What the best fitness tracker has

  • 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.
  • Counts stairs. 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 alarm. 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 connection. The best activity trackers use Bluetooth to sync wirelessly with a computer or smartphone. Users don't have to remove the tracker to upload data, and data can be viewed in real time with the fitness app.
  • 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.
  • One-year warranty and money-back guarantee. 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 a good fit. Most include a one-year limited warranty. Experts say the life span of a 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. 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. 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, 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 sync with your device (whether a PC, Mac or smartphone) and will it work with your preferred fitness app? Some trackers only work with specific mobile phones, while others are designed solely for syncing with desktop computers.

What's to come

Fitness trackers are increasing in popularity, partially because some individuals are delving deeper into their health stats, but mostly because these devices are becoming easier to use. With Bluetooth connectivity and a smartphone, users can instantly see their data on a colorful graph. The apps market is also expanding, with more in-depth stats and health-marker monitoring available either free or for a very low cost.

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