In the US, there are over 22 million smartwatches sold annually. Models compete to bring consumers the most features, such as smartphone notifications, music control, step count, and sleep tracker. A better fit for the privacy-conscious might be a hybrid smartwatch or an elegantly-designed, minimalist digital watch. Here are my picks for the best minimalist smartwatches and hybrid watches:
- Apple Watch
- Xplora X5 Play
- Garmin Vívomove HR
- Garmin Instinct Solar
Bonus Pick: The best minimalist digital watch is the Casio G-Shock Full Metal 5000 for its simple retro design, solar charging, and automatic time synchronization. More on that later. First, let’s answer an essential question about the best smartwatches and privacy.
Are Smartwatches Private?
Smartwatches don’t have an excellent track record when it comes to privacy. Not only do they collect a mountain of private data, from real-time locations to heart rate, but a lot of this data is often shared with third parties (which you agreed to).
Data security is often lax, lacking basic security-enhancing features like two-factor authentication. These and other security flaws make it easier for malicious users to abuse features and grab private data.
The Apple Watch is my top pick as a minimalist smartwatch with the “best” privacy out of the box for iPhone users. Chalk that up to Apple’s locked-down ecosystem and the company’s tendency to take their more-affluent customer base’s privacy more seriously than most.
Is watchOS Open Source?
No, unfortunately. Apple’s operating system for smartwatches is proprietary software through and through, except for a few open-source components.
What about non-iOS users? For Android devices, I suggest taking a look at PineTime.
If you’re looking for an alternative open-source smartwatch, then the PineTime smartwatch is your device. I purchased one, which took about four weeks to arrive from China in the US.
On the outside, it offers the same sleek, understated looks of the Apple Watch, along with a 1.3-inch 240×240 capacitive touch IPS display you can see even in direct sunlight.
It ships standard with Infinitime, a community firmware that works with Linux and Windows. Still, you can run any number of available open-source operating systems. As far as features go, you get the basics, including
- notification mirroring
- heart rate monitor
- step counter, and
- music player control
- navigation alerts while using mapping (which I’ve yet to figure out)
The literature notes a 7-day rechargeable battery life. However, in my experience, I get around five days before I put it on the charger for a few hours.
Owners will leverage the Gadgetbridge app, which offers free and cloudless synchronization to Android phones. The app is also compatible with many other smartwatches, so it’s worth checking out if you want a private and completely open-source user experience.
Xplora X5 Play
What is the safest smartwatch for kids? The Xplora X5 Play. Parents regularly use smartwatches to keep tabs on their kids and take advantage of geofencing and other helpful new features. But this also leaves users vulnerable to privacy breaches and other malicious actions. The X5 Play handles that by taking Internet access out of the picture.
Instead, the X5 Play uses a SIM card and cell phone plan to connect users. Having phone functionality means users can also call for help if needed. The most attractive feature for parents is its water resistance. It’s IP68 waterproof and comes with a 2-megapixel camera for selfie shots.
Even the best hybrid smartwatches generally use closed-source, proprietary apps installed on your smartphone to communicate with the watch. What happens with your data collected by the device is often stored and opaquely disclosed behind privacy policies.
What’s the Difference Between a Smartwatch and a Hybrid Smartwatch?
In a nutshell, hybrid smartwatches combine the aesthetics of traditional watches with the smart technology found in regular smartwatches. What you get is something that looks like an ordinary watch but with intelligence behind the analog façade.
Unfortunately, most smartwatch makers invest lots of time and engineering into locking their smartwatches to their apps. That makes it essential to see what their published privacy policies say about our personal data. The more open they are, the better.
Garmin Vívomove HR
The brand also boasts good documentation for adjusting privacy settings in the Garmin app. I can also control how much Internet access the app gets and any third-party traffic with application firewalls like TrackerControl.
Garmin Instinct Solar
Here’s another hybrid smartwatch from Garmin. Aimed at outdoor activities and sports consumers, the Instinct Solar boasts several remarkable fitness features. Its solar charging feature means you won’t have to charge so often, plus you get up to 54 days of battery life.
If you can tell, I’m sticking with this brand for its attention to privacy.
Are Smartwatches Hackable?
Generally speaking, smartwatches can be hacked by adversaries with enough research and testing. Smartwatches run lightweight operating systems that are constrained by storage and processing power. Manufacturers balance security and feature development, sometimes leaving exposed vulnerabilities.
If it’s digital, it can be hacked.
Bluetooth is a standard weak point hackers regularly exploit, using the connectivity feature to siphon data or even install malware and ransomware. In one notable instance, hackers broke into a smartwatch back-end used by dementia patients and vehicle trackers. They exploited existing vulnerabilities to trigger false alerts, among other acts.
In an always-connected world, unplugging and unwinding is pretty appealing. Not only does it offer a way to prevent burnout, but it’s also an avenue for privacy protection. That’s the whole idea behind disconnected digital minimalism.
Best Minimalist Digital Watch
Sometimes smarter isn’t always better. When you take away all of the connectivity features, you end up with minimalist digital watches that aren’t as distracting but still make for great conversation pieces.
I look for simplicity, quality materials, and eco-friendliness. Here’s an option that manages to hit all those points and is on my wishlist.
Casio G-Shock Full Metal 5000
Truly a retro minimalist timepiece in every sense of the word. The Casio G-Shock Full Metal 5000 is a hybrid smartwatch boasting the quintessential G-Shock styling and a few intelligent features like:
- a built-in solar battery that gives it self-charging capabilities in sunlight.
- atomic timekeeping grabbing an accurate time from one of the six radio transmitters worldwide.
- water resistant and features attractive stainless steel housing.
The downsides? For one, the G-Shock comes with a hefty $550 price tag, which leaves it out of the running for those on a tight budget. It also doesn’t have a touch screen. The Auto Time Adjustment via Bluetooth feature doesn’t add much to this smartwatch’s appeal, so there’s no real reason for it to have Bluetooth connectivity in the first place.
Fortunately, users can disable Bluetooth in the watch settings.
I’ve started my YNAB budget to save up and buy this minimalist digital watch.