Smartwatches, not phones, are where the action is at this year

Phones have become boring. Each year brings an incremental, iterative update, but the general idea of what a phone is hasn’t changed in ages. Even folding phones, which were heralded as bringing excitement back to the scene, are settling into the same year-over-year processor and camera upgrade cadence that standard smartphones have been in for years.

That’s perhaps never been more true than this year, where each of the major phone releases this fall has been less than exciting. Samsung’s latest Galaxy Fold 4 and Flip 4 are effectively the same devices as last year’s versions but with newer processors and cameras. Google’s Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro are nearly the same as the Pixel 6 models, just with, again, new processors and cameras. Apple’s iPhone 14 is virtually identical to the iPhone 13 — it didn’t even get a new processor.

But while smartphone changes and innovations have slowed down even more this year, there’s a lot of action happening in the smartwatch space, a category that’s been largely dormant for the past half-decade. All three manufacturers have upstaged their phone releases with more exciting and unique offerings for your wrist, making the smartwatch the star of the show for the first time in perhaps ever.

Let’s start with Samsung. Although the company did fall into a little bit of the iterative update trap with the standard Galaxy Watch 5 (its only claim over last year’s Galaxy Watch 4 is a bigger battery), the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro introduces a new tier for Samsung watches. It has a more rugged titanium case, a larger screen, an even bigger battery, and better navigation options for when you’re out on a run away from civilization. Samsung didn’t really go beyond that — the processor is the same as last year’s Galaxy Watch 4 line, and the software experience is basically the same, too — but the new design and materials are enough to make the Watch 5 Pro turn heads.

Though Apple has been the dominant smartwatch manufacturer since the Apple Watch came out way back in 2015, it’s been content releasing iterative updates to the same lineup of one small and one large watch. Most Apple Watch releases are barely different from their predecessors — this year’s mainstream Series 8 is nearly identical to the Series 7.

But the tough and rugged Apple Watch Ultra finally gives us something new. It’s got a new design, a bigger and brighter display, a whole new button, and a battery that runs laps around other Apple Watch models. Apple is really pitching this as a device for long-distance runners, climbers, and even divers, but it certainly will be bought by many people who don’t do any of those things and just want a big, top-of-the-line Apple Watch that looks different from every other Apple Watch out there.

Then there’s Google, which is finally entering the smartwatch market this year. Though Google has maintained a smartwatch platform for years (the first Android Wear devices actually predate the Apple Watch) and worked with many different manufacturers, this year, it released the Pixel Watch, the first smartwatch in the Pixel hardware family.

The Pixel Watch has been a long time coming — it combines Google’s Pixel hardware efforts with Fitbit, which Google completed its acquisition of in January 2021. It is meant to bring new life to the Android smartwatch market, with a design and set of features that seem specifically created to go toe to toe with the Apple Watch. Sleek, compact design? Check. Stainless steel frame with clever strap attachment system? Check. Rotatable crown with subtle haptic feedback? Check. A voice assistant ready to control smart home devices, set timers, and send messages? Check. Fitness and workout tracking, including heart rate monitoring and ECG? Check and check.

If you’ve been wanting to switch from an iPhone to Android but have been held back because there haven’t been great alternatives to the Apple Watch, well, now Google has one.

On their own, each of these new smartwatches brings something interesting to the table. But collectively, they feel like a movement back toward innovation and progress in wearable technology, even if some of that progress can be boiled down to “you don’t have to charge it as often.”

I can’t say for sure that each of these companies will continue to prioritize smartwatches like they are this year — I have no idea how Apple will update the Ultra year over year, and Google has quite a rocky history with its smartwatch platform. None of this is to say that this crop of smartwatches is perfect, either — Google, in particular, has quite a bit of work to do on the Pixel Watch. But if you’re looking to scratch that new gadget itch this year, smartwatches are where it’s at.