Fitness trackers have come a long way from the days of the simple and wildly inaccurate step counters given away free in your box of cereal. You can now track your heart rate 24/7, get detailed information about how far and fast you run, swim and cycle, monitor your sleep, motivate you in the gym, help keep you hydrated, send you emails and messages, play music… and still make sure you hit those 10,000 steps every day.
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And thankfully designs have improved too, with a great selection of small, slim bracelets and stylish smartwatches in a huge range of colours and styles suitable for a day at the office, a session at the gym or a night partying. So you no longer need to look like you’re training for a triathlon – unless you actually are!
How we tested the best fitness trackers and smartwatches
Chris Haslam is one of the leading technology journalists in the UK, with two decades of experience. He’s also a little bit obsessed with running, which, while terrible for his knees, is great when it comes to assessing the fitness tracking features on the latest wearable technology.
But don’t worry, this isn’t all about running. Chris also walks his dog everyday and cycles to work, so his steps (and kms) are always counted.
Chris wore each watch for at least two weeks and sometimes two at the same time to compare accuracy. He checked how easy each design is to use, how bright and easy the screen was to read, if the features included were useful. He also looked at what the companion apps did with all the health data the trackers collected.
What is the best fitness tracker in 2019?
Chris rates the Fitbit Charge 3 as the best dedicated fitness tracker in 2019. It’s great value and will really get you motivated to do more. If you’ve got deeper pockets, the Apple Watch Series 3 is the best smartwatch we tested, and the impossibly affordable Xiaomi Band 3 is our top budget fitness tracker.
Best fitness trackers
1. Fitbit Charge 3 – best all-round fitness tracker
Fitbit virtually invented the modern fitness tracker. They were certainly were one of the first to offer stylish, practical and affordable wearable gadgets designed to encourage you to be more active. They have seven products to choose from each aimed at different users, but if you’re looking for something easy to use and affordable that does virtually everything well, you’ll not find better than the Charge 3.
It’s a good-looking design that suits small wrists, has a wide choice of strap colours and materials so you can swap from leather during the day and rubber for the gym. It’s water resistant to 50m, so great for swimming in the pool, and it tracks (almost) everything.
But not quite everything – it lacks built-in GPS so you’ll need to take your phone with you if you want to measure accurate distances and speeds when walking or running. It can accurately track your heart rate 24/7, count steps, calories, how many staircases you climb in a day, running, swimming, and 15 different exercises including weights in the gym. It also offers menstrual cycle tracking, and offers breathing exercises for catching five minutes of calm.
The Charge 3 has basic smartwatch functions, so you can see when someone calls, sends messages and emails, and it has the option to pay wirelessly with Fitbit Pay.
And it can do all this easily via the simple touchscreen that, while mini compared to a standard watch face, makes the most of every millimeter of space available. It’s a mono black-and-white screen, which some people might find boring, but it’s crisp and easy to read in all conditions and it doesn’t drain the battery life so that it can last all week.
Scrolling through all the features can feel fiddly at first, but you soon get used to it, and aside from a quick glance during the day, or while out exercising, you will digest the most data using the excellent Fitbit app.
Although not as dedicated to serious training as some (see the Garmin Forerunner, below) it does have advanced features. These include resting heart rate measurements, VO2 Max calculations and a SpO2 blood oxygen sensor that can help identify conditions like sleep apnea. The accurate heart-rate tracking also makes it a great choice if you want to monitor your sleep.
If you don’t want a dedicated smartwatch but need something with a screen that does loads, this is a great tracker option.
Ideal Home’s rating: 5 stars
Buy now: Fitbit Charge 3, £119, Amazon.co.uk
2. Apple Watch Series 3 – best smartwatch
It’s not the latest launch from Apple – that’s the all new, Apple Watch Series 4 – but we think the significantly reduced price and improved features makes it a brilliant option. Available in both 38mm and 42mm watch sizes it comes in silver and space grey aluminum finishes, or the option of a Nike+ version with branded strap. As with all Apple Watches the choice of strap designs – both own brand and third party – is verging on the limitless.
We think the Apple Watch is a beautiful piece of design that looks and feels luxurious. Even though the screen on the Series 3 is smaller than on the Series 4, and the body marginally thinner, you’ll probably not notice the difference for long, especially if you’re on a budget.
Set-up is, as with all Apple products, a seamless experience, and the on-screen and on phone guide takes you through everything step-by-step. If you can work your iPhone (and remember, this watch only works on iOS) you’ll intuitively know how the watch works.
As a fitness tracker the Apple Watch Series 3 is packed to the rafters with features. The combination of GPS and WiFi means you never have to wait for a signal before you head out for a run, the accelerometer and gyroscopes track your movements accurately and the heart rate sensor can keep tabs on your ticker. It’s also water resistant to 50metres, so will happily record your swim strokes. The watch can also tell if you’re doing exercise – walking, running or cycling (even skiing!) – and record your performance automatically, which is a nice touch, and Apple’s Activity rings make it easy to see if you’re having a lazy day.
With 8GB of memory you can download music and podcasts and listen using your Bluetooth headphones, again, great if you want to leave the phone at home. And for an extra £100 you can choose the Apple Watch Series 3 GPS+Cellular, which has a built-in sim card, allowing you to ditch your iPhone completely should you wish to go for a run without it and make calls, receive messages, stream Apple Music, or get directions using Maps.
You’ll pay extra on your phone bill each month and not all networks are connected yet. It’s hugely impressive, but we’re not sure it’s worth the extra for most people.
Having access to Apple’s App Store means most apps are available in one form or another on the watch, including all the main fitness titles including Strava and Nike Run Club, plus hundreds of others including pilates, yoga and weight training coaches and plans. In short, unless you’re a professional (or totally dedicated) athlete the Apple Watch will be all you need for health and fitness.
Naturally the App Store also means you can use the watch as a smartwatch, get alerts, calendar reminders, answer calls, reply to texts, pay contactless with Apple Pay, control your music, and compatible smart home devices….
It’s the most comprehensive smartwatch available whether you’re looking for health, fitness or productivity enhancing features. Annoyingly even the old models remain more expensive than most new brand designs, and the battery will only stretch to 18 hours. You’re also out of luck if you have an Android phone, but as you’ll read with the Samsung Galaxy Active, the competition is slowly catching up.
Ideal Home’s rating: 5 stars
3. Samsung Galaxy Active – best smartwatch for Android users
Samsung most affordable smartwatch is a bit of a triumph, boasting premium quality materials, gorgeous looks and some great features. We’ve not been hugely impressed by Samsung’s watch designs in recent years – being a bit big or bling – but the Galaxy Active is sleek and stylish, and at just £229, it’s a worthy alternative to the Apple Watch.
Choose black, silver, rose gold, and blue and they’re all lovely. It has a 45hour battery life which is on a par with the competition, so should just survive a weekend away if you forget the charger. It weighs just 25g and the silicone strap is very comfortable and it’s waterproof to 5ATM and rated at IP68, so you can use it to track your swimming sessions.
And speaking of exercise, it will come as no surprise the ‘Galaxy Active’ is primed for sport. You can track 21 indoor exercises and 39 tracked workouts, so virtually all your gym, bike and run sessions are covered, there’s built-in GPS for accuracy, plus there’s heart rate tracking, which also means it will track your sleep patterns and offer breathing and calming exercises if it senses you’re stressed.
Interestingly, the watch also comes with a blood pressure monitor built-in, but it hasn’t yet been made active in the UK. When it does, it could be a real benefit.
1.1” scren is small compared to the Apple Watch, but it’s super bright, very tough and super to read, and while the app icons are small, the touch display is response enough not to annoy you. It does come with Samsung’s own Bixby voice control, but compared to Alexa or Google Assistant it’s a bit frustrating. That said, if you’ve not tried voice control, you’re still in for a pleasant surprise.
Your choice of apps is limited compared to the Apple Watch and Skagen as it doesn’t use Google Wear OS, or Apple Watch OS, but Samsung’s apps do most things you need, and there’s Spotify, plus you can download songs to its 4GB memory, and connect your Bluetooth headphones, meaning you don’t have to exercise with your smartphone.
The Galaxy Active will also handle incoming calls, texts and alerts as you’d expect, but to reply or answer you’ll still need to get your phone out.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4.5 stars
4. Skagen Falster 2 – best stylish fitness tracker
Danish brand Skagen have been making gorgeous watches for years, but have only recently turned their attention to smartwatches. They offer a range of hybrid analogue styles similar to the Withings collection, but they have also developed a range including the Falster 2 which use the Wear OS by Google.
WearOS by Google is the Android version of the software used on the Apple Watch. As such, it allows you to download everyday apps, play music via Spotify, control smart home devices, receive and even send emails and messages as well as track your health and fitness activity using leading apps such as Nike Run Club, Strava or the built-in Google Fit.
As a result, the Falster 2 is a fully fledged smartwatch overflowing with features and not a simple activity tracker, so not great for technophobes. If you can get past all the menus and features, however, it will be a brilliant fitness tracker and so much more besides. It’s not as intuitive to use as the Apple Watch, but give yourself a few days and you’ll soon get the hang of all the swishes and swipes needed to get to your right menu screens.
Measuring just 40mm, it’s nicely unisex, and impressively it features a heart rate sensor, built-in GPS and water resistant design. It also has NFC (Near Field Communication) so you can use Google Pay and buy stuff using your watch. There’s also a nice selection of very Scandi watch faces to choose from. And while not as customisable as the Apple Watch, the stripped back designs and pin sharp OLED screen is lovely to look at.
It’s a great smartwatch packed with features, but we did struggle to get a whole day’s battery from the Falster 2 – especially if we went for a long run. That is a disappointment, but at least it charges quickly when you do need to top up the power.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 stars
5. Withings Move – best fitness tracker for battery life
The Withings Move is a hybrid smartwatch that looks just like a traditional analogue watch. But it still tracks walking, running, swimming and sleep all for not more than the cost of a month’s gym membership.
The analoge sub-dial on the watch face tracks your daily steps and gives you a quick indication if you’ve been walking enough during the day. To track a workout, all you need to do is press and hold the watch crown and the hands will move to 12 and tick round like an old-fashioned stopwatch. But don’t fear, the watch is tracking your distance, and if you link to your phone’s GPS you can see distance and pace, and even your route on a map.
It’s not a design for people who need at-a-glance updates on running or cycling pace, speed and heart rate, but if you’re looking to track your efforts it’s a good starting point. It also has 50m water resistant and will track pool swimming.
That lack of heart rate monitoring has an upside – the battery life is a phenomenal 18 months, yes months! If you want heart rate tracking, the more expensive £169.99 Withings Steel HR could be a better option.
It can also track steps, running and swimming, as well as keep you updated on your sleep patterns via the comprehensive Withings Health Mate app that can also link to other Withings products, including a set of smart scales and a blood pressure monitor. Used together, it’s easy to get a detailed understanding of your health. especially if you’re trying to lose weight and get fitter.
You don’t get any smartwatch style notifications with the Withings Move, but because you never need to charge it (just replace the watch battery in a year or so!) you can make the most of the sleep tracking and the vibrating alarm, that can gently wake you up at the perfect time in your sleep cycle, and without disturbing a partner.
Made from plastic and rubber the watch is super light and comfortable, but don’t expect it to be overly durable as the plastic screen won’t stand up to scratches like glass can.
Our review sample was crisp white with a bright blue silicone strap, but there’s a whole host of options to choose from. We love the blue and rose gold (£129), fun patterned Terrazo Superb (£69.95) and coral, mint and black colour options. You can mix and match your style of face and strap for a fully customised look before you buy. If you like Swatch Watches but want more smart tracking, you’ll love the Withings Move.
Ideal Home’s rating: 3 stars
6. Garmin Forerunner 45S – best fitness tracker for runners
If you’re a runner, cyclist or just general gym bunny, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with Garmin’s range of sport specific watches. They’re experts in high performance hugely popular GPS watches for athletes who love to obsess over data and statistics.
In recent years they’ve moved into the fitness tracker market too, and the Forerunner 45S blends both high performance and everyday wellness into a slim and feature packed watch, It’s a great choice if you’ve recently started doing more exercise or fancy taking on a running challenge and want help in stepping up your training.
At 39mm (42mm available with the same features, called the Forerunner 45) it’s a lovely compact size, and the simple design means you could easily wear all day, not just for workouts. The screen is nice and bright (and there’s a light if you need a boost) but don’t expect a photo realistic screen like you’ll find on the Apple Watch. It’s more than good enough however, especially as the effort has clearly been spent on making it the best watch for workouts.
With super accurate GPS tracking and 13hr GPS battery, the Forerunner 45S is great for running or cycling, measuring the speed and distance covered every stride you take. It has preloaded settings for running, cycling, treadmill runs, walking and cardio workouts, but you can add more via the Garmin Connect app.
Once reassuring feature on this watch is the ability to alert someone if something goes wrong. Using Incident Detection, it automatically sends a message with your real-time location to your chosen contacts if an incident is detected during an outdoor walk, run, or cycle.
You can programme your own specific run/cycle routines (often called interval training) with timed bursts of effort and rest with warmups and cool downs, plus you can use the Garmin Coach via the Garmin Connect app to find a complete calendar of workouts designed to suit your needs.
If you want to do a 10km race in 10 weeks, it will work out a schedule and remind you to get your trainers on! It can even give you a fitness test (using the GPS and heart rate monitoring) to gauge your fitness levels before you start.
The 45S isn’t all about sweating however, as it has a few wellness features including Stress Tracking, which monitors your heart rate and gives you an indication when you’re relaxed or stressed out, and there’s also a Body Battery mode that calculates how much energy you have going through the day. We found them pretty accurate, and it knew when we needed a sit down at the end of the day!
The Forerunner 45S does have some smartwatch features, but it isn’t the reason you’ll buy it. This is a watch for someone looking to get serious about their exercise (especially running) and wants a comprehensive package of features to help them go further and faster.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 stars
7. Xiaomi Band 3 – best budget fitness tracker
Given we’ve seen it on sale for £19.99, this is by far the best value fitness tracker available. In fact, given it has a built-in heart-rate scanner, is fully waterproof, has a great battery life, and even displays emails and text messages on the screen, it’s cheap at twice the price.
The Xiaomi’s Band 3 will track exercise – steps taken, distance covered and calories burned. Wear it in bed and it will measure your sleep patterns, and as mentioned, it can take a pretty accurate heart-rate reading. In short, it’s a great jumping off point for a more active lifestyle. You can track all your activity data in the Mi Fit app, but it will also syncs with Google Fit. The band works with iPhone, but more features are available if you use Android.
Battery life can easily last 20 days before needing a recharge, which is phenomenal, and great for sleep tracking. We’ve found that getting addicted to your fitness monitor – and therefore hopefully getting fitter – is much easier if you rarely take it off, so the Band 3 is ideal as you need to charge it once a month. And when it does need charging it will only take an hour.
There’s nothing flashy or colourful about the small display, but navigation is simply a case of swiping up, down, left and right, with the button always taking you back to the home screen.
We found it not to be not as accurate as the Garmin Forerunner or Fitbit, but it can tell the difference between walking, running and cycling, so you efforts are at least recognised. It’s waterproof, but won’t track swimming strokes however, which is a minor annoyance. Impressively for such a bargain band you can set it to vibrate when your heart rate exceeds a certain BPM. Great if you’re into high intensity workouts, which need to get your heart rate up, and fast.
We mentioned smart features, and true enough, it can show you time, date, weather plus new messages, e-mails and phone calls. You can even reject a call from your wrist. And almost, but not quite the best feature of all at this price, the Band 3 has a ‘find my phone’ function. Press a button and your smartphone will ring, even if you’ve left it on silent.
Ideal Home’s rating: 3.5 stars
Buy now: Xiaomi Band 3, £20, Amazon.co.uk
How to buy a fitness tracker – everything you need to know
Why do I need a fitness tracker?
According to research by tech brand Lenovo, only 19 per cent of UK adults get the NHS-recommended amount of exercise a week. If that’s the reality, we clearly need all the motivation we can get, but that’s where gadgets can help. A recent study reveals that 56 percent of UK adults think that technology inspires them to exercise, whether it’s a wearable fitness tracker that analyses their progress or a smartwatch loaded with their favourite motivational music.
What’s the difference between a fitness tracker and a smartwatch?
Contrary to the name, this isn’t a simple case of one telling the time and one not. In fact, most fitness trackers include a clock function. The main difference is that a fitness tracker will focus solely on your health – how many steps you’ve taken, how far you’ve cycled, how many laps of the pools you’ve swum or hours you’ve slept.
A smartwatch, on the other hand, operates more like a smartphone, allowing you to send messages through text, email and social media, listen to music and more. Fitness tracking is only part of what it can do, and therefore, smartwatches tend to be more expensive. Also, because of the demands put on them, a smartwatch’s battery life is much shorter – measured in hours as opposed to days, weeks or even months.
What are the key features I should look for in a fitness tracker?
- Exercise modes Even the most basic trackers will allow you to set the mode depending on whether you are working, running, swimming, cycling, etc. Most should be able to tell automatically what activity you are doing.
- Heart rate monitoring Takes an accurate reading of your pulse, which is needed for accurate assessments of your fitness and how many calories you are burning. Is also useful for sleep monitoring.
- GPS This tracks your position, so you will be able to plot a map of a run or cycle route and get a more accurate picture of the distance covered.
- Waterproof If you want to track your daily swim, make sure your device is waterproof to at least 10 metres.
- Sleep tracking Not getting enough sleep won’t just leave you grumpy and baggy-eyed –it can lead to health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. Get yourself a fitness tracker that can monitor your shut eye and you’ll be better placed to know you’re getting the 7 to 8 hours that most adults need. It might also help you identify any triggers that could be leading to a poor night’s rest.
- Inactivity alert After a certain period of inactivity, this feature guilts you into moving by making a sound, vibrating and/or flashing an on-screen prompt screen. Still dare to stay put? It will continue to pester until you reset it by doing a few minutes of exercise.
- Companion app This will help you make more sense of the data your tracker has collated – presenting it in easy-to-read formats. Fitbit and Garmin lead the way here.