Why not just buy a smartwatch?
That's a good question—especially if you want the ingenuity and added functionality of third-party apps. The Apple Watch, for example, is outfitted with an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and an optical heart rate sensor that allows it to monitor your activity. It can also access Wi-Fi and GPS when paired with your iPhone.
But the watch's extra capabilities come at a steeper price and they require more power, which means the device's battery life is limited to 18 hours. That's why you don’t hear anything about the sleep analysis capabilities of the Apple Watch. It's usually charging while you're snoozing. It's also not waterproof, so you can't take it with you on your morning swim.
Once you've decided on the functions you want, you can begin to refine your options based on personal taste. Here are some things to consider…
Many activity trackers are designed for the wrist, but some can be worn as pendants or clipped to a pocket, belt, or bra strap. In the past, the devices tended to look purely functional, but manufacturers are now more conscious of style, so you'll find a greater variety of materials, shapes, and colors—and even some models created in collaboration with bona fide fashion designers.
Choose a look you'll feel comfortable wearing every day.
The more advanced trackers reveal their data—using words, numbers and symbols—on a watchface-like display. Some devices, however, share that info via a simple LED light display or only via an app. When you sync the data onto your smartphone or computer, the tracker's companion app not only archives the information, it also helps you interpret and analyze it.
Before you make a final decision, you may want to preview the companion app in the Apple App Store or on Google Play to make sure it lives up to your expectations.
Before you pull out your wallet, make sure the device is sympatico with your cell phone or computer. Some trackers sync only with Apple's iOS. Others only with Android. And most do not work with Windows.
Trackers are not foolproof. They use sensors and algorithms to parse footsteps, punches thrown, stairs climbed, hours slept. That means there's some degree of imprecision.
If you need hard data, you may want to pursue a function-specific device. In general, heart rate monitors that strap to your chest and transmit info to your activity tracker are more precise than the in-device sensors applied to your wrist.
When it comes to battery life, you get more say than you might think. Depending on the sophistication of the device, the battery can stretch from one day to several months.
A tracker with a color touchscreen and an armada of sensors, for example, will need to be charged far more frequently than a simple band with a few LED lights on its face.
It's also worth nothing that not all trackers are rechargeable. Some run on the coin cell batteries often used in cameras and calculators.
How often do you encounter water when you work out? That's an important consideration, too. Some trackers are just splash proof. Others can withstand a hardy shower—indoors or out. But if you're going to wear your tracker in the pool, it better be waterproof. There's nothing less useful than a tracker that can’t stand up to your active lifestyle.