Now that most of us have been advised to stay at home while COVID-19 spreads, hitting our fitness goals has just gotten a little more complicated. Case in point, gyms are closed in most cities, fitness classes are canceled and who knows when we can schedule our next session with the personal trainer. But even though we have to find a way to get a gym-caliber workout at home, that doesn’t mean we’re completely on our own. Using a fitness tracker (or a smartwatch) is like having a personal trainer, but with more fitness-monitoring functionality and better organizational skills.
Before you start shopping for a fitness wearable, there are a few things you need to know. Namely, fitness trackers and smartwatches are different gadgets but with overlapping functions for health and fitness tracking.
Smartwatch vs. fitness tracker
Check out some benefits of buying a budget fitness tracker versus a smartwatch. About 20% of Americans are already using health apps to track their heart rate, sleep, stress levels and other vital signs, according to Gallup. The next logical step is to use a fitness tracker or a smartwatch—both of which feed health and fitness data points into your health app and displays your information on a personal dashboard.
But here’s some useful advice: for monitoring health and fitness progress, the best fitness trackers are on par with budget smartwatches. The advantage of buying a smartwatch is that you’re getting a lot extra bells and whistles. So, by all means, do your research on both fitness trackers and smartwatches, but keep in mind your priorities. To track your health and fitness, both devices will suit your needs. However, to monitor your health and text friends as you run on a treadmill, then a smartwatch will better suit your needs .
What is a smartwatch
A smartwatch is like having a minicomputer on your wrist. It syncs with apps on your phone and PC, but some models can operate independently (you pay extra for data). Some of the most popular smartwatches are Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch and Fitbit Versa. Prices range from about $160 for a budget smartwatch to $700.
How to buy a smartwatch
When it comes to buying the right smartwatch, PCMag.com suggests selecting a model that has access to mainstream app stores. “Much like smartphones, app availability is a good way to determine which product to get. So make sure to check out the app selection for each watch before buying in.” Right now, the smartwatches with the most apps by respected developers are Apple Watch, Wear OS and Fitbit OS.
Reviewers gave these budget smartwatches high ratings for price, activity tracking accuracy, battery life, design and functionality.
- Apple Watch Series 3: compatible with iOS, 1.65-inch display
- Fitbit Ionic: compatible with Android and iOS, 1.2-inch display
- Fossil Sport: compatible with Android and iOS, 1.2-inch display
- Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: compatible with Android and iOS, 1.1-inch display
These are some of the functions you’ll get with a newer smartwatch and a budget smartwatch:
- Fitness tracking
- Count calories, steps and distance
- Monitor heart rate, pulse and sleep
- Message and call notifications
- Social media notifications
- NFC payments
Apple Watch Series 3: This is not the newest Apple smartwatch, but it’s one of the best budget smartwatches with fitness-monitoring capabilities. For an even better deal, the Series 3 has a non-4G GPS-enabled model that’s priced $100 less than the cellular version. So if you’re interested in exercising while simultaneously taking calls, replying to messages, using Siri and accessing maps from your watch, then be sure to get the model with cellular connectivity. Users can access the App Store directly from the Series 3, which is a huge selling point for the otherwise “starter smartwatch.”
- Good battery life
- Excellent screen quality
- Lots of fitness features
- Water resistant
- Runs the latest watchOS 6 software
- Music streaming
- Fully iPhone dependent
- Certain apps only have full functionality in standalone mode
- Costs extra for data
Fitbit Ionic: Technically, this is a fitness tracker hybrid, which means it’s feature-rich on the fitness-tracking side and rudimentary on the smartwatch side. But that’s what makes the Fitbit Ionic one of the best budget fitness trackers/monitors on the market. Or, as PCMag.com reviewers put it, “If you’re looking for a smartwatch that puts fitness first, the Ionic deserves a spot on your shortlist.”
- Lots of wellness-monitoring functionality
- Guided workouts
- Accurate fitness tracking
- Great screen quality
- Water resistant
- Good battery life
- Call, text and app notifications
- Swappable bands
- No standalone cellular connectivity
Fossil Sport: When Wired reviewed the Fossil Sport, they said it’s the best Wear OS smartwatch because it’s fast, fashionable, “and it does enough things well enough that you won’t regret strapping it on.” And for anyone who doesn’t know, Wear OS is Google’s Android OS for smartwatches and wearables.
- Built-in heart rate sensor
- Highly accurate fitness tracking
- Runs Qualcomm Wear 3100 smartwatch platform
- Bright, easy-to-read display
- 4GB of storage
- Water resistant
- No auto fitness tracking
- The newer version did not improve processing speeds
Samsung Galaxy Watch Active: The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active is compared to the Apple Watch and Fitbit Versa all the time simply because it’s in the smartwatch category. On the smartwatch side, its functionality is inferior to Apple, and on the fitness side, its functionality is behind Fitbit. But according to PCMag.com, “it’s a solid alternative if you’re looking for a little bit of both.”
The Galaxy runs on the Tizen operating system, Samsung’s wearable platform, which has been praised by bloggers for its speed and functionality.
- Tracks sleep, stress and heart rate
- Syncs to Samsung Health app and other third-party apps
- No LTE connectivity
- Navigation is less intuitive without rotating bezel functionality
- Limited number of third-party apps
Budget Fitness Tracker Benefits
You might want a fitness tracker for monitoring health and activity levels, but there’s a style component, too. You can choose between models designed like a wristwatch, those that hang from a neck lanyard, resemble a ring, or clip-on styles.
There are two primary categories of fitness trackers: those with a display and less expensive activity bands without a display. Fitness trackers sync with a smartphone so your data can be displayed on a dashboard in a health app. PCMag.com writes, “More expensive trackers usually include built-in optical heart rate monitors and GPS. Often, these features are tailored toward athletes and exercise enthusiasts.” The biggest thing to look for when shopping for a fitness tracker is app compatibility. That’s how you’ll view data about your activity levels.
Top fitness tracker manufacturers are Fitbit and Samsung. Prices can range anywhere from about $50 to $250.
Top rated fitness trackers
Reviewers gave these fitness trackers high ratings for price, design and functionality.
- Fitbit Alta Smart Fitness Activity Tracker: wristband, Android and iOS compatible
- Samsung Galaxy Fit: wristband, Android and iOS compatible
- Motiv Ring: ring, iOS compatible
- Garmin Vivosmart 4: wristband, Android and iOS compatible
Here are some fitness tracker functions:
- Monitor sleep and heart rate
- Count calories, distance traveled and stairs
- Track daily activity
- Map your route with GPS
Best Budget Fitness Trackers
Fitbit Alta Smart Fitness Activity Tracker: This Fitbit model syncs with iOS and Android devices and connects to a PC via USB. If you go on a run without your phone you’ll still be connected because this Fitbit receives call and text notifications. But what reviewers praise most is Fitbit’s companion app. They say it’s one of the best fitness tracking apps around.
- Monitors activity throughout the day and sleep at night
- Accurately tracks steps, calories burned and minutes active
- Activity reminder
- Recognizes regular workout routines
- No GPS or heart monitor
- No manual fitness profiles
- It’s not waterproof
Samsung Galaxy Fit: Reviewers love the Samsung Galaxy Fit’s long battery life and its bright, full-color touchscreen.
- Heart rate monitor
- Tracks swimming, running, cycling
- Sleep and stress tracker
- Auto start/pause tracking
- Smartphone notifications
- Inferior distance tracking
- Requires two apps
Motiv Ring: You can probably tell by the name of this gadget that you wear it on your finger and not your wrist. But before you judge, PCMag.com says the stylish tracker “puts lots of features and functionality right on your finger.” The Motiv Ring syncs via Bluetooth to the iPhone, but not Android.
- Tracks sleep, steps and calories
- Tracks heart rate when active
- No continuous heart rate tracking
- Does not integrate with Apple Health
- Does not sync with Android OS
Garmin Vivofit 4: This is your basic 24/7 activity tracker. But the replaceable battery makes it more reliable than other trackers in the same category.
- Tracks steps, distance, calories and sleep
- Offers personalized fitness challenges
- Move IQ automatic activity detection system
- Water resistant
- No GPS
- No heart rate monitor (but it does sync with a chest heart rate monitor)