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How to buy the best fitness tracker

Our handy guide to fitness bands, smartwatches, key features, design and more.

fitness trackers
Last updated: 11 September 2019

Wearables have come and gone over the years, but fitness trackers have resonated with Australians. Having a wristband track your daily activity was the stuff of science fiction only three years ago. Today more than two million Aussies don a fitness tracker, and according to telecommunications consultancy Telsyte, a third of the population could be wearing one within the next four years.

Why do I want a fitness tracker?

Fitness trackers, or bands, are typically a device that fits around the wrist like a watch and measures your steps – it's the one thing they all have in common. Measuring your steps shows you how much daily activity you are doing every day. The more activity, the better health outcomes according to research done by the George Institute released in November 2015.

But fitness trackers do a whole lot more than track your movement. They also offer features such as:

  • sleep tracking
  • calorie input and output
  • smartphone connection
  • phone and text message notifications (to entice you into paying a premium for them).

All the models in our fitness tracker and smartwatch reviews connect to your smartphone or sync directly to your computer, the former option being the easiest to use. If you don't want to carry your smartphone every time you go for a walk/run, etc, that's no problem either, as most of them store data on your activity and only need to sync periodically with your phone.

Smartwatch versus fitness bands

Many smartwatches also support fitness tracking features on top of their typical functions (answering calls, making digital payments and so on). While they were once a jack-of-all trades alternative that did a reasonable job, some models are now just as accurate as fitness bands. But does that make smartwatches a better option? 

Smartwatch pros

  • All the features of a smartwatch and fitness band rolled into one.
  • Many of the features you'd expect to find in a smartphone (e.g. weather, social media, emails), on your wrist.
  • Ability to answer calls and send texts.
  • Detailed data on screen (so you don't need to whip out your smartphone on the go)
  • Custom interfaces
  • Freedom to install third party fitness apps (alternatives to the default option).
  • Control other apps while exercising, such as Spotify.

Smartwatch cons

  • Generally larger, heavier, bulkier.
  • Can be uncomfortable to wear during extended workouts
  • Less battery life
  • Complicated (just because there are loads of features that don't relate to fitness, doesn't mean you're going to use them)
  • Can be expensive

Different designs

Just in case smartwatches and bands weren't confusing enough, a few other subcategories have emerged in recent months. The two main ones are:

Smartwatch-style fitness bands

Traditional fitness bands with an interactive screen the same size as a smartwatch. However, they don't have smartphone features.

Hybrids

Analogue face, with inbuilt smartwatch and fitness band features. Some are displayed on a small, second screen, others display data through a smartphone app.

While smartwatches and fitness bands are likely to coexist, basic bands with simple screens and a core set of functionalities – such as running, swimming and sleep tracking – are expected to become less popular. Smartwatch-style fitness bands, also known as 'activity watches', will likely take their place in the market. 

Why? People want:

  • More features and options
  • Larger screens that improve app navigation
  • But they don't want the extra features in a typical smartwatch.

It all comes down to a matter of convenience. Being able to quickly check detailed data and control apps from your wrist, instead of stopping to grab your smartphone, is much more appealing to most people.

nokia-steel-hr_4

Nikon's Steel HR blends digital fitness tracking behind an analogue face. 

Fashionable bands and kids' fitness

There's also a growing segment focused on 'style', which wants to make fitness bands look like fashionable jewellery. Many of these are faceless, and filter most, if not all, of the relevant fitness information through accompanying smartphone apps. These aren't inherently worse, but they do lack the convenience of models with buttons or touchscreens and are becoming less common.

Kids' fitness bands are becoming popular too, which seems like a gross marketing exercise/extreme example of helicopter parenting. Data and progress tracking, as well as goal-oriented workouts, deliver engaging results quickly, which makes the activity feel fun, engaging and achievable, and can be powerful motivators for kids.

However, obsession with exercise and body image can lead to:

  • poor self-esteem
  • emotional distress
  • anxiety, depression and eating disorders
  • plus the raw data pumped out by fitness trackers can exacerbate these issues.

This may be an issue when data is simply shared among friends or family as a competitive tool rather than an overall encouragement for a healthy lifestyle.

Finding the right fit

There are a few tricks available when it comes to finding the fitness tracker for you. Make sure the rigid parts of the band's face are not wider than the thickness of your wrist. Buy the wrong size and it's unlikely you'll find the band comfortable.

Heart monitors are usually tucked onto the bottom of a fitness tracker. Some bulge outwards to press against the skin, such as the original Apple Watch and the Garmin Vivosmart HR, but this design can grow tiresome and will prompt you to take them off for a brief break, during which you'll notice an imprint of the heart sensor marked into your skin.

Features to look for

Step counter

This measures your steps, though accuracy will vary depending on what you put in as your height, weight and, in some cases, pace length, plus the technology used in the device.

Distance counter

This can be adapted for metric or imperial, and generally measures distance based on your steps. Some of the newer fitness bands do have a GPS function though, which can utilise this technology for more accurate distance measurement.

Calorie counter

This will usually show you how steps taken convert into calories lost. It generally measures in calories rather than kilojoules, which can make it difficult if you're doing some on-the-fly grocery shopping, but there are some third-party apps such as MyFitnessPal that you can utilise for automatic conversion through your smartphone.

Waterproof claims

These vary between models. Any that do claim this feature usually have the specifications on their website, but they range from splash-proof to swimming to 50m depth.

OS versatility

This can range from only working on Apple or on certain versions of Android, so check closely to see whether your phone matches the fitness band's requirements. Some (cough, Samsung, cough) will only work with specific brands of smartphones.

Sleep tracker

This claims to be able to measure when you're active in your sleep, i.e. not getting a particularly good rest. Virtually all of them require you to both wear the band and activate this feature before going to sleep, so you'll need a little extra discipline if you want to get some vital data out of this information.

Alarm

Quite useful, especially if it's a silent alarm that just buzzes on your wrist to wake you up without waking up anyone next to you. They can also be useful for runs and other situations.

Altimeter

Great for those who want to measure stairs, or height changes. This can also be worthwhile from a running or walking perspective, to measure the degree of effort made in exercise rather than just the distance, without having to go back and adapt your routine via your smartphone or the band's webpage.

Milestones

Acts as rewards and are an incentive to keep going when you get a notification that you've passed 10,000 steps, or that another milestone over the life of wearing the fitness band has passed. They can also queue into social interactions automatically, if you're interested in that facet.

Heart rate monitor

A useful barometer of effort for some people that can act as a way to measure your fitness regime more precisely. Some will offer them as an optional extra.

Session tracker

This means you can trigger an activity or event such as a run or a cycle and note it as such via the tracker, rather than having to do it later by logging it manually. This means it can more accurately assess the number of calories you've used in this period.

Food tracker

Built into the smartphone app used by the fitness band means you can log your intake of food throughout the day as well. If you have the discipline to maintain this routine, you might find it useful to track the number of calories you're taking in versus those you're using up. Native food trackers tend to be US-centric though, so it would be worth looking around at their third-party apps.

Social media sharing

An important feature for some, as it can act as an incentive to let your friends or colleagues know that you've passed some milestone. It can also add a competitive element for some that acts as an extra incentive. The myriad social media outlets means that no fitness band covers them all, but is instead dedicated to a few, apart from some devices that have none at all.

Battery life

This can be an important consideration, and most claim a few days at least, with others clocking it at over a year, while needing user-replaceable batteries. Most have rechargeable batteries, which can be powered up via USB.

Bluetooth

A key feature, if your smartphone doesn't have at least the base Bluetooth version required by the band, you may end up missing out on some of its features. Bluetooth 4 is the most recent, widespread version which introduced low energy consumption to improve battery life. 4.1 added a number of small changes, including the ability to support multiple simultaneous tasks using one signal. 4.2 introduced support for internet of things (broader connectivity options). 

Fitness bands and fitness features on smartwatches don't really require features beyond the 4.0 release. "Smart" Bluetooth is more or less the same as 4.0. Some brands do not specify the version used.

Third-party apps

A number of Android-based fitness bands and smartwatches support alternative, third-party fitness apps such as Runkeeper and SporT tracker.

Zombies, Run is also very popular and uses an audio-book Walking Dead-like narrative about surviving the zombie apocalypse to encourage you to run, by unlocking additional chapters as you exercise.

Your workout is tracked and integrated into the app, which uses unique tools to keep you moving if you start to slack off. Every now and then a groaning mass will suddenly bear down (through your headphones), leaving you with two options: 1) stay put and become a meal, or 2) run. It's a simple idea, but one that effectively takes your mind off the monotony of exercise.

You can download apps like this from the Google Play store. The Apple watch also supports some third-party smartwatch apps, but you won't find as many.

Calories vs kilojoules

All fitness apps use calories as a unit of energy measurement rather than the metric kilojoules, even when you've set the bands to metric. This is poor form, and probably due to the fact that the American market is so much larger than Australia that it's not worth it for each company to add this into their design. Luckily some of the third-party apps such as MyFitnessPal, which some fitness bands can link to, can convert to kJ easily. Otherwise you'll be stuck with mentally converting 1 calorie to 4.2 kilojoules when you start comparing nutrition labels.

Cost

Models in our latest fitness tracker and smartwatch reviews range in price from $30 to $599.

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