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When it comes to the overlap of fitness and technology, the boom of wearables—smartwatches, fitness trackers, etc—is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The first Fitbit hit the market in 2008, and is viewed as one of the first personal fitness tracking devices to garner mainstream attention. Since then the category has exploded with a broad range of devices catering to marathon runners, armchair athletes, and everyone in between. While some of these wearables are targeted towards the more entry-level fitness enthusiasts, some have features and functionality that is more geared towards specific activities. From a pricing standpoint there’s also a fair bit of swing from one end of the spectrum to the other, so we’ll be calling out our favorite budget-friendly selections as well.


Fitness Trackers vs. Smartwatches—What’s the Difference?

Though these terms sometimes seem relatively interchangeable, there are some fundamental differences between the two to keep in mind. Fundamentally speaking, a smartwatch is much more of your day-to-day wear device, and something that will generally have a bit more of a focus on general functionality/connectivity. Notifications and integration with other apps will take priority, and though many will be loaded with a range of fitness-focused tracking capability, in some cases the sensors/data capture might be a bit less precise than you’d find with a purpose-built fitness tracker.

What to Look For In a Fitness Tracker

Overall there are a handful of differentiating criteria in the fitness tracker space that will affect a tracker’s capabilities, as well as its sticker price in relation to the competition. Not all will be absolutely essential (depending on your lifestyle and fitness goals), but knowing what is and isn’t available will make all the difference when it comes to making an informed buying decision.


Water Resistance: Are you the type that wants to be wearing your device as close to 24/7 as possible? Is swimming occasionally part of your workout routine? Because they contain on-board electronics, not all fitness trackers are suitable for exposure to water. Brands will specify whether or not their trackers are waterproof or at the very least water resistant. The difference between the two will be that one can survive a shower and washing the dishes, whereas the other can handle proper underwater submersion as you do your laps in the pool.


Heart Rate Monitoring: A built-in heart rate monitor helps improve data capture and analysis for two parts of a fitness tracker. On one hand, data regarding your heart rate can be used to help you refine your workouts, as your heart rate is a great way to benchmark levels of exertion and to tell whether or not you’re pushing yourself hard enough during your run, while cycling, or even during your workout at the gym. Heart rate monitors are also useful when it comes to tracking your sleep cycle. While more basic fitness trackers use movement alone as a gauge to tell what level of sleep you’ve reached throughout the night, your heart rate is also an indicator, and generally speaking you’ll get better data from sleep tracking on a fitness tracker that has a heart rate sensor.


GPS Tracking: This feature won’t be necessary for everyone, but if your fitness routine includes running, walking, or cycling outdoors and not just in a gym, it’s an interesting one to have. Leaving your smartphone at home, a GPS-capable fitness tracker will log your route, and give you an accurate mapping of your activity (including distance traveled). The benefits here are two-fold. Not only are you getting a clear picture of distance and pacing of your workout, but if you’re the type that occasionally changes routes on the fly, the data serves as a reminder in case you find a new favorite hill to climb, or even pass a coffee shop or store that you’d like to check out again at a later date.


Battery Life: When fitness trackers (and smartwatches) first hit the market, battery life was the biggest stumbling block of the category. We all love the features, but having to take the device off for an extended period to recharge it every couple of days quickly takes away from its appeal. Thankfully now that game has changed, and the majority of quality units out there can now manage anywhere from roughly five days, though to several months without needing a recharge. On one end of the spectrum, Garmin’s Vivovit 3 will run a full year without needing to give the battery any love, whereas the feature-rich Samsung Gear Fit 2 and Fitbit Charge HR will need to dock every 5 days or so. If you work a desk job, charging while you’re sitting stationary isn’t a big deal, but for some the extended battery life of the competition will sway the purchasing decision.


What is a Hybrid Smartwatch?

In an attempt to capitalize on the corner of the market that already has a preference towards traditional watches, a handful of brands have found clever ways to merge smartwatch functionality with more conventional watch design. Frederique Constant, Alpina (their sister company), as well as the Fossil group have all unveiled hybrid smartwatches in recent years that look like a regular watch at first glance. Though not as effective when it comes to reading notifications and other data from your device, they still capture fitness data, provide notifications through sound and vibration, and even give you an indication of how close you are to achieving your fitness goals on any given day. Making up for the lack of data on the wrist, each of these smartwatches have thoughtfully executed apps where you can see information on your daily activity. Watches like these are a great selection for those working in a corporate environment where they want to track daily activity without a noticeable on-wrist device.