Looking to get fit in 2021? The best fitness tracker – a.k.a. fitness band – is a decent place to start, especially if you're trying to stick to New Year resolutions. Even the best fitness tracker cost less than fitness wearables at the bottom of the best running watch list, not to mention the best Apple Watch, the latter which can set you back hundreds of dollars/pounds.
With the market extremely well established there really is something for everyone in terms of prices, from around £20 to £200+, with products that do little more than count steps and 'track sleep', with varying degrees of inaccuracy, all the way up to devices with heart-rate tracking that are more like scaled down running watches.
After many years of doing very little beyond counting steps, makers of trackers and bands are now realising that many consumers want more useful feedback on how fit they are and how to get fitter. They are addressing this with, it must be said, 'varying' degrees of success.
To cut a long story short, if you're seriously interested in fitness, you might be better off getting a multisport watch such as the Garmin Forerunner 745 or the Suunto 7. These smartwatches are useful when cycling, hiking, at the gym and even, in a few cases, swimming.
However, if you must have a Fitbit or similar, get the Fitbit Charge 4, Fitbit Inspire 2 or one of their more versatile watches such as the Fitbit Versa 3.
Fitness trackers: what you need to know
So, walking 10,000 steps per day is absolutely better than walking none, but it won't turn you into Sir Mo Farah.
Tracking your sleep may give you some interesting insights, but it won't necessarily help you sleep any better. I've tried to address those shortcomings by picking out the bands that try to do more, rather than just literally being step counters.
Fitness trackers have issues around accurately calculating how many calories you've burned, how much distance you've covered and what your heart rate is, particularly during vigorous exercise.
Perhaps worst of all, most older fitness trackers made no effort to tell you how fit you are, or offer any ways to get fitter. Brands are finally addressing this, largely through estimating your VO2 Max during regular workouts. This gives you a base score for how fit you are, which can be rewarding or terrifying, depending on where you sit on the scale.
The best fitness trackers, in order
The Fitbit Charge 4 is the best fitness tracker you can buy and a big step forward for Fitbit. Admittedly that step forward feels a little late, as it's only now adding features that users have begged for, for years and which Garmin has also offered in its fitness trackers for years. But then, God keeps a special place in Heaven for late converts to the path of righteousness. So thank you, Fitbit.
Most significantly, Fitbit Charge 4 includes GPS for tracking runs, rides, hikes and egg-and-spoon races. And second most significantly, there is a new system for tracking intense exercise, which sits alongside the usual Fitbit fare of counting your steps.
The GPS can take a while to acquire a satellite lock – although to be fair I do usually start running in something of a GPS blackspot – but once it's in business the accuracy of it is very good. It's up there with expensive Garmin watches, in fact.
The heart rate tracking is also not bad, once you figure out the best place to wear it – usually this seems to be just a little further up the arm than you'd expect, in my case. It's certainly good enough for running although if you want to start doing push-ups and pull-ups, it really struggles to keep reading your pulse reliably. This is true of all wrist heart rate trackers but the Charge 4 seems to struggle more than most, and I can only assume that's just down to it being physically smaller and narrower.
The Active Zone Minutes feature gives you a daily and weekly score for activity above and beyond going for a walk. This is exclusive to the Charge 4, which is a little surprising. Other devices continue to use the ostensibly similar but actually somewhat more primitive 'activity minutes'.
Also exclusive to the Charge 4 is that it will automatically choose your heart rate zones for you, based on your age and what it perceives as your fitness level. This should become more accurate, the longer you use the Charge 4.
With your heart rate zones established, Active Zone Minutes works quite well. It scores you one point for every minute spent in the 'fat burn' zone and two points for every minute in the more intense 'cardio' and 'peak' zones. So the longer and harder you workout, the more points you earn.
This also means you can go for a leisurely walk that lasts for 17 hours and you will, in all likelihood, earn ZERO Active Zone Minutes points. Although of course you will tot up lots of steps, as the Charge 4 has not ditched more gentle metrics such as steps, calories burned and estimated distance travelled.
Personally, I find Active Zone Minutes far more useful. Yes, it is pretty much exactly the same system that Garmin has used for years, but Fitbit's devices and app are just more enjoyable to use than Garmin's. And imitation is flattery, right?
If you're into sleep tracking (why?!) the Charge 4 is also very well endowed with features. An overall 'sleep score' attempts to rate your night's efforts at dozing, and those with a Fitbit Premium account can see a detailed breakdown of how long they spent in the various stages of slumber, from light to deep to REM to, er, awake. So that's nice.
Perhaps more useful is a blood oxygen tracking feature that could alert you to health issues such as sleep apnoea. The Charge 4 is not a medical device so it won't literally 'alert' you via any messaging. However, if you look at your nightly blood OX graph and note wild variations in its level, this could mean it's time to see the doctor.
Not everything about Fitbit's attempt to marry its new, more serious approach to it's long-standing quest to count all of the world's steps works. And serious runners and cyclists are still better off with a more serious watch, probably from Garmin. There are however a lot of people in the middle of the step-counting audience and the marathon-running one, and Charge 4 caters for them very well, at a more than reasonable price.
And that is why the Charge 4 has scooped the Best Fitness Tracker prize at the T3 Awards 2020.
The Fitbit Versa 3 is a very enjoyable fitness smartwatch. It offers more functionality and better looks than most fitness trackers but it’s maybe not quite as smart and precise as the Apple Watch Series 5. That comparison might not be fair, though, as the Fitbit Versa 3 offers great functionality for much less than the Apple Watch 5.
The Versa 3 is a well-rounded offer from Fitbit and comes with built-in GPS, in-app workout intensity map, PurePulse 2.0 optical heart rate sensor and the Active Zone Minutes feature to monitor your fitness activities, even when you're not actively logging workouts. The heart rate sensor and the built-in GPS could be more accurate but for everyday sport activities, they are more than adequate.
The Fitbit Versa 3 also has a built-in speaker and microphone to take quick phone calls, send calls to voicemail and adjust call volume straight from the wrist – although you will look like a ‘special’ agent, if you know what I mean.
Considering the asking price, the Fitbit Versa 3 is definitely a great buy. Should you find one for a discounted price – which will inevitably happen sooner or later – we recommend getting one, even if you already have a Versa 2.
• Read our full Fitbit Versa 3 review here
The Garmin Venu Sq is a decent fitness smartwatch, especially considering the asking price. Some corners have been cut to keep the price down but nothing really spoils the experience all that much.
The 'liquid crystal' display is a bit on a small side but at least it's responsive and bright. The sensors are precise and use Garmin's algorithm that's proven to give accurate readings, especially during high-heart rate exercise sessions. The interface of the Garmin Venu Sq will be familiar to people who used Garmin watches before but even if you didn't, you can rest assured you won't get lost in obscure menus.
Would we recommend the Garmin Venu Sq over other fitness smartwatches such as the Fitbit Versa 3? We would, especially for active people who don't require the oversimplified, gamified health system of Fitbit and a watch that tracks a variety of health metrics in an Apple Watch-like body.
The price might not be much cheaper than the asking price for the Versa 3 but it's still somewhat cheaper and that might make the difference to some people. Regardless of the cheaper price, the Venu Sq has a bunch of premium features such as built-in GPS, blood oxygen/stress monitoring and sleep tracking. And measures it all with relative accuracy too.
• Read our full Garmin Venu Sq review here
The Polar Ignite is a great fitness tracker, mainly aimed at runners, but it can track a million other fitness activities like backcountry skiing and fitness dancing too. As well as tracking your activities, it can also monitor sleep and keep an eye out on your heart-rate throughout the day, too.
Thanks to the built-in GPS, there is no need to carry around the phone with you when you go out for a run to be able to track your course. Recording an exercise is as easy as pressing the button on the side and tapping on the icon of the desired activity, doesn't take you more than two seconds.
Wrist-based HR trackers aren't the most precise but the Polar Ignite does a good job to give you an estimate, based on your fitness levels, age, sex, etc. It can also measure VO2 Max with the 'Fitness Test' feature.
The metrics monitored by the Polar Ignite are more than enough for most serious amateurs, people this fitness watch was designed for. Not only it gives you stats after the exercise has been finished on the watch face, once synchronised with the Polar Flow app, you can analyse your training in even more depth.
You can also track your sleeps with the Polar Ignite. The only issue is – and this is something all fitness trackers have in common – is that wearing a tracker 'snugly' is not comfortable on the long run.
The Polar Ignite is by no means the cheapest tracker in this list but given the range of features, it's a worthwhile investment.
• Read our full Polar Ignite review here
The Fitbit Inspire 2 was announced the same time as the Fitbit Sense and the fitbit Versa 3 and it got little attention, although it deserves more. This cheap fitness tracker not only has an optical heart rate sensor but also comes fully equipped with features such as the Fitbit Active Zone Minutes and SmartTrack.
Plus, included in the price is a 1-year Fitbit Premium membership which in itself would cost more than the fitness tracker itself. You can look at the the Inspire 2 as a free fitness tracker when you subscribe to Fitbit Premium. A free fitness tracker with an OLED screen, that is.
The Fitbit Inspire 2 has great battery life too: it can go for 'up to' 10 days in between charges and since it uses connected GPS, tracking activities outdoors won't drain the battery more either (you will need to carry the phone with you, though). And of course, the Inspire 2 makes full use of the excellent Fitbit App: in the app, you can set up goals, check sleep stats and more.
The ECG and sleep disturbance sensors on the Withings ScanWatch are accurate enough to receive the CE marking in the EU, so one can hope they are actually exact. The ECG readings can be exported as a PDF and sent over to doctors too if needed.
Through the Health Mate app, the ScanWatch can rate your sleep and give you a Sleep Score, just like how the new Fitbit Sense can provide you with a Stress Score. Both devices essentially gamify health and hopefully make complicated health metrics more digestible to everyday users.
The Withings ScanWatch is not perfect: on a couple of occasions the automatic activity detection mistook driving a car as cycling and sitting on the sofa as sleeping. We assume as more people will feed data into the algorithm by wearing the watch and correcting these mistakes manually, the more precise the system will get eventually.
If you dislike the modern look of the Fitbit Sense and prefer a smartwatch with a more timeless design wrapped around your wrist, the Withings ScanWatch might just be the perfect choice for you, even if you haven't got any heart issues and your sleep is fine too.
• Read our full Withings ScanWatch review here
The Huawei Band 3 Pro delivers on what it promises: an affordable fitness tracker with some bonus features such as built-in GPS and sleep tracking. This sleek little device won't win any design awards for innovation but it is not expected to do so anyway.
The Band 3 Pro's AMOLED touchscreen displays all the essential information, such as heart rate an steps taken, and you can choose to log a wide variety of exercises, including outdoor and indoor cycling and run, pool and open water swim or freeform. Needless to say, the Band 3 Pro is waterproof, otherwise it would be fairly challenging to log exercises in water.
You can check a range of metrics in the Huawei Health app (something you will need to set the band up) including sleep stats. The app can also recommend ways to improve your sleep quality using the TruSleep feature. After the band assessed your baseline (you wore it for three sleeps), this feature can provide you with more than 200 potential solutions and suggestions to help you sleep better and make mornings easier.
Okay, this one doesn't have cardio tracking but it's good enough to merit inclusion nonetheless. That's because, with a six-month battery life from a standard watch battery, waterproofing to 30m, a choice of wrist and ankle straps, and the addition of voice coaching, Moov Now is a very interesting take on fitness wearables.
You'll need your phone and a secondary device to track your position and pulse, but what this lightweight, reasonably priced, quite attractive band adds is to exchange data with a phone app so it can talk you through your runs. It'll tell you when to speed up, give advice on your stride and how hard you're hitting the ground.
It'll also track and, to greater and lesser degrees, coach you through swimming, cycling, running, cardio boxing and seven-minute HIIT workouts.
When we say coaching varies, it really does. Cardio boxing is almost like Guitar Hero but with punching, with lots of voice input. Seven-minute interval workouts come with plenty of motivation too, but cyclists just get vague tips on cadence, and inaccurate data on RPM and power.
Moov Now also handles day-to-day step and sleep tracking. The battery is a standard, non-rechargeable watch type that you can fit and forget about for up to six months – very good.
Overall, Moov is a mixed bag, but at least it's trying. For the price, it's worth a try.
In a saturated market such as fitness trackers, the Samsung Galaxy Fit2 doesn't stand a chance. It's not a bad fitness tracker: the Fit2 has a handsome looking AMOLED screen, recognises five different exercises automatically, tracks sleep and has a long battery life.
What we don't understand why is it essential to download and install three different apps and drivers to connect the Fit2 to the phone in the first place? Not to mention the annoying software update reminders which will just appear out of nowhere when one unlocks the phone. Like, whoever allowed the Samsung app to pester the users with these updates, without ever giving permission to do so?
Phone-related issues aside, the biggest issue of the Samsung Galaxy Fit2 is that there are cheaper and more capable fitness bands on the market today from established brands such as Huawei, to mention one. These bands offer more functions (e.g. built-in GPS) and better specs for less. The Fit2 is really only recommended to people who are brand-loyal to Samsung and can't imagine wearing a non-Samsung fitness tracker.
Being narcissists, kids love any information they can get about themselves, so a step counter specifically for kids makes a lot of sense.
Garmin's scaled down Vivofit comes in all manner of themed designs, from Minnie Mouse to Captain America, and rewards the wearer for completing 60 minutes of activity per day by allowing them to progress through a game related to the theme – Ultron's Revenge for the Captain America one, for instance.
You can also set up alerts and 'chore management' for your offspring. The latter is more fun than it sounds. You can allot points for doing certain chores or activities that build up over time until preset (by you) goals are reached, at which stage, they get to go to McDonald's or whatever.
The strap is maybe a bit big for younger/smaller children but it is robust, and makes Vivofit JR 2 hard to lose. The watch is waterproof, and the battery should last for over a year before needing replacement. If your 7-year-old is still into it after 12 months, that would be a minor miracle, of course.
I do think it's quite funny that a goal of 60 minutes of activity has been added to this as standard, whereas it's seemingly deemed too much for mere adults.