How to buy a fitness tracker: Everything you need to consider

Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin, Misfit and more - here's what to look for in a lifestyle tracker
How to buy a fitness tracker

There are few wearable categories that offer up such a dizzying number of options as the fitness tracker. The number of models and brands is ever increasing, from Fitbit, Garmin and Misfit, picking between them is getting increasingly tricky.

While the previous crop of activity trackers just offered step and sleep tracking, newer bands include built-in heart rate monitors, increased sensors, waterproofing, GPS and smartphone notifications – making the latest bands hybrids between fitness trackers, running watches and smartwatches.

Wareable picks: Best cheap activity trackers

Other features to take into consideration include the accompanying app software, battery life and the ease with which you can sync your data back to your phone or the web.

Make the right choice however, and this small bit of tech can have you living healthier and feeling better. That's where we come in...

Why buy a fitness tracker?

How to buy a fitness tracker

While the fitness tracker has exploded in popularity, it's well worth taking a second to consider what you want from it. Many of the enquiries we get at Wareable from readers looking to buy a fitness tracker come from skewed notions about the data on offer.

Fitness trackers, by and large, will track your daily activity in terms of steps and calories burned through movement. You set a goal of how active you want to be and they will give you a rough guide as to how successful you are.
Jawbone UP3
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Amazon

Fitness tracker misconceptions

However, fitness trackers are often surrounded by misconceptions, partially fuelled by the opaque language and promises by manufacturers.

Read this: How a fitness tracker can actually get you fit

While many fitness trackers will record bursts of activity, they are not adept to advanced metrics from specific sports. Those who do swimming, Zumba and pilates, for example, will only get a report of the movement or heart rate from those sessions and the calorific burn – not a break down of their performance.

Another common misconception is about running and cycling. Without GPS, fitness trackers can't really accurately report on your pace or distance, and are therefore vastly inferior to a running watch. They can, however, offer a basic guide to your workouts.

Things are getting better. In our recent testing, the Misfit Shine 2 tracked a run accurately in comparison to our running watch. What's more, the lines are starting to blur – with the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ and Samsung Gear Fit2 both backing GPS on the wrist.

Most trackers though offer an adequate guide for occasional joggers, but are far from a training tool.

Choose the right design

How to buy a fitness tracker

While most trackers wrap around your wrist, there are dongles that clip on to your clothing and can be more comfortable to wear. Some trackers like the Misfit Shine 2 and the Withings Go can also be worn on clips or in pockets. The Misfit Ray comes with a host of different stylish accessories that'll even let you wear the tracker around your neck like a pendant.

Essential reading: Fitbit Charge 2 vs Garmin Vivosmart HR+

And while the choice used to be about what colour band you went for, or whether it had a screen, smart analogue watches are now offering even more choice. Fitness tracking smarts packed into normal-looking watches is a big trend, with Fossil Q, Skagen Hagen Connected and Withings leading the way. The new Withings Steel HR is especially special with continuous heart rate monitoring and 28 days of battery life.

Going waterproof

How to buy a fitness tracker

There are a handful of fitness trackers that can be taken into the pool and report on your swimming sessions. The Misfit Shine 2 (and its Speedo Shine brethren) will track lengths in the pool, while the Withings Go can record duration and calorie burn. Fitbit has also come to the party with the Fitbit Flex 2, the first waterproof tracking, albeit with simplified swimming metrics.

Read this: Waterproofing and wearables explained

Moov Now will detect strokes and offer data on your technique, offering a lot more for obsessed swimmers. Neither can detect heart rate in the pool – for that you would have to move into proper sports watches. Even then, it's not all that great.

You can check out our full guide to the best waterproof fitness trackers and read our swim tracker big test to find the device that suits you best.

Misfit Speedo Shine
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Understanding heart rate tech

How to buy a fitness tracker

Heart rate tracking on activity bands is now commonplace and provides a big boost in accuracy in terms of the calorific burn from your day. However, the type of tracking differs hugely.

Garmin Vivosmart HR+
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Amazon

The Fitbit Charge 2, for example, tracks your heart rate 24/7 and makes a note of your resting heart rate when you wake up – which is a huge metric of your improving health. It will also track your heart rate over a timed session.

In terms of comprehensiveness the Fitbit Charge 2 is one of the best options, as it includes a heart rate monitor for 24/7 bpm readings, live monitoring of exercise and VO2 Max too, so you can quantify your fitness. The Garmin Vivosmart HR range does much the same, and both place a priority on resting heart rate progress and a measure of your underlying health.

The Garmin Vivosmart HR, Vivosmart HR+, and Polar A360 all follow suit, and not only track workout sessions not your daily health. The JayBird Reign is currently the only available tracker that's able to measure heart rate variability, which can tell you how well recovered you are for your next training session.

To screen or not to screen?

How to buy a fitness tracker

Opt for a band with a built-in display and you can keep an eye on the time and your fitness goals without firing up a phone app.

Fitbit decided to add an OLED to display to its Charge 2 while the The Fitbit Blaze got a tidy 1.25-inch 16 colour display, which pays off when it comes to guided workouts and notifications. The likes of the Garmin Vivosmart and Gear Fit 2 offer curved OLED displays, but information is limited.

A display usually adds a few pennies to the price-tag though, so think long and hard whether you actually need one.

How much data do you need?

Steps taken and sleeping are the two main areas of focus for the majority of trackers, though each band's relative accuracy is difficult to assess - these fitness trackers weigh up your movement during the day and the night and try and guess how far you're walking and how well you're sleeping.

The bottom line is that the technology in today's trackers is good but not perfect. Until GPS tracking becomes the norm in fitness trackers use them as motivational aids rather than scientifically accurate monitors.

How to buy a fitness tracker

Many trackers can also make note of your workouts, swimming sessions, cycling and other types of exercise, though you'll typically need to tell your tracker what you're doing each time. The Misfit Shine 2, for example, which can be worn on your clothes or your wrist, needs a triple-tap to enter activity mode.

The app is as important as the band

How to buy a fitness tracker

The mobile app that comes with your tracker is a vital part of the equation, letting you crunch through your data, set goals, challenge your friends and so on.

First and foremost, check that your tracker works with your mobile phone of choice - most now support both Android and iOS.


There can also be a huge discrepancy in terms of the quality between a brand's Android and iOS apps. Misfit's Android app was previously short of features compared to the iOS version, which will be of huge frustration to users who have bought there device, so check the app reviews before buying.

It's always wise to check the comments from users of the app, and of course never make a purchase without reading our reviews first.

Battery life and charging

How to buy a fitness tracker

Battery life is an important factor to take into consideration, as having to charge your band every few days can be a real thorn in the side of your attempts to track your fitness regime, and crucially can mean you need to leave it at home or it runs out during a working day.

Bands now fall into two camps: those that require charging every five (ish) days via a USB cable and devices that use a watch battery that lasts around six months.

The Jawbone UP2, UP3, Fitbit Charge HR, all require regular recharging, but offer the most comprehensive metrics. It's a similar story with the likes of the Fitbit Alta and Xiaomi Mi Band Pulse.

The Misfit Shine 2, Misfit Flash, Withings Go, Jawbone UP Move and Moov Now all use watch batteries that will need changing every six months.

18 Comments

  • mammann55 says:

    Great article!! 

    How come you don't have the LifeTrak Briter450 on this list? I feel like this is equally as good as the competition. This device has a pretty decent display and is waterproof and has a six-month battery life. That alone should put it in the conversation with all the others

  • tadaka8 says:

    being a garmin fan i wish there'd be more comments regarding their offerings and how they fit in the points above. 

  • barao says:

    Hello,

    I'm looking for advice in order to buy a wearable. I have been looking for what seems like ages. In the meantime, my requirements broadened (I kind of wanted it to do everything...) but now they are getting more realistic, however I still can't seem to find anything that suits.

    I want a device that I can take running (with GPS then, and a fairly good accuracy), that tracks my sleep with good accuracy and wakes me up with a silent alarm in an interval defined by me (like SleepBot for Android does), and that isn't too heavy/ugly. I'd also love for it to sync with a chest strap or to have wrist-based HRM for exercise, but this is not mandatory.

    The device that comes closer to this, I think, is the Fitbit Surge, but I don't like to see in it in my wrist. Is there anything similar?

    Thanks.

  • maggs_ny says:

    I just found your website and I'm so glad I did. Your reviews and updates are basically the first heartbeat of wearable technology as it develops. I've been reading many of your articles (my tabs are getting out of control) but no matter how many reviews of "the best", I can't seem to find the best for me. If you don't have one already, I think an interactive tool for readers and prospective buyers would be an amazing addition to your site. It could be a fancy click through of preferences or as simple as a chart. Everytime I think I find something that might be "the one", there always seems to be a factor missing - GPS, waterproof, price, media etc. But as I'm learning, there are also apps that can, in a way, compensate for some missing features not included in the actual build of the watch. No one wants to invest in something to find out it's only compatible with x number/type(s) of apps or says it does but performs poorly. Plus, everything is changing so often with new updates for watches and phones, it seems hard to predict what will be "fixed" and what will be abandoned. But anyway, that's just my point of view from walking blindly into the idea of wearable tech. I just wanted to google DRI spreadsheets and compare medical record apps, and now I'm comparing the prices of smartwatches on amazon. Oy. 

    I think some sort of walkthrough or a way to pick the things you definitely want, are willing to compromise and pay for would make an amazing addition to your site. Thank you for all the hard work you are doing!

  • Bronwyn says:

    Hi there

    if a fitness tracker connects to an app to your phone, does it automatically use the GPS on your phone to track distance?

    If I am looking for a device to measure my distance run during a sport where my stride length changes constantly, would a GPS watch be more advisable?

  • HelenS says:

    Is there a comparable replacement tracker out there for the discontinued BodyMedia Link (also known as the Ki Fit in UK) please? I have tried the Garmin Vivosmart, Microsoft Band 2 and Polar Loop 2, but they don't register the activities that, as a stay at home Mum, I do for most of the day! No steps when pushing a trolley/pushchair or tidying up (and therefore carrying things with a static wrist). I had a Ki Fit and loved pretty much everything about it except the watch interface - it was sooooo accurate and I could see every time I sat down, went up stairs, drove the car, fell asleep in front of the TV etc - it was all there on the graph. I really want a replacement but as far as I can see that doesn't exist. Coupled with tiny wrists so most are too large anyway (the stiff display part extends out either side of my wrist) and add a Windows phone and basically you're stuffed :(

  • eldan says:

    I know you can syn fitbit and garmin with your pc.   Are there any others?

    Thank you,

    Ellie

  • FrizzyFritz says:

    I need a tracker that will track sleep and fitness. i have a fitbit but i dont feel like it does a very good job of sleep tracking. i just saw a review of the REM-Fit http://newswatchtv.com/2016/02/12/rem-fit/ and it looks pretty amazing. anyone use one before?

  • Angelkeeper17 says:

    I want a fitness tracker for my father of 76 who is very active and tech savvy. But , here is the confusing part for me. He does not have a smart phone or any other phone for that matter. He just doesn't want one. What can I purchase? Please help!!!!!

    • KW761 says:

      Does he use a computer?  He could use any one of the Fitbit trackers and login to the Fitbit webpage instead of a smartphone to track his progress on the dashboard there.  :)

  • Melo says:

    Hi,

    I was just wondering if there is a way to keep your data if you want to migrate from one brand of fitness trackers to another. I've had an UP24 and an UP2, and I was happy with them but tragically the former lasted 6 months before deforming and the latter (which to be fair Jawbone sent free of charge) had its band tear within two months.

    I've gone 3 months without a fitness tracker now, and the only thing I really miss is the silent alarm feature. The idea of a watch acting as a nondescrepit fitness tracker really suits me. I was thinking of getting the Activite Steel (the regular Activite is way out of my price range for now). Right now my endgame is probably the Monaine Helvetica Smartwatch,which is even further out of my price range. So I was wondering if there was a way/place where I can keep the data from several trackers.

    I was using the iOS Health App, but it can only use data from one tracker at a time, and there is no way to specify which tracker's data should be used for which dates.

    Thanks,

    Mel

  • Mbh says:

    I seem to be the only one in the world with this issue (which I find both shocking and distressing): I want a basic tracker for steps and sleep tracking that does NOT connect to the Internet.  I guess it's because most techy/fitness fans are younger, and are used to giving up their privacy,  but as one of the millions who only have health insurance because of the ACA (pre-existing condition, not $$) I am not about to upload my fitness stats to any cloud which any business can buy access to.  Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!  Thanks.

  • Daniherron says:

    my question is when using a fitness watch do you have to carry the device it is bluetoothed connect with on your person. My 10 year old wants on for her bday but she doesn't have a phone. If I set it up on my phone when she isn't around my phone will it still work?

    • Techy123- says:

      yes but some need it to change between imperial and metric and to view sleep data and also to change the time

  • aedaed says:

    I am still looking for a fitness tracker where I can sync the data directly to my PC without having to upload any personal data to a server.

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  • SimoneNicole says:

    Hi!  I want to purchase a fitness tracker for my 9 year old daughter, so a basic model and that does not need a computer or mobile to be connected to!  Is there one available, that just measures number of steps and heart rate please?  This is the minimum requirement, but anything else, is a bonus! 

    Many thanks,

    Simone 

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