Finding A Fitness Tracker That Really Counts

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A fitness tracker on your wrist can tell you your current heart rate, how many calories you’ve burned, how far you’ve walked, and even how many steps it took you to get there. Some can measure how you sleep, sync with your phone, and let you share stats with friends and rivals online. A good fitness tracker should offer easy access to all the information you need about your daily routine — and help you make informed decisions on ways to improve that routine. It’s that simple. However, with all the fitness trackers currently available, finding the best option isn’t nearly as simple.

That’s why the team at set out to find the best fitness trackers. They looked for the ones that made tracking as painless as possible without sacrificing statistical accuracy. The Fitbit Surge topped their list: It performed well in accuracy tests across multiple types of exercises and body movements, and it was easy to use straight out of the box, with a just large-enough built-in display.

Fitbit is almost synonymous with the term fitness tracker at this point, but it turns out that it has that reputation for a reason. Fitbit’s software, especially its mobile app, was by far the best of any of the trackers we tested. It doesn’t gather quite as much different types of data as their other top pick, the Garmin Vivoactive HR, but Fitbit’s software does a much better job organizing that information. They were impressed by the common-sense, clean workout interface, and the Fitbit app is well-organized and inviting, analyzing and displaying information in digestible, usable ways. It was by far the easiest and most intuitive interface to get to know. The Surge is also decent-looking and comfortable to wear, feeling more like a normal watch than a small computer strapped to your wrist. Their testers had no reservations or complaints about wearing it all day, and the battery lasted about seven days before needing to be recharged.

If you’re an endurance athlete looking to take your training to the next level — or a data nerd who loves to get dirty with stats — their runner-up, the Garmin Vivoactive HR is your best choice. From heart-rate tracking to elevation changes, to all-day activity monitoring, the sheer volume of accurate data it pumps out will give you the most to work with to better your training, especially for activities like running and biking. The team found it to be highly accurate, coming in second in all three of their accuracy tests.

The app is great at showing the nitty-gritty — granular details that highly motivated, dedicated athletes will crave, like “heart rate over time” charts for each of your workouts. If you want to map your run, Garmin can do that, too, using dedicated software. Not even the Fitbit Surge can do that. Garmin also lets you export your workouts to a third-party app for further deep-dive analysis.

If you’re worried about information overload (or you plan on going swimming with your tracker) try the Mio Fuse, their budget pick. At $99, it’s the cheapest option of all our top picks — and the most basic — but it’s still accurate, dead simple to use, and completely waterproof.

The Mio’s simplicity, $99 price tag, and accuracy put it in striking distance of our top two contenders. It can count your steps and monitor your heart rate accurately — and that’s it. But that’s all many need to keep an eye on base levels of activity. If you’re not training for marathons or regularly biking centuries, you might not need GPS tracking, calorie counting, or social media integration. It doesn’t have the same breadth of features that the Fitbit and Garmin do, but the features it does have work exceedingly well for less than half the price.

Did You Know?

Fitness trackers collect their data from four main types of sensors.

Pedometers, or step counters, track how many steps you’ve taken each day, and are pretty common. Different sensors like gyroscopes, accelerometers, and pendulums are all commonly used to accomplish the same task: counting how many steps you take.

Accelerometers measure changes in motion — they determine whether you’ve started or stopped moving. All accelerometers measure on two axes: back and forth and side to side. Some have a third axis that measures up and down movement, too, which is helpful for weightlifters who need fitness trackers to count vertical motion.

Heart rate monitors are a fairly recent addition to fitness trackers, but allow you to keep tabs on your level of exertion throughout the day.

GPS sensors, which come in only the most expensive fitness trackers, track distance traveled without relying on a pedometer or accelerometer. The tracker constantly triangulates your position with satellites instead. It’s great for sports like running, biking, and hiking, where a normal pedometer might be less accurate.

But each brands’ sensors are, essentially, all the same.

Fitness trackers are marketed specifically to different niche user groups, but, really, they all do the same thing: track your movement. They all use the same base-level sensor technology (Fitbit, Jawbone, and Nike all get their sensors from the same company, for example). Some just do it more accurately than others, are more user-friendly, and look a little cooler while doing it.

The main difference between any two fitness trackers, besides how they look and feel on your wrist, lies in the proprietary algorithms each trackers’ software uses to interpret the raw data the sensors pick up. That’s why getting our hands on the top contenders and seeing how they actually performed in the field was so important.

The Bottom Line

The best fitness trackers will allow you to accurately keep tabs on your daily activity — whether that’s walking around the house or biking 100 miles. They’re great tools to get a sense of the overall trends in your health and workout regimen over time, but remember: any real changes in your level of fitness will come from your own actions.