Introduction to the best fitness trackers
Are looking to get fit in 2016? A fitness tracker (aka a fitness band, aka "those things you wear that count your steps") is the best place to start.
2015 was another big one for wearable fitness, with new offerings from Fitbit, Jawbone and Misfit, while the arrival of the Apple Watch and ongoing improvements to Android Wear mean trackers and bands have plenty of competition.
They can make a real difference to how you look and feel, without the need for a gym or massive exertion. Prices range from around £20 to £150+. More importantly, the best of these offer context and tips on how to improve your fitness. They also offer sleep tracking of variable usefulness, and most will have a stab at tracking running, too. Although usually not very well - most fitness trackers are really all about walking and sleeping.
As noted, these are not for super-serious fitness regimes. They also don't really have the accuracy and wealth of data that "proper" athletes require. However, they are cheap, and great if you're a couch potato wanting to get in shape, or someone who works out regularly but also wants an easy fitness boost by increasing the number of steps you take daily.
With the likes of the Withings Activité range, they're even, whisper it, getting quite stylish.
Do wearables actually make a difference? According to research conducted by Phillips Health, 9-percent of British adults track their health with a connected device. And 36-percent of healthcare professionals believe the data gives them an invaluable insight into their patients, allowing them to offer more personalised advice.
To learn more about getting the most from your fitness tracker, read this.
But right now, these are our favourite fitness bands:
Best overall - Fitbit Charge HR
Fitbit is market leader for a reason, and the Charge HR remains the best pure fitness tracker out there.
The Fitbit Charge HR’s small OLED screen will tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how many stairs you’ve climbed, distance travelled and heart rate. It’s useful that you don’t need an app to access this information, but Fitbit's app happens to present fitness info very well.
Our testing found the Fitbit was slightly inaccurate, and its attempts to track running and cycling verge on bizarre, but it was at least consistent in the way it was inaccurate, so you can track your progress over time with confidence.
One of the great things about Fitbit is the company’s eco system - with so many users it’s more fun to compete in world rankings.
Battery life is around five days for the HR models, while the standard Charge, which does away with heart rate tracking can manage seven days. The heart-rate monitoring is worth the extra in our opinion, as it makes for more accurate sleep tracking and calorie counting. It's not really any use for zone training on this model.
With its good looks, discreet profile and handy screen, the Charge HR beats out the Jawbone UP3 and Garmin Vivosmart to be our favourite "classic" step and fitness tracker.
Price: £119.99 (£99.99 for the Charge) | Fitbit
Best band/watch hybrid - Microsoft Band 2
The Microsoft Band 2 is an unusual product for T3 to recommend. It's not the most attractive, with an odd handcuff-like clasp. The three-day battery life isn't amazing either.
However, the way that it straddles the line between running watch, fitness tracker and (especially if you've got a Windows Phone) smartwatch, is seriously impressive.
The Microsoft Band 2 has a whopping 11 biometric sensors including an optical heart rate sensor, 3-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, ambient light sensor, skin temperature sensor, UV sensor, capacitive sensor, microphone and a galvanic skin response sensor. It's not clear that all of these are even used, so far, but the roll call of sensors makes Band a device with a lot of potential.
The device can also display text messages, emails, in fact any phone-based notifications, on a bright and crisp screen. That works on iOS and Android too, but if you’re a Windows Phone user, it becomes almost a full on smartwatch, with Cortana integration meaning you can respond to alerts easily as well.
As a step counter it's perfectly effective, but it really comes into its own tracking runs and cycle rides using its own GPS and app, or through integration with Strava. It can even track more advanced sports, such as golf or gym sessions.
Best of all, Band can guide you through interval-style workouts, vibrating when it's time to move on to the next set of reps.
Microsoft Band's look and feel are slightly off-putting (although, not as bad as the previous model's), but stick with it and Band is a very powerful device. It packs in even more functionality than the Fitbit Surge, but is much more compact - it really is a band as opposed to a watch - and has a notably brighter (though admittedly also much smaller) screen.
Of course, Microsoft Band 2 is the newest iteration of the device, which also means it's more expensive. If you can put up with the less attractive and more uncomfortable original Band, you can pick one of those up for around £80 with near-identical functionality.
Price: £199.99 | Microsoft
Best for coaching - Moov Now
A lot of these fitness bands are great at telling you what you're doing wrong, but not how to improve.
Enter Moov Now, which has been dubbed the Siri of sweat. Moov was launched by ex-Apple employees and raised $1 million in two weeks. The second generation is smaller, sleeker and more comfortable. It features a six-month battery life from a standard watch battery, and a choice of wrist and ankle straps.
The wearable syncs with an app which takes you through workouts, actively telling you when to slow down, lengthen your stride or speed up. It'll also track and, to greater and lesser degrees, coach you through swimming, cycling, running, cardio boxing and seven-minute HIT workouts. When we say coaching varies, for instance cardio boxing is almost like Guitar Hero but with punching, with lots of voice input, seven-minute workouts do encourage you to "feel the burn", but cycling is rather lacking, just giving vague tips on cadence and rather surprisingly inaccurate data on RPM and power, considering it's strapped to your ankle.
However, given that the Moov Now also handles day-to-day step tracking and is also decidedly cheap compared to many of the gadgets here, it is definitely worthy of your consideration.
Price: £60 | Moov
Best fitness band - Polar Loop 2
The Polar Loop 2 is a solid device, it tracks steps accurately using all of Polar's advanced tracking, and at the end of the day, accurate step tracking is all you want with this sort of device.
Of course, the Polar Loop 2 can do much more than track steps. It also tracks sleep, activity level and provides "smart life coaching".
The activity level is actually a really interesting concept, using Polar's unique tech to place your movement into five intensity levels: resting, sitting, low, medium and high. This is great in theory, but from our experience, this doesn't work extremely well.
The LED display shows a personalised activity goal, which is based on more than just steps. This goal fills up during the day based on the amount and intensity of your activity.
Away from fitness tracking, the Loop 2 will also act as a silent alarm, and vibrate for incoming calls, texts, emails and calendar appointments.
The Loop 2 doesn't have a heart rate monitor built in, but it is compatible with the Polar H7 sensor.
The band is waterproof, and it comes in 'Powder White', 'Smokey Black', and 'Sorbet Pink'. It is, to be honest, fairly hideous, and the clasp does not inspire confidence. However, the tracking and app are good enough for us to overlook that.
Price: £95 | Polar
Best all-rounder - Garmin Vivosmart
Looking for a fitness tracker that can do more? Try the Garmin Vivosmart. It's not quite as good as the Polar Loop 2, but it is much more attractive. Dang.
Its activity tracking is solid - it monitors steps accurately, running and sleep not so much. If you want more accurate calorie counting it’s also compatible with an external heart rate monitor.
What sets the Vivosmart apart is that it offers limited smart features as well, with an OLED screen capable of displaying smartphone notifications and controlling music.
The band has a premium feel to it, and has a battery life of around a week with notifications, step tracking, Bluetooth pairing and all. The app is less impressive - Garmin's software tends to be geared up more for full-on marathon training rather than step and sleep tracking, and is not as user-friendly as Witihings' or Jawbone's - but it's still a good all-rounder that won't let you down.
Price: £120 | Garmin Vivosmart
Best lifestyle tracker - Jawbone UP2
Although the Jawbone UP3, the big brother to this, is packed with sensors including a tri-axis accelerometer, bioimpedance sensors, plus skin and ambient temperature sensors and a heart-rate monitor that uses electrical sensors rather than light-based ones, we actually prefer this one, which is lacking the bio sensors and only has movement-based ones.
That's because both Jawbones' crowning glory is a very friendly, easy-to-use app and, despite the UP3's plethora of sensors, which suggest it's more like the Microsoft Band, they're actually both just sleep and step counters.
The Jawbone UP2 makes a decent fist of both, despite having fewer sensors, and really comes into it’s own with sleep, being able to sense if you’re in deep, light or REM sleep. It will also tell you when to go to bed, in order to get more sleep, which you may or may not appreciate.
The app shows you how your daily stepping and sleeping are improving (or deteriorating), letting you challenge other users to "duels" and offering reasonably helpful health tips and more context to the data than most tracker apps (although sadly, that's not saying a lot)
This is a pure "lifestyle" tracker, designed to be worn 24/7. There’s no display, so you’ll have to check your stats on the iOS or Android apps, but the band is light and discreet enough to just put on and forget about it (unless you go swimming - the Jawbone UP2 is okay in the shower, but not waterproof). Battery is also very good at around 10 days.
If you must have heart rate tracking, you'd be better off with the Charge HR or Microsoft Band. The Jawbone UP3's tracks your heart rate throughout the day and tells you your resting heart rate, but it's not used as part of fitness tracking, and takes the price up to £110. The UP2, by contrast, can be had for as little as 50 quid, if you shop about.
Price: £70 | Jawbone
Best for value - Misfit Flash Link
The Misfit Flash Link is one of the newest additions to fitness tracking, it’s a bare bones tracker that measures activity and sleep.
It comes with a waistband clip, but you can purchase a wrist strap at an additional cost.
The 12 LEDs around the Link will give you an estimate of your activity or the time, and the device can also act as a ‘smart button’, allowing users to program it to perform certain tasks, such as serving as a remote control for your phone's camera, or operating Misfit's smart lightbulbs.
Syncing easily with your smartphone, coming in a variety of colours, and offering excellent six-month battery life from a watch battery, the Flash Link is a sound investment.
Price: £19.99 | Misfit
Best for style - Mondaine Helvetica 1 Smart • £450
Want a fitness tracker that doesn't look like a fitness tracker? You've got a few options, the Withings Activité (featured later on this list), or the Swiss watch makers who implement MotionX technology. These include Frederique Constant and Mondaine, both of whom have considerable pedigree in the watch making business.
We haven't tried any of FR's connected timepieces, but the Mondaine has to be the most stylish step counter we've tried.
It's really attractive, manly without being crazily macho - similar to Mondaine's more traditional watches, in fact - and features a clean, easy to read watch face. Step counting appears in the form of a small inner-dial, with Bluetooth connection to an app. The dial on the watch face represents your daily step goal à la Withings' Activité range. It's pretty rudimentary, but effective, although the hand could do with being a little less stubby.
The app is also fairly basic, but it does at least sync very briskly indeed, and displays your step and sleep info in attractive ways. As well as steps taken it also has a stab at working out distance covered and calories burned, with mixed results.
One of our 'favourite' things about the app is the health and fitness 'tips' it provides. This includes such gems as, "Multi-tasking can be healthy. Walk in place while watching your favourite TV show or reading a book. It may feel awkward at first, but it will feel more natural with time." and "Cold feet stopping you from sleeping? Consider wearing socks!"
Even so, as a basic step counter, this is fine, and as a stylish watch that you'd actually want to wear, it's a country mile ahead of most of its rivals here, though clearly you do pay a price for that.
The Helvetica 1 Smart comes with several strap options, we'd suggest going for the leather, as it's nicer than the rubber-strapped models. The watches have a 44mm diameter, so are more suited to male wrists.
Price: £450 | Mondaine
Best for fashion - Withings Activité and Activité Pop
This is more the kind of thing T3 likes to promote: a canny mix of tech and style. All the other fitness trackers on this list look just like that, fitness trackers. The stunning Withings Activité looks more like a traditional Swiss watch - and that’s because it is!
The Activité was designed in France - Withings is French, what can you do? - but made in Watchmaker's Valley in Switzerland. The wearable oozes quality with soft leather, domed sapphire glass and stainless steel.
The only thing that betray its traditional aesthetic is the small secondary dial, which measures your progress towards your step goal throughout the day. The Withings Activité will also detect when you're running and track that. Not very well, it must be said, but it tries.
The Withings app is well designed, if annoyingly slow to sync at times, and the battery lasts an impressive six months. The Activité will also have a loose stab at tracking your sleep (based on your movement as you slumber) and has a vibro-alarm function to wake you up.
Withings regularly updates its firmware and recently added limited swimming tracking - it can now detect when you swim and tell you how long you did it for and how many calories you burned whilst doing so, similar to what it does with running.
In short, a very nice watch with some handy step-counting abilities. It is rather pricey; if that's off-putting to you, the Activité Pop offers the same functionality and similar style, but in a more bright and breezy, Swatch-like plastic casing.
Price: £320 (£119 for the Activité Pop) | Withings
Best running watch alternative - Fitbit Surge
The Fitbit Surge is actually more of a running watch, but being from the Fitbit family it can function perfectly happily as a more basic fitness tracker, making use of Fitbit's excellent app and extensive user community.
The Fitbit Surge offers GPS to track your runs and cycles (a real must for accurate training), real-time workout stats and a 24/7 heart rate monitor that is far more useful than the Charge HR's when exercising, although it weirdly only shows you what HR zone you're in via a confusing graphic rather than just saying "cardio", "fat burn", etc. Oh well.
The 1.25-inch screen is monochrome, to eke out 7-days of battery life, although it was more like 5 in our tests.
The issue here is that it strikes us as too big and ugly for most people to want to use it as a basic fitness tracker, and has a few limitations as running watch that mean you might be better off with a Garmin or Polar device. As a hybrid of the two, it's nearly up there with the Microsoft Band. But not quite.
Price: £199 | Fitbit
Best runner-up - Sony Smartband Talk
The Sony Smartband Talk is getting on a bit now, but we still rate it as a decent fitness tracker.
While other fitness trackers are content with measuring your steps and health data, the SmartBand Talk has some smartwatch capabilities thrown.
Most notably, as the name suggests, users can accept calls on the device, and make use of a limited number of basic apps on the E-Ink display. The monotone screen is surprisingly usable, and the call quality is actually excellent.
The UI on the band is simple, with the ability to scroll through the time and current activity, steps taken, amount of sleep, stairs climbed, and a limited number of apps available from the Sony app.
We found the band most beneficial when it displays incoming texts and emails. The design is plain, and the rubber band is comfortable. Although it does collect lint quite easily.
Battery life lasts around 3 days.
It's a simple combination, but it's really effective at what it does.
Although, as it's slightly old now we can be looking forward to a second version soon. Hopefully.
Price: £80 | Sony