Should I buy a fitness tracker or a smartwatch?
By Hannah Walsh
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 on your wrist. 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.
What's the difference in price?
You can buy a fitness tracker for less than £15, or you could pay close to £200 for a more expensive model. Smartwatches range from around £100 to more than £600. Spending a little more will get you more features, and often a different design including more durable or stylish materials. This could mean you get a stainless-steel band rather than plastic, and a colour screen.
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 downright useless.
For a range of great budget devices, check out the best cheap fitness trackers.
Why choose a fitness tracker?
Fitness trackers tend to have one function in mind: your health. This kind of wearable will focus on your every step taken, metre travelled and calorie burned, and encourage you to be a little bit healthier and do a little more each day.
We’ve tested fitness trackers from Fitbit, Garmin, Misfit, Jawbone and more, and have found plenty of great performers for every need and budget. However, not all fitness trackers are up to the job - our tests have uncovered ones that make it impossible to track your progress because of inaccurate or inconsistent data.
We've found fitness trackers that reported twice the number of calories burned
Some fitness trackers are cheap and basic but do a good job – we’ve found some for less than £20. Others have more features, such as a heart-rate monitor or built-in GPS.
A good fitness tracker will be comfortable to wear, no matter which activity you’re doing or how much you sweat. Our tests include a panel of users who get to grips with the devices over a series of weeks, and rate their comfort during different activities.
Most fitness trackers aren’t really built for notifications and communication. Some synchronise with your phone to display incoming texts, emails and social media notifications, but the small screen of a tracker makes messages hard to read and responses tricky to compose.
Why choose a smartwatch?
Smartwatches put phone functions on your wrist. The best push text messages, emails, call notifications, calendar appointments, social media updates and even road directions directly to your wrist. Most will let you dictate text or email responses and web searches, while some allow you to make phone calls via your watch. All of this means battery life can be quite short, particularly when compared with the best fitness trackers.
Our tests have found smartwatches that will need to be charged every day
Some smartwatches offer basic activity tracking, while others rely on exercise apps - but health tracking is still an added extra for most smartwatches. Despite this, some do have more advanced fitness functions, such as the Apple Watch Series 2, which has built-in GPS and is waterproof to 50 metres. There are smartwatches that do a decent job of tracking activity, and we put each one through our dedicated fitness-tracking test to see how it measures up - find out more about how we test smartwatches.
Do any devices offer the best of both worlds?
There’s 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 wi-fi connection. 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, though bear in mind that you will need an Apple smartphone to use one.