Do you want a simple band that counts steps, or a tiny smartphone for your wrist? The difference between a fitness tracker and a smartwatch is how much they can do.
Fitness trackers count steps and track your heart rate, but often can’t do much more. This allows their batteries to last for multiple days.
Smartwatches are more versatile. As well as fitness tracking, they usually run apps and have nifty features like contactless payment. Some smartwatches require a phone to connect to, while others can work independently.
Even a high-end smartwatch is primarily a fitness device at its core. You can track steps, altitude, heart rate and calories to set personal fitness or weight-loss goals based on your height, weight and other biometric data.
The step counter takes your height and pace length into account, for increased accuracy.
A distance tracker either estimates based on number of steps, or by using GPS (which is more accurate).
The calorie counter converts the number of steps and heart rate data (if available) into calories burned.
Sleep trackers claim to measure sleep quality by tracking how restless you are while asleep. This is still developing technology, so don’t expect medical-grade accuracy.
Before you fork out for a watch that needs regular charging and software updates, think about all the ways you might use it. Here are some features to look for that you may not have considered:
Navigation: When walking, the watch vibrates to indicate when to turn – one buzz for right, and two for left. There’s no need to use a map on your phone.
Music streaming apps: Control what Spotify plays on your TV or stereo by using your watch as a remote.
Voice assistant: When baking, use the voice-controlled smart assistant to set timers and convert measurements without getting the screen covered in flour.
Tap-to-pay: Wave your watch in front of an eftpos terminal to make a transaction on the fly.
Make sure your watch will integrate with your phone. There are two main operating systems for smartwatches: Apple’s watchOS and Google’s Wear OS. Other watches have their own custom operating systems, such as Samsung’s Tizen.
Fitbit worst for reliability
Wearable tech physically wears out and falls apart. Construction is the most common cause of failure across all brands – accounting for 49% of faults, with 80% of those deemed major.
Fitbit dominates the market, contributing half of the wearables in our 2019 survey. Yet the brand stands out for all the wrong reasons: reliability and satisfaction numbers are rock bottom.
Nearly a third (30%) of Fitbit products were reported as faulty, and a measly 42% of owners were very satisfied. Of faulty Fitbits, 57% (which was 18% of all Fitbits in our survey) suffered from a physical construction problem, such as a broken strap. Four in every five of those faults were major, leaving the fitness tracker unusable.
For more on wearables reliability, see our survey.
Since wearable devices go everywhere with you, it’s important they can withstand the elements. Ingress Protection (IP) ratings indicate how resistant a device is to solids, such as dust, and water.
IP ratings have two numbers. The first relates to solids 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.
IP55 – Protected from most dust and low-pressure sprayed water
IP67 – Dustproof and resistant to water up to a metre deep
IPX7 – Hasn’t been tested on dust, but is resistant to water up to a metre deep.
Most smartwatches can manage a couple of days of full functionality before needing to recharge, while basic fitness trackers last longer. Our test measures the time it takes for a device’s battery 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 on can halve a device’s battery life.
Chargers tend to be manufacturer-specific, so you’re unlikely to be able to borrow a friend’s if you forget yours or it breaks.
Data collection and privacy
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. There are also questions about how long your information is stored. For more, see our article about online privacy.
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