In the market for a new smartwatch this year? If you’re an Apple Watch diehard or a Fitbit fanatic, it might be time to give Samsung another look.

Samsung kicked off the fall smartwatch season Wednesday with the new Galaxy Watch3 at its semiannual Unpacked event. Expect Apple and Fitbit to follow suit with their own devices in coming weeks.

On the Watch3, Samsung isn’t just making incremental improvements to its core strengths in hardware design, it’s also filling gaps in its premium smartwatch lineup and encroaching into the others’ territories, sporting health and wellness features such as fall detection, cardio fitness assessment and sleep quality analysis.

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The Watch3 includes two leading-edge health features – built-in electrocardiogram, like the Apple Watch Series 5, and a potentially groundbreaking blood pressure monitor. Unfortunately, blood pressure monitoring won’t be available in the USA unless the Food and Drug Administration clears it for use in this country.

Blood pressure will be this decade’s monster wearables metric for its potential to keep us healthy and save lives. And it’s on a much faster track, courtesy of Samsung.

The Galaxy Watch3 is thinner, smaller and lighter than last year’s Galaxy Watch and has the same two-day battery life and slightly larger displays. The Watch3 will be available Thursday and comes in two sizes, 41mm and 45mm. Prices start at $399 and $429, respectively. Add $50 for built-in LTE cellular.

Samsung is innovating the smartwatch. (Photo: Handout)

Return volleys

In the coming weeks, most smart watchers expect Apple to unveil the Apple Watch Series 6 and for Fitbit to introduce a follow-up to either its mainstream Versa line, its rapidly aging Ionic premium smartwatch or both devices. Although Samsung has plugged the glaring holes in its offering, the other two big names in wearables may have one or two.

Apple hasn’t said it will introduce a watch next month as it normally does, though it did hint at it – as well as some new features via the upcoming software upgrade, watchOS 7 – in June at WWDC, the company’s developer conference. Although accessibility enhancements will no doubt please the faithful, it seems unlikely Apple will do much to address its two primary competitive shortcomings, battery life and sleep tracking.

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Multiday battery life and sophisticated sleep tracking go hand in hand. Because the Apple Watch can’t monitor sleep if it’s sitting on the charger overnight.

Reports and rumors hint that the new watch will not feature longer battery life. It’s likely to be somewhat thinner and lighter than the Series 5, but any efficiency gains from lower-power components are reportedly negated by smaller batteries.

Neither does Apple appear to be doing much to catch up to the sleep analysis of Fitbit and, now, Samsung. The company is responding to calls for better sleep tracking, but the highlighted new feature in watchOS 7 is not a quality score and insights derived from sleep-stage tracking and analysis. Rather, it’s the new “Wind Down” mode, to help you get sleep on time.

Word is that Apple will add blood-oxygen-related features for new health metrics, as Samsung has with the Watch3. Fitbit added an oxygenation feature early this year. It uses it to track overnight variations in blood oxygen, which could be a sign of apnea or other sleep disorders.

Up Fitbit’s sleeve

Lasting an average of four days between charges, Fitbit smartwatches have long boasted the longest battery life of the three players. That said, dimmer displays along with a lack of compelling – but power-hungry – hardware features such as GPS, cellular and speaker no doubt help stretch the time between charges.

Cellular is great for runs, walks and other times you want to leave your phone behind. GPS is not only important for mapping and directions. It is also integral to deriving VO2 Max, considered the gold standard for assessing aerobic fitness. Samsung and Apple include GPS in all their smartwatches.

Fitbit did finally add GPS to its line of fitness bands this spring, with the Charge 4. But in the smartwatch line, only the premium Ionic includes GPS – and that will be 3 years old this fall. That probably means Fitbit will include GPS in any new device.

Apple was first to market with irregular heart rate detection, along with spot ECG monitoring to capture insight to pass along to your doctor. Samsung incorporated that into the Watch3.

Fitbit is working on irregular heart rate detection and ECG monitoring. Presumably, any new smartwatch from Fitbit this fall will incorporate GPS and ECG. There has not been any indication that Fitbit plans to add cellular or a companion speaker.

More with less

Although its hardware has traditionally been the weakest of the three, Fitbit invariably has accomplished more with less. The wealth of fitness and wellness data and insight accessible through Fitbit’s smartphone app is perennially at or near the top of what’s available. But as Apple and Samsung race forward with better hardware, insights and metrics, it’s getting harder for Fitbit to maintain that lead.

Samsung adds accessories. (Photo: Handout)

In a sense, Samsung has been the inverse of Fitbit, with powerful, full-featured and well-designed smartwatches that curiously offer less insight. At the Unpacked event, the electronics giant hinted that the new Samsung Health app finally may answer that call.

In the meantime, the Galaxy Watch3 has closed virtually all the hardware and feature gaps between Samsung smartwatches and the others. If it can make them all as accessible as Fitbit and Apple typically do, it could have a real hit on its hands.

USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm, and producer of the Privacy Now interview series on YouTube. Reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.

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