The Best Fitness Tracker

The Best Fitness Tracker

Quick answer: For the best all around fitness tracker you’ll want to go with either the Garmin Vivosmart HR or the Fitbit Charge HR. While there is no completely perfect fitness tracker out there, some cater better towards specific activities and scenarios — for running: Microsoft Band 2, swimming: Moov Now, cycling: Garmin Vivoactive, tracking sleep: Basis Peak, or budget friendly: Jawbone UP Move.

Fitness trackers are one of the most recent technological innovations that have consumers scrambling to understand the differences. Whether a fad or a long-term trend, demand for fitness trackers and other wearable technologies is increasing dramatically. According to Statista, 8.5 million fitness trackers were sold in the 2015 calendar year in the United States, up from 4.8 million units the previous year1. Likewise, 25 million units were sold internationally in 2015 as opposed to just 11.5 million in 2014. While this dramatic growth is likely unsustainable, particularly given the rising popularity of smartwatches, the popularity of fitness trackers shows no signs of waning and can be expected to at least remain steady for the foreseeable future.

As demand for fitness trackers has grown, both established technology companies and start-ups have vied for the public’s attention with increasingly impressive devices. Established fitness companies like Nike and Under Armor and established tech giants Microsoft and Samsung have all forayed into the development of fitness bands while other companies like Fitbit, Jawbone, and Garmin have risen to the top of the fitness tracker market. As a result, by the end of 2015 there were dozens of high-performing trackers, and 2016 promises to introduce even more.

Truth be told, despite the growing number of fitness bands on the market, there is no perfect device that is available as of the writing of this article. Different fitness bands have various strengths and weaknesses, and different bands also perform certain tasks better than others. So which is the best?

Garmin Vivosmart HR vs Fitbit Charge HR

All of the major devices have a number of functions that are now considered standard, including counting steps, counting stairs, and calculating the amount of calories burned. These are considered “all-day” activities. However, while these functions are standard, certain fitness trackers and more accurate and precise than others. Likewise, some devices perform better in terms of heart rate monitoring (both during times of activity and inactivity) and sleep monitoring (which measures both length and quality of sleep). Additional features such as the device’s display and style and whether or not it is comfortable and waterproof also provide distinguishing differences for prospective buyers.

Garmin Vivosmart HR Fitness Trackers
Garmin Vivosmart HR

Taking all of these factors into consideration, the Garmin Vivosmart HR and the Fitbit Charge HR are currently the two best devices. Since the fitness tracker market emerged in the late 2000s, Fitbit has been the “top dog” in the market. However, the gap between Fitbit products and competitors has narrowed, as evidenced by the inclusion here of the Garmin Vivosmart HR as an equally capable device. Let’s take a closer look at how they compare in several different areas, including essential functions, heart rate monitoring, user-friendliness, and functionality.

The essentials

Both devices perform all the essential functions, including step and stair counting, fairly well. However, the Charge HR reportedly measures these metrics slightly more accurately than the competition, including the Vivosmart HR. The Charge HR is less likely to be fooled by “false positive” information that some devices are susceptible to.

Heart rate monitoring

The accuracy and precision of the Charge HR’s heart rate monitoring previously set it apart from the competition. It is equipped with an advanced optical sensor known as a PurePulse Tracker that allows the device to monitor and record the wearer’s heart rate. However, in January 2016, a lawsuit was filed by a group of individuals from California, Colorado, and Wisconsin who claimed that the Charge HR’s active heart rate monitoring was inaccurate. While they found the PurePulse monitoring to be fairly accurate during intense training, its precision was poor. Specifically, the Charge HR’s readings were within five to ten points of a chest strap monitor, but could not pinpoint the exact heart rate. In a statement responding to the lawsuit, Fitbit contested the claims, but also added that its fitness trackers, including the Charge HR, “are designed to provide meaningful data to our users to help them reach their health and fitness goals, and are not intended to be scientific or medical devices”2.

This recent finding brings the Charge HR, which was previously considered to have the superior heart rate monitoring technology, back down to the level of its competitors including the Vivosmart HR. Garmin’s Vivosmart HR and most of the other heart rate monitoring trackers employ a similar technology to measure heart rate. While the Charge HR’s proprietary heart rate monitoring technology may be slightly more accurate than those of its competitors, it is not more precise. For all intents and purposes, their performance on heart rate monitoring is essentially a draw.

User-friendliness
Fitbit Charge HR Fitness Tracker
Fitbit Charge HR

In terms of user-friendliness, the Vivosmart HR and the Charge HR are very different but both perform well. With the Charge HR users can customize what metrics are displayed by default and can simply tap the side button to filter through specific information. Additionally, manual tracking features such as water and food consumption and be done through the Fitbit app. It is an intuitive process that allows users to enter their consumption values with just a few taps.

The Vivosmart HR is more complicated, but not by much. Like the Charge HR, it’s display is easy to read and customizable to show whatever metrics the user wants to see. However, the Vivosmart HR can also show smartphone notifications, the current weather, music player controls and camera remote controls. These additional features can also be perceived as a bonus, which will be touched on when we discuss functionality below. The sheer number of functions that the Vivosmart HR has makes it more complex to use, and reviews of the tracker often mention needing to go into BestBuy (which is the only non-online retailer of the device) for assistance with setting it up.

One critique of the Charge HR is that it is not user-friendly because it requires a mobile app on the user’s phone to view and analyze in-depth information from the device. However, viewing and analyzing data on a smartphone is much easier than attempting the same tasks on the small Garmin Vivosmart HR screen. For the average person, the Charge HR has more than enough capability, and users have the option to obtain and analyze more data if they desire. Still, if you don’t have a smartphone or simply wants the added capabilities to reside within the device itself, then you’ll want to go with the Vivosmart HR.

Functionality

The Garmin Vivosmart HR indisputably packs much more of a punch in terms of additional features. It is fully compatible with smartphones and can forward notifications, view the weather, and play music from the user’s smartphone. By comparison, the Charge HR only forwards missed call notifications from smartphones. Both devices notify the wearer of notifications via vibration. Additionally, both the Vivosmart HR and the Charge HR track the length of the wearer’s sleep.

However, what the Charge HR lacks in quantity of features it somewhat makes up for in terms of the performance of the features that it does have. The Charge HR’s sleep tracker performs better than the Vivosmart HR, and its battery life is also slightly longer. Additionally, the Charge HR allows users to manually track their food and water consumption, a feature that the Vivosmart HR does not have.

Best overall fitness tracker

The Fitbit Charge HR and the Garmin Vivosmart HR are the two fitness trackers with the best available combination of features and price. They are both excellent fitness trackers; picking between the two comes down entirely to preferences and requirements. In terms of style, they are relatively similar with both featuring a sleek band. They both have their upsides and their downsides. The Charge HR performs all of the various tracking features slightly better and is more user friendly, but does not have a number of the capabilities that the Vivosmart HR has. Despite the absence of these capabilities, our first choice would be the Charge HR, because at the end of the day the purpose of a fitness tracker is to effectively and accurately monitor and track one’s activity. If you don’t need a heart monitor or price is a concern, you can also get the cheaper Fitbit Charge without the heart rate monitor and likewise with the Garmin Vivosmart

Activity-specific fitness trackers

The Fitbit Charge HR and Garmin Vivosmart HR might be the best all-around trackers out there, but there are a variety of fitness bands that are specifically geared towards certain fitness activities that might be preferable for avid runners, swimmers, cyclists, and (yes) sleepers. Let’s take a look at the top performers in each category.

Best fitness tracker for running

Microsoft Band 2 / Runner Up – Garmin Vivoactive

Microsoft Band 2 Fitness TrackerWhen it comes to fitness trackers for running, potential buyers can’t pass up the Microsoft Band 2. Its GPS technology is remarkably accurate; it measures running metrics as effectively as it performs more basic tasks like counting steps and stairs. Wareable tested the Band 2 over several runs and the biggest discrepancy was just 190 meters on a 10-kilometer run. Additionally, the Band 2’s display is excellent so users can easily track their progress on-the-go. Moreover, the device tracks the GPS data produced during a run and plots your route for you once complete.

What really sets the Band 2 apart as a running tracker though, is its extensive array of sensors. It has a barometer to measure altitude (including track stairs and hills climbed), an optical heart rate sensor, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, an ambient light sensor, a skin temperature sensor, a UV sensor, a capacitive sensor, and a galvanic skin response sensor. The one major downside to all of this firepower is that the Band 2 does not have a long battery life. Still, the Microsoft Band 2 is definitely the best fitness tracker for the avid runner.

Best fitness tracker for swimming

Moov NOW / Runner Up – Garmin Swim

Moov NOW Fitness TrackerOne factor for swimmers to keep in mind is that they need not only a waterproof fitness tracker, they need one that also tracks various swimming metrics similar to the way that most standard fitness trackers monitor movement. With that being said, the Moov NOW and the Garmin Swim are the two best swimming fitness trackers on the market.

The NOW and the Swim are very similar. Both devices track the distance that the user covers, the number of strokes the user makes, and the type of stroke used. They also are waterproof and can withstand pressure as far as 50 meters underwater and provide lap times for the user. What sets the Move NOW apart is its built-in coaching tool. Whereas other swimming fitness trackers, including the Garmin Swim, only report on the exercise the user has completed, the NOW actually offers advice based on the user’s data. An added bonus is that the Moov NOW is almost $50 cheaper than the Garmin Swim at right around $100.

Best fitness tracker for cycling

Garmin Vivoactive / Runner Up – Fitbit Surge

Garmin Vivoactive Fitness TrackerThere are a number of excellent fitness trackers used for cycling, but the Vivoactive and the Surge are a step above the rest. Ironically, neither was developed specifically for cycling, but rather has specific modes for various sport activities. The pair is remarkably similar. The Vivoactive and the Surge both perform the essential tasks that cyclists want, such as speed tracking, distance tracking, cadence tracking, heart rate tracking, and calorie consumption tracking. Additionally, both devices have a built-in GPS that not only tracks the user’s location, but also keeps track of the entire route for a specific bike ride, including the topography of that route.

The two differences that give the edge to the Vivoactive are data analysis and price. While both the Vivoactive and the Surge provide basic feedback on the results of specific workouts, for more in-depth analysis of the workout or for comparison to past workouts, users of both devices need an add-on. The Vivoactive has a dedicated mobile app that users must connect to in order to view their detailed data, whereas the Surge requires users to connect either to the standard Fitbit app or to an online service, such as Stratva. Neither of these options provides the level of detail that the Vivoactive’s dedicated app does. In terms of price, the Garmin Vivoactive comes in at $190, approximately $40 less than the Fitbit Surge.

Best for tracking your sleep

Basis Peak / Runner Up – Jawbone UP3 or UP4

Basis Peak Fitness TrackerWhen it comes to sleep tracking, the Jawbone line of products (especially the UP3 and UP4) are better than most because they track not only the duration of the user’s sleep but also the quality of sleep based. Jawbone’s bands determine when the user was in light sleep and deep sleep based on how much and when they moved while sleeping. The Jawbone UP Move sells for just $50, but the more advanced sleep monitoring devices, the UP3 and UP4, go for $180 and $200, respectively.

Another, slightly more expensive option is the Basis Peak. The Peak is the Rolls Royce of sleep trackers. The Peak is equipped with a myriad-sensor array that is remarkably accurate; it provides the equivalent of a full-scale sleep study polysomnogram on a nightly basis. However, all that capability comes with a price tag, and the Basis Peak’s retail value is $200. This one is close, but for potential buyers willing to spend this much money, the Basis Peak is probably the one to go with.

Best budget fitness tracker

Jawbone UP Move / Runner Up – Misfit Flash

Jawbone Up Move Fitness TrackerFor potential buyers with an open mind, the best fitness tracker for a relatively low price is the Jawbone UP Move. The UP Move, unlike other budget options, is a small pod that can be clipped onto the user’s clothing, slipped into the user’s pocket, or attached to a wristband (which can be purchased at an additional cost) to wear the device on his or her wrist. The UP Move performs all of the essential fitness tracking functions – including step counting, calorie burn, and sleep monitoring – very well. However, so does the Misfit Flash, which also has a variety of modes for specific sports including cycling, tennis, swimming, and basketball.

Despite these additional modes, the UP Move still takes the prize for the best budget fitness tracker. What sets it apart from the competition, including the Misfit Flash, is the fact that it connects to the Smart Coach feature in the UP mobile app. By accessing their data on the app, users can view their detailed activity data and receive advice on how to be healthier each day. Another major bonus with the app is the advanced food logging tool. Users can manually log in their food consumption or use the built-in barcode scanner to monitor their calorie intake. With all that capability at such a low price point, the Jawbone UP Move is an easy decision if you’re looking for a cheap fitness tracker.

Stylish fitness trackers

Withings Activité or Withings Activité Pop

Withings Activité Fitness TrackerThe Withings Activité and Activité Pop are fitness trackers, but they are also fashionable accessories. Many of the bands listed above, in addition to the dozens of other options out there, have sporty designs. The Activité and Activité Pop on the other hand, are stylish with traditional watch faces in addition to being functional fitness trackers. Both versions track steps and monitor sleep. Progress towards a daily step goal can be viewed on the watch’s face, where a small secondary dial displays the percentage of the steps goal that has been completed. They can also both be worn in the water and used for swim tracking. Additionally, more detailed metrics are displayed on a dedicated mobile app: the Withings Health Mate.

The Activité costs a pretty penny at $450, but its younger brother, the Activité Pop, is made from less expensive materials and more reasonably priced at $150. The Activité is available in only a black or white body, while the Activité Pop is available in several additional body colors. Both devices can be paired with different colored bands.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.statista.com/statistics/413265/health-and-fitness-tracker-worldwide-unit-sales-region/
  2. http://ww2.kqed.org/futureofyou/2016/01/08/fitbit-hit-with-class-action-lawsuit-over-alleged-misreading-of-heart-rates/