If you’re aiming to become a healthier, fitter you, a smartwatch or fitness watch can act as your own personal wrist-based coach, logging and analysing your workouts and keeping you motivated and on track.
But you need to make sure that the watch you’re buying is suitable for your specific needs, or you could end up shelling out for a model with features you never use – or missing out on features that could have taken your fitness to the next level.
Perhaps the Apple Watch Series 4 can help. It’s being heavily marketed as an essential health and fitness aid, and it’s packed with fitness tools.
Yet it’s mighty expensive: the smallest (40mm) version costs £399 and versions with cellular connectivity cost £499. Do you need to pay so much? And, if you’re prepared to shell out for the Apple, is the comparably priced Suunto 9 a better use of funds?
We’ve put sports-oriented wearables from key brands Suunto, Garmin, Fossil and Huami to the test, and also see how the Apple Watch 4 compares for fitness features in our latest round of tests.
Suunto 9 – £499
The Suunto 9 fitness watch is a big hefty watch that makes the Apple Watch look positively delicate by comparison. Pricewise, it’s on a par with the Series 4, making it one of the most expensive fitness watches we’ve tested.
It goes far beyond basic step and activity tracking, with an impressive 80 sports modes including aerobics, alpine skiing, badminton, bowling, boxing, canoeing, cheerleading and cricket, and it can automatically detect when you’re working out.
It doesn’t just skim the surface with these metrics either – it really goes down into the detail. If you’re a runner or cyclist, you’ll get distance, time, heart rate, calories, pace, speed, cadence, ascent, descent and more. For swimming, you’ll get a detailed analysis of your stroke, pace, heart rate, calories and swimming efficiency – and it’s waterproof to 100 metres, which is rare to find.
It can also provide VO2 max measurements, using your heart rate to calculate your oxygen consumption and fitness levels. That’s the sort of data that in the past only professional athletes had access to, but we’re now seeing it on a couple of wearables. Again, that’s useful if you’re a hardcore fitness enthusiast, but you shouldn’t worry about it if you’re just starting out with exercise and trying to lose a pound or two.
In terms of battery claims, Suunto claims that this watch can track your exercise continuously for up to 120 hours.
Read our full Suunto 9 review to find out how long its battery lasted in our tests.
Huami Amazfit Stratos – £123
The Huami Amazfit Stratos is a smart watch that’s just as serious about sports as the fitness watches here. It has a thick, sturdy bezel and plenty of dedicated sports profiles, including running, walking, cycling, swimming, elliptical machine, mountaineering, trail running, triathlon training, tennis, football and skiing. It too can tell you your VO2max analysis.
If you’re a swimmer, you’ll be pleased to know that, unlike its predecessor, the Amazfit Bip, the Amazfit Stratos is waterproof to 50 metres. Meanwhile, if you’re a cyclist, you can connect your exist Strava account to the Amazfit app and sync your workouts.
The Amazfit Stratos is significantly kinder to your wallet than the Series 4 or the Suunto 9, making it a tempting option if you’re serious about fitness and want in-depth tracking but don’t have the budget for the other two. If you’re a reluctant exerciser then it’s probably not ideal. It doesn’t have any motivational features to coax you into exercising, and it’s big and chunky, so if you don’t love it you’ll resent having it on your wrist.
Find out more in our full Amazfit Stratos review.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music – £280
The Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music fitness watch is an update on the Vivoactive 3. With this new version, you can play your music directly from your watch to your Bluetooth connected headphones, which sounds perfect if you’d prefer not to take your smartphone out running with you, but just can’t build up enough motivation to work out without music. It has 4GB of storage for saving music on the watch, or you can stream music via selected services.
Again, it can track plenty of different sports, including running outdoors and on the treadmill, indoor and outdoor cycling, walking, yoga, swimming, climbing, golf, skiing, snowboarding, stand up paddle boarding and exercising on an elliptical trainer and stair stepper. You can even create a custom workout by selecting the closest exercise and tweaking some of the data. It’s water resistant to 50 metres and it can give you VO2 max measurements.
Read our full Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music review to find out how good its motivational features are, and how much detail it goes into when tracking different exercises.
Fossil Q Venture HR – £269
This elegant smart watch is an update on the Fossil Q Venture, aimed mainly at women. Fossil is also bringing out a Fossil Q Explorist HR for men, an update on the Fossil Q Explorist. The previous versions didn’t have the ability to monitor your heart rate, and they weren’t suitable for swimming: this one is waterproof to 50 metres.
Unlike the others in this batch, the Fossil Q Venture HR is primarily about the smart features. However, it can auto detect a variety of activities, from running to yoga.
If you’re looking for detailed fitness tracking, you could be disappointed, as the metrics you’ll get, both on the watch itself and on the associated app, are pretty basic. It can’t, for example, give you any metrics that are specific to swimming, cycling or other activities. On the plus side, we did find the fitness features easy to use.
We reveal whether they’re accurate, and what we thought of the watch’s smart features, in our Fossil Q Venture HR review.
What activity tracking features does the Apple Watch offer?
The latest member of the Apple Watch family packs a lot into a small device that’s slimmer and lighter than previous versions. It’s designed to be worn all the time, and its sleek, attractive design would look as good with smart officewear as it would with your gym kit. There’s the option to buy a version with cellular connectivity, allowing you to leave your smartphone at home when you workout.
It has dedicated sports profiles for running, gym workouts and yoga, to name but a few. If you forget to tell if that you’re about to start an activity, and can automatically detect this and suggest a routine from its Workout app – a useful update on previous versions.
We liked its motivational features when we tried it out, and found it much less ‘naggy’ than previous Apple Watches. You can now challenge other Apple-using friends to fitness competitions, too, which is great if you thrive off competition.
It’s waterproof to 50 metres, meaning it’s fine for swimming in a pool or in the sea, but you can’t use it while scuba-diving, water-skiing or carrying out any other water sports involving high-velocity water or submersion below 50 metres.
The most obvious problem with the Apple Watch (apart from the price) is that its claimed battery life is very short – just 18 hours. Unless you’re organised enough to time your charges so that your watch is ready and waiting for you when you want to exercise, you could end up using it much less often than you’d like.
Read our first impressions of the Apple Watch Series 4. And come back soon for our full review, where we’ll reveal how it fared when we tested its fitness tracking features.
Latest wearables on test: sports modes compared
Here’s what the manufacturers are saying you can track with the wearables in our latest batch of testing. As you can see, Fossil goes into much less detail than the others, because fitness tracking is an add-on rather than its core purpose.
|Suunto 9||Huami Amazfit Stratos||Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music||Fossil Q Venture HR|
|Activities you can track||Over 80 activities, including: aerobics, alpine skiing, badminton, bowling, boxing, canoeing, cheerleading and cricket||Detailed sports tracking for running, walking, cycling, swimming, elliptical machine, mountaineering, trail running, triathlon, tennis, soccer and skiing||15 pre-loaded sports apps including cycling, yoga, golf, paddle-boarding, swimming and snowboarding||From running to yoga (and more)|
Fitness features: how Which? tests fitness watches and smart watches
We put fitness watches and smart watches from all the big brands, including Apple, Fitbit, Garmin, Polar and Samsung, through a series of tests both in our lab and in the great outdoors.
We consider a whole range of factors, including how accurately a device records your steps taken, calories burned and distance travelled, whether it’s comfortable enough for you to want to wear every day, how easy it is to use, how long the battery lasts, how good the smart notifications are and how well the companion app works.
We weight these aspects slightly differently for fitness watches and smart watches, to reflect the fact that one is designed more to help you keep track of exercise and the health, and the other more to communicate and deliver notifications.
As you can see from the watches here, though, there’s more and more overlap between them, with wearables manufacturers falling over themselves to produce all-singing, all-dancing models that cater for all your needs.
Our fitness tests include:
- Donning a face mask linked to a gas-analysis system so that we can measure oxygen intake and carbon dioxide production breath by breath, and log calorie burn accurately – then comparing this to calorie burn recorded by the watches
- Walking on a calibrated treadmill at 4.8km/h for 10 minutes and runing at 9.0-10km/h for 10 minutes, then comparing the watches’ abilities to log steps taken and distance travelled against this
- Taking watches with built-in GPS on a 1km run via dense trees and an underpass
- Climbing a hill and comparing elevation data to Ordnance Survey topographical data
Which? Best Buy smart watches and fitness watches
The best wearables we’ve tested come with a decent range of features and give detailed and accurate data. The worst over or understate steps, calories and distance, claim they have GPS but then struggle to pick it up, or simply don’t have the features you need.
Only the very best earn our Best Buy recommendation. To be a Which? Best Buy, a fitness watch needs to earn 72% or above. A smart watch needs to earn at least 73%. Those that fall below 45% we make Don’t Buys.
Find out more about accuracy, and browse the most accuracy wearables for a range of data, in our guide on fitness and activity tracker accuracy.