Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

We compare which ecosystem has the edge

When you look at the heavyweights of the wearable division, Garmin and Fitbit are firmly in the elite group.

Both have managed to carve out a name for themselves when it comes to fitness trackers, while Garmin also has an ample stable of sports watches and smartwatches to choose from – an area Fitbit has begun to encroach on with the Ionic and Versa.

Read this: Apple Watch Series 4 v Fitbit Versa

Both have their obvious strengths, but how do their wearable platforms match up? We know there's a whole lot to cover, so we've broken down some of the key areas from hardware, features, apps and of course fitness tracking to see how the two compare.

Got any questions? Let us know in the comments below.

Garmin v Fitbit: The hardware

Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

Let's kick things off with Fitbit and its legion of fitness trackers. Yes, Fitbit is ramping up to go big on smartwatches, especially after the success of the Versa. Still, there are only two of them thus far. Garmin has a wider selection of choice, though all to varying degrees of "smart".

Read this: Picking the best Fitbit for you

Fitbit has actually been creeping into the world of smartwatches for a while, with its Fitbit Blaze and Fitbit Surge acting as introductory "fitness watches", but really Fitbit got where it is today because of its fitness trackers like the Charge, Alta and Flex.

All are a few iterations into their lifecycle, with the Flex 2 providing an entry-level, no-screen, waterproof option and the Fitbit Charge 3 representing the customisable, stylish, everyday side of Fitbit. There's also the Alta HR, which is a good, well-rounded option.

While fitness trackers have been the spine of Fitbit, its flagship is the Ionic. It's a big riposte to the Apple Watch, with an app store that's still growing, contactless payments and more. It's the most fully featured Fitbit yet, as it pools together smartwatch-like features with both 5ATM water resistance and built-in GPS – features that were previously limited to select Fitbit lines. It's also built for the future, intended to eventually be able to detect conditions like sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation. It's worth noting that Garmin is teaming up with University of Kansas Medical Center to scan for these conditions as well and is pushing into this serious health monitoring space too.

The Ionic though is for people who really care about fitness, while the Versa model appeals to a broader demographic – and that's being reflected in their sales. It's a stylish everyday smartwatch that can go toe-to-toe with Apple Watch in the fashion department. It doesn't have built-in GPS, but it is waterproof to 50 metres and will eventually have the same deeper health detection abilities of the Ionic owing to the same built-in sensors.

Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

As for Garmin, things are a little more complicated, such is the depth on offer. In terms of fitness trackers, the headliner is currently the Garmin Vivosmart 4 – its latest attempt to compete with Fitbit. It's got heart rate monitoring and VO2 Max, along with some unique features like Body Battery, which tells you how much energy you have left in the tank for exercising. It also has a stylish design.

If you prefer something a little more basic, Garmin also offers more options like the Vivofit 4 that focus solely on those standard fitness tracking features – steps, calories, distance and standing hours.

When it comes to sports watches though, Garmin excels. From its Forerunner watches like the Garmin Forerunner 935, or entry level watches like the Forerunner 35, all level of runners are well catered for. And it's not just about running. The top end Forerunners offer multiple sports tracking too, along with core features like GPS and heart rate monitoring.

The big daddy of them all, though, is the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus series, which comes in multiple flavours – the rugged 5X Plus and the more svelte 5S Plus. The Plus series improves over the originals in a big way too, namely adding Garmin Pay and onboard music, plus standardising TOPO maps across the line, rather than just on the 5X option.

Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

With any of the Garmin models listed above, it's worth bearing in mind that their predecessors are often still very strong options within the field. You may not be getting the most up-to-date feature package, but you're still likely to pick up the essentials while also saving a bit of coin.

Garmin has also been getting a little playful with its smartwatch options, likely in a bid to encroach on Fitbit's friendlier style. The Vivomove HR is a hearty fitness hybrid, though it lacks GPS. There's the Vivoactive 3 as well, a superb sports watch with good smartwatch powers, like Garmin Pay. In 2018 Garmin introduced the Forerunner 645 Music, which brought music storage to a Garmin for the first time. Since then it's added support for music services like Spotify and Deezer on other watches including the Fenix Plus line. This outdoes Fitbit, which only has support for Deezer and Pandora – no Spotify just yet.

And though the above represent the main acts in Garmin's lineup, it also dabbles with golf, per the Garmin Approach S10, a kids' tracker, in the form of the Garmin Vivofit Jr 2, and boating with the Quatix 5. Speaking of kids' trackers, Fitbit also has the Fitbit Ace, its very own kids' tracker mostly focused on fitness.

At base level, these two companies are really an inversion of each other: Fitbit started with friendlier, easier-to-grasp fitness trackers and is slowly bridging into more complex smartwatches, while Garmin started out with more powerful, robust smartwatches and is venturing into friendlier territory, with dips in into the fitness tracker world.

It's the little things that separate these two. For example, Fitbit will generally provide users with more stylish wearables and much more customisation, while Garmin's devices tends to lean towards a masculine look. But the personalisation and customisation it's starting to offer is addressing that.

Garmin v Fitbit: The apps

Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

While the hardware options will undoubtedly play a factor in your decision to lean towards one or the other here, it's the companion apps and wider ecosystem that can often win these battles and keep you coming back to the device rather than just throwing it in the drawer.

Apps compared: Fitbit app ultimate guide | Garmin Connect ultimate guide

Take Fitbit, which, while maybe not providing the most detailed after-workout metrics in the business, still manages to offer one of the more rounded and easy to use fitness platforms. This is particularly the case for beginners, who are able to dive into trends, dedicated workouts, sleep tracking and social aspects, such as linking with friends and challenges. Fitbit is also going to have Sleep Score, which offers a simple look at your overall sleep quality, telling you how many breathing interruptions you might have experienced.

We have our picks for the best Fitbit compatible apps, so we won't go over them again here, but there are many third-party apps that will shake hands with Fitbit, allowing you to pass data for workouts, calories and other information between them. Strava is a good example of this, letting you feed your runs into your daily Fitbit stats, while any Fitbit activities will also show up in the Strava app.

With the Ionic, Fitbit also launched an app store. It was rough going at first, with only a couple of apps, but the store has gradually grown over the past couple of months, with the likes of The New York Times, Philips Hue, Yelp and more joining the fray.

Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

As for Garmin, you'll be dealing with Connect, the home of your activity, and ConnectIQ, the store for you to pick up apps and new watch faces. As with Fitbit, we have a comprehensive look on how to run better with Garmin Connect and a Garmin Connect IQ app store guide, but we'll skim through the highlights here.

The companion app, which is compatible with all Garmin devices and also available on desktop, offers you a place to plan, track and review your workouts. So whether you're preparing for a marathon and setting monthly goals or simply looking to beat other runners' best times in local areas, the platform has you covered.

When compared to its Fitbit counterpart, more serious exercisers will find little comparison – Garmin gives you an incredibly detailed look at your activity once you dive past its handy Snapshots, while also allowing you to upload data to the likes of Strava and understand elements like heart rate zones. Even better, Garmin has recently updated ConnectIQ to be more convenient to use for beginners, with an easy-to-digest home screen filled with your stats and metrics. Garmin has also updated Connect and ConnectIQ to better play with music and enable more watch faces and apps down the road.

Currently, ConnectIQ is also stronger than what Fitbit offers if you're looking to boost and personalise your device, though the Versa is an admirable step toward levelling that playing field. Not only does Garmin's watch-heavy focus lend itself towards widgets, faces and data fields, but the amount of apps available in the store is also impressive.

Garmin v Fitbit: Fitness tracking

Garmin Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

With this area encompassing so many different devices, it's hard to crown one company the winner when it comes to basic tracking.

What we can do is take a look at one example in which both compete, and see how they compare in the bigger areas. After all, although both of these companies offer devices that can handle the basics, there's also much more on offer than just step counting.

For example, with heart rate tracking both Garmin and Fitbit have their secret algorithms working in the background, often making small adjustments after the fact. In truth, it's hard to establish different trends in how the likes of steps and calories are calculated, but the two do bring different propositions to the table in terms of wellness.

With sleep, we've found the difference in accuracy between the two brands is also minimal, but Fitbit does possess the power to use your heart rate to work out when you're in REM sleep and provide full sleep stages. Garmin used to lag badly in terms of sleep, but more recently added the ability to see your light, deep and REM sleep. It's not as advanced as what Fitbit is offering, largely because it's missing insights, but it's a good step at achieving parity with Fitbit.

What's also interesting to note is the two companies' approach to stress tracking. Fitbit uses Relax, which takes advantage of the onboard heart rate monitor, plus HRV monitoring to detect changes in heart rate and offer personalised breathing options. There's also info to help you keep track of your resting heart rate, a strong indicator of overall health. However, much of this is only available in the Blaze, Charge 3, Versa and Ionic. It's a similar deal with Garmin's stress tracking, with this also available through more of its wearables including the Vivosmart 4, Vivoactive 3 and the Fenix 5 and 5 Plus range.

What Fitbit has over Garmin is female health tracking, which allows women to log cramps and headaches. Fitbit will use that data to analyse where you are in your menstrual cycle and will be able to predict when the next one will come around.

As we'll explore below, Garmin's ecosystem does allow for you to dig deeper into your own activity, if you so choose. And when it comes to fitness tracking basics, the Vivosmart family may not go toe-to-toe with Fitbit's range in every matchup, but Garmin bolsters a number of heavy-hitting smartwatch options packed with sensors and features that only Fitbit's Ionic can hope to compare itself to.

Garmin v Fitbit: Sports tracking

Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

As you may have already gathered, those with ambitions to track a wider range of activities and receive deeper insights should knock on Garmin's door.

But just how big is the gap between the two groups when it comes to tracking various sports? Well, while the likes of Fitbit's Ionic and Charge 3 will give you dedicated modes for running, cycling and activities on the treadmill, that's generally as far as it goes. And given the fact that the only devices with built-in GPS are the Ionic and the dear departed Surge, accuracy isn't exactly optimal. You're relying on your phone's GPS to track. Fitbit also now has four devices – the Flex 2, Charge 3, Ionic and Versa – that can tolerate swimming.

Of course, this isn't necessarily bad for users only wanting something to keep a light tab on their workouts, but for those after for a larger number of tracked activities, devices from Garmin's Fenix or Forerunner range are worth exploring. Let's take the Fenix 5 as an example here, since it sits at the peak of multisport watches.

Not only can you track the likes of running, trail running, hiking, cycling, swimming, skiing, rowing, triathlon training and more, but you can also do this with the built-in GPS or Garmin's UltraTrac, which conserves battery to keep tabs on your activity over longer distances. Heart rate is also a mainstay within the higher end of Garmin's range, giving you ample insights into heart rate zones, heart rate variability and offering insights into training recovery.

Garmin v Fitbit: Verdict

Garmin v Fitbit: How do these two fitness giants compare?

What you can be sure of, no matter which ecosystem you decide to delve into, is that you're getting a good package.

Above, we've tried to outline the broad strokes of what both do well, but it's clear that anybody on the hunt for an introductory device should first consider the range Fitbit has on offer. Chances are, if you're looking to dip into this area, you're more focused on health and wellness than personal bests and how long you spent in each heart rate zone.

That's not to completely write off the Fitbit range as devices only suited to beginners, as there are some more advanced metrics and features available – VO2 Max and Guided Breathing, to name just two. You'll also be on board for the company's continued push into sleep tracking, and if you go with the Ionic or Versa you'll likely get the fruits of sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation detection in the future (though, again, Garmin is making a push in that direction too). With Fitbit, you're receiving a more 24/7, lifestyle option that can weave between the different aspects of your daily life.

Essential reading: Guide to the Fitbit ecosystem

With Garmin, in contrast, you're generally being offered watches that are dedicated to exercise. Sure, you have the Vivo range which incorporates some wellness aspects and attempts to be more beginner friendly, but by and large the company is aiming to provide you with the ultimate wrist companion for when you're actually exercising. These aren't the best looking watches out there, and they're also not trying (or not trying very hard) to be; this is all about arming you with features, be it pre-run, during your run or post-run to give you a better insight.

As always, price is something you have to consider, too. While the notable members of Fitbit's range begin at $99.95 and max out at the $299.95 mark, that barely makes a dent in Garmin's family. While there's the $299.99 Vivoactive 3, if you want the latest from the Fenix or Forerunner series, your wallet will be at least $500 lighter, and that's a big financial commitment to consider alongside the ecosystem and general features on offer.




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12 comments

  • bobsher·

    I am a bit confused by the remark that Garmins "aren't the best-looking watches out there," since Fitbit has been largely criticized for the less than awesome styling of the Ionic, and makes nothing else that even looks remotely like a watch, while Garmin's Vivomove HR is at the top of my list for next wearable to consider buying, as I won't feel out of place wearing it to work or even a formal event. A waterproof, all-metal Garmin with Fitbit's sleep functions, a week of battery life (or more), and a price of 3 bills or less is my dream wearable.

  • Loffredo·

    I bought a fitbit surge 15 months ago.

    The touch screen is not working so I can´t change the programs, etc.

    Beside, not always it is possible to sync with my iphone 7.

    There is not warranty nor a place were I can bring it to repare.

    Fitbit no offer any solution, so I´m considering to swift toward iwach.

    Of course never more fitbit.

    Any suggestion for an amateur runner?

    Thanks.!

  • mallan4·

    I have the Fenix 5S and the charge 2. I'm interested in heart rate monitoring. I find the Fenix to be miserable at this. It doesn't go above 135, even if my heart rate is above that number. The charge 2 does a better job, but is not as good as my old Timex watches.

  • obie·

    Had the fitbit surge. I have small wrists so was loose on my wrist. Had to move up my arm for snug fit. Had for a little over 2 years. Watch band came off. Called Fitbit. Out of warrenty. Gorilla Glue worked for awhile. It’s now in the trash. Had debate between Gamin 645 and Ionic. Bought Garmin 645 and never looked back. It is a good looking watch with interchangeable bands. For me no comparison between Fitbit Surge and Garmin 645. Believe it or not still have my old Garmin Forerunner 305. Was using it after the Surge tanked on me. Yea, paid few more bucks but as they say, you get what you pay for! Also wrist strap fits snugly on my wris

  • Badger563·

    I have a forerunner 235 and I’m blind as a bat I’ve looked but cannot find info on brightening up the face ! Any help would be greatly appreciated

    • Maria.T·

      Hi, have you tried turning the background on your 235 to white? Hold the middle left button and go in to clock options, you can change the background here. Also, if you edit data fields to just show one at a time, it will be much bigger, might be easier to see! Great watch!

  • Emily198·

    Fitbit batteries are terrible. I switched to Garmin.

  • Nikz1·

    Im considering switching to a Vivomove from a FitBit as the battery life is terrible and I find myself having to buy a new FitBit every year! I hate the square look of an Apple watch so wont go there, and love the classic watch look then like magic its like..poof! Im also a fitness tracker too! Question though, how does the Vivomove pair up with an iPhone? Given the Vivo is probably more catered to an android phone? Or am I wrong

  • Nicos·

    In the article you say the Vivosmart 4 has GPS, i don’t think that’s correc

    • Maria.T·

      No, the vivosmart 4 doesn't have GPS

  • miyuumel·

    Fitbit charge 3 is a nightmare if you wear it whilst sleeping. It was bought for me to help me track my sleep but it has no 'night mode' and it constantly lights up every time i move. The screen light even in the "dim" option is so bright it wakes me up. i plan to toss it in the bin and get myself a Garmin.

  • Reisende·

    These reviews should include a scan of user/owner fora for the brands. The Fitbit brand is supposed to be strong for the less tech savvy and for its apps support for the needs and interests of women. The first point stands in marked conflict with the issues around making the tethered GPS solution work. If you look through the net you will see many people struggling with Versa-s that will not connect to the owner's phone. The Fitbit recommendations are very fiddly and don't always work. You also don't mention the Fitbit reliability issue where the bands on the Active model come unglued after a year of use. My wife has now upgraded to an Ionic (which she is very pleased with) after having gone through an Active HR (glue) and multiple Versas (each eventually refused to tether). Myself, I have a VivoSport which I am OK with...but I'm allergic to the band (and you should see Garmin's responses to that). So I end up thinking of a big step to that Apple device with a metal band. In the meanwhile I am swapping from arm to arm (and remembering to tell the app that I've done so), taking the watch off to sleep, and faithfully remembering to wash the band ...