Another day, another fitness tracker, promising to get you off the couch, help you move more and teach you to be healthier. With so many devices to choose from, it can be hard to figure out which one has the right features at the right price for you. To help you weed through the ever-growing number of options, here is what you need to know before buying a fitness tracker, whatever your workout style may be.
Know Your Goals
Before you purchase a fitness tracker, consider all of your activities and determine what you'll strive for, within reason. You might set a goal for 10,000 steps a day, or to burn a certain number of calories per day, for instance.
"Fitness trackers are motivational to people for getting more exercise and living a healthier lifestyle," says Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner. "If there is a particular activity you like, like swimming, make sure the activity tracker and the software are designed for it. People who have a favorite activity that is less common, such as jumping rope, may want to check that the activity is recognized by the software."
Those who are new to exercise, or are just trying to get moving more, may get everything they need from a basic step tracker, many of which will give you an estimate of how many calories you've burned as well.
Those who are regularly active may want a device with advanced features, like heart rate monitoring and automatic activity recognition, to easily give you a better look at your activities and the progress you are making toward your goals.
MORE: Best Fitness Trackers
For serious athletes training for the next event, you'll want to go pro and get something with GPS. TomTom and Garmin, for instance, have GPS-equipped devices that track everything from pace to intervals to elevation and more, all while tracking your heart rate along the way.
Most fitness trackers are wrist-worn or come with a clip to hook the tracker to your clothing. Some of these devices, such as the Withings Go ($68), give you both of those options. Others, like the Fitbit Flex 2 ($99.95), can be worn as a pendant around the neck, or on your wrist. The basic Moov wearable lets you strap the sensor to your ankle or shoelaces.
Fitbit Flex 2 in Silver Bangle
The simplest devices are the ones you can wear all day without actually interacting with them. With few exceptions, most have only LEDs to indicate your progress. You'll have to check the app that the device is paired with to dive deeper into your data.
With more advanced (and expensive) devices come larger displays, some of which are touch screens, that let you view and interact with your data. You'll be able to single out these devices in a crowd of trackers because they tend to look more like big watches, with round or square faces that hold screens that can display a lot of information at once.
If you're looking for a fitness tracker that doesn't look like a fitness tracker, consider a watch-style device, such as the Withings Activité Steel ($149.95). From the outside, these trackers appear to be analog wristwatches, but they can also measure your steps and calories burned.
If you want to keep your fitness tracker on all day, including in the shower and when you go for a swim, you may opt for a device that can handle more than a splash of water. For example, the Fitbit Charge 2 ($149.95) is only splashproof, whereas the Misfit Speedo ($34.99) is waterproof. That's also a plus if your tracker takes an unexpected dive, or if you want to track your swimming.
Nearly every fitness tracker available tracks two essentials: steps taken and calories burned. Many trackers also monitor distance traveled and sleep quality. If you want to know how many flights of stairs you climb each day, opt for a device that has an altimeter as well as the standard accelerometer.
Wristbands such as the Fitbit Charge 2, the Garmin Forerunner 235 ($329.99) and the Apple Watch Series 2 ($369) come with optical heart rate monitors consisting of colored LEDs on the back of the tracker that send light through the skin into the blood vessels. Before this optical sensor technology became popular, you'd have to wear a heart rate monitor strapped to your chest and connected to your activity tracker to get your heart data using electrical impulses, which is still the more accurate option. While they're pretty good, optical heart rate monitors are not as accurate as chest straps.
Apple Watch Series 2 Nike+
More elite activity trackers sport GPS monitors. GPS tracking can be an important feature for runners, cyclists, hikers or anyone who wants to see where they've been during a workout. In addition to pinpointing your location, GPS monitors can measure your speed, altitude and pace. But since GPS relies on satellite signals to work, it may take longer to lock onto a signal in inclement weather. Plus, having GPS tracking activated reduces a device's battery life.
The App is Important
Most fitness trackers have a companion app that shows your synced data, and then some. Food logging is a popular feature. Many apps, such as MapMyFitness, let you keep track of your diet by estimating the calorie count of all the food you input.
Some apps, such as Fitbit's, let you log the details of your workout after you're finished. This is especially important if you do different exercises and want to differentiate cycling from running from yoga, which can make your calorie-burn data more accurate.
An app's design is also important. Bold colors, clean typography, an intuitive layout and charts can make it as easy to understand your data. Those features are key to a good companion app. It's hard to judge an app before you download it, though, so you should check Apple's App Store or the Google Play store for screenshots and reviews.
Your tracker's app might not be able to track all of the activities you want, though. Or you may just prefer MyFitnessPal for diet logging or MapMyRun for your jogs. Some tracker companion apps let you connect to these third-party apps, allowing you to sync your data from one app to another.
Fitness trackers are designed to sync with your smartphone, but you should know whether a given device will work with your handset. Most fitness trackers sync with iOS and Android, but Windows Phone compatibility is rare. For example, the Samsung Gear Fit2 ($189.99) works only with Android devices.
Most activity trackers range from $50 to about $300. If you're looking for a device to simply track your steps and calories, then you can save money with a less expensive device.If you want a device to improve the pace and stride of your run, a higher-end tracker will provide more information that you'll want to help you reach your goals.
Inexpensive devices such as the Misfit Flash ($20) will give you step, calorie, distance and sleep tracking for $50 or less. These cheaper trackers also tend to use discrete LEDs rather than full LCD or touch displays, and many operate on coin-cell batteries, which will need to be replaced every six months to a year.
$50 to $100
The middle children of fitness trackers, these devices that fall into this price category are a bit of a hodgepodge. The new Moov HR ($59.99) band is a very specific device that guides you through running and boxing workouts using its 3D motion sensor, but it's not meant to be worn as an all-day activity monitor. However, there are a large number of general-purpose devices, such as the Fitbit Flex 2 ($99) and the Withings Go ($68), both of which track steps and sleep, and are waterproof. Features can be a toss-up in this price category, though, so you may have to do more research to get the right tracker for your needs.
Fitbit Flex 2
$100 to $200
Most fitness trackers fall into this price range, giving you the standard tracking abilities: steps, calories, distance and sleep. They may also offer such extra features as heart rate monitoring, smartphone notifications and smart coaching. The Fitbit Charge 2 has caller ID and text message notifications, plus automatically detects certain types of exercise and tracks steps, calories, distance, sleep and heart rate.
Fitbit Charge 2
The Samsung Gear Fit 2 ($189.99) also has automatic activity tracking and smartphone notifications, plus built-in GPS and 4 GB of internal storage space for music that you can stream directly to your Bluetooth headphones.
$200 and Up
There's no messing around with these elite trackers that both monitor your body during rest and activity, and keep you connected. The Garmin Forerunner 235 ($329.99) falls into this category, with GPS, heart rate monitoring and smartphone notifications. It can also advise users on how much time to take to recover from intense runs.
TomTom Spark 3
Also a member of the higher-end fitness watch category is the TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music ($212.49). It has room for up to 500 songs, and a route exploration feature that can help you find your way home if you get lost during a long outdoor run.
The serious triathlete may be willing to put down more than $400 for a GPS watch like the Garmin Forerunner 735XT (449.99). It tracks running, swimming and biking with on-point GPS tracking, plus gives you virtually all of the notifications you'd expect to see on your smartphone.
Fitness Trackers vs. Smartwatches
As both fitness trackers and smartwatches have grown up, they've taken features from each other, blurring the lines between these two types of wearables. For instance, the Garmin Vivoactive HR ($169.99) tracks activities (including less common ones like skiing, paddleboarding and golfing), sends smartphone notifications and supports third-party apps and widgets.
Samsung Gear S3
On the other hand, smartwatches such as the Apple Watch Series 2, the Samsung Gear S3 ($299.99) and the Pebble Time 2 + HR ($129.99) not only let you interact with your smartphone from your wrist (much more so than fitness trackers), but now also include built-in heart rate monitors, GPS and other features. There are even tweener devices, such as the Polar M600 — a fitness-focused smartwatch — that blur the line even further.
In general, though, fitness trackers tend to deliver more comprehensive workout data and last longer on a charge, while smartwatches are better suited for those who want to be in the loop, but keep their phone in their pocket.
Find the Best Fitness Tracker for You
Misfit Shine 2
Those who are just starting to get more active or only need the basics can get what they want with the Misfit Shine 2. At $79.99, this watch-shaped device automatically tracks steps and sleep, and can show you the progress you've made toward your fitness goal (steps taken, distance traveled or estimated calories burned) using the 12 LEDs on its face. When you receive a phone call or text message, the Shine 2 will light up and vibrate.
Fitbit Flex 2
For $99.95, Fitbit's Flex 2 can give you the basics, like automatic step- and sleep-tracking, plus smartphone notifications like the Misfit Shine, but at a slightly steeper price. The Flex 2 can automatically detect cycling, swimming, aerobic exercise and more, and tracking those activities separately makes for a more accurate estimate of the number of calories you've burned. The Fitbit app lets you set up to 10 vibrating alarms and hourly reminders to move. The Flex 2 is also among the more attractive activity monitors as well, and can be worn snapped into a bangle or a pendant.
The Casual, Curious Gym-Goer
Fitbit Charge 2
The Fitbit Charge 2 ($149.95) sports a large screen, which displays much more information than Fitbit's early Charge and Charge HR devices could. It tracks steps and sleep as most trackers do, and can automatically identify other types of exercise, including cycling, treadmill and elliptical workouts, and aerobics. On top of that, the Charge 2 is equipped with an optical heart rate monitor that lets you continuously track your heart rate whether you're training for a marathon or sitting at your desk at work. You can also set up smartphone notifications for when you receive a call or text, and see on the screen who's trying to contact you. The Charge 2's band can also be swapped for more stylish designs.
Withings Activité Steel
The $149.95 Withings Activité Steel is one of the more attractive fitness trackers in its price range. With a polished sapphire glass dome and stainless steel case, it looks more like a traditional analog watch than a fitness tracker. But under the hood, don't expect more than the basics, much less a heart-rate monitor. Unlike the Charge 2, the Activité Steel is waterproof, so you can swim with it, but it won't track your swim. If style is your priority though, this could be the fitness tracker for you.
Garmin Forerunner 235
Whether they're competing in a triathlon or just striving to push their workouts to the next level, serious runners will want a heart-rate monitor to track the intensity of their workouts and GPS to track the how far they've run, all packed into a device that's not too bulky. For those needs, the $329.99 Garmin Forerunner 235 delivers. While it's fairly thin and lightweight, it's an undeniably sporty watch, but you can customize the looks and features of this Forerunner with third-party watch faces and apps. You can control music on your phone from your watch and receive call and text notifications. if you have an Android phone, you can even reply to messages from your watch.
TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music
At $249, the TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music GPS watch could be a great device for athletes who sometimes need a little motivation to get going. You can store music locally on the tracker, which is paired via Bluetooth with headphones that come with the device. Using its GPS, you can take your run to new territories, and the watch can tell you how to get back to your starting point if you get lost. You can also set up smartphone notifications and notifications that will tell you your pace while you're running.