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The fitness tracker isn’t dead, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the people keeping these little devices alive. Smartwatches have all but taken over the mainstream wearable space, but the humble fitness tracker remains an option for those who want a gadget to do one thing right all the time. Despite the headwinds, there are still a bunch of fitness bands out there to choose from. Engadget has tested many of them and picked out the best for most people.
What do fitness trackers do best?
The answer seems simple: Fitness trackers are best at monitoring exercise, be it a 10-minute walk around the block or that half marathon you’ve been diligently training for. Obviously, smartwatches can do that too, but there are some areas where fitness bands have the upper hand: focus, design, battery life and price.
When I say “focus,” I’m alluding to the fact that fitness trackers are made to track activity well; anything else is extra. They often don’t have the bells and whistles that smartwatches do, which could distract from their activity-tracking abilities. They also tend to have fewer sensors and internal components, which keeps them smaller and lighter. Fitness trackers are also a better option for those who just want a less conspicuous device on their wrists all day.
Battery life tends to be better on fitness trackers, too. While most smartwatches last one to two days on a single charge, fitness bands will last five days to one week — and that’s with all-day and all-night use.
When it comes to price, there’s no competition. Most worthwhile smartwatches start at $175 to $200, but you can get a solid fitness tracker starting at $70. Yes, more expensive bands exist (and we recommend a few here), but you’ll find more options under $150 in the fitness tracker space than in the smartwatch space.
When to get a smartwatch instead
If you need a bit more from your wearable, you’ll likely want a smartwatch instead. There are things like on-watch apps, alerts and even more robust fitness features that smartwatches have and fitness trackers don’t. You can use one to control smart home appliances, set timers and reminders, check weather reports and more. Some smartwatches let you choose which apps you want to receive alerts from, and the options go beyond just call and text notifications.
But the extra fitness features are arguably the most important thing to think about when deciding between a fitness tracker and a smartwatch. The latter devices tend to be larger, giving them more space for things like GPS, barometers, onboard music storage and more. While you can find built-in GPS on select fitness trackers, it’s not common.
Best overall: Fitbit Charge 5
Fitbit's Charge 5 has everything most people would want in a fitness tracker. First and foremost, it's not a smartwatch. That means it has a slightly lower profile on the wrist and lasts days on a single charge while tracking activity and sleep. It also has a full-color AMOLED display — a big improvement from the smaller, grayscale screen on the previous Charge 4. That display, along with a thinner design, make Charge 5 feel more premium than its predecessor.
The Charge 5 has EDA sensors for stress tracking and it will eventually support ECG measurements and Daily Readiness Scores (the latter is for only for Premium subscribers). Those are on top of existing features that were carried over from the Charge 4 — most notably, Fitbit Pay support and built-in GPS. The former lets you pay for coffee or groceries with a swipe of your wrist, while the latter helps map outdoor runs, bike rides and other activities. Built-in GPS remains the star of the show here — it's fast and accurate, making the Charge 5 the best option if you want a do-it-all wearable that’s focused on fitness.
Runner up: Garmin Vivosmart 5
A more subtle-looking alternative is the $150 Garmin Vivosmart 5. It’s thinner than the Charge 5 and fits in a bit better with bracelets and other jewelry you might wear regularly. But its attractive design is only part of its appeal — Garmin knows how to track fitness, and the Vivosmart 5 is proof that you don’t need to drop hundreds on one of the company’s fitness watches to get a capable device.
It has a lot of the same features as the Charge 5, except for a built-in GPS. It does support connected GPS, though, so you can map outdoor runs and bike rides as long as you bring your phone with you. The Vivosmart 5 tracks all-day heart rate and activity, plus sleep and workouts, and we’ve always appreciated how many workout profiles Garmin has to choose from. You can customize which show up on your device and change them whenever you want. You’ll also get additional health information like Garmin’s Body Battery score, which tells you how long after a hard workout you’ll need to wait until you can train at peak performance again, pulse ox measurements, sleep stage data, women’s health monitoring and more.
The biggest disadvantages to the Vivosmart 5 are the aforementioned lack of built-in GPS, plus its slightly harder to use mobile app. But on the flip side, Garmin devices can sync with Apple Health, whereas Fitbit devices still don’t have that feature.
Best budget: Fitbit Inspire 3
If you only have $100 to spare, the Fitbit Inspire 3 is the best option. It strips out all the luxury features from the Charge 5 and keeps only the essentials. You won’t get built-in GPS or Fitbit Pay or Spotify control but you do get excellent activity tracking, automatic workout detection, smartphone alerts and plenty more. The updated version has a sleeker design and includes a color touchscreen and connected GPS, the latter of which lets you track pace and distance while you run or bike outside while you have your phone with you.
The Inspire 3 is definitely the more fashionable out of the two Fitbit devices on this list. Its interchangeable bands let you switch up the look and feel of your tracker whenever you want, and it’s slim enough to blend in with other jewelry you might be wearing. We were also impressed by its battery life: Fitbit promises up to 10 days on a single charge, and that checked out for us. After four days of round-the-clock use, the Inspire 3 still had 66 percent battery left to go.
Most fashionable: Withings Move
All of the previously mentioned fitness trackers are attractive in their own way (bonus points to those that have interchangeable bands), but they share a similar look. There aren’t many alternative designs for these devices anymore. The $90 Withings Move watch is an exception, and one of the most traditionally fashionable fitness trackers you can get. It’s an analog watch with a couple of health monitoring features including step, calorie, distance and sleep tracking, connected GPS, auto-recognition for more than 30 workouts and a water-resistant design. But we really love it for its button-cell battery, which can last up to 18 months before needing a replacement.