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Buyer’s Guide: How much should you pay for a smartwatch?

At the SoyaCincau office, I’ve developed a reputation of sorts with my colleagues for being a smartwatch salesman. While that’s meant in humour (or at least I think it is), I will admit to having a soft spot for smartwatches, and the pile of smartwatch boxes on my table certainly doesn’t help me escape the jokes.

And in my quest to find the perfect smartwatch for myself, I’ve discovered two things:

Firstly, there’s no such thing. And secondly, when it comes to wearables, more expensive doesn’t always mean better.

Now, I know a lot of you probably clicked on this article because you want to buy a smartwatch. Maybe you’re not entirely clear on which one to get or how much to spend. That’s where I come in—today, we’re going to look at wearables at three very different price points to see which option best fits you.

The affordable

On the affordable end of the spectrum, are fitness bands. You usually get really small displays, basic fitness functions—offset with generally good battery lives. Among the best of them, in my opinion, is the Mi Band 4. You get a great battery life of up to two weeks, a durable design, and it’s priced at a very budget-friendly point—below RM200.

But the Mi Band 4 is still limited by its hardware, just like with many fitness bands. The 1.4” OLED display is just too small to be a practical way of reading messages, and there isn’t really enough space for quick replies or anything of the sort. Still, you get quick notifications, and as mentioned, it’s quite a lot of bang for buck with enough functionality for most users.

However, fitness bands don’t really have the nicest displays, and part of the appeal of a wearable, to me, is a nice, beautiful display. So if you’re like me, you’ll probably like the next category a little bit more.

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The mid-range

Now, let’s talk about the mid-range, where smartwatches cost anywhere from RM600–RM2,000. At the more affordable sub-RM1000 end, you’re looking at the pseudo-smartwatches. Devices like the Honor Magic Watch 2 or Huawei Watch GT 2. Then, if you’re willing to cross that four-digit threshold, you’ll be looking at options like the Apple Watch or the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2.

The biggest difference besides the price? Standalone app support.

With the Honor Magic Watch 2, there’s no support for apps beyond what’s already pre-installed, but you still get a lot of features that you’d get with an actual smartwatch.

Some of the pros include a built-in microphone for calls, GPS, and a much nicer and larger display than those that you’d find on a fitness band. You can also upload MP3s to something like the Magic Watch 2, and hook up a pair of Bluetooth headphones—although I’m not too sure if many of us even have MP3s of our music anymore.

The Honor Magic Watch 2 has pretty great battery life, too, something like 11 days with varied usage, which is even better than certain fitness bands. Unlike fully-fledged smartwatches, pseudo-smartwatches—essentially fitness bands with a few smartwatch features in a smartwatch’s body—generally have great battery lives.

On the other hand, “proper” smartwatches like the Galaxy Watch Active 2 and the Apple Watch give you a lot of those features plus standalone app support. This means you can install stuff like Spotify, your running app of choice, and even YouTube in some cases, all on your smartwatch. There are also a few subtle differences like the ability to send quick replies, although a major weakness is that your battery life will generally be worse. That said, it could be a fair trade-off for some.

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Now, what if money wasn’t a problem. What can you expect at the high-end?

The high-end

Well, the high-end is a little harder to define because devices can range from RM4,000 to anywhere in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. But, for the most part, these watches are specifically built for the enthusiast.

You’ve got the more “reasonable” devices like the Garmin Fenix 6X Sapphire which retails for about RM4,199, to luxury smartwatches like Garmin’s MARQ tool smartwatches, or even something like a Breitling Exospace Aviator smartwatch which can retail from RM5,000 to RM30,000.

I think a good example here is the Garmin Fenix 6X pro Solar, which is the top-of-the-line watch in Garmin’s Fenix series, and it retails for RM4,699. So what are you paying for? Well, for starters, it’s a huge smartwatch—although to be honest, I’m not entirely sure if most users would appreciate the ginormous size of this thing.

Still, I love how solid it feels. It has a certain heft to it, and it looks and feels like it can take an actual beating. While I think the Fenix 6X Sapphire edition is probably a little more durable (with sapphire glass), what makes the Pro Solar cool is that the watch face is made out of “Power Glass” for solar charging. Basically, you can charge your smartwatch by simply being outdoors, which is awesome.

But the Fenix 6X Pro Solar takes some time to get used to because it’s not quite like your regular point-and-grunt smartwatch. First off, there’s no touchscreen. Instead, you use five buttons to navigate through the entire watch. The transflective display on the watch also means that you don’t get a vivid display like on a more conventional smartwatch, although it helps contribute to an impressive battery life estimate of 21 days in smartwatch mode.

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But, despite these cool features, I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea. So, to help me understand, I spoke to Amin, who has been a strong advocate of the Fenix series for as long as I can remember (playback starts at 6:50).

I think one of the most interesting things here, for me, is how the term “smartwatch” has evolved over the years. Wearables like fitness bands are drastically different from something like a Fenix 6X nowadays—and that’s totally okay.

The way I see it, wearables sit on a spectrum of sorts now. Fitness bands on one end, with “specialist watches”, as Amin calls them, on the other. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only reason you’d get a fitness band is if you had a tight budget, or a specialist watch if you had tonne of cash to burn.

Ultimately, it really depends on what you plan to use the wearable for. If you’re looking for something simple on a budget with a battery that lasts for weeks, the Mi Band 4 might be the device for you. Need something for that solo hike around the country? The Garmin, for sure.

But if you’re looking for something that does a little bit of everything, the mid-range smartwatch ticks all the necessary boxes for me. That said, deciding between the superior battery life of the pseudo-smartwatch Honor Magic Watch 2 and the added functionality of a full-on smartwatch like the Galaxy Watch Active 2, is a little more difficult—but I think I’d go for the Honor Magic Watch 2.

The most expensive wearable certainly doesn’t mean the best device. At least, not the best device for you.

Photography by Zachary Yoong with the Sony A7 III.