Apple unveiled its big attempt at defining what a smartwatch should look like today with the introduction of the Apple Watch. There are already quite a few competitors vying to define what should go on your wrist, however: Google beat Apple to the punch just a few months ago by releasing Android Wear, and watches powered by it have been hitting stores all summer.
Update: Read our review of Apple Watch.
Both platforms have their strengths and their weaknesses. But Apple doesn't just want to compete, it wants to teach everyone what a smartwatch can be. So, is it really that good?
Telling the time
It's great that our watches can do more than ever, but we still need them to do one really basic thing: tell us the time — and do it every single time that we look at them.
Telling the time, most of the time
Apple Watch: Apple keeps its watch's display off when you aren't looking at it. When you turn your wrist it'll pop back on, only showing information when you want it. We're skeptical of how well that'll work, but we're open to it saving battery life that way.
Android Wear: On some watches, Android Wear will show you the time all of the time by default. But each watch also gives wearers the option of acting how the Apple Watch does, only turning on when needed. Given the battery life issues many of these watches are having, it's a good (if not critical) option to have around.
Left: LG G Watch. Right: Samsung Gear Live.
This is what we're all here for. Or at least, it's what we've long been thinking a smartwatch should be about.
Apple Watch: All notifications coming through your phone will pop up on your watch. If a developer chooses to, they can enrich that notification to let you do a lot more with it — replying to messages or even taking action on something, like accepting a Facebook friend request. All together, it sounds fairly robust.
Android Wear: Google's smartwatch platform is all about notifications — so much so that they account for most of its interface. All of your notifications are routed to it, and you can swipe through the phone to view them all, dismiss them, and even act on some of them. That said, you can't always do as much with them as Apple hopes to let people do on its watch.
A smartwatch should be able to show you what you want, when you want it, without you having to do to much. Fortunately, most are starting to get there.
Apple Watch: When you swipe up from the bottom of the Apple Watch, a section that Apple calls Glances comes up. This is essentially just a series of cards that display information you may be interested in — say, what the weather is or what's coming up on your calendar. Apps can put information down here too, making this potentially a very powerful section.
Android Wear: Google Now has always been really capable, and its ability to predict and surface information that you're interested in is built right into Android Wear. As you scroll through your notifications, cards from Google Now will pop up to help you out. They're great on their own — though they may seem limited once we see what developers do with Apple's Glances.
Health & fitness
Here's where the Apple Watch is supposed to shine.
Apple Watch: Apple includes heart-rate sensors and an accelerometer on its watch, and then borrows GPS and Wi-Fi information from a paired iPhone in order to track your health. It has two separate apps for it too: Activity and Workout. Together, they're supposed to track your activity and encourage you to get moving — but we'll have to wear one to see if it can really pull that off.
Android Wear: Watches running Android Wear usually are usually able to track your basic activity and your heart rate. They've all been pretty passible in that regard, and that's why everyone is hoping that Apple has pulled off a lot more with its watch. Anyone can (with some accuracy) measure your pulse. It takes something special to actually get you out the door.
Smartwatches can do a lot on their own, but there's little doubt that — just like on our smartphones — it'll be third-party developers who really make them into something we keep going back to.
Apple gives developers a few options: rich notifications, Glances, and full apps
Apple Watch: In addition to creating Glances and rich notifications, developers can also create their own Apple Watch apps. It's not clear exactly what these will be like or how much they'll be able to do, but it's easy to imagine that developers will quickly jump on top of this and start creating new tools. For now, we at least know that a Twitter app will let you tweet from your wrist.
Android Wear: It's been a few months, and Google says there are already thousands of apps that support Android Wear. Facebook Messenger, for instance, will now send messages to Wear and can accept responses dictated over voice. That's different from actually creating Wear apps, though: we've seen a handful of good apps that run specifically on Wear, but no one has blown us away just yet.
Above: Moto 360
At the end of the day, what these watches actually look like is going to make as big of a difference as what they do.
Apple Watch: Apple's watch looks surprisingly similar to a lot of the Android Wear watches that we've seen, with its square face and square display. The truly big difference is that it's made using premium materials, from aluminum to gold, making the final product decidedly nicer, even if not dramatically different. It's also offered in two sizes — including one that's modestly smaller than most Wear watches — and you can get them in a number of different colors.
Android Wear: Take your pick. You've got round watches and square watches, ugly watches and... relatively good-looking watches. Apple may actually offer more looks than you'll find between the whole lot of Wear watches, but a few still stand out. Namely, that would be the round Moto 360 and LG G Watch R, which both have stylish, classic designs. Even beside the Apple Watch, the Moto 360 still looks good.
Apple Watch: Yikes. Apple didn't say a word about battery life when it introduced the Apple Watch on stage today. Our guess? No news is probably bad news.
Android Wear: These watches will get you through the day... so long as your day is relatively short or you have a charger handy. Battery life desperately needs improvement, but there's no sign yet that Apple will stand ahead of the pack here.
So which should you buy?
That's actually not such a clear cut question. Unlike choosing between an Android phone and an iPhone, the smartwatch you get is pretty much decided by what phone you have. Android Wear watches only work with Android phones, and the Apple Watch only works with the iPhone. So, unless you're interested in a cross-platform device like the Pebble, you can't really do that much shopping around.
What we're seeing so far is that you're in good shape no matter what side of the fence you fall on. All of these watches take care of the basics in much the same way — and they'll likely do a whole lot more down the road too.
That said, the Apple Watch definitely stands out right now thanks to how ambitious it is. It wants to do far more than show you notifications, and that's really all that Android Wear is built for. If Apple can get a lot of developers on board, the Apple Watch will begin to look even more compelling by the time it's released. Apple has certainly put together a lot of the right ingredients, but there's still a lot riding on how it's put them all together.