Stay fit the easy way
The 10 best smartwatches and fitness trackers
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.
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.