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Should I buy a fitness tracker or a smartwatch?

By Christina Woodger

From Apple and Samsung to Fitbit and Garmin – there’s a large choice of wearables to help you keep fit, but should you pick a fitness tracker or a smartwatch? Our guide can help.

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In this guide:

Both smartwatches and fitness trackers can help you to stay connected, track your daily activities and monitor your progress towards fitness goals. But there are differences between the devices - so you'll need to decide which of those is most important to you. 

Generally speaking, fitness trackers are more focused on health and activity monitoring than on smart notifications – their smaller screens aren't as conducive to reading and replying to messages. 

Some smartwatches are targeted at the fit fashion-conscious (people who mainly want an attractive watch with good smart features and a smattering of fitness features). And some are aimed squarely at fitness enthusiasts, who want plenty of sensors for specialist exercise tracking. 

But there are plenty that straddle both camps, offering looks, sophisticated health features, advanced smart features and detailed sports tracking. 

To help you pick the right type of wearable, you can use our online tool below. 

Select fitness tracker or smartwatch, and then explore the features on offer by clicking on the information spots. If you’re on a mobile device, you’ll need to scroll down to the 'features' tab at the bottom of your screen to explore.

Once you’ve decided which device you want, browse our fitness tracker and smartwatch reviews to find the wearable that’s right for your needs and budget.  

How much should I expect to spend? 

You can buy a fitness tracker for as little as £20, or you could pay more than £200 for a premium model. 

Smartwatches range from around £15 for a watch you might buy from a discount site such as Groupon, up to more than £600. 

Spending more usually means you get more features, such as multi-sport tracking or 4G to make calls without your phone. 

Other things affecting price are the design and material. Some watches have a range of design options available, such as a choice of leather, woven or metal straps, or limited-edition versions endorsed by celebrities. 

You'll need to spend at least £70 for a Best Buy fitness tracker, but a couple of decent ones are available for between £30 and £70. 

And you'll generally need to spend at least £90 for a Best Buy smartwatch, but there is one that's often available for around £90. You can get some good models for around £85. 

Price is by no means an indicator of performance, though. We’ve found fitness trackers and smartwatches that are expensive but inaccurate, uncomfortable and/or awkward to use. 

For a range of great budget devices, check out our guide to the best cheap fitness trackers.

Why choose a fitness tracker? 

On a basic level, a fitness or activity tracker can give you an insight into your day-to-day activity, tracking your steps, calories or sleep. More advanced devices support particular types of exercise or sports, such as running, cycling, swimming or golf. Others offer multi-sport tracking – so you can track your whole workout, from the treadmill to the pool.

Some have more advanced sensors for tracking, such as heart-rate monitors, and some basic smart notifications such as text or email. Those with built-in GPS are able to operate independently of your phone, meaning you can leave it at home while out for a run or cycle.  

  • Pros: Basic trackers are available at low prices – you can get one with a decent range of features for about £20, so they're a good option if you're on a stricter budget. There are plenty of models designed with comfort in mind, too, so you'll be able to wear it all day with no issues. Advanced devices are available to cater for very specific sports and activities, but at higher prices – which might make you wonder if you'd be better off with a smartwatch.
  • Cons: Outside the sphere of exercise and activity, devices vary in how versatile they are for other functions, such as smart notifications from a phone, music playback and third-party apps.

The best trackers are accurate, comfortable and a breeze to use. The worst over or understate your data, and can be a pain to wear and use. If you think a fitness tracker is the best option for you, find out which models impressed in our tests – take a look at our best fitness watch and activity trackers.

 

Why choose a smartwatch? 

In short: go for a smartwatch if you like the idea of a miniature smartphone on your wrist, or you're looking for special sports-tracking features. 

The biggest strength of smartwatches is their ability to link together notifications from your smartphone – such as texts, calls, emails, directions, calendar appointments and social media messages – with comfort and style. 

The best let you easily view and respond to notifications, dictate text or email responses, or send 'smart' replies, and most should at the very least handle the basics of fitness and activity tracking. 

A smartwatch will also allow you to see more details of your exercise or smart notifications at a glance without taking your phone out, by virtue of having a bigger screen than a fitness tracker. 

Some, as we've mentioned, are packed with sensors and technology for specific activities such as running, swimming or exploring the great outdoors. These might include:

  • altimeter - uses barometric pressure or GPS data to tell you how high above sea level you are, so you can locate yourself on a map
  • barometer - picks up changes in atmospheric pressure, so you can predict whether the weather is going to worsen or improve. Some can even alert you if they sense a storm coming
  • navigation features - location-tracking services (such as GPS, Glonass and Galileo), a compass, visual maps and the option to save 'memories' of routes you've taken and add descriptions to them 
  • thermometer - can help you plan what to wear when going on a long hike
  • running metrics - such as pace, cadence, elevation, customisable workouts and detailed insights into your performance and recovery time
  • swim-specific metrics - such as pace, distance, SWOLF (a measure of your swimming efficiency)
  • compatibility with a chest heart-rate monitor - these are more accurate than heart-rate readings taken from your wrist.

Some are built to be especially rugged and durable, with a particularly strong strap and scratch-resistant screen. 

  • Pros: Great for keeping up to date with and replying to notifications. The best also offer accurate fitness tracking – such as steps, distance and heart rate monitoring – or go far beyond that to offer detailed sports metrics.
  • Cons: Smartwatches tend to be expensive. And many of them – particularly fashionable ones, such as Wear OS watches or Apple Watches – have a short battery life, so will need recharging regularly.

Like fitness trackers, smartwatches can vary in how accurately they measure your activity, and how easy they are to use. 

Browse our best smartwatches to see which models came out on top.

Do any devices offer the best of both worlds? 

The answer is sort of, but not entirely. 

The line between fitness trackers and smartwatches (and those geared at fashion, and those geared at sports) is getting increasingly blurred. 

That’s why we put fitness trackers and smartwatches through the same tests, to find out whether any devices can perform well in both capacities. 

But we know that they're still perceived slightly differently by shoppers, so we evaluate them accordingly, placing a greater emphasis on smart functionality when we rate smartwatches.

 

Apple has also done a good job of building strong fitness and activity tracking functionality into its Apple Watch, along with the most sophisticated smart features and good looks. 

While it might be tempting to splash out on an Apple Watch in the hope of covering all bases, though, bear in mind that it won't be suitable for everyone. 

If you're super into a particular sport, the Apple Watch might not go far enough in terms of the metrics it gives you. If you're mainly after something fashionable, you could buy a stylish Wear OS watch instead.  

You'll also need an iPhone to be able to use an Apple Watch.  Head to our Which Apple Watch should I buy? guide to find out more.

A fitness tracker or a smartwatch are both great ways of recording progress in a home gym, as well as outside. Read our exercise equipment buying guide for more on setting one up. 

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