10 best fitness trackers to help you reach your goals

From built-in GPS to monitoring heart rate, brands like Fitbit and Apple have made the activity bands you’ll want to wear

David Phelan@davidphelan2009
Tuesday 04 May 2021 16:14
<p>We’ve tested these for reliability, accuracy, battery life and simplicity of use</p>

We’ve tested these for reliability, accuracy, battery life and simplicity of use

Whether you’re a workout fanatic looking for some serious data or simply want to understand how much or little exercise you’re getting, a fitness tracker can be a real boon.

It measures your movements, usually by the swing of your arms, and because it knows your height, weight and gender, extrapolates how many steps you’ve taken and how many calories you’re burning.

More advanced trackers have a heart rate monitor – calculating your breathing by a camera facing your wrist which spots tiny changes in skin colour – for greater accuracy and some include a GPS transceiver so that it can calculate an outdoor run with precision.

Some will automatically recognise when you’re running, for instance, and start measuring accordingly. While others are waterproof so you can swim in them, and some can monitor activities such as cycling, rowing or yoga.

Other features to look out for are measurements of the amount of oxygen in the blood (using an SpO2 sensor) or even the capability to record an ECG on your wrist.

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For most though, the benefit is the gentle encouragement it can give you to stay active by hitting a target of steps. We’ve tested the trackers here for reliability, accuracy, battery life and simplicity of use. Different trackers vary in the number of steps they count: more important is how reliably they measure things.

In other words, if you walk 200 steps in one direction and the same distance back, the tracker should record exactly 200 steps on the return journey, too.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

The best fitness trackers for 2021

Best overall fitness tracker – Withings pulse HR tracker: £74.96, Withings.com

Best for sleep tracking – Fitbit charge 3 tracker: £199, Amazon.co.uk

Best for iPhone users – Apple watch series 3: £199, Apple.com

Best for activity tracking – Garmin vivosmart 4 tracker: £99.99, Garmin.com

Best Apple Watch alternative – Fitbit versa 2 tracker: £169, Fitbit.com

Best battery life – Withings move ECG: £108.29, Withings.com

Best for Android – Samsung Galaxy watch active2: £216, Amazon.co.uk

Best for built-in GPS – Huawei band 3 pro tracker: £99.85, Amazon.co.uk

Best for yoga – Fitbit Inspire HR tracker: £85, Amazon.co.uk

Cheapest fitness tracker – Xiaomi Mi smart band 4: £27.50, Amazon.co.uk

Withings pulse HR tracker

Best: Overall

Heart Rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? No

Battery life: Up to 20 days

Withings makes outstanding health and fitness gadgets, from smart bathroom scales to sleep monitoring pads. This one can track over 30 different activities and the built-in heart rate monitor measures heart rate continuously during workouts. There’s also sophisticated sleep monitoring that can analyse how well you’ve slept, showing a graph with details in terms of light and deep sleep on your smartphone.

Since it’s lightweight enough to wear in bed, it’s a great sleep companion. You can also set smart alarms, that is, the tracker will spot when you’re going from deep to light sleep and wake you at that moment when it happens just before your set alarm time. This means you are waking up at the optimum moment in your sleep cycle and, because it wakes you through vibration, your significant other can keep slumbering.

Although it doesn’t have GPS built in, if you’re running with your smartphone it can connect to that. The Withings interface on the app is clear and attractive and if you have other Withings devices, the information is collated there, too. Some basic notifications are passed from your phone to your wrist but this is primarily a health gadget.

Fitbit charge 3 tracker

Best: For sleep tracking

Heart Rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? No

Battery life: Up to 7 days

Fitbit, recently bought by Google, is the big brand in dedicated fitness gizmos. This is its most advanced tracker yet. Unlike many trackers, this one is monitoring your heart rate continuously rather than just during workouts.

As well as looking out for health trends it also gives information during workouts to help understand them better. Sleep tracking is excellent, measuring REM sleep as well as deep and light. Three exercises, running, swimming and elliptical training, are recognised automatically. Like the Withings Pulse HR, it measures your run using the GPS in your smartphone. Comes in a range of colours.

Apple Watch series 3

Best: For iPhone users

Heart rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? Yes

Battery life: One day

Though this is a more fully-featured gadget, a proper watch instead of just a tracker, it is so focused on fitness and health and has dropped in price so much, it deserves a place here. It needs an iPhone 6s or later to work fully, though a version with cellular connectivity means you can make phone calls on the Watch even when your iPhone is elsewhere.

Apple’s daily fitness regime is simple and effective: there are three rings to be closed. The “stand” ring wants you to stand up and move around for one minute every hour – it reminds you at 50 minutes past the hour. The exercise ring fills up with 30 minutes of any brisk exercise and the “move” ring counts your active calories towards the goal you set. It’s simple and easy to use. The heart rate monitor warns you when an unusually high or low rate is spotted.

In non-health features, the GPS sensor works with the maps on your iPhone for excellent navigation, there’s a neat app called Breathe which encourages you to breathe deeply for 60 seconds and Apple Pay turns the Watch into a virtual credit card. Apple’s virtual personal assistant, Siri, is built-in. Say, “Hey, Siri” and you ask for directions, check your diary and more with your voice. Series 3 comes in two case sizes, 38mm (£199) and 42mm (£229).

If you want the model that connects directly to the mobile phone network, that’s an extra £100. Choose from different coloured aluminium finishes and lots of easily interchangeable straps.

Read the Apple series 6 watch vs Apple SE watch review

Garmin vivosmart 4 tracker

Best: For activity tracking

Heart rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? Yes, to 50m

Built-in GPS? No

Battery life: Up to 7 days

Garmin’s wide range of trackers include this slim and smart model that is discreetly styled. As well as monitoring your heart rate, it can track blood oxygen levels and stress levels. It also has an innovative feature called Body Battery energy monitoring which aims to work out how tired you are through a combination of heart rate, sleep quality, activity and more. It can then advise you if today is a day to push harder or take it easy.

It’ll automatically track swimming, walking, cycling and elliptical training, which is handy if you forget to tell it what you’re doing. It measures light, deep and REM sleep and it also tracks blood oxygen levels during the night. The battery lasts five days with the blood oxygen monitoring on, up to seven without, and recharges quickly.

Fitbit versa 2 tracker

Best: Apple Watch alternative

Heart rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? No

Battery life: Up to 5 days

If you don’t have an iPhone, then this is a great choice, for the same price as the Apple Watch Series 3. It works similarly to the Fitbit charge 3, including a similar range of workouts but has a large, colour screen. The sleep tracking is more detailed, recognising REM sleep as well as light and deep. The continuous heart rate tracking is useful and it also has a useful guided breathing session to help if you’re stressed. Fitbit Coach Workouts guide you through exercises on the Versa’s screen. It also has Amazon’s assistant, Alexa, built in, invoked when you press the side button. It has Fitbit Pay, the company’s own digital wallet app, built in.

Withings move ECG

Best: Battery life

Heart rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? No

Battery life: 1 year

Withings uses analogue hands instead of a touchscreen, so it looks much more like a traditional watch. The dial-within-a-dial counts round to 100 per cent of your cal. This latest model is also capable of measuring an ECG (as the name suggests) from your wrist just by holding the display. Results are read on the smartphone companion app. It can also look out for irregular heart rates which may suggest atrial fibrillation. A replaceable battery means you never need to charge the Move ECG, merely change the battery once a year. It tracks walking, running and swimming, but not the wide range of activities of some trackers. Sleep tracking is good – deep and light sleep are measured.

Samsung Galaxy watch active2

Best: For Android users

Heart Rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? Yes

Battery life: One day

The latest Samsung has a lot of features, including heart monitoring with notifications if it spots your heart rate going unusually high or low. Some previous Galaxy watches had a rotating bezel which was a neat way to interact with it. This has something which is arguably even better: the bezel doesn't move but digitally recognises your touch and responds accordingly, to move between menus, for example. Although it works with an iPhone, there are extra features when pairing it with an Android phone. For instance, you can take a picture of what you're wearing with your phone and the watch can generate a face face with complementary colours. Features include sleep tracking and advanced exercise monitoring.

Huawei band 3 pro tracker

Best: Built-in GPS

Heart rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? Yes

Battery life: Up to 14 days

Huawei’s band is very good value, packing in a colour OLED screen and GPS for a keen price. It has good build quality and smart aluminium frame around the screen. The colour display looks great though there are few watch faces to choose from. The fact that it has GPS on board means you can track your runs accurately without being weighed down by your smartphone, too. GPS can take a little while to lock on, so it’s worth activating it before you start your run, say. It has advanced data presentation in the smartphone app, so you can compare heart rate to running pace, for instance, which is useful. Some basic notifications from your phone show up on the band.

Fitbit Inspire HR tracker

Best: For yoga

Heart rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? Yes, to 50 metres

Built-in GPS? No

Battery life: Up to 5 days

Though not as accomplished as the Huawei in some ways, this is another good-value tracker with simplicity and design to the fore. The monochrome display is easy to read, though there are large bezels at top and bottom so it’s not as big as it looks at first sight. There are 15 exercise modes including bike, run and yoga. Guided breathing sessions are there to help you find a moment of calm. These work well, though Apple’s Breathe app is the simplest and most satisfying of this kind of exercise. It’ll automatically recognise when you start a walk, run, bike ride or swim. Choose between black, lilac and white-and-black finishes.

Xiaomi Mi smart band 4

Best: Budget fitness tracker

Heart rate monitor? Yes

Water-resistant? 50m

Built-in GPS? No

Battery life: Up to 21 days

Chinese brand Xiaomi is known for its low prices. To include a colour OLED screen and heart rate monitor for £35 is remarkable. Unlike some pricier bands, the heart rate monitor is not always on, you have to activate it. It also doesn’t measure REM sleep, but tracks light and deep sleep well enough. The interface isn’t as polished as, say, Fitbit, and the charging cradle requires you to take the tracker unit out of the band. However, since battery life is up to three weeks, you don’t need to do this every day.

Fitness tracker FAQs

How to buy a fitness tracker

When buying a fitness tracker, make sure you know exactly which features you want it to have, whether that’s step count and a heart rate monitor, or you’d also like it to have a built-in GPS and be water-resistant. Once you’ve nailed down your criteria, it’ll make it easier for you to choose exactly which wearable works for your intended use. Similarly, it’s worth considering what activities you’d like it to measure (more one that below) and the size of the band.

How much should I pay for a fitness tracker?

From our testing, it appears that cheap trackers perform well, although features will likely perform better on the more expensive wearables, and there is often a more wide-ranging number of sensors. For example, the Xiaomi Mi smart band 4 costs £35 but does not have a built-in GPS.

What activities can fitness trackers measure?

The different activities that can be measured vary per device, which you’ll notice from our individual reviews. The Fitbit Inspire HR tracker (£87, Amazon.co.uk), for example, has 15 exercise modes. But, as a rule, fitness trackers often measure steps, floors climbed, active minutes, distance travelled and heart rate. More advanced models will also be able to provide data on your sleep, cycling, running and mindfulness exercises.

The verdict: Fitness trackers

The two standout brands in fitness trackers are Fitbit and Withings. The Withings pulse HR is a great all-rounder, though the Withings move ECG has such advanced features it’s the best value here. Fitbit’s versa 2 is the perfect choice for Android phone users, while iPhone owners should choose the Apple Watch Series 3 for the perfect combination of sophisticated tracking, great design and real versatility.

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