Fitness Tracker Buying Guide
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 buy a fitness tracker, think about all the activities you expect to do, and lay out your goals, 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 help better gauge your workout intensity, overall health and the progress you're making toward your goals.
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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. Some are even equipped with cellular connectivity and internal storage, which means you won't have to bring your phone along if you need to make calls or listen to music.
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 ($49.95) and Misfit Shine 2 ($99.99), give you both of those options. Others, like the Fitbit Flex 2 ($59.95), can be worn or your wrist or as a pendant around the neck. There are also a number of third-party bracelets and pendants for the Misfit and the Fitbit, which makes them even easier to accessorize.
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, like you'll find on the Fitbit Blaze . These devices tend to look more like big watches, with round or square faces that hold screens that can display a lot of information at once and let you interact with your data. If you have small wrists though, some of these devices can be uncomfortably large.
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 ($129.95) or the Steel HR ($179.95). From the outside, these trackers appear to be analog wristwatches, but they can also count 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 ($129.95) is only splashproof, whereas the Fitbit Flex 2 ($59.95) and the Misfit Speedo ($44.99) are 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 estimated 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.
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Runners, cyclists, hikers and serious athletes training for the next event may want to see how much ground they've covered during their workouts. It that case, 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. But since GPS relies on satellite signals to work (a good GPS watch should acquire a signal in less than a minute), it may take longer to lock onto a signal in inclement weather. Plus, having GPS tracking activated reduces a device's battery life. If a watch has GPS, you should look for one that will last at least 4 hours with this feature activated.
Most fitness trackers also send smartphone notifications to your wrist, letting you know when you're receiving a call or text message. Others, such as the TomTom Spark3 Cardio+ Music ($249.99), also have onboard storage, which allows you to listen to music without needing to bring along a second device, such as an iPod.
"Basic wearables started out as single-purpose devices tracking footsteps and are morphing into multi-purpose wearable devices, fusing together multiple health and fitness capabilities and smartphone notifications," said Ramon Llamas, research manager covering wearable devices at IDC. "It's enough to blur the lines against most smart wearables," he said.
Fitness Tracker Apps
Most fitness trackers have a companion app that shows your synced data, and then some. Some apps, such as Fitbit's, let you change or manually log the details of your workout after you're finished. This is especially important if you do a variety of exercises and want to differentiate cycling from running from yoga, which can make your calorie-burn data more accurate.
Many devices and apps will track the quality of your sleep, and you may be able to manually change the times when you fell asleep and woke up in the app, just in case your device's automatic-sleep tracking isn't perfect.
Food logging also is a popular feature. MyFitnessPal and MapMyFitness, for example, let you input all of the food and drinks you consume and will estimate their calorie counts to help you keep track of your diet.
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.
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.
It can be difficult 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. Also be sure to consult our list of best workout apps, some of which will sync with fitness trackers.
Fitness trackers are designed to sync with your smartphone, but make sure that the device you're considering is compatible with your specific handset. Most fitness trackers sync with both iOS and Android, but there are exceptions. For example, the Apple Watch works only with iPhones.
Most activity trackers range from $50 to about $300. If you're looking for a device to simply track your steps and calories, a less expensive device can get the job done. 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 ($29.99) will give you step, calorie, distance and sleep tracking for $30 or less. These cheaper trackers also tend to use discrete LEDs rather than full LCD or touch displays, and use coin-cell batteries, which last from six months to a year.
$50 to $100
The $50-to-$100 price range contains a hodgepodge of fitness trackers. The 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 ($59.95) 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.
$100 to $200
Many of the best fitness trackers fall into this price range. In addition to the standard tracking abilities (steps, calories, distance and sleep), many also feature heart-rate monitoring, smartphone notifications and smart coaching. The Fitbit Charge 2 ($129.95) does all of that, and has caller ID, text-message notifications and automatically detects certain exercises.
If you want a color touch screen, the $199.95 Fitbit Blaze is a larger but popular option as well, though some might consider its square design less attractive.
If you'd prefer a fitness tracker that looks more like a traditional analog watch, the Withings Steel HR ($179.95), is a stylish, swimproof option with heart-rate monitoring and text message and call notifications.
$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 ($289.99) 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.
Also a member of the higher-end fitness watch category is the TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music ($229.99). It has room for up to 500 songs, and a breadcrumb 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 evolved, they've taken features from each other, blurring the lines between these two types of wearables. The Garmin Vivoactive HR ($169.99) tracks activities (including less common ones like skiing, paddleboarding and golfing), receives smartphone notifications and supports third-party apps and widgets.
On the other hand, smartwatches such as the Apple Watch Series 2 ($369) and the Samsung Gear S3 ($299.99) not only let you interact with your smartphone from your wrist (much more so than fitness trackers), but include built-in heart-rate monitors, GPS and other features.
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 without having to take out their phones.
Find the Best Fitness Tracker for You
Fitbit Flex 2: For the Newbie
For $59.95, Fitbit's Flex 2 gives you the basics, like automatic step- and sleep-tracking, plus smartphone notifications like the Misfit Shine. 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.
Fitbit Charge 2: For the Casual, Curious Gymgoer
The Fitbit Charge 2 ($129.95) 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, elliptical and aerobic workouts. 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 Steel HR: For the Stylish Workout-aholic
The $179.95 Withings Steel HR is one of the more attractive fitness trackers in its price range. While it looks like a simple, elegant analog watch, it features a small display that shows your heart rate, notifications from your smartphone and more. A small subdial shows how far you are toward meeting your daily step goal, and the watch will buzz when you hit your target, or when you get a notification. Unlike the Charge 2, the Steel HR is waterproof, so you can swim with it, but it won't track your laps. If style is your priority, though, this could be the fitness tracker for you.
Garmin Forerunner 235: For Athletes, and Even Triathletes
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: For the Active Audiophile
At $249.99, 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.