If you’re looking to get fitter in 2014, investing in a fitness tracker to log your daily activity is a good first step. But with the dizzying choice available, finding the best fitness tracker for you is a tricky proposition. In fact, making that choice is only going to get harder with a whole plethora of new devices set to hit the market in the coming months.
The important thing to remember is that these devices are very personal, so what might be the best option for your friend, partner or training buddy, isn’t necessarily the best option for you.
Wristband or clip?
The first, and most obvious question you need to ask yourself is where you want to wear your fitness tracker. While pedometers had traditionally been small devices that clipped to your belt, it was when the original Nike+ FuelBand launched that the consumer appetite for fitness trackers really started to grow.
Now we’ve got numerous wrist-based fitness trackers like the Fitbit Flex, Fitbit Force, Jawbone UP and the second generation Nike+ FuelBand SE. And that’s before you look to the horizon and see the Polar Loop, Garmin vivofit, iFit Active, Jaybird Reign and a whole host of others coming down the line.
The big advantage of a wrist-based tracker is that it’s far easier to have it with you at all times. There’s no need to remember to clip it somewhere or put it in your pocket, it’s just there. And wearing a wristband device when you’re sleeping is also easier, since it requires no further accessories.
But the idea of wearing a fitness wristband may not appeal to all. For some it might not be acceptable at work, whether due to uniform code or health and safety. Others simply won’t want a wrist-based activity tracker for aesthetic reasons, especially if they already wear a wristwatch on one arm and jewelry on the other.
In those cases a clip-based design, or a device that simply slips into your pocket will be preferable. The Fitbit One and Withings Pulse are prime examples of this category – both devices can be carried in your pocket or clipped to your belt, with the prime advantage being their unobtrusive nature.
Of course with the right accessories, you can end up with some kind of hybrid device, like the Fitbug Orb. In essence the Orb is a pocketable / belt-clip device, but Fitbug also supplies a wristband in the box, so you could wear it like a FuelBand. It does make for a bulky addition to your wrist though, so most will probably limit wrist usage to sleep time.
While fitness trackers in essence are clever pedometers, the actual feature set varies considerably from device to device. They’ll all measure the number of steps you take and most will estimate calories burned and distance travelled based on those steps, but it’s the additional features that can make the difference.
- Heart rate: Very few fitness trackers will measure heart rate directly. In fact the Withings Pulse is the only one with built-in heart rate measurement right now, and that’s only spot measurement. If you want a constant heart rate measurement you’ll need a tracker that can pair with a chest strap sensor, like the Polar Loop, Garmin vivofit and iFit Active.
- Exercise session tracking: One of the best features built into the Nike+ FuelBand SE is its Session tracking. By holding down the button for a few seconds, you can start a Session, which essentially tells the FuelBand that you’re exercising. Once you’ve finished training you can stop the Session and then tag what activity you were doing within the app. While devices like the Jawbone UP can log training sessions through the app, only the FuelBand SE can do so via the tracker itself.
- Sleep tracking: Most of the fitness trackers on the market will also track your sleep. They do pretty much the same thing, telling you how long you slept, how much of that time was deep or light sleep, and how often you woke throughout the night. A key consideration, though, is how comfortable the device is to wear all night while you’re sleeping.
- Battery life: Because you’re using your fitness tracker 24 hours a day, battery life is important. Every time you need to charge it, you’re not tracking your activity, so the longer it can go between charges the better. The Fitbit Force can last around two weeks between charges, which is about as good as it gets. However, some trackers like the Garmin vivofit and Fitbug Orb opt for replaceable batteries instead rechargeable ones, meaning that you don’t have to worry about battery life for six months at a time.
- Altimeter: Steps are just steps according to most activity trackers, but some can also measure elevation. The Withings Pulse has an altimeter built into it and will tell you how many meters of elevation you’ve covered throughout the day. The Fitbit One and Fitbit Force also measure elevation, but log how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed instead of metres.
- Vibration alerts: A wristband that vibrates can be quite handy. The vibrate function can give you a nudge when you’ve been idle too long, or even wake you up in the morning without disturbing your partner. Fitbit makes good use of vibration alerts, as does Jawbone.
- Wireless connectivity: The majority of fitness trackers will sync wirelessly via an app on your phone or tablet, but there are still some, like the Jawbone UP, that need to be physically plugged in. To be fair, the soon-to-be-released Jawbone UP24 will address this issue and add wireless syncing to the feature list. Fitbit is particularly good when it comes to wireless syncing by bundling a wireless dongle in the box and allowing you to sync your data wirelessly with your computer as well as your phone.
- Bluetooth: With the latest fitness trackers using Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless connectivity you need to make sure that you have a phone or tablet that’s suitably equipped. While the iPhone has supported Bluetooth 4.0 since the 4S, the number of supporting Android handsets is still fairly small.
- App support: It’s not just the version of Bluetooth that you need to worry about, you also have to consider app platform support. Some fitness trackers, like the Nike+ FuelBand SE only work with iOS devices – there’s no Android app available, and it’s unlikely that one will appear any time soon. And even if you choose a fitness tracker that has an Android app, you need to make sure it’s compatible with your particular phone or tablet.
- Water resistance: Despite the fact that fitness trackers are designed to be worn all day, every day, very few of them are actually waterproof. The Polar Loop will happily stay with you in the swimming pool, and although Fitbit only describes the Flex as water resistant, it’s good to depths of 10m.
- Ecosystem: Many fitness trackers will make up part of a wider ecosystem with complementing products, apps and web portals. The Withings Pulse can be combined with the excellent Withings Smart Body Analyzer scales, while Fitbit and Fitbug also have smart scales to complement their trackers.
- Friends: As well as logging what you’re doing, a fitness tracker should also motivate you to be healthier and more active. If you have friends using the same tracker as you it can be a real motivational boost. Sharing your data with friends and colleagues can give you the impetus you need to push yourself that bit harder, especially if you drum up some friendly competition when it comes to that leader board.
So, while investing in a fitness tracker can definitely help you kick start a new, healthier lifestyle, you need to choose the right one for you, and make sure it has all the features you need. And remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint – you won’t instantly become fitter by virtue of wearing a tracker and logging your activity (or lack thereof). Like all fitness tech, an activity tracker is just a tool – you need to do the hard work yourself.