Wearable devices are more common than ever before. But ironically, the words “fitness tracker” and “smartwatch” have only grown more confusing. People have a hard time understanding how these product categories are different—a problem that leads to dissatisfied customers and wasted money.
Both fitness trackers and smartwatches have a place in this world. But we’re going to try and find which product belongs on your wrist.
Fitness Trackers Prioritize Health and Exercise
Nearly every component of a fitness tracker revolves around health and exercise. Fitness trackers use unique sensors to log your heart rate, sleep, workouts, stress level, and more. They contain easy-to-use software that encourages healthy habits, they’re usually swim-resistant, and they often last for several days on a charge.
Fitness trackers must connect with your phone to provide detailed health and fitness readings. The screen of a fitness tracker can show your heart rate and step count, but it’s too small for graphs or charts.
Also, most fitness trackers rely on the user’s smartphone for GPS functionality. Some people won’t need GPS tracking, but it’s useful for cyclists or runners who want to look back at their route and see where they slowed down, sped up, or hit an interesting heart rate. (Some fitness trackers come with GPS built-in, which saves you from taking a phone on your run.)
But in recent years, fitness trackers have become more “smartwatch-like.” It’s not uncommon for a fitness tracker to show notifications for text or calls, for example, and NFC contactless payment support is usually included in high-end fitness trackers.
And some fitness trackers look like smartwatches! The Fitbit Sense, for example, has a large full-color touchscreen display. But as you’ll learn in a minute, there’s more to a smartwatch than a big screen.
Smartwatches Expand Your Smartphone’s Capabilities
A smartwatch uses cutting-edge features to expand the capabilities of your phone. Smartwatches place a unique emphasis on communication, smart home control, and work-related tasks. They often support a ton of apps, including things like Spotify or Google Maps, which you can control from your wrist.
Your average smartwatch uses a large color touchscreen display. And if you pay extra, it may even support cellular connectivity. This allows you to go for a walk without your smartphone and still stream music, receive calls or texts, or perform most other tasks.
Health and fitness is a huge part of this equation, by the way. Smartwatches can track your exercise, sleep, and heart rate. Expensive units like the Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch tend to offer the same fitness-focused features as a proper fitness tracker. Plus, they’re usually water-resistant for swimming and offer guided exercises for a small monthly fee.
But health and fitness are rarely a smartwatch’s main selling point. And in fact, fitness trackers have a huge leg up in this area—they tend to last several days on a charge, and of course, they often sell for under $100. Compare that to the average smartwatch, which needs to charge every day and may cost several hundred dollars.
The Distinction Isn’t Always Clear
Years ago, the difference between a fitness tracker and smartwatch was pretty clear-cut. A fitness tracker was a glorified pedometer, while a smartwatch was an extension of your smartphone.
But we’ve reached a point where fitness trackers and smartwatches fulfill similar tasks. You can receive texts or perform contactless payments on a Fitbit, for example, and every self-respecting smartwatch contains advanced sensors for health and fitness.
The growing demand for large-screened fitness trackers has also muddied the waters. We now have products like the Fitbit Sense, which has a big screen and offers a very limited selection of “smartwatch features.” I’m inclined to call the Fitbit Sense a fitness tracker, but I wouldn’t bat an eye if a journalist or reviewer called it a smartwatch—the distinction isn’t always clear.
That said, don’t get too hung up on terms like “fitness tracker” or “smartwatch.” These words are helpful when trying to describe a device’s functionality, but they never paint a full picture.
Which Should You Buy?
For some people, choosing a smartwatch or fitness tracker is a simple task. If you only care about health and fitness, a Fitbit Charge is easy to recommend. And if you’re big on taking calls or controlling Spotify from your wrist, there’s always the Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch, which practically double as fitness trackers.
But maybe your needs aren’t so straightforward. Maybe you want the best possible fitness experience with a few smartwatch features—that’s where products like the Fitbit Sense or the Garmin Venu come into play. These devices toe the line between “fitness tracker” and “smartwatch.”
Heck, you could even ditch this two-party system for a third option; the hybrid smartwatch. In simple terms, a hybrid smartwatch is just an analog watch with basic “smart” features. I’m a big fan of the Withings ScanWatch, as it tracks things like exercise and heart rate without becoming a huge distraction.