10 best fitness trackers 2017: bands that can do more than just count steps

Wearables for getting 10,000 steps a day, tracking sleep, but also improving your overall fitness

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Looking to get fit in 2017? A fitness tracker (aka a fitness band, aka "those things you wear that count your steps") is a decent place to start.

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. Or, if you're less diplomatic, not much success.

To cut a long story short, if you're interested in fitness, my strong advice is to get a running watch instead. The term 'running watch' is just shorthand - they're also useful when cycling, hiking, at the gym and even, in a few cases, swimming.

But what is the best fitness tracker?

Okay, it's still the Fitbit Charge 2. This nondescript black strap has been out for several years, but it does both all the core steps 'n' sleep stuff, and slightly more advanced fitness tracking, thanks to a reasonably reliable heart-rate reader. 

The Charge 2 is handy at the gym, , and can even function as a running watch and wrist-worn cycling tracker, although you will need your phone's GPS to make the most of it.

Fitbit's app and ecosystem are also by far the best. Seriously, it's not even close. Garmin's is too sprawling, although they are about to launch a tightened up version that's been in beta for the last few months. 

If you want something to just count steps, track sleep and gain motivation via social channels, with the option of tracking more intense exercise now and then, the Fitbit Alta HR is probably your best bet. If you want more of a running watch that's in the shape of a fitness tracker, your best bet is Garmin's Vivosport, which includes built-in GPS as well as pulse tracking. 

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 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. If you're after a simple step counter, I would really recommend the Fitbit Alta because it's the best of that breed, or the Garmin Vivofit 3 because its battery lasts for a year, or a Xiaomi one, because they cost next to nothing.

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. As a result, they also didn't offer ways to get fitter. Brands are finally addressing this, largely through estimating your VO2 Max during regular workouts. 

Our pick of the best fitness trackers to buy today

1. Fitbit Charge 2

The best fitness tracker

Specifications
Battery life: 4 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: via linked phone only
Reasons to buy
+Excellent app+Good for multiple sports+Decent heart-rate reader+Gives overall fitness score
Reasons to avoid
-Screen can't be set to always on-No built-in GPS
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The Fitbit Charge 2 was for a long time the best fitness tracker you can buy by such a comfortable margin that I wondered why anyone else bothered. It's still the best you can get.

It tracks deep and light sleep, steps, distance and calories, but that is barely scraping the surface of its capabilities. Via Fitbit's excellently presented app and sprawling ecosystem, you can use it as the basis of a complete fitness and diet programme. Unlike all too many competitors, it syncs quickly and reliably too.

Numerous targets and goals can be set (steps, stairs climbed, 'Activity Minutes' of moderate to vigorous exercise, weekly goals for number of days hitting the Activity Minutes target, and so on. You can also enter your meals to log calories consumed, and trade them off against the Charge 2's estimate of how many calories you've burned. I would not trust this, personally, but it's a semi-useful rough guide, I guess.

Thanks to an acceptably accurate and reliable heart-rate reader, it's more useful for serious exercise than many bands. 

This is undermined by the fact that the screen turns itself off after just a few seconds, to preserve battery, and the fact that your current cardio zone is not shown on screen. As someone who uses cardio zones as the basis of practically all exercise I do, I find this absolutely baffling. Yes, in theory, you can turn the screen on by turning your wrist but this only works about half the time, and if you're really going for it on a run, cycle or gym session, that is a massive PITA. 

A more agreeable feature of the Fitbit Charge 2 is that it can auto-detect various common types of exercise, so you don't have to remember to press a button every time you go for a jog or get on your bike, or an elliptical trainer.

Fitbit's band can also tap into your phone's GPS and function as a running/cycling watch, giving reasonably accurate speed and distance stats, albeit at the cost of draining your phone's battery.

This aside, the best thing about the Charge 2 is that it tries to tell you that you've got fitter, via its overall fitness score – mysteriously buried in the 'heart rate' part of the app dashboard. This uses analysis of your heart during very vigorous exercise (it's a VO2 Max estimate, if you want to get technical about it), to rate you against the population as a whole. I'm "Good to excellent", thanks for asking.

On the down side, the Charge 2 can't really give recommendations on how to get fitter, beyond taking more steps. 

Despite my reservations, the sheer wearability of the Charge 2, and relatively low cost, coupled with a very strong app and tracking that goes beyond steps and hours of sleep mean it's still the best you can get.

Oh, unless you're a swimmer. This isn't waterproof, so consider a Garmin Vivosport instead…

2. Garmin Vivosport

A direct rival to Charge 2 with GPS

Specifications
Battery life: 7 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Long battery life+GPS and HR built in+Waterproof 
Reasons to avoid
-Dodgy UI and app-Crappy additional features
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This is an object lesson in how software and wearability are as important to fitness wearables as features are. Perhaps more so. 

And the reason I say that is as the Vivosport beats the Charge 2 by having GPS built in, an app for counting reps automatically at the gym, something to monitor your stress levels, you might think it's a better product. And it is, on paper.

However, although the Vivosport is a very solid performer, it's just kind of horrible to wear. It feels nasty, looks quite bad, I think, and the screen is even worse to look at than the Charge 2, due to a stupid layout.

When you go into Garmin's app, it's also much more fiddly than the Fitbit one. The same metrics are there, and more beside, but they're harder to find and use. Syncing is unacceptably painful at times.

All that said, if you can live with the Vivosport's aesthetic and UI issues, it does do a lot and, like the Charge 2, offers an estimated VO2 Max score and rating that you can use to gauge your overall fitness.

Sleep monitoring is perhaps a bit less detailed than Fitbit's but lovers of completely useless functions will be pleased to know that there is advanced stress monitoring on board. Who doesn't know when they're stressed?!

3. TomTom Spark 3 GPS + Heartrate

Best tracker for more strenuous exercise

Specifications
Battery life: 4 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+VO2 Max and Fitness Age features+Does the basics well
Reasons to avoid
-Ugly-Basic in some ways
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This was built as more of a running/multi-sport watch really, but recent software updates have given it some interesting tracking attributes.

The Spark3 will track steps, calories and sleep but its main use is as a simple way to track more full-on, heart-pounding workouts, from running to cycling to gym.

The GPS and heart-rate tracking are more reliable than anything else on this list (although, okay, still not perfect) and by making heavy use cardio zones, it actually tries to assist you in getting fitter, in a way that sports scientists and doctors may at least semi recognise. 

The watch and its app takes the pulse data gathered and uses it to assign every workout you do a 'fitness point' score. If you score over 100 during the course of 24 hours, your day is classed as 'active'. If it's over 500, you're 'improving'. The app (though not the watch itself) will actually then suggest you do, for instance, 20 minutes of intense exercise (in the 'perform' zone) or 40 minutes of lighter exercise, to hit your daily target.

Then, it uses your performance over time to calculate your VO2 Max, like Fitbit and Garmin's devices, but also to assign you a 'fitness age', which is rather more user-friendly for non-workout nerds. So, if you're 39 and your fitness age is 27, you're doing alright, mate. This, it seems to me, is a world away from being told when you've taken an arbitrary 10,000 steps and has some actual, tangible use.

It does require rather more commitment from you, however. Only exercise done with the timer and heart-rate monitoring turned on counts towards your fitness points, and as you get fitter, earning points gets harder, at least in theory.

My experience after a month of using the TomTom Spark 3 is that it's the most motivating fitness wearable I've used (admittedly not saying much), but I am not entirely convinced it is adapting to my fitness levels. Being scored as 'active' is a piece of piss and I'm not sure it's too discerning when it comes to 'improving', although that definitely takes more work. As I say, TomTom's claim is that earning points gets harder as it learns more about you. We shall see…

This aside, there are considerable down sides to the Spark 3. It's ugly, has a UI that feels old fashioned, is awful at syncing with your mobile and has an app that comes nowhere near Garmin's for the number of metrics displayed, nor Fitbit's for slickness. 

Given that it's quite cheap, I do think it's worth a try for those who are serious about fitness, who do multiple activities and want to track the effect of them using just one device.

4. Moov Now

Fitness tracker with voice coaching

Specifications
Battery life: 6 months
Heart-rate monitoring: No
GPS: No
Reasons to buy
+Six-month battery life+Sometimes handy coaching advice+Relatively cheap
Reasons to avoid
-Sometimes not handy coaching advice
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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 was a very interesting take on fitness wearables when it appeared a few years back.

It doesn't do heart rate tracking or include GPS, so you'll need your phone or another device to track those accurately, but what this lightweight, reasonably priced, quite attractive band does do 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 are good 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, if that's what you're after. 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.

5. Nokia Health Steel

The best of the hybrid watch fitness trackers

Specifications
Battery life: 6 months
Heart-rate monitoring: No
GPS: No
Reasons to buy
+The best-looking step counter+Inviting, if detail-lacking app+Handy vibro-alarm function
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn't really do much
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The Withings Activité started the trend for analogue watches that also track steps and sleep. It was such a huge success that Withings eventually became part of Nokia, and its successor, the Nokia Steel, is still pretty good. 

At a glance, this just looks like a Swatch-esque watch, but the small secondary dial measures your progress towards your step goal throughout the day. The Steel will also detect when you're running or swimming and gamely attempt to track that. This makes a distance calculation based on steps/strokes taken rather than GPS, but it isn't totally inaccurate, all the time. The Nokia Steel will also have a loose stab at tracking your sleep (based on your movement as you slumber) and has a useful vibro-alarm function to then wake you up.

The Nokia app is user-friendly enough, although data is annoyingly slow to sync at times. There's not much to view on it – just steps, distance and calories burned (although I'd take all that data with a pinch of not-very-healthy salt). You can add other Nokia/Withings products such as its body scales, to add further metrics.

In truth, the best things about the Steel are that it doesn't look like a fitness band, and the standard watch battery it uses lasts an impressive six months. 

If you find the Steel a bit cheap looking there are still stocks of the old, range-topping Withings Activité available. This really oozes quality with a soft leather strap, domed sapphire glass and stainless steel casing, but it had/has all manner of reliability and syncing issues. 

6. Fitbit Ionic

Best tracker/running watch/smartwatch hybrid

Specifications
Battery life: 4 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Good app, great screen+Very full feature list+Guided workouts have potential+Smartwatch-style extras
Reasons to avoid
-Pulse tracking issues-Few apps to date
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All the Fitbits and Garmins have a stab at notifications, but the Ionic is the first such watch that is being marketed more as a smartwatch with fitness elements than a fitness band with smartwatch ones. It's a platform, man.

It's an interesting hybrid with some good elements, but hard to recommend unreservedly at this early stage. I think in a year, as more apps roll out and some of its shortcomings get fixed, it could become more essential.

To keep this review brief – we'll have a longer, standalone review soon – I'd say the Ionic has all the strengths of the Charge 2, with a much better screen, video-assisted guided workouts, and the ability to make contactless payments, receive notifications and use third-party apps. We'll have a longer, standalone review soon.

It's not higher up the list because to date there are hardly any third-party apps (a feeble shadow version of Strava and something for buying coffee from Starbucks), only three video workouts, which I question the usefulness of – have you ever tried to follow a training video on your wrist, whilst doing pressups? – and a few early teething problems that will presumably get fixed in due course via software updates.

My main problem with the Ionic to date has been with the heart rate tracker. This has apparently been optimised for more intense exercise, which I think is great in theory, but in practice means it only starts to work once your pulse is elevated. So once you're well up into the cardio, performance and peak zones it's good, but it's all over the place below that. That's not ideal if you want to be in a lower intensity cardio or fat burning zone.

Also, Fitbit still refuses to show what heart-rate zone you're in during training; it only shows the pulse rate, leaving you to remember where each zone begins and ends. At least, unlike the Charge 2, the Ionic allows you to have the screen permanently on, rather than requiring you to flick your wrist to activate it – an action which works maybe 50% of the time.

That aside, contactless payments are fairly painless – you need to enter a PIN once or twice per day, it's only going to get better as time goes by, and the Fitbit app does everything from telling you how many steps you've taken to tracking your latest running/cycling/gymming/etc to how your VO2 Max compares to the population at large.

If you don't care about cardio zone training, none of my caveats about that need bother you and maybe you should buy an Ionic. The only thing is, if you want a smartwatch that also tracks fitness, I think you'd be better off spending a bit more and getting an Apple Watch…

7. Myzone MZ-3

The best tracker for your gym

Reasons to buy
+Accurate cardio tracking+Good social platform
Reasons to avoid
-Minimal usefulness outside of a gym
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This is specifically for 'proper' workouts, rather than step and activity tracking.

In conjunction with its app, Myzone tracks accurately your cardio effort during exercise and allows you to compete via a social platform to find out who is officially the fittest amongst your peer group, with league tables and everything.

Interestingly, because its scoring is based on effort, theoretically it allows unfit people to compete against more advanced athletes. Is that fair, when someone might be so unfit their pulse rate will go through the roof if they so much as look at a skipping rope? We'll leave that for you to decide.

This can't compete with Fitbit, Garmin or even the Microsoft Band when it comes to tracking daily health metrics like steps and hours slept. 

However, we'd venture that it's vastly more useful if you want to get properly fit, as opposed to just losing a bit of weight or feeling a little more active. For gym bunnies, it's well worth considering.

Myzone is available as a standalone heart-rate strap and (for and extra £80) as part of this rather fetching compression top. There's also a bra for the ladies.

8. Garmin Vivosmart HR+

Older version of the Vivosport

Specifications
Battery life: 5 days
Heart-rate monitoring: Yes
GPS: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Solid battery life+GPS and pulse tracking+Affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Unpleasant look and feel-Worse app than main rival Fitbit
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An older version of the Vivosport, this is again very similar to the Fitbit Charge HR, but with built-in GPS and waterproofing, slightly better battery life, and the ability to track various activities. 

The pulse tracking is useful for exercise and following your resting heart rate, and as a general fitness tracker it's good. It lacks some of the features of the Vivosport, but mainly the less useful ones such as 'wellness' stress tracking and a rep counter.

The Vivosmart HR+ remains a solid option if you can find it cheap.

9. Fitbit Alta HR

The Fitbit Charge 2 in a slimmer, more discreet/feminine form

Reasons to buy
+Excellent app+Very slim+Lots of functionality
Reasons to avoid
-Pulse tracker not much use for exercise
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Functionally identical to the Charge 2, the Alta HR could just as easily be called the Alta HER, as it's clearly aimed at a more feminine type of consumer.

It's a solid device, but has all the same caveats as the Charge 2, only more so, because the screen is even smaller, and the pulse tracker less reliable during exercise, presumably because the slimmer band doesn't keep it in place and block out light as well as a fatter strap.

If you can get by without pulse tracking, the Fitbit Alta (with no HR) is about as wearable as that kind of basic tracker gets, although it feels a bit overpriced.

10. Garmin Vivofit 3

Best step counter for battery life

Reasons to buy
+12-month battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Ugly-Limited features
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In most respects the very definition of 'bog standard fitness band', the Vivofit 3 excels in one area: shove in a standard watch battery and it lasts for a year.

That aside it counts steps adequately, and attempts to detect exercise, Fitbit style, but does so fairly inadequately. It logs steps, sleep and 'intensity minutes', although again, the Vivofit's concept of 'intensity' may not quite chime with yours. 

For those who are allergic to charging, just want to do the basics like counting steps, and don't mind looking like they're on day release, this could be a decent choice.