Like many of you, I work in front of a computer. They’re powerful devices, but they also suck your will to live and trick you into never, ever getting up and going outside. Reasons like that are why fitness trackers were invented.
There are a number of important factors that separate a good fitness tracker from a lousy one. Is it good-looking, or at least discreet enough that you will actually wear it? Is it accurate? How long does it last on a charge? Does it just count steps, or does it also have an altimeter? Or a heart rate monitor? Can it tell you the time of day?
Then there are features to consider like the quality of the app that hopefully accompanies it. Does it track your sleep? Does it automatically change into sleep mode/running mode/biking mode, or do you have to remember to fiddle with it? And, of course, is it cheap enough to be worth purchasing? In the last few years it seems like every company and their parent company has tried making a fitness tracker. I went looking for those I think you might actually consider purchasing — and then picked the ones that are actually worth it.
We’re not including dedicated GPS running watches or other sport-specific wearables here; we’re focusing on activity trackers that provide ambient data, designed to quantify up every move you make. I also should note that this initial post is going live right before CES, where there’ll surely be some new launches, and that some of the heavy hitters in this category like Fitbit and Jawbone haven’t yet released their new flagship models. I expect things to shake up soon, and I’ll be updating this piece as soon as I’ve spent some time with those too.
The Best Overall: Basis Peak
The $US200 Basis Peak is the most-advanced fitness tracker currently on the market. Not only does it offer persistent heart rate monitoring, it can sense how warm your skin is and how much you sweat. That in addition to step counting and exercise tracking, of course. It also does it in a tough, good-looking package. The screen is easy to read and the menus are easy to navigate.
My favourite part about the Peak, though, is that everything happens automatically. Start walking? It will flip into walking mode. Start running? Running mode. Biking? You get the idea. It’s also my top pick for tracking your sleep, because it doesn’t just use accelerometers to see whether you’re tossing and turning, it monitors your heart rate throughout your slumber to tell how deeply you’re sleeping. I got about four days of battery life per charge, which isn’t great compared to my other picks, but it’s not terrible, either.
The accompanying smartphone app is extremely user-friendly. It lets you dig into the data, but it also suggests goals and new habits you can add to your routine. With an upcoming update, you’ll get also notifications from your iOS or Android phone, including SMS, email, incoming calls and calendar events, and you’ll be able to push heartrate data to your favourite workout app like Runtastic or Endomondo. $US200 is on the upper end of the spectrum, but you get a lot for it.
The Best Discreet Tracker: Withings Pulse O2
Look, not everybody wants to wear something on their wrist. Or maybe your wrist is already spoken for. Totally cool. The $US120 Withings Pulse O2 might be just the thing for you. It’s small and thin, so it fits easily in any pocket (I wear it in the 5th pocket on my Levi’s) and nobody ever knows I’m wearing it.
The little pod has a LED screen that’s easy to read. It counts my steps like all other trackers, but it has an altimeter, too, so it can tell how much elevation I gain throughout the day. That gives me a more accurate estimate of your caloric burn. It also has a sensor you can place your finger over, should you want to get your heart rate, and if you mount it on your wrist it will track your sleep, too. I got well over ten days of battery life on a charge.
Now, the Pulse O2 is just the original Withings Pulse with a bonus wristband, and currently, they’re both selling for $US100. If you can find the Pulse for less, it might be worth it because I don’t think it’s attractive enough to wear on your wrist, but to each their own.
The Best Cheap Tracker: Jawbone Up Move
It was a very close call between the $US50 Jawbone Up Move and the other inexpensive trackers, but the Move gets my recommendation. Like the Pulse O2 mentioned above, the Move is a little pod. You either slip it in a pocket or attach it to your clothing with the included clip. It counts your steps as you go about your day and syncs directly with your smartphone. It can also monitor your sleep, should you chose to wear it at night.
What really sets the Move apart from its budget competitors is Jawbone’s Up app. It’s just terrific. It’s beautifully laid out and it’s intuitive. It also has advanced tools for food logging. It can issue you challenges and it can display your data in a way that’s easy to understand. It’s easily the best fitness tracker app I’ve tried.
The Move also comes in four different colours, if you want to spice things up a little. The replaceable coin battery inside should last a full six months, which is best in class. And, if you double-click it, it will show you the time of day. It’s a simple device, but for $US50 it’s pretty solid.
The Best For Serious Athletes: Garmin Forerunner 920XT
Let’s be clear here, the $US450 Garmin Forerunner 920XT is really a triathlon watch — the best triathlon watch I’ve seen. It’s an absolute beast. It offers detailed GPS tracking for running, cycling, and swimming. It can also count your strokes and laps as you swim (it even knows what type of stroke you’re doing) and analyse your running form as you go. Looks great, too.
Also, it’s an fitness tracker. Garmin borrowed the brains from its popular Vivofit fitness tracker and just put them into the 920XT. The idea is that it helps you chart how much rest you’re really getting in between workouts. It measures your steps, calories burned, and your sleep. It also has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and can display smartphone notifications. And if you’re willing to spend $US50 more you can get it bundled with Garmin’s HRM-Run advanced heart rate monitoring chest strap. It’s expensive, but if you’re training for a race (be it cycling, swimming, running, or triathlon) it doesn’t get any better than this.
The Best For Athletes on a Budget: Polar M400
If you don’t need the full multi-sport capabilities of the 920XT, but you’re a runner (or aspire to be one) and do a little cycling here and there, then the $US180 Polar M400 is nearly impossible to beat. It’s a full-on GPS running watch that I’ve found to generally be quite accurate, and it has some great features like allowing you to race against your personal best, or your run time predictions. It’s also waterproof to 30 meters.
When you’re not training, it’s tracking your activities 24/7. It logs your steps and your sleep, and it’s got a battery capable of doing it for a long time. You’ll get 8-9 hours of GPS running or up to 24 days of activity monitoring. Impressive. It doesn’t have built-in heart rate, but it pairs with a HRM chest strap (bundled for $US210). The biggest ding against it is that Polar’s Android app still doesn’t support the M400. Polar has a history of being very slow with Android releases, and they need to fix that. Otherwise, this watch is pretty awesome.
The Best That’s Really a Smartwatch: Moto 360
If you’re really wanting a smartwatch, but you want it to act as an fitness tracker, too, well, the $US250 Motorola Moto 360 is the best at it. Provided you use an Android phone. You get a beautifully designed and very sleek smartwatch that acts, essentially, as a second screen for your handset. It displays calls, texts, emails, and other notifications as they come in, and even lets you replay to them right from your wrist. Plus all the goodness of Google Now.
The reason the Moto 360 gets the nod over other Android Wear watches is that it’s the only one so far that offers persistent heart rate monitoring, much like the Basis Peak. Other smartwatches have heart rate sensors, but you have to open the heart rate app to take a reading every time you want one. The 360 counts your steps, too, but that constant heart rate gives it a much better picture of your true caloric burn. Now, it doesn’t track sleep, and you have to charge it every night, which isn’t ideal, but it’s the best for now. The Apple Watch will be out soon for iOS users, and it will likely give the Moto 360 a good run for its money.
Adidas miCoach Fit Smart
This isn’t so much an all-day fitness tracker like the others. The Adidas miCoach Fit Smart (great name, guys) is for tracking your heart rate data during workouts. Really more of a workout watch than a fitness tracker, so it doesn’t really belong in this category.
Adidas Fit Smart Band
It’s looks like an engorged Nike+ Fuelband, but the Fit Smart Band is also really more of a workout training watch than a general fitness tracker. It’s not bad, it’s just overpriced for what it actually does, and the LED display is hard to read in direct sunlight.
The Apple Watch is promising very big things. If it delivers, it will be the most advanced smartwatch we’ve seen yet, with have robust fitness tracking capabilities including heart rate and integration with Apple’s Health Kit. We’ll just have to see!
Basis B1 Band
The original Basis B1 Band had all those sensors going for it, but the screen was terrible, it scratched easily, the buttons were unresponsive, and battery life was pretty weak. It was also ugly. If you like what Basis offers, save a little more and get the Peak.
Basis B1 Carbon Steel Edition
Exact same as the original B1 band, except with more metal and it didn’t scratch as easily. The B1 Carbon Steel is better, but definitely not as good as the Peak.
At $US60, the Fitbit Zip was a contender for our Budget pick. It’s pretty accurate, it’s very small and discreet. But it doesn’t do sleep-tracking and the UP Move does, and it has a better app.
I like the Fitbit One a lot. It’s tiny, nicely designed, has an altimeter, and is super easy to use. I prefer the Pulse O2 because it can check your heart rate, but it’s pretty much a toss-up. If you grab one of these for $US100 or less, you won’t be disappointed.
I found the Fitbit Flex to be disappointing. Lives on your wrist, not very attractive, not very accurate, can’t tell you the time of day, has no altimeter. Not even that cheap. Definite pass.
The $US130 Fitbit Charge is actually very good in most ways. It has an altimeter, automatic sleep logging, week-long battery life, and it can even display incoming calls on its screen. So why isn’t it one of my picks? It pops off my wrist if I so much as look at it funny.
Fitbit Charge HR
This thing definitely has potential to be my top recommendation. It looks good, it has a big, easy to read display, a real clasp mechanism so it will stay on your wrist, and it adds in persistent heart rate monitoring. It should hit in Q1 2015 and I’ll update then.
Well, the Fitbug Orb is very cheap, which is nice, but it’s also thick and not very attractive. Could have been a contender for Best Budget Band, but I found it inaccurate in my testing and it had all kinds of syncing problems. Not worth the headache.
The $US80 Vivofit is comfy. I like the always-on display and ability to pair with a heart rate monitor. The screen has no light, making it impossible to see at night, it’s oriented sideways, making it hard to read, and it has no audio or haptic feedback. Crappy app.
The $US170 Vivosmart definitely sounds better than the Vivofit. It can actually vibrate! It can also display phone notifications, and pair with other sensors like bike speed meters. Still don’t like the perpendicularly oriented text and it seems a bit overpriced.
The UP24 was a definite improvement over the original UP. It finally had Bluetooth syncing! Plus it’s got Jawbone’s beautiful app. But this thing absolutely refused to stay on my wrist. Also, I believe any gadget worn on the wrist should give you the time of day.
Jawbone UP 3
The Jawbone UP 3 looks awesome. It adds a built-in persistent heart rate monitor, finally has a real clasp that might actually keep it on my wrist, and comes in several (arguably attractive) styles. Could it be the new best fitness tracker? Maybe! But it’s not out yet.
More known for headphones, Jaybird’s activity tracker, the Reign, looks like a futuristic handcuff. Maybe cool? But it has a terrible mobile app, no web app, a lousy display, and a dodgy fit. It’s also $US200. Very not worth it.
LG Lifeband Touch
The LG Lifeband Touch sounded like tons of potential. OLED touchscreen, altimeter, music controls, ok-looking. But both expert and consumer reviews have been universally terrible. Complaints about all sorts of bugginess abound.
The Microsoft Band gave us high hopes. Decent screen, heart rate, connectivity, and guided workouts: what’s not to love? Unforunately, it’s buggy as hell, notifications are a huge pain, it isn’t waterproof, and the touchscreen doesn’t work very well. Bummer.
The $US80 Misfit Shine is about the size of three stacked quarters and looks like a little flying saucer. It lights up to show you how close you are to your step goals, has six months of battery, and is waterproof to 50m. At least it’s supposed to be. I found that swimming shorted it out, though it would come back to life a couple days later. The tap interface is kind of a pain and I had a lot of syncing problems.
The $US50 Misfit Flash is basically a cheaper plastic Shine. It has a click interface, which I found easier. But it pops out of its plastic wristband too easy, it died in less than 12 feet of water instead of the quoted 30m, and again I had a ton of syncing problems.
The Moov sounds like it has a lot of potential, with not just day to day activity tracking but also detailed A.I. coaching for all kinds of specific workouts. It’s not available yet but we’ll check it out when it is.
Nike+ Fuelband (1st Gen)
While we have to give it credit (blame?) for basically starting the whole fitness tracker craze, the Nike+ Fuelband sucks. Notoriously inaccurate, deals in nebulous “Nike Fuel,” discontinued for a reason.
Nike+ Fuelband SE
The SE offered a tiny spec bump over the above mentioned Fuelband. Also discontinued. Don’t do it.
Powered by TomTom, which actually makes some good running watches, the Nike+ SportWatch looks slightly better than the bands if only because it’s a GPS running watch, too. It still uses the nebulous Nike Fuel, though, and it’s still iOS only, and it’s still going the way of the dodo. It’s also overpriced.
While I like that the Polar Loop can pair with a heart rate monitor, it was too thick to be comfortable. You also have to awkwardly cut the band to fit you. The one button felt unresponsive, and I found that the band would pop open from time to time.
It’s a multisport watch with activity tracking like the Garmin Forerunner 920XT, but the Polar V800 isn’t nearly as fully featured and costs roughly the same. Not worth it.
The Nabu looks pretty dope. Dual OLED screens, smartphone notifications (though they look lousy), accelerometer, altimeter, sleep tracking, and a promised 7-day battery life all for $US100. Sounds good, but we won’t be able to say for sure until it’s out.
If you’re a loyal user of the Runtastic running app then you miiight consider the Runtastic Orbit, as it interfaces reasonably well with the app while working out, but this tracker is big, ugly, and I found that it was very inconsistent in its performance.
Samsung Galaxy Gear Fit
It’s so pretty with its Super AMOLED touchscreen! That’s about all the Galaxy Gear Fit has going for it, though. It only works with Samsung phones and the UI is pretty damn awful.
The cheap Soleus Go has rare features like displaying the weather and temperature (as long as it’s paired with your phone via Bluetooth). But there are many complaints about connectivity issues, bugginess, crappy buttons, and a too-dim screen.
Sony SmartBand SWR10
On the plus side, the SmartBand SWR10 is comfortable, waterproof, and not offensive to look at. But it doesn’t tell the time, the app is a total mess, the button often doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, no altimeter, it’s not very accurate, and battery life is meh.
The Spire is a very interesting concept, promising to track your body, breath, and state of mind to help reduce stress. It also just won the 2014 National Design Award. Cool. Doesn’t exist yet, but I’ll check it out when it does.
Looked like it had potential. The Striiv Touch is sort of a Withings Pulse / Fitbit Flex hybrid and for cheap. Unfortunately the internet says it’s lousy, with bug reports, unresponsiveness and general jankiness.
Similar to the Striiv Touch but the Striiv Band has no screen and garnered even more loathsome reviews.
An attempt to gameify fitness, the pod looks like a rounded out Withings Pulse O2. The Striiv Play only works with iOS though, and again, terrible reviews from consumers.
Nice classy design, reads your heart rate, waterproof to 50m, and it has a damn near unscratchable sapphire crystal screen. That said, I found that the display incredibly tiny and hard to read. Slow UI, and not capable enough for the $US300 asking price.
Look, the Withings Activité is beautiful. In fact, it’s the most beautiful fitness tracker. It’s a stunning, classic-looking, Swiss-made analogue watch, but it also tracks your steps and your sleep. But I just can’t recommend a a $US450 fitness tracker that does so little.
Maybe you just wanna use your phone as an activity tracker. Sure, you can do that. Every platform has an app for that. It just requires you to have your phone on your body basically at all times. Which maybe you do already. But if you just wanted to use your phone why are you reading this article? Oh god, is anybody reading this article? Are you out there? Oh man…