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How To Buy The Best Activity Tracker or Fitness Watch

By Christina Woodger

What's the difference between an activity tracker and a fitness watch? Should you buy Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei or Samsung? Our guide can help you find the perfect model.

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The best activity tracker or fitness watch can provide you with an accurate, comprehensive and easy-to-understand snapshot of your health, Whether you’re interested in tracking your running, cycling or swimming, measuring heart rate or just keeping an eye on daily activity.

But our independent tests have also uncovered wearables that just aren’t up to the task - and there’s little point buying an imprecise, uncomfortable device that lacks the useful features you may need

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to what you want your fitness band to do, and that’s where we can help. How many types of sensors do you need? Would you be better off with a fitness watch? Should you buy a device with a screen? And is it worth paying extra for a model that can also relay texts and notifications from your phone? Read on for all the answers. 

Once you know what type of fitness or activity tracker you want, find the best one for you by using our fitness watches and activity tracker reviews.

Key features of activity trackers and fitness watches 

Activity trackers tend to be more simplistic that fitness watches - you'll often get a display, but it will be smaller, and only offer a basic level of detail. Cheap activity trackers are fine for step tracking and simple activities like running and cycling, but may not handle more complex sports too well, or deliver extras such as music playback and notifications from your phone.


How much do activity trackers cost? 

You can buy a tracker for less than £15, or you could pay close to £250. But our testing has shown there’s little correlation between price and accuracy. 

We've found a model costing just £20 that tracked steps with no error

It’s absolutely possible to pick up a great, affordable fitness tracker if you don’t mind missing out on some more advanced functions. We’ve found some great budget-friendly options in our tests – check out our best cheap fitness trackers.

How much do fitness watches cost? 

Fitness or GPS watches are priced from around £60 up to more than £500. If you just want a simple way to track your distance and speed on a run, a budget model could be worth a look. They lack the features of pricier models, and tend to have a basic greyscale screen, but that doesn't mean they won't provide accurate data. 

Those looking for devices aimed at specific sports, such as cycling or golf, or wanting advanced sensors or feedback – such as heart rate, VO2 max (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption), fitness plans or good motivational tools – will need to spend more.

What features do I need? 

Some fitness or activity trackers have as many as 11 separate sensors, to track everything from your steps and heart rate to your exact location and even the intensity of sunlight to let you know when it’s time to reach for the sunscreen. Having a variety of accurate, consistent sensors gives you more detailed and, in some cases, more accurate, data. But, as revealed by our tough tests, not every device has accurate sensors.

And having too many sensors can reduce the battery life of your device or make it more complicated to use. We rate every device in our tests to see how easy it is to use – check out our ease-of-use ratings before you buy.

Step tracking

A pedometer is the most basic sensor, and one you’ll find in any activity tracker and fitness watch. This will count your steps and can often capture distance, too, based on an estimation of your stride length. We put the step counter through its paces in our tough lab test and check the accuracy.

Built-in GPS

If your wearables has built-in GPS, it can track distance more accurately – as long as the GPS works well and doesn’t drop the connection, that is. Many fitness trackers can be paired to your mobile phone to make use of your phone’s GPS, but built-in GPS is useful if you want to jog or cycle without carrying your phone.

Heart-rate monitoring

A heart-rate monitor is another option worth considering. This, as you might expect, will measure your heart rate throughout the day. It will report on your average heart rate, and periods of peaks and troughs – useful for tracking improvements in your fitness. It can also be used to measure VO2 max (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption), which can be useful for climbers, people preparing for a particular event and athletes. 

During our lab testing, we put the accuracy of heart-rate monitoring to the test to ensure they don’t miss a beat.

Calorie burn

Most trackers provide an ongoing record of your calorie burn. Models with heart-rate monitors usually loop in the heart-rate data to better estimate how many calories you’ve burned. However, the accuracy of calorie-burn data is largely dependent on how well the algorithm built in by the manufacturer interprets your fitness data. The presence of a heart-rate monitor doesn’t guarantee more accurate calorie-burn information. 

105%We've found one tracker that reported double the number of calories burned

Sleep monitoring

Most trackers will keep an eye on your sleep, including motion sensing to see whether your sleep is disturbed, and a measure of REM, light and deep sleep. A smart alarm feature means your tracker will pick the optimal time in your sleep cycle, that’s close to your alarm, to wake you up.

Water resistance

Typically, if your fitness watch is rated for water resistance, there will be a list of obscure letters and numbers to reference how well protected it is against water. For example, an IP68 rating means that the device can be immersed in water at a depth of a metre or more, for a set period of time. An ATM rating is also important; a 1 ATM rating or higher means the device is water resistant up to 10 metres of pressure or higher. The pressure is important because, while you can take the fitness watch down to a certain water depth, if you sprayed the watch with a high pressure hose, it may not survive the experience. 

Third-party apps

If you already use an app on your smartphone or wearable, such as Strava or running app Map My Run, you won’t want to lose access to your data or the in-depth analysis dedicated apps can offer. Fitness watches are more likely to offer compatability here, allowing you to pair with app services and sync the data from your wearable. 

Music

If you want to listen to music on your run without taking multiple devices out with you, look for a fitness watch that has built-in storage to store your tunes. You'll need a Bluetooth headset as well though. Music management is not a feature that's commonly found on activity trackers.

How important is accuracy? 

Depending on how seriously you're taking your exercise regime, accuracy might be quite high on your list of priorities. We test trackers to see how accurate they are at measuring steps, distance, calories, and heart rate, and take consistency into account as well - if a tracker is accurate on some days but not on others, you won’t know whether you’re improving. 

To find out more about fitness tracker accuracy, and see how the models we've tested perform against each of these measures, read our guide on fitness watch or activity tracker accuracy

How long do the batteries last? 

Using your wearable could become irritating if you find yourself needing to charge it too frequently. Generally, activity trackers have the advantage over fitness watches here, largely due to the lack of a large screen, and additional features like pairing with a smartphone to monitor notifications.  

Most activity trackers have a battery life that ranges from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Some models use coin-cell batteries, like a watch, and these will last several months before needing replacing.

Fitness watches, on the other hand, may need charging every day under heavy use. 

All the wearables we test are measured for battery life in our labs. Browse all our activity tracker and fitness watch reviews to find the perfect combination of features and longevity.

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