Gears & Gadgets

Guidemaster: Fitness trackers to consider before buying a smartwatch

Fitbit's Inspire HR fitness tracker on a wrist.
Enlarge / A different band can change the entire look of the Inspire HR.
Valentina Palladino
Update: Our Fitness Tracker Guidemaster was originally published in January 2018, but we’ve been testing new devices to prepare for the beaches and pools of summer 2019. Our recommendations now include some of the best and newest devices available in 2019.

The smartwatch hasn’t swallowed up the fitness tracker yet. While many consumers are intrigued by the Apple Watch, Android Wear devices, and the like, old-school fitness trackers can still be useful and available for the right price. The main goal of these devices remains simply tracking activity: from daily movement to intense exercise to steps, heart rate, and sleep. Most of today’s fitness trackers haven’t changed much aesthetically, either. They’re still, by and large, wristbands.

Most modern fitness trackers are meant to be worn all day long. And many now have basic “smartwatch” features, so you don’t have to fully sacrifice if you’re primarily looking for a wearable to help you get in shape.

With so many devices sharing the same basic goals and set of features, it can be hard to decipher which tracker is right for you. But from our testing, there are some fitness trackers that stand out among the rest—some for their thoughtful applications, others for their versatility, and some for their focused approach to fitness training. So with spring on the horizon and 2018 resolutions still holding strong, we’ve looked back at the fitness trackers we’ve reviewed recently and selected the best ones for all kinds of users.

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Table of Contents

Best overall

Fitbit Inspire HR

Valentina Palladino
Specs at a glance: Fitbit Inspire HR
Price $ 99.95
Heart rate monitoring Yes, continuous
GPS Connected only
Water resistance Swimproof
Smartphone alerts Yes (call, text, and calendar)
Sizes One size (includes small and large bands)
Battery life  Five days

While we still have love for the Fitbit Alta HR, our previous favorite, the new Fitbit Inspire HR has replaced it in Fitbit’s lineup. Thankfully, it’s just as good as the Alta HR and comes in at just $ 99. Almost everything we loved about the Alta HR still stands in the Inspire HR—the tracker with interchangeable bands tracks all-day activity, sleep, continuous heart rate, and workouts including swimming.

Fitbit improved the workout-tracking experience in the Inspire HR by giving it a slightly larger touchscreen than the tap-only screen on the Alta HR. Combined with Fitbit’s refined fitness tracker OS, the Inspire HR feels a bit more smartwatch-like than the Alta HR ever did.

Not only can you pick and choose which exercise you want to track using the touchscreen, but you can also set timers and alarms and choose from a few different watch faces to personalize the device. The device can receive smartphone alerts as well. While the Inspire HR can’t do everything the Fitbit Versa or Versa Lite can do, Fitbit distilled some of the most important smartwatch features down so they could work properly and conveniently on the Inspire HR.

The Inspire HR also has Fitbit’s SmartTrack feature, which automatically tracks certain workouts after a period of time, and its connected GPS feature, which lets you use the band in tandem with your phone’s GPS to map outdoor runs and bike rides. The continuous optical heart rate monitor on the module’s underside not only measures your pulse during workouts, but it also keeps track of it at night and that data helps Fitbit’s software measure your time in various stages of sleep.

While the Alta HR lasted about seven days on a single charge, the Inspire HR lasts around five days. We wish the battery lives were comparable, but five days (with nighttime sleep tracking) is still stellar in comparison to most smartwatches. Fitbit’s software is also top-notch—not only are the Android and iOS mobile apps friendly and easy to use, but the company has added numerous new features over the past year or so including guided workouts with Fitbit Coach, menstrual health tracking, social exercise challenges, and more. We’re still waiting for Apple Health integration, but in the meantime, the $ 99 Inspire HR remains the best fitness tracker for most people.

The Good

  • Solid all-purpose fitness and health tracker at a great price.

The Bad

  • No altimeter for tracking floors climbed.

Runner up

Fitbit Charge 3

Valentina Palladino
Specs at a glance: Fitbit Charge 3
Price $ 149-$ 169
Heart rate monitoring Yes, continuous
GPS Connected only
Water resistance Up to 50 meters
Smartphone alerts Yes
Sizes One size (includes small and large bands)
Battery life  Seven days

The Fitbit Charge 3 has all of the features that the Inspire HR has, plus a few extras. It’s slightly wider than the Inspire HR, but that doesn’t make it hard to wear. It tracks all-day activity and sleep comfortably, and uses your input as well as Smart Track technology to record workouts.

In terms of activity, the Charge 3’s included altimeter is an important differentiator between it and the Inspire HR. An altimeter allows the Charge 3 to track floors climbed, so if you feel particularly accomplished when you take the stairs instead of the elevator and want your wearable to reflect that effort, the Charge 3 is the better device of the two.

Fitbit also included an SpO2 monitor in the Charge 3 which should track blood oxygen levels and allow Fitbit’s software to learn more about your sleeping habits (when Fitbit actually enables the sensor).

If you’re willing to pay a bit extra, you can get the Charge 3 Special Edition which includes NFC technology for Fitbit Pay. The company’s contactless payment system lets you hold your Charge 3 up to an NFC reader to pay for things like coffee, groceries, and the like. If you’re ever out on a run and forgot your wallet, you can still pay for things using Fitbit Pay.

Like the Inspire HR, the Charge 3 also has Fitbit’s connected GPS feature so you can map outdoor workouts if you have your phone with you. The gap between the Inspire HR and the Charge 3 isn’t a big one, but those that value battery life and want option to get NFC payment tech in their fitness tracker should opt for the Charge 3.

The Good

  • Good fitness tracker that tracks floors climbed and has a longer battery life than the Inspire HR.

The Bad

  • No on-device music controls.

Best for gym-goers

Garmin Vivosmart 4

Valentina Palladino
Specs at a glance: Garmin Vivosmart 4
Price $ 129.99
Heart rate monitoring Yes, continuous
GPS No
Water resistance Swim- and shower-resistant
Smartphone alerts Yes
Sizes Small/medium, large
Battery life  Five to seven days

Garmin packs a lot of features into its small and fairly affordable devices. The $ 129 Vivosmart 4 is one of the best examples of this, as it includes nearly all of the essential fitness tracker features in addition to rep counting and SpO2 monitoring.

Rep counting was first introduced in the Vivosmart 3, and it plus Garmin’s exercise recognition feature continue to improve with time. It’s fairly accurate and a convenient feature for those who lift weights frequently or do anything other than running or cycling. Exercise recognition allows the device to identify which exercises you’re completing; it can, for example, differentiate dumbbell curls from ab jabs and other moves. It’s still not foolproof, but it’s a great feature to have—and even if it mischaracterizes a particular exercise, you can edit it to the correct move in the Garmin Connect mobile app.

SpO2 monitoring recently made its way to Garmin’s elite wearables in addition to the more affordable Vivosmart 4—and unlike in Fitbit devices, the Vivosmart 4 actually puts this sensor to good use. It measures blood oxygen saturation when you’re asleep, potentially catching breathing irregularities that could be signs of disorders like sleep apnea. If you’re fairly healthy, you won’t see very interesting numbers come out of this sensor. But all it takes is one abnormal measurement for you to be more informed about your overall health.

On top of all that, the Vivosmart 4 can do most of what any entry- to mid-tier Garmin wearable can—which is a lot. Garmin redesigned it so now it’s thinner and lighter than before, and has a more attractive look to it. Its OLED display shows the time, a bunch of daily fitness stats, music controls, and more. It also lasts at least five days on a single charge with SpO2 monitoring turned on, meaning you could get more than a week’s worth of life if you choose to turn that feature off.

The Good

  • SpO2 monitoring on an affordable device with a great battery life.

The Bad

  • No interchangeable bands.

Best for newbies

Moov Now

Moov Now
Enlarge / Moov Now
Valentina Palladino
Specs at a glance: Moov Now
Price $ 42
Heart rate monitoring No
GPS No
Water resistance Waterproof (can track swimming)
Smartphone alerts No
Sizes One size
Battery life  Up to six months (replaceable coin cell battery)

Moov Now is a funny little tracker—not just because it’s a quarter-sized motion detector, but because it focuses on something bigger than simply tracking movement. The Moov Now sensor can be worn a number of ways, including on your wrist or on your ankle, and it tracks myriad activities. Indoor and outdoor running, cycling, swimming (yes, it’s waterproof), and boxing (yes, one on either wrist can be used together) are only a few of the exercises the Moov Now monitors.

But instead of just recording your movements, the Moov Now uses its mobile app to train you to be better at those exercises. With its voice coach, a small voice comes through your smartphone or connected headphones to tell you which types of punches to throw while boxing or when you’re landing too hard while running.

You can set goals or areas of improvement within the app so the voice coach knows what to focus on when you’re exercising. After a completed workout, the app will provide you more tips in addition to showing you all your movement data. Moov also makes an HR version of its sensor, meant to be worn in a tiny pocket of a headband resting on your temple, so you can pair both to track movement and heart rate at the same time.

The value of Moov Now is remarkable: $ 59 gets you a motion sensor with different harnesses so you can wear it a variety of ways, a well-designed companion app, and a voice coach to help you get started with any number of exercises. For someone new to fitness with no idea where to start working out, it doesn’t get much better than that. Moov Now gives users the chance to try out different forms of exercise, and it removes any excuse to use a fitness tracker for counting steps alone.

The Good

  • App monitors sensor’s movements in real time to let voice coach help you get better at different exercises.

The Bad

  • Cannot be used to track daily movement.

Most stylish

Motiv Ring

Motiv Ring
Enlarge / Motiv Ring
Valentina Palladino
Specs at a glance: Motiv Ring
Price $ 199.99
Heart rate monitoring Yes
GPS No
Water resistance Waterproof up to 5ATM
Smartphone alerts No
Sizes Multiple (ring numbered sizes)
Battery life  Three days

If you can’t bear to give up more wrist real estate, the Motiv Ring might be a good tracker for you. The $ 199 titanium ring tracks activity as well as heart rate and is meant to be worn all day and all night. On the ring’s underside is a heart rate monitor, and on the surface of the ring are small LED lights that alert you to battery life and syncing status. Otherwise, it’s an unassuming, minimalistic ring that appeals to both men and women alike.

While the Motiv Ring tracks daily activity, it focuses on “active minutes” or time during the day when your heart rate is elevated. Motiv counts active minutes as those when your heart rate is at 40 percent or more of your aerobic capacity, so everyone’s threshold for active minutes will be different. Motiv’s mobile app calculates that so the app and the device can work together to track heart rate and give you credit for those minutes in which your heart is working hard.

The Motiv Ring’s unique yet familiar form factor could be enough to persuade some users to give it a shot. The device measures heart rate accurately and is very easy to wear all day long, even while washing hands and during sleep. Thanks to its design, waterproof rating, and three-day battery life, you don’t have to think about removing the ring for a few days at a time.

But its focus on active minutes is another factor that might appeal to some users who don’t want just another step tracker. By encouraging high-intensity activity, the Motiv Ring can help users achieve better heart health over time.

The Good

  • Easy-to-wear ring design with accurate heart rate monitor.

The Bad

  • Doesn’t automatically track workouts.

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