Long hours spent sitting at a desk can make getting enough exercise challenging. Enter the fitness tracker: a small wearable device that records every movement -- and can even remind you to walk around after you've been sitting too long. While these devices count steps and tally distances, many also track other activities such as bicycling, climbing stairs or swimming. Many even estimate how many calories you've burned, take your heart rate and record how long -- and how well -- you sleep. A key feature of fitness trackers is that they can upload this data to your computer, tablet or smartphone, where you can see your overall activity and chart progress toward fitness goals.
Smart watches have many of the same abilities, but there are some differences. They're a little more design-forward with customizable bands and displays, whereas many fitness trackers are more utilitarian -- think smaller (or nonexistent) displays and sweat-proof rubber wristbands. Second, smart watches trade some fitness-specific features for those that focus on general productivity -- for instance, the ability to download third-party apps, read texts and emails, check the weather and even pay for your lunch. Finally, smart watches are much pricier, ranging from roughly $100 to $1,000, compared to around $25 to $250 for fitness trackers.
Whether you want a fitness tracker or a smart watch, consider the type of activity you commonly do, what data you want to track and whether the tracker or watch is compatible with your computer or smartphone. Don't forget to think about comfort and design, since both devices are intended for near-constant wear. And if you're looking for other equipment to help you lead a more healthful lifestyle, be sure to check out our reports on heart rate monitors and treadmills, as well as our report on running shoes.
Whether you want to casually count your steps or track intense workouts with in-depth data, there's a fitness tracker that can do it. Some clip on to your clothes; others are wristbands. Nearly all are sweat-proof and sync with your phone to let you see your activity levels, adjust your goals and even compete against friends. A few high-end trackers even include limited smart-watch functions such as text and email notifications.
Fitbit, one of the top names in fitness trackers, consistently lands at or near the top of most expert roundups. Among its trackers, the Fitbit One (Est. $80) receives the best feedback from users, who praise its accuracy and user-friendly design. The One is a small clip-on capsule with an OLED display that provides instant feedback on your daily step count, calories burned and overall activity level. While most users like being able to discreetly attach the One to a belt or bra, some warn that it's easier to lose or send through the washer than a wrist-based tracker. However, most say that it's very water-resistant and suffered no ill-effects from going through the laundry cycle. Still, some say it doesn't survive its watery adventure. The One is also sweat-resistant, but you can't swim with it.
The Fitbit One can track walking, running and stairs climbed. The extensive website and app support allow you to input other activities as well -- virtually any active moment can be charted, users say. Accuracy gets good feedback, especially since the unit doesn't depend on arm movement to record steps. To track the quality of your sleep, you can slip the One into an included wristband; there's also a vibrating alarm to wake you discreetly without disturbing your partner. The One's sleep tracking isn't as highly rated as with some other trackers, but users love it, with many saying they've learned more about their sleep patterns from the One than from professional sleep studies.
Where Fitbit really shines is its thorough, easy-to-use app. Fitbit trackers sync via Bluetooth to your smartphone, or to your computer using a wireless dongle. Stats update continuously and automatically, so you don't have to think about the process. The One is also compatible with the Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale (Est. $110) (which we review in our separate report on bathroom scales), and linking a Fitbit with the scale offers an extra tool for managing weight loss. Fitbit trackers are also compatible with free fitness apps such as MyFitnessPal, SparkPeople and MapMyFitness, to name just a few. Battery life is an impressive 10 to 14 days, and charging takes about an hour with the included USB charging cable.
If you would prefer a wrist-based Fitbit, be sure to look at two of the company's more recent trackers, the Fitbit Charge HR (Est. $130) and the Fitbit Blaze (Est. $180). Both add a few more features over the One, including heart-rate tracking, automatic exercise recognition and caller ID when paired with your phone. The Blaze also provides text notifications and music control. Both trackers get good expert feedback, but users seem more pleased with the accuracy, simplicity and value of the Fitbit One.
While Fitbits dominate the fitness tracker market, they aren't the only game in town. The Garmin Vivosmart HR (Est. $145) is a well-regarded wrist-based tracker that adds several features the Fitbit One lacks, including heart-rate tracking and smartphone notifications. Users appreciate the watch-buckle clasp that keeps the tracker from slipping off, and they say it's lightweight enough to forget you're even wearing it. Anyone concerned about design may find the band a bit bulky and utilitarian, however. As Wareable.com's James Stables notes, the look "is not exactly couture."
The Vivosmart HR tracks steps, distance, calories, floors climbed, exercise intensity and sleep. Runners or anyone else who wants built-in GPS will need to upgrade to the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ (Est. $220). Brian Eastwood of TomsGuide.com says the Vivosmart HR is "surprisingly accurate" as a pedometer, though some other activities such as tooth-brushing may register as steps. Feedback is more mixed for heart-rate monitoring, with some reviewers saying readings are inaccurate during more intense activity. (To be fair, this is a criticism levied at most wrist-based monitors.) Sleep tracking gets mostly good feedback, but some users are disappointed that there's little detail beyond whether you're in light or deep sleep.
The Vivosmart HR offers a few more perks that set it apart from the Fitbit One and the similar Fitbit Charge HR: Smartphone notifications beyond caller ID, including text, email and calendar alerts; music playback control; and 5 ATM water resistance, meaning you can swim with it. Battery life is about five days. Unfortunately, experts say the Garmin Connect app simply isn't as easy to use as the Fitbit app. Amy Roberts with TheSweethome.com calls it "overly complicated," requiring users to swipe between too many screens to see vital data. She also notes that Fitbit's app does a better job of connecting casual exercises than Garmin, which may be a consideration for anyone who wants a lot of virtual motivation from friends.
Inexpensive fitness trackers share the rugged design of their pricier counterparts, and most still record essential data such as steps, calories and distance. Where they differ is features: Cheaper models omit heart-rate monitors; large, vivid displays; and exercise-specific modes that allow more detailed tracking. Fortunately, their simpler design often means better battery life.
If you want a cheap fitness tracker that still offers a good range of features, reviewers say the Garmin Vivofit (Est. $50) is among your top choices. This wrist-based unit won't win beauty contests, and the plastic "kind of reminds us of the kind used on cheap ‘80s sports watches," says James Trew of Engadget.com. The Vivofit relies on pegs that pop through corresponding holes rather than a watch-like clasp, and reviewers say it doesn't always stay on.
The Vivofit fares better when it comes to tracking. You'll be able to track steps, calories, distance, and sleep; the Vivofit can also be paired with a chest-strap heart-rate monitor. Trew says it's particularly good for tracking accurate distances, and most users say they're happy with step-count accuracy, though there are the usual qualms about arm movements registering as steps. Most users like the sleep mode, though they wish it were automatic -- they have to tell the Vivofit when they're going to bed and when they wake up.
Battery life is one of the Vivofit's strong suits. Its two replaceable coin-style batteries last for up to a year. Owners also like the one-button controls, and the fact that the Vivofit is water-resistant enough to swim or shower with, but they wish the display had a backlight. The Vivofit's corresponding Garmin Connect app gets mixed reviews, especially compared to the Fitbit app, but most users say they find it easy enough to navigate.
If you prefer a smaller, simpler fitness tracker that can be worn anywhere on the body, the Fitbit Zip (Est. $50) is a longtime favorite. This tiny tracker comes with a silicone sleeve that users can clip on anywhere, including on waistbands or bras. Because it's easy to keep out of sight, design is less of a consideration here -- just be sure not to lose it or wash it, which is the main concern with clip-on trackers.
The Zip tracks steps, distance, calories and active minutes. Unlike the Garmin Vivofit, it does not track sleep. Its step-counting feature fares well in experts' accuracy tests, and users seem mostly satisfied as well. Anecdotally, experts say clip-on trackers may be more accurate than wrist-based trackers because they aren't solely relying on arm movements to track steps. That may mean a tracker like the Zip (or its more expensive counterpart, the Fitbit One) is a better choice for parents pushing strollers, shoppers with carts or anyone who may not be able to fully swing their arms while walking.
The Zip's replaceable coin-style battery lasts for up to 6 months. Users like the LCD display, which they simply tap to cycle through time, steps, distance and calories burned, but there is no backlight. The Zip is sweat-proof, but unlike the Vivofit, it is not waterproof and cannot be worn while swimming. Fitbit's app gets perennially strong reviews for ease of use and its large base of active users, who can motivate one another with a range of challenges.
Anyone who simply wants to track steps without worrying about syncing data to their phones will get by just fine with a traditional pedometer. Reviewers say the Omron HJ-325 Alvita Ultimate Pedometer (Est. $22) is one of the best, reliably counting steps without other unneeded features. Like most traditional pedometers, the HJ-325 does not connect wirelessly to smartphones or computers. Several reviewers actually prefer this, saying they like the simplicity of keeping things separate. The device can be clipped on your pocket or looped around the wrist with an included lanyard, and reviewers say it's small enough to be unobtrusive no matter how it's worn.
The HJ-325 tracks steps, distance and calories burned. Most reviewers are pleased with accuracy, though some say it's not as reliable as its predecessor, the still-available but much pricier Omron HJ-112 Digital Pocket Pedometer (Est. $80). The HJ-325 easy to use, most owners say, with large buttons, a clear display and a counter that resets automatically at midnight. It has a seven-day memory. The battery compartment can be unlocked without any tools, and users are happy with battery life, which the manufacturer says should be at least six months.
Smart watches are for casual exercises who want their wearable tech to do a little more multitasking and a little less fitness tracking. That means you'll get things like notifications when you get a new email, call or text; access to specially designed smart-watch apps that are streamlined versions of the ones you use on your phone; and sleeker, more customizable designs. On the flip side, you'll give up more detailed fitness data and the longer battery life that dedicated fitness trackers boast.
Like all smart watches, the Apple Watch Sport (Est. $350) is more than a fitness tracker -- paired with your iPhone, you can answer calls, receive text and email notifications, and even pay for your lunch with it -- but reviewers say it's also a good choice for any Apple enthusiast who leads an active lifestyle. It's easier on the eyes than most fitness trackers, with a sleek, round-edged anodized aluminum case available in four finishes. Buyers can also choose from two watch-face sizes, two band materials and more than a dozen band colors.
The Apple Watch activity app prods users to meet three main goals: Stand more, move more, and exercise more. It also tracks steps, distance and calories. A separate workout app tracks data, including heart rate while users are running, biking, walking, rowing and doing other specific activities, but some reviewers complain the information they get simply isn't detailed enough. For that reason, some use third-party fitness apps made for Apple Watch such as MapMyRun -- doing so, however, requires users to carry their iPhone. Sleep tracking is not built in, but third-party apps can do that, too.
One of reviewers' major complaints about the Apple Watch is battery life. It has to be recharged nightly, and the charger is different from the one used for iPhones and iPads. The vibrant retina display gets much better feedback, and most users say the touch screen is intuitive and responsive. Like Fitbits, the Apple Watch is sweat-resistant but not waterproof, so it's not for the dedicated swimmer.
If you don't have an iPhone, don't despair: the Motorola Moto 360 2 (Est. $300) is a capable smart watch for active users that's compatible with Androids. It also has a full range of non-fitness features, including text and email notifications, and is compatible with Google Play apps including Amazon and Spotify. Motorola's online Moto Maker makes the watch almost endlessly customizable, and the classic styling may appeal to those who want a smart watch that actually looks like a watch.
The Moto 360's built-in fitness app, Moto Body, tracks steps, distance and calories. Like the Apple Watch, it can remind users to get moving and has a built-in heart-rate monitor, and a separate Moto Running app focuses on running stats. Also like the Apple Watch, there is no built-in GPS, but anyone who wants that feature can opt for the Moto 360 Sport (Est. $200), which comes with a silicone band and a non-LCD display. Still, reviewers caution that neither model is ideal for swimming, cycling or other non-steps-based activities.
Battery life on the Moto 360 is slightly better than the Apple Watch at up to a day and a half, but it still lags far behind most fitness trackers. Reviewers say the backlit LCD display is colorful and vibrant, but some complain that the display isn't a full circle and has a "flat tire" effect at the bottom. The touchscreen gets good marks for ease of use and responsiveness. Like the Apple Watch, the Moto 360 is sweat-resistant but not waterproof.
Smart watches usually aren't as easy on the budget as fitness trackers, but the Pebble Time (Est. $100) bucks that trend. Compatible with both iPhones and Androids, it offers the usual text and email alerts, a calendar timeline, and the ability to add Pebble apps that let you order a pizza or call an Uber, among other things. It has a steel bezel, plastic body and a silicone band that is available in black, white, and red; the upgraded Pebble Time Steel (Est. $179) has a steel body and a leather strap.
Pebble Time's Pebble Health app tracks steps, distance, active minutes and sleep, and it automatically adjusts goals based on your previous activity. It also imports that data into Apple Health or Google Fit if you want to view it on your phone. Accuracy impresses Wareable.com's Sophie Charara, but she warns this isn't a device for in-depth workout tracking. One reason is that the Time lacks a heart-rate monitor, though this feature is slated for the next version of the watch. Pebble is compatible with third-party fitness apps such as RunKeeper, Jawbone UP or Misfit, but the selection isn't as extensive as it is for the Apple Watch or Moto 360.
While the battery on a typical smart watch won't last much more than a day, the Pebble Time's lasts up to a week, besting even some popular fitness trackers like the Garmin Vivofit HR. It's also water-resistant up to 30 meters compared with the merely sweat-resistant Apple Watch and Moto 360, so you can swim or shower with it. Users like that the color e-paper display is always on and easy to see in direct sunlight, but note that it's not as detailed or vivid as an LCD screen. The Time also lacks touchscreen controls, but many owners say its buttons are easier to use, especially on a device with a small display.
There is no shortage of expert opinions on fitness trackers and smart watches. The best, from sources including ConsumerReports.com, TheSweethome.com, OutdoorGearLab.com, methodically test each device using the same methods and give head-to-head comparisons. Also helpful are in-depth roundups and reviews from tech-savvy sources including CNET.com, Wareable.com, TomsGuide.com, Techlicious.com, Gizmodo.com, Engadget.com, AndroidCentral.com and TechRadar.com. We also examined user reviews from sources including Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and DicksSportingGoods.com for a fuller picture of real-world use.