’t notice that the display is off).
It seems that Samsung steered clear of the Android Wear and instead it went for the proprietary Tizen OS (a way of competing with both Google and Apple?). To navigate the interface, you can use swipe gestures (swipe left to see the notifications, the recently opened apps, view the weather and so on; swipe down to open the status bar, adjust the brightness and volume, open the music player) or the bottom right button (to open the app menu with its circularly arranged icons). If you press and hold the top right button, it will launch the Samsung Pay, which allows the smartwatch to be used as a credit card (supports both NFC and MST – therefore supported by almost all checkout terminals). The Samsung Pay feature will work with some non-Samsung smartphones (minus iPhones) and it can be used with the S3 Frontier as a standalone (if you don’t have your smartphone with you).
One problem with the Tizen OS is that it hasn’t yet gathered the necessary attention from software developers, so there are that many apps available at this moment, but the most important ones are the S Health and the Gear Fit (some of the few available for fitness tracking), the S Voice (useful to perform calls or send emails), Spotify (with offline playlists), the Tasker integration with SmartThings or the SOS function (tap the Home key three times to send an emergency message to your contacts or perform an SOS call, which mutes everything from the smartwatch and allows the receiver to hear everything that happens on your side). The Gear S3 will work with both Android smartphones (offers a full range of control, but you need to install the Samsung Gear app) and iPhones (also offers a wide range of control, but it is mostly limited by the iOS – such as the Notifications, which can only be viewed; also, be aware that you may experience more frequent disconnect while paired to an Apple device).
The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier is equipped with a dual-core 1.0GHz Exynos 7270 chipset, 4GB of internal storage and 768 MB of RAM (it uses WiFi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.2). Furthermore, the S3 Frontier is also equipped with a 380-mAh battery which Samsung claims that it should last for up to three days. Well, the most you’ll be able to get with an LTE connection and with the always-on screen turned off will be about 2 days. Otherwise, with the GPS on, the always-on display, you’ll get less than 8 hours.