Let’s start with a question. Does your Apple Watch really need a screen protector? If yours is stainless steel, the answer is probably no: its sapphire crystal glass is incredibly tough and very scratch-resistant.
For aluminum Apple Watch models, things aren’t so clear-cut: the Ion-X glass is pretty tough, but we found our watch soon accumulated a lot of little scratches. They weren’t enough to annoy us in everyday usage, but they did affect the resale value.
Scratches aren’t covered by your warranty, because they’re everyday wear and tear. Smashes are, though. If you really damage your screen and you’ve got AppleCare, Apple will replace the screen two times for a fee of $69/£49/AU$99 each time.
The out-of-warranty fees are much higher, starting at just under $200/£200/AU$300 and reaching the heady heights of $800/£749/$1,199 if you have the ceramic Apple Watch 3.
Even if you do have AppleCare, it’s better not to have to pay the fee: protecting your watch from damage is cheaper than fixing it after damage has occurred. Even the most expensive option here is a fraction of the price of an Apple Watch screen repair.
If you want to keep your watch pristine and protected, there are three main options. There are plastic screen protectors, very similar to smartphone ones, where you peel off the backing, stick them to the screen and push out the bubbles.
These are by far the cheapest screen protectors you can buy, and while they can be a little bit fiddly to fit – getting them onto your watch without leaving any bubbles requires patience and a bit of skill – they do a decent job of standing up to everyday scrapes and bumps.
If you’d rather add something a bit tougher, a tempered glass protector may be a better option. These are much harder to fit – as they’re glass, they’re not as flexible or as forgiving as plastic.
Also consider this: the cheaper aluminium Apple Watch Sport is actually a lot less prone to obvious scratches than the fancier stainless steel version in terms of body (if not screen, as noted above).
While you might assume the steel is harder and tougher, it's actually softer than the aluminium used in the entry-level model. Then there's the finish to consider. Like the rear casing of iPods Classics, the steel Apple Watch has a super-shiny chrome finish that shows off scratches very readily. It almost seems like the little guy is proud of the things.
The Apple Watch Sport has a matt anodised finish, more like current iPhones, and it makes scratches a lot less obvious.
Finally, if you're thinking about protection, there are cases that surround the whole watch. Inevitably, they add bulk - and some models are hideous. But if you’re likely to be in an environment where your watch faces various hazards, a case may be a worthwhile investment unless that environment is hot and humid, or wet.
Most protective cases aren’t waterproof or airtight, so they’ll often get steamy in the gym or will let in water when you swim. That doesn’t affect your watch but does make it hard to see.
These are products that we haven't had in our test labs, but based on our experts' opinion and knowledge of the most reputable brands around, we think these are worth looking at.
Our selections, ranked from cheapest to most expensive, take into account online reviews, brand reputation, product capability or unique features to help you pick through the maze of choices available to you.
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1. IQ Shield LiquidSkin Full Body Skin Screen Protector
Full body coverage for your entire watch
Most screen protectors just cover the screen. Not this one: it’s a full body protector with sections to cover the entire Apple Watch body, although we’re not entirely sure why you might want to do that. At the time of writing the full coverage model is available for the Apple Watch 3 but not the Apple Watch 4.
It’s a 'liquid skin' film that you apply while wet, although some reviewers have found that the little sections for the sides of the Apple Watch are very, very fiddly to apply. The main screen bit is a doddle, though.
2. RinoSkin Shield Screen Protector
Amazon US’s top-rated Apple Watch protector
Here’s a great deal for US Apple Watch owners: the same liquid skin film you get in other firms' protectors at a rock-bottom price. RinoGear’s top-rated screen protectors are available for just $7.85 for a pack of six at the time of writing, which is a dollar thirty per protector.
There’s a lifetime guarantee, but who cares when these are so cheap? If one gets damaged, just throw it out and stick another one on. As with other liquid skin protectors the RinoSkin protectors are applied when wet, can self-heal from minor scratches and are pretty easy to put in place.
3. Misxi Case for Apple Watch
Full coverage, but you’ll want to drop it when it’s hot
If you want to protect your Apple Watch with a case, this is one of the thinnest, least obtrusive ones around. It’s made of the same TPU as rugged watch cases, so it’s tough and scratch-resistant, and it’s easy to fit.
The main downside to this kind of case is that it can trap moisture between the case and the screen, so for example it’s not one to wear to the gym or when you go for a swim. Make sure you get what you order, though: some customers say they paid for a two-pack but only got one.
4. Spigen Rugged Armor Apple Watch Case
When the going gets tough, the tough get Spigen
Spigen makes a whole bunch of Apple Watch cases with differing levels of protection: this, the Rugged Armor version, is one of the cheaper options. It’s a solid TPU case that protects your watch from impacts, though it’s bulky in a Casio G-Shock kind of way.
This case doesn’t include any direct screen protection – the raised lip around the screen should be enough – and that means it won’t suffer from the misting or water ingress that can affect some full-coverage cases.
5. LK Liquid Skin Screen Protector for Apple Watch
Very cheap and pretty cheerful too
This is Amazon’s choice for the Apple Watch 4, and it’s also available for all generations of the Apple Watch.
The protectors are made of laser-cut liquid skin film that can be washed and reapplied; unlike some film protectors the LK ones are designed to be applied while wet, which makes it easier to get rid of the dreaded bubbles.
There’s also a lifetime warranty, although we’re not sure why you’d bother invoking it when a six-pack of these protectors is so cheap: it’s much quicker to just chuck on another protector than to write an angry email to the manufacturer.
6. Tempered Glass Screen Protector, various brands
When you want a protector made of something tougher
There are lots of brands offering very similar tempered glass screen protectors with very similar photography, which makes us think they’re coming from the same factories.
That means the buying decision here is largely down to price and reviews: look for ones featuring customer images rather than just endless “Best protector EVER!” hyperbole.
Tempered glass is tougher than film and less prone to air bubbles but there are three minor downsides: it’s slightly fiddlier to apply, it costs more, and film doesn’t smash if something hard hits it. That means even fairly minor knocks can mean it’s new-protector time.