Does wearable tech measure up to its own hype? We've assessed smartwatches, fitness trackers and fitness watches on their functions, ease of use, battery life and more.
Smartwatches and fitness trackers are everywhere. From simple wristbands collecting step-counts, to technology-filled timepieces that connect to the internet, it seems every company is entering the wearable market.
What’s the difference between a smartwatch, a fitness watch, and a fitness tracker? It’s what they can do.
Most fitness trackers count steps and track your heart rate, but can’t do much more. Because of this, their battery can last multiple days.
A smartwatch can do all of that tracking, but is more versatile as it has apps and features (for example, you can use it to make contactless payments or play games). Some smartwatches require a phone to connect to, others can work independently (sometimes known as fitness watches).
Fitness tracking is still the main use for these devices, even the high-end smartwatches. You can track steps, altitude, calories and heart rate. When used with a website or app, this information can be paired with a food diary and biometric data (weight, height, etc) to set personal fitness and weight loss goals.
Battery life is possibly the most important feature of wearable tech. In our test we measure the time it takes for a device to go from 100% to 0%.
It’s important to note that battery life changes significantly depending on the functions you use. For example, having GPS turned on can more than halve a device’s battery life. So depending on your day-to-day use, you may need to charge it every night.
Charging is an issue for smartwatches, with most lasting a day or two of full functionality before needing a recharge. Chargers also tend to be bespoke, so if you forget your charger on a trip, your smartwatch becomes nothing more than an expensive bracelet.
Also make sure it integrates with your phone. Our ease of use scores include set-up, which can be laborious for some of these devices. And remember, the operating systems are still being developed and all of them have drawbacks.
For smartwatches, there are two main operating systems (OS) in the market: Watch OS and Android Wear. Watches not using these systems have their own bespoke OS – such as Samsung’s Tizen system – which can require the matching app on your phone.
Wearable device go everywhere with you, so it’s important they can withstand the elements. Ingress Protection (IP) ratings indicate how resistant a device is to water and solids (dust/dirt).
IP ratings have two numbers. The first relates to solids, such as dust, and has a maximum rating of 6. The second relates to water and goes as high as 8. An X rating means it hasn’t been assessed for that type of protection.
79% of Apple owners were very satisfied and 83% would buy the brand again. Just 54% thought the product was excellent value for money though.
Fitbit recorded the worst reliability for wearables, the only brand below average with more than a quarter (27%) of products needing repair or replacement. As a result, we no longer recommend any Fitbits.
Total number surveyed: 1280
For more on wearables reliability, see our survey.
Why pay hundreds of dollars for a watch that requires daily charging, software updates, and might be obsolete in a few years? As with any tech purchase, you need to think about how you would use it.
Wearables devices can be life-altering. A heart rate tracker in a smartwatch can be an invaluable tool for those with health issues, especially as it can warn them if their heart rate suddenly rises and, if necessary, let them quickly contact emergency services.
The basic functionality of most smartwatches makes them useful in a variety of situations.
Whichever fitness device you choose for your wrist there’s a good chance it’ll tell you to aim for 10,000 steps a day.
Much like the “seven glasses of water a day” rule, this is a guesstimate and not based on any hard science. In America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes of “moderate activity” per week, roughly 7000-8000 steps per day.
This is not to say that aiming for 10,000 steps is a bad idea, but one that you should work towards, especially if you’re just starting out. For many people trying to get back into exercise, attempting to increase their step count 1000 steps a day until they reach 10,000 is much more reasonable.
Also remember that the tracker is on your wrist, not your ankle, so hand movements can register as steps.
You aren’t the only one interested in what your device collects and shares. Collecting your data is big business, but companies aren’t always clear about what they’re doing with your information.
Dr Erika Pearson, a senior lecturer from the Communications, Journalism and Marketing school at Massey University, researches this kind of personal surveillance.
“The consent you give to these companies is binary: you’re either all in or you’re completely out. There’s no negotiation.”
All these sensors collect lots of data about you, and everywhere you go is mapped out. While this information is technically anonymous, a 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) study of 1.5 million users’ walking data found it only takes four points of data (time and location) to identify an individual walking through a city.
There’s also the issue of how long your information is stored.
“You may think that ‘this company is trustworthy and so I’ll give them my data’,” Pearson says. “But what happens when that company gets bought by someone else? The new company will have all your data, but what will it use your data for, and can you opt out of that new use?”
Insurance companies are interested in fitness trackers as the data they collect are useful for setting and adjusting premiums. However, these benefits can often be as little as $100 cash back and a $50 gym voucher per year, if you reach arbitrary fitness goals and scan in grocery receipts at partner companies.
“Your data is worth more than that,” Erika says. This isn’t simple information, and could just as easily be used against you as much as it could for you.