Smartwatches and fitness trackers

Man wearing blue fitness tracker

Keep fit with the latest wearable tech.

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.

From our test

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Smartwatch, fitness watch, or fitness tracker?

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 the health tracking a fitness watch can, but is more versatile as it has apps and features (for example, you can use it to make contactless payments or play games).

A fitness watch is the middle ground: it can track specific exercises and often includes a full complement of available sensors, but doesn’t have much in the way of apps or other functions.

What to look for

What to look for in any wearable device is its battery life, what functions it has and how well they work. Our test has scores for functions as well as heart rate accuracy. We also tested battery life from 100% to 0%.

It’s important to note battery life changes significantly depending on the functions you use. For example, having GPS turned on can more than halve the battery life of a fitness watch. 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.

Fitness tracking features

Fitness tracking is still the main thing people use these devices for. 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.

  • The step counter will measure steps, though accuracy will vary depending on what you input as your height, weight and, in some cases, pace length.
  • A distance counter measures distance based on steps, although some fitness bands have a GPS function, which measures distance more accurately.
  • The calorie counter converts the number of steps and heart rate, if available, into calories burned.
  • A sleep tracker claims to measure sleep quality by tracking how restless you are while asleep. Virtually all of them require you to both wear the band and activate this feature prior to going to sleep.

IP ratings

If you plan on taking your devices out and about with you, 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.

Examples:

  • IP55 and IP65 – Protected from most dust and low-pressure sprayed water
  • IP67 – Dustproof and resistant to water up to a metre in depth
  • IPX7 – Hasn’t been tested on dust particles, but is resistant to water up to a metre in depth.

See here for more on IP ratings and the different levels of protection.

Why a smartwatch?

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.

  • Walking to a meeting in a new city. Put the destination in to your watch, start up some music and set out. The watch “taps” your wrist to indicate when you need to make a turn (a single tap for right and a double tap for left). There’s no need to look at a map on your phone. You can also control the music at the same time.

  • Speaking of music, if you’re playing Spotify, you can control it via your watch (depending on the model) no matter what device it’s playing on. So your watch can control music playing on your TV.

  • When using recipes that have American measurements, you no longer need to remember, for example, how big a “stick of butter” is. Instead, you ask your watch (using the voice-controlled assistant) to do the conversion. The voice feature is also good for set timers while cooking (another function a lot of people say they use their smartwatches for).

The tyranny of 10,000

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.

Reliability survey

Apple was streets ahead in wearables reliability, with just 3% of its products needing repair or replacement.

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.

  • Above-average: Apple, Samsung, Garmin
  • Average: TomTom
  • Below-average: Fitbit

Total number surveyed: 1280

For more on wearables reliability, see our survey.

Data collection

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.

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