Should I buy a fitness tracker or a smartwatch?
By Hannah Walsh
In this guide:
- Should I buy a fitness watch or a smartwatch?
- How much should I expect to spend?
- Why choose a fitness tracker?
- Why choose a smartwatch?
- Do any devices offer the best of both worlds?
The difference between smartwatches and fitness trackers boils down to whether you want a wearable device that’s designed to help you communicate and deliver notifications, or one that keeps track of exercise and health.
A smartwatch makes it easy to view and respond to emails, texts, calls and social media notifications. Fitness trackers focus on health and activity monitoring, such as how many steps you’ve taken, the distance covered, the calories you’ve burned, and what your heart rate is.
To help you pick the right type of wearable, you can use our online tool below. Simply 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.
You can buy a fitness tracker for as little as £20, or you could pay more than £400 for a more expensive model. Smartwatches range from around £100 to more than £600. Spending more usually means you get more features, or specialist functions such as multi-sport tracking or 4G to make calls without your phone.
Another thing that affects price is the material design, and type of strap. Some watches have a range of design options available, and these can seriously increase the price.
Price is by no means an indicator of performance, though. We’ve found fitness trackers and smartwatches at the lower end of the price range that do a great job, and some expensive models that are inaccurate, uncomfortable or awkward to use. Rest assured that if you're not too fussy, you'll find a good, reliable device however much you're willing to spend.
For a range of great budget devices, check out our guide to the best cheap fitness trackers.
In short: go for a fitness tracker if you're mainly interested in a wearable to track exercise and activity, or would rather not get a replacement for your watch.
On a basic level, a fitness or activity tracker can give you an insight in to your day-to-day activity, such as step or distance tracking, calorie counting 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 offer 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 to your phone, meaning you can leave it at home while out for a run or cycle.
- Pros: Basic trackers are available very cheaply - expected to get started with a decent range of features for about £20. There are plenty of models designed with comfort in mind too, so you will be able to comfortably wear a tracker day to day. Advanced devices are available to cater for very specific sports and activities, but with higher prices, you might then wonder if you're 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. You may find them a little restrictive when it comes to evolving the usefulness of your wearable.
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 Buy fitness watch and activity trackers.
In short: go for a smartwatch if you like the idea of a miniature smartphone on your wrist just as much as tracking activity.
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.
Smartwatches are driven by their operating system – so picking one that's well supported, such as Wear OS (made by Google) or watchOS (made by Apple) means you're more likely to see useful updates and apps that can help to enhance functionality.
- Pros: Great for keeping up to date with and replying to notifications. The best also offer some accurate fitness tracking – such as steps, calories and sleep – and even heart-rate monitors.
- Cons: Like fitness or GPS watches, smartwatches tend to be on the pricey side. They often won’t be able to track specific types of sports, such as rowing or circuit training, and a lot of smartwatches have a short battery life - so will need recharging regularly.
It's true that the line is blurring by what might traditionally be called a 'fitness tracker' or 'fitness watch', and a smartwatch. There are an increasing number of fitness trackers that provide more advanced notifications, and smartwatches with built-in activity-tracking capabilities. That’s why we put fitness trackers and smartwatches through some of the same tests, to find out whether any devices can perform well in both functions.
Wear OS by Google includes a host of features that could narrow the gap between the functionality of fitness trackers and smartwatches. Wear OS devices let you add apps directly on to your smartwatch, and won’t need your smartphone nearby in order to work – they can use any Bluetooth or wifi connection, and often perform a lot of functions independently. This means you could add your favourite running, cycling or calorie-counting app to your smartwatch to get better health-tracking functionality, if that’s a priority for you.
Apple has also done a good job of building strong fitness and activity tracking functionality into its Apple Watch, although bear in mind that you will need an Apple smartphone to use one.
On the flipside, even basic activity trackers are now offering rudimentary smart features, alerting you if a call or message comes through on your phone, for example. More advanced fitness-oriented watches are for all intents and purposes, smartwatches, with large screens and a range of non fitness-related functions.