Stay fit the easy way

The 10 best smart­watches and fit­ness track­ers

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BACK IN APRIL of this year, Huawei’s then-CEO Eric Xu pro­claimed, “I am al­ways con­fused as to what smart­watches are for when we have smart­phones” – a cou­ple of weeks after his com­pany launched the Huawei Watch 2.

As en­ter­tain­ing as this rare act of ex­ec­u­tive re­bel­lion was, we don’t ex­actly share Xu’s anal­y­sis. While smart­watches (and their leaner cousins, fit­ness track­ers) work best when paired to a pock­eted smart­phone, even cheaper mod­els can of­fer enough dis­tinct func­tion­al­ity and con­ve­nience to be worth pride of place on your wrist. This is par­tic­u­larly true if you’re in­ter­ested in keep­ing fit – how many smart­phones can track your pulse and cal­cu­late calo­ries burned, all while be­ing able to sur­vive half an hour of laps in the pool?

What’s more, wear­able tech has shown sur­pris­ing re­silience, de­spite oc­ca­sion­ally fore­bod­ing sales fig­ures and de­clin­ing in­ter­est from some of the big firms. Ap­ple boasted of all-time high sales at the end of 2016, and will be launch­ing both a new Ap­ple Watch and watchOS 4 later this year, while Fitbit has main­tained a high qual­ity of out­put – such as the Alta HR – even with its be­low-ex­pected com­mer­cial per­for­mance.

As such, it looks like what was once dis­missed as a fad is here to stay for at least a while longer. Read on for our buy­ing guide

to smart­watches and fit­ness track­ers, as well as re­views of 10 of our favourite wear­ables. The ad­van­tage of a spe­cialised fit­ness tracker is that be­cause it needs to do less than a full-on smart­watch, it can be smaller, lighter and prob­a­bly more durable. This is ob­vi­ously ideal – you don’t want to be jog­ging or swim­ming with a hefty chunk of stain­less steel yoked to your wrist. Com­mon con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als such as rub­ber or plas­tic are also eas­ier to wipe clean of sweat, rain or grime.

Smart­watches are in­evitably bulkier: they need faster pro­ces­sors, more stor­age, and a larger touch­screen to make it eas­ier to read and re­spond to mes­sages and no­ti­fi­ca­tions. Many fit­ness track­ers get away with no dis­play at all, let alone a touch­screen, in­stead con­vey­ing in­for­ma­tion through flash­ing LEDs. The up­side is that, by and large, smart­watches are eas­ier to match with both in­for­mal and for­mal at­tire than a sporty wrist­band.

Some, such as the Mis­fit Phase and Fron­tier edition of Sam­sung’s Gear S3, at­tempt to com­bine smart­watch stylish­ness with the com­fort and track­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties of a fit­ness de­vice. Hap­pily, this hy­brid ap­proach rarely re­sults in dis­ap­point­ing com­pro­mises, though for the light­est, most com­pact de­signs, it’s bet­ter to stick with a bona fide fit­ness tracker.

SPECS WRIST

What ex­actly gets tracked, though? Ev­ery de­vice here in­cludes at least a pedometer, so you can keep count of how many steps you take in a day; this can be used to make a rough es­ti­mate of how many calo­ries you’ve used up. More spe­cialised fea­tures range from al­time­ters, which mea­sure how high you’ve climbed (whether up a moun­tain or just a set of stairs) to heart-rate mon­i­tors, which al­low for use­ful feed­back on how hard you’re push­ing your­self dur­ing ex­er­cise.

Pay a lit­tle more and you might get built-in GPS track­ing, too. This can be a more ac­cu­rate tool for route-track­ing than a pedometer, and while you could al­ways use the GPS on a paired smart­phone, hav­ing it in­te­grated saves you hav­ing to carry your hand­held around on a run. It has non-fit­ness ap­pli­ca­tions, too, such as the Google Maps app on An­droid Wear smart­watches.

Wa­ter­proof­ing is es­sen­tial if you want to track your swim­ming, though it’s not so much a stan­dard as ba­sic wa­ter-re­sis­tance. The lat­ter can still come in handy, though, for pro­tec­tion against rain and sweat.

GO­ING THE DIS­TANCE

The bat­tery life on wear­ables varies dra­mat­i­cally. The Ap­ple Watch Se­ries 2, for in­stance, re­quires daily (or nightly) recharg­ing, but the Mis­fit Ray’s dis­pos­able bat­ter­ies keep it go­ing for up to six months. Hav­ing to plug in ev­ery evening is quite com­mon for do-it-all smart­watches, but for fit­ness track­ers, you’re more likely to get a few days’ worth of juice with each full charge.

Re­mov­able cells, like the ones you’d get in a me­chan­i­cal watch, would there­fore seem to be the best way of do­ing things, though this does rep­re­sent an ex­tra cost. Just make sure that you get some­thing long-last­ing if you want to start sleep-track­ing, as it’s no good if it’s charg­ing on your night­stand in­stead of left on your wrist.

BRAINS OF THE OPERATION

Be­sides Fitbit and Mis­fit de­vices, which don’t use full op­er­at­ing sys­tems, there are three OS op­tions to con­sider: watchOS, An­droid Wear, and Tizen. Tizen and watchOS are ex­clu­sive to Sam­sung and Ap­ple watches re­spec­tively, leav­ing An­droid Wear as the de facto de­fault for ev­ery­thing else.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, watchOS is firmly en­trenched within Ap­ple’s ecosys­tem, and will only pair with iOS smart­phones. Tizen smart­watches will work with both An­droid and iOS, and is part of ar­guably the best in­di­vid­ual case of hard­ware/soft­ware in­te­gra­tion (the Gear S3’s ro­tat­ing bezel con­trol is per­fect for scrolling through Tizen’s UI). How­ever, it’s also the worst sup­ported of the three in terms of third-party apps.

An­droid Wear is both plat­form-ag­nos­tic and in pos­ses­sion of a well-stocked app store, so might be the most pain­less OS for An­droid smart­phone own­ers in par­tic­u­lar.

MORE THE MERRIER

Even more im­por­tant than the op­er­at­ing sys­tem (for fit­ness en­thu­si­asts, at least) is the de­vice’s mo­bile com­pan­ion app, and whether it can link to any oth­ers.

Even if your cho­sen fit­ness tracker has a dis­play, it’s eas­ier to read an over­view of your track­ing data on a smart­phone, tablet or PC screen. This gives you – app al­low­ing – a de­tailed break­down of your per­sonal stats, so you know if you’re meet­ing your goals or where you need to make ad­just­ments.

In a sim­i­lar vein, you might even be able to sync this data with ex­ist­ing fit­ness apps, such as MyFit­nessPal, Run­keeper and Strava, for even more fully fea­tured anal­y­sis of your ex­er­cise rou­tine. Not that first-party apps don’t have their own neat tricks. We’re espe­cially fond of Fitbit’s app, which lets you com­pare your data with that of Fitbit-own­ing friends. Some­times, there’s no bet­ter mo­ti­va­tor than a spot of friendly com­pe­ti­tion.

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