Best (Mostly) Smartwatches for Fitness
WEARABLES

Best (Mostly) Smartwatches for Fitness

By David R. Eltz, YCE Managing Editor @Health_Czar
 | 
November 20, 2015

The technology is still in the stone ages, but the gap will close quickly, as more companies compete for your dollar.

While fitness bands and trackers are designed explicitly for catching your fitness data, smartwatches do everything, usually performing functions like connecting to a smartphone and displaying notifications, alerts, and text messages; fielding phone calls; browsing the internet; and playing music, videos, and games. Some have better health and fitness tracking mechanism than others.

Smartphone technology is pretty advanced, but the wearable market is “in the stone ages.” The gap will close quickly, as more companies compete for your dollar. By 2018, more than 250 million smartwatches will be in use, analysts say, 14 times more than in 2013.

The models available run the gamut from cheap and functional to expensive and stylish. Makers of fitness trackers like the Fitbit Surge have even slapped clocks on their devices, but they’re not really smartwatches. You can go that route if you just want to check the time while you exercise, but a true smartwatch with fitness capability may give you more for your money.

You’ll need to do some research before you buy. Traits to consider include personal appeal, battery life, application capacity (Pebble, Android Wear, and Samsung Gear all require different apps) and capability, screen display, connectivity (Bluetooth, GPS, WiFi), whether a watch is waterproof or water resistant or neither, and value for the price.

To help you, here’s a look at some of the popular smartwatches that track fitness.

 

RELATED TOPIC: Best Fitness Trackers for Dieters

 

Apple Watch

If you buy the Apple Watch, you’re going for a cool factor over more workman-like products, such as Android Wear, Pebble, and other smartwatches. (More on those later.) Stylish but pricy, it does a decent job of tracking your fitness, but it’s not the best of the bunch.

First, some of the bad. For starters, you’re going to get a day out of the battery, at best; if you use the fitness functionality a lot, you can burn down the battery in about three hours. Other models out there have much better battery life, some lasting weeks (their makers claim). It’s water-resistant but not waterproof, so you can wear it in the shower but swimming isn’t the brightest idea. It doesn’t have a sleep tracker. And there’s no intuitive way to review past workouts, although you can see a basic graph showing when you were active or inactive during your day.

What’s cool about the Watch is it automatically detects that you are exercising and calculates your calorie burn. That’s fine if you’re not serious about fitness. But if you are, you can turn on the Workout app and measure pace and distance. One drawback is you have to manually start recording your exercise with Workout; it would work better if the device recorded your workout automatically. Unlike some other models, the Watch doesn’t have a built-in time interval feature that tells when it’s time to slow down or pick up your pace. You’ll need a third-party app for that. You’ll also need to bring your phone on your run so notifications will work. For now. Apple says third-party apps will gain access to the watch sensors soon.

The Activity app will keep track of how many minutes you spend exercising. The Watch records your heart rate every 10 minutes whenever you wear it. Activity data is stored on your iPhone so you can see it on a bigger screen. Data from third-party apps count toward your daily activity goal, but the functionality isn’t all that great.

The Watch is a want, not a need. It’s good if you lead an inactive lifestyle because the Activity app shows you how inactive you are and, after you see your poor results, tends to plant the idea in your mind that you should be more active. But it’s really a phone accessory, not a sports watch.

Pebble Time

Pebble was one of the initial pioneers of smartwatches, but the fledgling industry has caught up and, in many cases, surpassed it. Time looks like a toy, not fashionable like the Apple Watch, though the newer Steel version is metal, and more expensive.

It does have some pluses, such as the relatively low price. With Time, you access apps using four buttons instead of a swipe, so your sweaty fingers won’t be smearing the face all that much. It’s waterproof down to 50 meters, it charges quickly, and Pebble promises a seven-day battery, though you’ll probably get five or six out of it. Another nice feature: You can respond to messages via voice dictation.

The Pebble app works on both Android and iOS smartphones. You can choose from 6,000 apps, and you’re going to have to because Time doesn’t have a built-in continuous tracker; you’ll need apps like Misfit or Jawbone (which means you might want to use their devices for fitness instead of this watch), and you’ll need to turn them on before you start to exercise. Time also doesn’t have a heart-rate monitor, doesn’t track your location, and won’t measure your calorie burn, so you’ll need to download apps. The step counter is rudimentary. The display is always on, so you can look down and check the time during your workout, but the 1.25-inch screen can be difficult to read because it’s not very bright.

Most industry analysts will tell you the Android Wear watches are better smartwatches for fitness because of their continuous trackers. Time is a functional fitness watch, but not great. For this pick, the battery life, affordability, and simplicity are its charm.

Samsung Gear S2

A little less pricy than the Apple Watch, a little more pricy than Pebble Time, the Gear S2 is Samsung’s best attempt at a smartwatch for fitness yet. One of the reasons is it works with most Android phones. The battery life, about three days, is better than most smartwatches. And it appears to offer more as a fitness tracker than Android Wear or Pebble watches.

While it does not have GPS (more on why that’s significant soon), it does have Bluetooth and WiFi, which helps you receive messages if you want to exercise without your phone (and WiFi is in range). The 1.2-inch screen is bright and sharp. Gear S2 automatically tracks walking, running, and cycling. Nike+ comes installed on the watch. It can check your heart rate periodically or continuously, depending on your choice. The step counter is accurate. S Health, Samsung’s activity tracking app, shows your goal progress on your phone, running all the time or not; your preference. With the tap of the finger you can track a glass of water or cup of coffee. The watch will even pester you if you’ve been sitting too long.

One major drawback is Tizen, Samsung’s platform. It’s doubtful developers will make a lot of apps if they’re already spending time and money developing them for Android and iOS. Samsung does, however, offer an app for your Android phone so you can test drive the watch before you drop some serious coin on it.

Sony Smartwatch 3

With an attractive metal design, this comfortable and lightweight smartwatch is one of many Android Wear products. But Smartwach 3 has a big advantage over most sports watches: the onboard GPS. Why does this matter? Do you like running without your phone? The GPS offers more precise tracking of your distance, route, and pace (non-GPS fitness tracking apps really just guestimate metrics like steps), while still connecting to your phone back home, a nice plus for a workout.

Because it’s Android Wear, you have access to numerous fitness apps; since the watch doesn’t have it’s own operating system, its fitness worth is in the value of the apps you use, like Google Fit, Runkeeper, and myriad others. A new Google Fit update, however, gives Android users real-time exercise tracking. The watch doesn’t have a built-in heart rate monitor, so you’ll need to download one of those, too.

While the display is small (1.6 inches), the 320x320 pixel resolution works well. Your battery will last about two days, you don’t need a separate charger (it charges via Micro USB), and it’s waterproof up to an hour at 2 meters deep. You can even skip finger swiping, and instead give the watch voice commands to control your apps.

Right now, not all fitness apps can work with the Smarthwatch 3’s GPS, but Runkeeper and My Tracks give you two decent options, and, as the industry grows, it’s likely newer watches will contain GPS and developers will work to take advantage of it.

Moto 360

Another Android Wear product, the Moto 360 costs about as much as the Samsung Gear S2. It comes in two sizes, 42 mm (marketed to women) and 46 mm. Like Sony’s Smartwatch 3, the screen has a nice resolution.

This watch has an optical heart rate monitor and can take spot readings in the Moto Body Wear app. It will track progress for daily and weekly heart minutes and activity. After 14 days, the Moto 360 analyzes your averages. On your phone, you can track weekly, monthly, and yearly trends. Again, the fitness value of this watch depends on the Android apps you use, but it does all the basics: It will provide motivational reminders, progress updates, and updated goals, and tracks steps and caloric burn. A new Google Fit update also gives Android users real-time exercise tracking. 

Motorola claims the battery lasts a day with the screen turned on, and a day and a half with it off. One weird caveat is the leather band. You’ll sweat all over it, and Motorola doesn’t offer a band suited for exercise. It will work with an iPhone, but there aren’t any third-party apps available (yet) because it’s a recent upgrade. For now, you’re obviously better off with the Apple Watch if you have an iPhone.

Polar V800 GPS Sports Watch

Another smartwatch with GPS, the V800 works with both Android and iOS. With a high-end price like the Apple Watch, it’s beefy, boxy, and uncomfortable if you have a small wrist, but extremely functional and useful for any multisport athlete.

Offering training support for all the usual activities, plus yoga, CrossFit, and even kitesurfing, the V800 is always on, providing in-depth data, so you can analyze training and recovery periods. The watch will make suggestions on how to reach your fitness goals, remind you when you’ve been sitting too long, and provide advanced metrics for runners and cyclists, such as pace, cadence, and elevation. You can purchase external sensors for more detailed data, such as bike speed, and connect to them via the V800’s Bluetooth, or buy a mount for your handlebars if the watch’s bulkiness is too much for your wrist.

Being waterproof, it can even monitor your heart rate under water, something most sports watches can’t do. You can also upload your data to MyFitnessPal, Strava, and TrainingPeaks. It’s one of the more robust smartwatches for fitness tracking right now, but it’s bulk (and price) might scare you away.

Garmin Vivoactive

Along with the Polar V800 GPS Sports Watch, the Vivoactive is probably one of the better smartwatches for tracking your fitness. What you do on your smartphone you can do on this watch, and it works with both Android and iOS if you do still want to use your phone. Like Sony’s smartwatch, it has GPS, allowing you to accurately track runs, cycling, and walking, see your live pace, and receive notifications while you leave your phone back home on your desk.

Touch operated, Vivoactive has modes for tracking running or walking, and is waterproof to 50 meters. When you swim, it will monitor your strokes, judge the size of the pool you’re in, and track your times for each length. It also makes use of Garmin’s vast mapping capability, offering maps of more than 38,000 golf courses, with yardages. Vivoactive uses Garmin Connect, a fitness platform, and the app connects to a large portal, where you can earn badges, map out runs, and track your fitness metrics over time.

One nifty bonus is you can use the watch’s vibration setting to gently wake you up in the morning, if you can stand sleeping with a watch on your wrist. There’s no heart rate monitor, but you can purchase an external sensor, as well as a blood oxygen sensor.

The LCD touchscreen is low resolution and hard to read, but the battery is pretty robust, Garmin claiming a three-week life and 10 hours of GPS tracking (you’ll probably get closer to a week or a little more if you use it a lot). While the Vivoactive won’t win awards for looks, it’s slim, lightweight, and comfortable (unlike most GPS watches), an exercise band inside a smartwatch. Costing far less than the Apple Watch or the Polar V800, it’s one of the best options out there for your fitness addictions. But if you care more about apps (there aren’t a lot available) than fitness tracking, you should take a pass.

Updated:

November 20, 2015

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