What the best fitness tracker has

  • Accurate monitoring. We read many complaints about fitness trackers that say you're moving when you're asleep, think you're sleeping when you're awake, or only count some of your steps. The best activity trackers get good reviews for accuracy, and have been tested against other models and found to be consistent.
  • A built-in screen. Most fitness trackers have some sort of display, but the best models sport an easy-read screen. Some merely use a series of lights to let you know your progress; others give you more specific, detailed information.
  • Stair counting ability. Climbing stairs isn't the same as walking on flat ground, and some trackers don't count that as high-intensity exercise. A tracker with an altimeter will give you a more accurate picture of calories burned and energy expended.
  • Vibrating alarms. Fitness trackers with a built-in vibrating motor can wake you up in the morning without disturbing your partner and provide gentle reminders to stay active throughout the day.
  • Bluetooth connectivity. The best activity trackers use Bluetooth to sync wirelessly with a computer or smartphone. Users don't have to remove the tracker or sync it to upload data, and data can be viewed in real time with the fitness app.
  • An intuitive fitness app. Fitness trackers capture your health information, but the accompanying fitness app is how you access it. A well-designed fitness app or web account graphs your stats clearly, provides information to help you better understand them and prompts you to set health and activity goals. The best trackers include access to a free account with the device.
  • A good warranty -- and a reasonable trial period. The best activity trackers include a trial period of up to 60 days, giving you the chance to test the device and see if it's right for you. Most include a one-year limited warranty. Experts say the life span of a fitness tracker is about two to three years.

Know before you go

How do you want to wear your activity tracker? This is an important consideration because a tracker only works if you wear it. Users have three main options to carry their fitness tracker: around the wrist, strapped on the arm or clipped to clothing. Each has advantages and disadvantages. A wristband-style tracker can be worn constantly, and you don't have to change it for sleeping. A clip-on style is less conspicuous, but it's easier to forget it, to neglect to switch it over to sleep-tracking mode -- or to accidentally run it through the wash. Armband-style trackers may not be comfortable enough, or inconspicuous enough, to wear continually. Wristband-style trackers also come in bracelet or watch styles. Bracelets are looser, while the watch style fits more tightly, like a traditional wristwatch.

What information do you want to track automatically? Most trackers measure steps and sleep. Beyond that, some measure other activities as well, such as climbing stairs, bicycling or swimming. Some also give a more detailed snapshot of your sleep habits or track your heart rate, perspiration and other biometrics. In general, the more data collected, the higher the price of the tracker. Many fitness trackers allow you to account for the food and water you consume, or to chart activities that the tracker doesn't recognize, like bicycling, swimming or lifting weights, but this information has to be entered manually using a fitness app.

Is it compatible with your device? There are two key compatibility issues with a fitness tracker: Will it work with your device (whether a PC, Mac or smartphone) and will it work with your preferred fitness app? Most tracker apps are compatible with both iOS and Android, and some will work with Windows mobile devices, but some apps only work with later versions of iOS, or specific versions of Android. A few trackers require software that will only run on a desktop or laptop computer; some offer no support at all for those and require the use a smartphone (or tablet) to access your data. The best trackers are those that work with both your smartphone and your computer, so you can access your stats wherever you are and however you prefer.

Do you want instant feedback? Many trackers give you your activity updates via flashing lights or other non-specific displays; for details you have to check the app. Others have built-in screens that let you know exactly how many steps you've taken, how far you've traveled, and how many calories you've burned. Some even have a clock feature, so you don't need to also wear a wristwatch.

What's to come

Two of the most popular activity trackers in the expert reviews we evaluated are the Basis Peak and Garmin Vivosmart -- newly released smartwatch-style activity trackers. They not only measure biometrics, they have the capability (or will, eventually, via firmware updates) to receive notifications right on your wrist -- email, text messages and voice mail, and track your physical progress via GPS. These are not as popular with users, simply because all the bugs haven't been worked out, but the future of fitness trackers is definitely trending toward the smartwatch. Even Fitbit is set to release two smartwatch-style fitness bands soon, the Charge HR, (Est. $150), which will track heart rate and sync with your phone to offer caller ID, and the Surge (Est. $250), with GPS and notifications, as well as full activity tracking functionality.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Reviewed Fitness Trackers: Which are the best activity trackers? Editors identify top the top fitness trackers and suggest the best picks for your activities and lifestyle.

Best Fitness Trackers: These fitness trackers monitor your activities, steps, calorie expenditure and more. We recommend the best activity tracker for any lifestyle.

Heart/Sleep Monitoring Fitness Trackers: The hot trend in fitness trackers is the ability to monitor important body biometrics like heart rate, and to dig down into your sleep patterns. These trackers give you a detailed overview of your health markers.

Our Sources: We used these professional and user review sources to find the fitness trackers. They are ranked in order of their expertise and helpfulness.

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