Best fitness trackers of 2015: Buying guide
Whether you want to get fitter, lose weight, or just monitor your activity levels, a fitness tracker can be a great starting point, but picking the right one can be difficult. Here Gizmag looks at the things to consider when selecting the right tracker for you, as we run through our selection of the best fitness trackers available in 2015.
For the purpose of this guide we will be focusing on general fitness and activity trackers, rather than the sport-specific tracking and training tools which also exist. We will also not be looking at smartwatches – while they can boast impressive fitness tracking features, this is not their main purpose, and their price and dependence on other hardware arguably puts them in a different product category.
What to track?
This is the big one: you need to seriously consider what aspects of your fitness and activity you want this wearable to measure and track. It might be that you just want to keep an eye on how many steps you take per day, the distance you cover or the calories you are burning. Other trackers also offer built-in heart-rate tracking which can be a great indicator of how hard you're working, and let you work-out in different zones for fat-burning, endurance, or speed.
Another feature offered by some trackers is the ability to log location via GPS. This is good for users who want more precise measurements of the distances they have run or cycled. While some trackers have GPS built-in, others can use the information from your phone (if you have it with you while you work-out).
In terms of activity tracking, not all devices can monitor all activities. While most cover things like walking, running and cycling, you can't always select exercises like yoga, gym-equipment based activity or sleep quality, and you will need to check a tracker's compatibility with your fitness schedule.
Are you motivated enough to exercise and let a tracker simply monitor your activity, or do you need that extra push? Most fitness trackers will set you a daily target (be it steps, calories or active minutes) and let you know when you've reached it, while others keep you motivated with in-app rewards likes badges, or online competitions with friends. Sharing to other fitness apps can also help in this regard.
Many fitness trackers can also use vibration alarms to shake you out of periods of inactivity, and others go a step further by actively coaching you during periods of exercise to maximize the benefits of your workout.
There's not much point in having a fitness tracker sitting at home on charge while you're out running. But due to the battery life of many devices, that's exactly what happens … and there's often no way of logging those lost miles. Typical battery life is under a week, and all too often just a couple of days, though devices which use old-school watch batteries can last up to six months.
How you are using a tracker will obviously impact its battery life. Just logging steps and you'll get near the maximum stated battery life, but turn on heart-rate monitoring, GPS or music playback and you'll see it drop to a matter of days if not hours. With many proprietary charging methods used on these trackers, the chances are you won't have the right cable with you for a quick recharge unless you are at home either.
If swimming is one of your main forms of exercise, you'll obviously need a waterproof fitness tracker. But it's also something to consider if you just want a device you don't have to worry about when taking a shower or doing the washing up. In our experience every time you take an activity tracker off, there's a chance to forget to put it back on, and that means inaccurate tracking that day.
To wear or not to wear?
While most people probably think of wrist-based fitness trackers, not all have to take up that smartwatch real estate. A number of fitness and activity trackers are clipped to clothes, or can even be worn as jewelry.
While smartwatches are currently where it's at if you want the best smart features in a wearable, fitness trackers can boast some smart(ish) features, which might be enough for you right now. Some fitness trackers will notify you of incoming calls or messages on your wrist, so you don't need to stop and get your phone out. A couple also allow you to do things like remotely control music playback on your phone.
Others boast features which might allow you to leave your phone at home when you go for a workout. This could be thanks to local storage for your workout music or the ability to control external devices such as action cameras.
The smartphone app for your fitness tracker is important because it's probably going to be where you review your data most often. Yes some trackers have screens to display tracked information, but this is typically limited, and the inability to compare historical data can leave you wondering if you are making progress.
Some of the companion apps are considerably better than others. This could be because they display more information, make that info easy to use and act upon, or are just more simple and friendly to use. We've found the apps from Fitbit and Jawbone are some of the best in these regards. With a number of trackers, you'll might also need to install Mac/PC apps to get up and running (pardon the pun).
As with many things, you tend to get what you pay for when it comes to fitness trackers. The more expensive offerings boast more impressive features. However depending on what you want to track, and how you want to use your tracker, it might not cost as much as you expect. The cheapest tracker on our list costs just US$50, compared to the most expensive ones which come in at $250.
The best fitness trackers 2015
Withings Activité Pop
A budget-conscious follow-up to the Activité, the Withings Activité Pop puts solid activity tracking into a standard but stylish watch. The Pop can track steps and distance when walking and running, as well things like swimming and sleeping, with progress towards your daily goal shown via an analogue feedback loop on the watch, or via the companion apps. Because the $130 Activité Pop uses a classic watch battery, it should last for eight months before you need to worry about power.
Jawbone Up Move
The Jawbone Up Move is as simple as fitness trackers get, and that can be a good thing. Clip this onto your clothes and it will track your steps, active time, idle time and, if worn in a wrist strap over night, your sleep movements. The interface of a clicky button and flashing lights can be more useful than you'd imagine whether checking progress towards a goal or telling the time. However, in our time with the $50 tracker, the feature we were most impressed with was its companion app which presents information clearly and gives actionable advice thanks to a Smart Coach feature.
Misfit Shine 2
This slimline aluminum puck can be worn in a traditional watch wrist-strap, clipped onto clothing, or in one of the available necklace mounts, and is one of the most stylish trackers available. A ring of 12 LEDs is used for activity feedback, notifications of incoming texts or calls, or to tell the time, and the Shine 2 also has a vibration alarm. Another trick of the $100 waterproof tracker, in addition to good activity tracking, is the ability to use it to control other devices for things like wirelessly taking a selfie with your phone via a tap of the capacitive touch sensor.
Not just an activity tracker, the Moov Now is also a coach which will push you to make the most of your workouts. In activity tracking duty the Moov Now will monitor your active minutes rather than steps or distance. However, Moov Now really shines when using its omni motion 3D sensor to coach your form and count reps as you work out. Strap it to your wrist or ankle depending on whether you are running, cycling, or boxing, and vocal coaching can be heard through the companion iOS and Android apps. The waterproof $80 tracker also boasts a six month battery life.
The first of our selection of fitness trackers to boast GPS tracking, the Garmin Vivoactive is also the most smartwatch-like. A touchscreen face lets users pick specific activities (run, walk, bike, swim, golf) to track, or log their progress towards a daily step, distance or calorie goal. It's also used for displaying smart notifications (which ping up speedily), or controlling music playback on your phone or a wirelessly connected Virb action camera. Connect IQ lets you customize the look of the watch and download apps for things like logging where you've parked your car, or keeping tennis scores. A fully charged battery will give you around four days' use of the waterproof tracker, though using GPS will severely reduce this. While it lacks built-in heart-rate monitoring, the $200 Vivoactive can be used with external ones.
Heart-rate tracking is the headline attraction of the Mio Fuse, this means that in addition to the usual activity and fitness tracking, the Fuse can tell how hard you are pushing yourself. Because this is built into the wrist wearable, there's no need for a chest strap to ensure you are working out in the right heart-rate zone, you can see it by glancing down at the LED display. The companion app is not the strongest of the bunch, but Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity means it can connect with dozens of fitness apps and other devices. The silicone strap is comfortable but the bulky and sports-centric look probably mean this $150 tracker isn't one to wear to the office.
Fitbit Charge HR
This is one of the most popular fitness trackers on the market, and with good reason. The Charge HR uses the same great app as other Fitbit trackers and adds heart-rate tracking into the mix to give a better picture of your activity. When we reviewed the Charge HR earlier this year, we were impressed by how small the device feels compared to most others with built-in heart-rate monitoring. We also felt that it was one of the few trackers at the time styled to fit in whether you were working out at the gym or going to the office. Nice features of the $100 wrist-wearable include the ability to view tracked data (or the time) on its OLED screen and the option of sleep tracking in addition to logging steps, distance, floors climbed, and active minutes.
The A360 is one of the latest fitness trackers from Polar, a firm which has the pedigree of launching the world's first wearable wireless heart monitor back in 1982. The A360 incorporates wrist-based heart rate monitoring along with 24/7 fitness tracking and smartwatch-like notifications, all of which can be seen on a nice color touchscreen display. In addition to the usual tracking, the A360 can be used with Polar's Smart Coaching to assess your fitness and training, and will vibrate to let you know if you are being inactive. The waterproof device costs $200 and is said to last for up to two weeks on a full charge.
Microsoft Band 2
Continuous heart rate monitoring and GPS, along with the activity tracking of steps, calories burned and sleep quality give the Microsoft Band 2 an impressive array of fitness credentials. However, its abilities go way beyond that with specific workout and monitoring tools for sports including running, biking and golf. A bright full-color curved touchscreen also gives access to email, texts, and calendar notifications, and the $250 Band 2 works with Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone. If using Windows Phone, you can also use the built-in microphone to speak to Cortana.
TomTom Spark (Cardio + Music)
The TomTom Spark (Cardio and Music) offers more functions than most of the other trackers here. In addition to solid all-day activity tracking, there's also heart-rate monitoring, GPS for logging where you have been running or cycling with greater accuracy, and built-in storage for music. This can then be listened to as you work out via Bluetooth headphones, and might mean you can leave your phone, or MP3 player, if you still use one, at home. Waterproofing also means you don't have to take it off when showering or doing the washing up, which in our experience means not having the opportunity to forget to put it back on. The TomTom Spark (Cardio + Music) retails for $250 and its companion MySports apps now make it easy to review your activity.
The Fitbit Surge takes what's good about the Charge HR and adds features including GPS tracking, the ability to see detailed smart notifications and increased battery life of up to a week. Given this is all on top of some of the best general activity tracking and heart-rate monitoring, it should make it a no-brainer. However, to fit all of this in means the device is significant bigger and less stylish than its stable-mate. The screen also moves from an OLED to a monochrome LCD touchscreen. The $250 tracker uses the same great companion apps as other Fitbit trackers.
The sensor-packed Basis Peak offers some of the best tracking available at the moment, monitoring heart rate, steps, calories burned, sweat levels, skin temperature and sleep quality. GPS is the only big metric missing. When we reviewed the bulky but stylish tracker earlier this year, we were disappointed by the lack of ability to time workouts with a stopwatch, mediocre compatibility with other apps, and the sluggish delivery of smart notifications from your phone to your wrist. However, we're glad to say it looks like Basis was listening, as it's since addressed these issues with firmware updates, making the $200 Peak a tracker to be reckoned with.
As you can see, despite the impending threat of smartwatches, there is a growing number of fitness and activity trackers vying for that spot on your wrist (or wanting to be clipped onto your trousers). Hopefully this guide has helped you decide which features are going to be important for you, whether that's what you want to track, where you want to wear a tracker, and importantly, what you intend to do with the information.
If you're not sure whether you'll get much use out of a fitness tracker, the less expensive models (or indeed apps on your phone) can be a great option. You can suss out if you'll continue looking at your data after the first week, how you intend to use the information to change your behavior, and whether you need a certain style of tracker enough to justify the cost. We find that getting competitive with friends can be a great motivator to rack up a few extra steps, or remember to put your tracker on in a morning.
For some, advanced features such as heart-rate tracking are going to be a must, though for others it could be seen as a quick way of draining your battery. The same goes for GPS tracking: if you mostly work out at the gym, it's probably not going to be worth the extra cost.
Whichever tracker you opt for, we hope it helps you achieve your fitness goals, whether you are training to run a marathon, or just being reminded to get up and move during Netflix binges.