There are many different wrist wearables out there, from cheap and simple fitness trackers that do little more than count your steps to full smartwatches that can call and program your workouts. Simply put, with so many different options employing different functions, it can be difficult to know what kind of device is right for you. Here̵
There are three broad categories of portable exercise equipment. (Or at least non-niche wrist wearable; we’re not going to talk about cycling computers, power output monitors, or the fancy things that track movement used by professionals in many different sports).
You have fitness trackers that are as simple as it comes. They count your steps, maybe track your heart rate, and sometimes show notifications on a small screen, but they don’t do much else. Think classic Fitbit and you have the archetypal fitness tracker.
Then you have running or multisport watches. They have built-in GPS so you can accurately track your runs or rides and leave your phone at home. Most also play music, come with some sort of running coaching features, and have physical buttons – so you can hit that round button instead of fumbling on a touchscreen with your sweaty fingers.
Finally you have smartwatches. These are complete, app-loaded touchscreen wrist computers. It’s the Apple Watch, the Samsung Galaxy Watch, and one or two other devices. While they are often designed with sports and health tracking in mind, that’s far from their full feature set. Expect to be able to call, text, navigate to your hairdresser, call an Uber, and a whole lot more.
These buckets are far too simplistic, of course, as you will see when we go a little deeper. There is overlap between all three categories and, especially at the edges, it becomes very blurry. Garmin’s Vivoactive series, for example, are great running watches with a lot of smartwatch features, while the Venu is the same, but a bit slimmer and with a nicer screen. Neither has anything close to the same app options as with an Apple Watch, but they’re not all GPS trackers, either.
So let’s get into it.
Should you buy a fitness tracker?
Fitness trackers are as simple as it comes. They usually use an accelerometer to count your steps and measure your sleep. Many will also track your heart rate and have a screen to show notifications when your smartphone is nearby. To see anything other than your most basic daily stats, you need a companion app.
The simplicity of fitness trackers is both their best and worst feature. Since they usually only count steps, they usually have a battery life of five, seven or even a longer battery life. You can just wear them all day every day without having to worry too much about charging.
Unfortunately, it also limits how much they can do. For example, while the Fitbit Inspire 2 can track your heart rate, it has to connect to connect to your smartphone to track your running distance and speed. You have to upgrade to the Fitbit Charge 4 before you get built-in GPS.
Fitness trackers are really designed for people who work in a sedentary profession and want to exercise a bit more. There’s a reason the 10,000-step monument has become so cultural: a lot of people don’t walk anywhere near that number.
On the other hand, if you’re already active and want something to record your runs, track your gym sessions, or give you advanced data to work with, most fitness trackers will fall a bit short.
Some suggestions for fitness trackers
If you think a fitness tracker is what you’re looking for and want a full buying guide, read our review of the 5 best fitness trackers, but Fitbit is the biggest name in the fitness tracking game. You won’t go wrong with the Inspire 2. If you want something non-Fitbit, check out the Garmin vivosmart 4.
If you want the unobtrusive look of a fitness tracker with some more advanced features, check out the Fitbit Charge 4. It has built-in GPS so it can track your runs, rides and outdoor swimming.
Should You Buy a GPS Running Watch?
GPS running watches and multisport watches are designed to accurately track runs and other outdoor activities such as skiing, cycling and swimming. Their big advantage over a standard fitness tracker is that they are smart enough to use solo. Most can even include some music. You really don’t need to bring your phone for your mind-blowing run or open water swimming.
But running watches aren’t just slightly smarter fitness trackers, they also have running-specific features. A simple one: easy to press physical buttons. When you’re sprinting laps off a track, it’s no fun tapping or swiping on a full touch screen to reset a timer. Running watches have a special “round” button, so you don’t have to.
Likewise, multisport watches do more to track and display your pace and distance in real time. Built-in coaches program workouts at suggested speeds and get notifications if you run too fast or too slow. High-end outdoor activity watches, like Garmin’s Fenix line, even have built-in maps, so you can navigate and plan your routes on the go.
However, to make things even more confusing, some running watches are getting smaller, lighter and more focused on a healthy lifestyle. Garmin’s Venu watches, for example, won’t look out of place on your wrist at all, except for the most formal of events.
And of course most sports watches, even when they’re big and rugged, still count steps and track your heart rate throughout the day, not just when you’re up a mountain or on the trails. They also display notifications on their (usually large) screen and, depending on the model, you may be able to make contactless payments, track your water intake, and track your menstrual cycle. If you just use them this way, their battery life can last for a few days or even a week. However, with the GPS on, you will need to charge them much more often. Like, in between any long run.
The main reason to buy a running watch is to quantify the workouts you already do. The advanced running features are great if you run a lot. However, you are unlikely to purchase one to start running more than 10 miles every Saturday.
If you just want to track your steps or sleep, or even do a few rounds of park every now and then, running watches, even the more lifestyle-focused ones, are probably overkill. You’re probably better off with a fitness band, at least for a start. They are considerably cheaper.
Some suggestions for Running Watch
Garmin is really the big player when it comes to running watches. If you want something affordable, check out the Garmin Forerunner 45. For a lifestyle watch with running features, the Garmin Venu has the best screen and is easy to wear all day.
On the other hand, if you want the best that Garmin has to offer (that looks normal on your wrist), get the Garmin Forerunner 945 Music or Fenix 6 for better multisport features.
Should you buy a smartwatch
Smartwatches, despite having the same form factor and overlapping feature set, are a different beast from fitness trackers and running watches. While they can track runs and workouts, measure your heart rate, and tell you how well you’ve slept, that’s just a subset of their features.
Expect smartwatches to have a much wider variety of apps and features that are useful all day long, not just when you’re working up a sweat or sleeping to recover. You will likely be able to do things like call an Uber, calculate tips, remotely control your smartphone’s camera, and even play games or scroll through Twitter. (Why you would want to do some of these things is up to you.)
The smartwatch bucket has the most blurred edges, because the better they can do, the more closely they have to integrate with a different ecosystem. The Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch lines are the closest to real wrist computers and communicators. They can take calls, respond to text messages with more than preset replies, and have the ability to do all of this over an LTE connection.
On the other hand, Garmin’s Vivoactive and Venu watches are just that little bit more focused on lifestyle than Garmin’s pure sports watches, with better looks, slimmer profiles and a mindful breathing app, but they can’t integrate as closely with you. phone. For example, you can tap the screen to answer calls, but you only answer with your smartphone. You can respond to text messages in the same way, but only with a few presets. For many people, these watches can take the place of a smartwatch, but they don’t have the app ecosystem or flexibility of something like the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2.
Devices like the Fitbit Versa 3 are somewhere in the middle. It can answer calls and you can respond to texts with presets, and it brings Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant to your wrist. It’s definitely a smartwatch of sorts, but at the same time, it doesn’t fall in the same category as a Galaxy Watch 3.
One important thing to keep in mind with smartwatches is that the more features they include – and the more you use them – the worse the battery life will be. The various Apple Watches and Samsung Galaxy devices last between 24 and 48 hours on a charge. You really need to plug them in at least every other day. The Versa 3, while slightly less capable, gets about 6 days between charges on basic use.
If you are mainly looking for something to keep track of your activities, then a smartwatch is more than you need. Their extra features are great, but it quickly gets tedious to charge a different device every few days.
On the other hand, if you want something to track your activities that you can also use to check your to-do list, listen to podcasts, make phone calls, and even leave your phone at home when you go to the store, a smartwatch is maybe just what you are looking for.
Some Smart Watch Suggestions
Check out our latest guide for a rundown of the best smartwatches you can buy right now, but here’s the crux: The best smartwatch for you really depends on which smartphone you’re using. The Apple Watch only works with iPhones, while Samsung devices play nicely with Android. You can use other smartwatches with an iPhone, but then you miss out on many features; an Apple Watch is tightly integrated with iOS, as they are both part of the same ecosystem.
For Apple fans, it has to be Apple Watch Series 6 or Apple Watch SE. For Android users, the Samsung Galaxy Watch3 is as good as it gets.