Fitness Tracker or Smartwatch: Which Is Best for You?

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of both devices

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Choosing an electronic device to measure your workouts can be daunting, especially given the increasingly fine line between today’s fitness trackers and smartwatches.

Is it worth shelling out a few hundred dollars for a top-of-the-line smartwatch? Or could a simple fitness tracker do the job for a lot less?

Market research firm NPD says a growing number of consumers looking to track their fitness are choosing smartwatches, which can count steps, track heart rate, and perform a wide variety of functions via mobile apps.

more on fitness trackers and smartwatches

In the first quarter of 2015, according to NPD, only 17 percent of U.S. adults with fitness tracking wearables were using smartwatches. The remaining 83 percent were using activity trackers. By the fourth quarter of 2017, the smartwatch figure had risen to 38 percent. And by the fourth quarter of next year, NPD projects, smartwatches will represent 48 percent of the market’s new purchases.

But that doesn’t mean you have to follow the crowd—not when many fitness trackers now offer notifications and other functionality once reserved for smartwatches.

“If all you need to do is track your workouts, then the fitness tracker is for you,” says Charles Davidman, who leads the testing of both products for Consumer Reports. “The smartwatch can do most of the fitness tracker stuff, but it costs more.”

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of both options. For a more detailed review of particular models, check out our fitness tracker and smartwatch ratings.

What You Need to Know About Fitness Trackers

Trackers are significantly less expensive. Most of CR’s top-rated models cost less than $200. A CR-recommended smartwatch, on the other hand, can easily set you back $300 or more.

Fitness trackers also tend to provide good value for the money. A vast majority of the ones we’ve tested received excellent marks for step-count accuracy, Davidman says.

Most do a good job of measuring your heart rate, too, which many medical and fitness experts argue is a more important indicator of overall fitness.

And many trackers offer smartwatchlike features such as music storage; GPS; and call, email, and text notifications. The Garmin Forerunner 35, for example, provides GPS and notifications and can currently be purchased online for about $160.

Trackers are often easier to master. That’s an important distinction for non-tech-savvy people. According to Dani Arigo, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Scranton who researches how wearables affect health and wellness behavior, the added functionality and data offered by smartwatches won’t be much help if you don’t know how to use them properly.

“People think these things are magical and they’re going to strap one to their wrist and it’s going to change their behavior,” she says, adding that even the most simple trackers and workout apps can be tough for some to navigate.

“If you don’t understand what a device can do, it’s going to be really hard to take advantage of it,” Arigo says.

Trackers can monitor your sleep. Many experts question the accuracy and utility of tracking your ZZZs, but if you want to give it a try, fitness trackers are the way to go. They tend to have enough battery power to run for several days, letting you wear them through the night.

By contrast, the Apple Watch is designed to be on your bedside table for recharging every night. Those extra features that make it so appealing—the bright colorful screen, cellular connectivity, and army of apps—are an added drain on the battery.

What You Need to Know About Smartwatches

Smartwatches let you leave your phone in your pocket—or even at home. For many people, that’s the big carrot, Davidman says. Smartwatches don’t just notify you when you have an email or text, they often let you read it, too. They can store music and display small pictures. And the Apple Watch Series 3 and Samsung Gear S3 even let you make and take phone calls.

Smartwatches offer a greater selection of apps. You can use them to check the weather forecast, catch up on local news, stream music, play trivia games, and make sure you have enough money in your checking account. Need a way to track your stand-up paddleboarding strokes? Yep, there are watches that can do that, too.

Fitbit, probably the best known fitness tracker maker, jumped into the smartwatch business last summer with the release of the Ionic. While the watch doesn’t have nearly as many apps as models made by Apple and Samsung, it stays true to its fitness roots with built-in workout apps. It also has sleep-tracking capabilities.

Smartwatches have better bands. For those who really have some cash to drop, there’s even an Apple Watch Series 3 with an Hermes leather band that starts at $1,149.

But you don’t have to be a slave to fashion to appreciate the range of options available to smartwatch owners. Fitness tracker bands made of synthetic materials have presented problems for some consumers—quickly deteriorating or causing wrist rashes. If that’s a concern, you might prefer a smartwatch with a leather or metal strap.

Watchbands are designed to be swapped in and out with ease, too.

Bree Fowler

Bree Fowler

I write about all things "cyber" and your right to privacy. Before joining Consumer Reports, I spent 16 years reporting for The Associated Press. What I enjoy: cooking and learning to code with my kids. I've lived in the Bronx for more than a decade, but as a proud Michigan native, I will always be a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan no matter how much my family and I get harassed at Yankee Stadium. Follow me on Twitter (@BreeJFowler).