We’ve spent more than 80 hours walking, running, cycling, sleeping, grocery shopping, and kettlebell swinging to stay up to date on the constant evolution of the fitness tracker. After considering all of the new features and options, and testing seven new models, we think the Garmin Vívosmart HR+ is the best heart-rate–enabled fitness tracker for people who want to track their activity and progressively monitor their workouts. It offers the most well-rounded package, including an always-visible display, the most accurate tracking readings of the models we tested, and compatibility with Android, iOS, and desktop computers.
The Garmin Vívosmart HR+ collects the same data as top competitors, but it’s also waterproof to 50 meters so you can swim and shower without taking it off—other models are merely splash-resistant. It’s similar to our previous pick, the original Vívosmart HR (which is still good at a lower price point), but we think most fitness buffs will appreciate the HR+’s added GPS and Move IQ activity auto-detection enough to pay a bit extra for the newer model. GPS enables accurate run-tracking and pacing while Move IQ ensures you get credit in the app for different types of activities even if you forget to turn on the correct workout mode, whether you’re running, walking, cycling, or swimming. It can also receive smartphone notifications and control your phone’s music playback. Finally, while fitness trackers aren’t generally known for their accuracy, it has the most accurate heart-rate tracking out of all the models we’ve tested. Our only major complaint is that its monochrome screen, while easily legible, looks dated compared with the color screens on some other new models.
If you’re an Android user, the full-color Gear Fit2 might be the better pick, especially if you value sleekness. It’s noticeably thinner than the Vívosmart HR+ even though it also has GPS, a heart-rate sensor, and automatic activity detection. It’s much cheaper too. However, it is Android-only and is held back by an extremely short battery life of just 2 days, so you have to charge it almost daily. The activity auto-detection is particularly impressive: Once it recognizes a walk, run, or bike ride lasting 10 minutes or longer, the screen changes to a timer recording your effort, and once it detects you’re done, congratulates you on a job well-done. Finally, it’s the only tracker that lets you interact with notifications instead of just receiving them. You can actually reply to texts and email with canned responses. However, we should note that we ran into some issues with the GPS. More than once during testing, the tracker began the workout before locking onto GPS (which means you could end up halfway through a workout without distance and route recording). Overall, it’s a slick device for Android users willing to put up with a few quirks, but the iOS-compatible and more reliable Vívosmart HR+ is better for most people.
I’m a certified personal trainer (NASM-CPT), a running coach (USATF Level 1 and RRCA), and a regionally competitive runner. I also served as a staff writer for the Good Housekeeping Institute for nearly five years, working closely with the engineers and other scientists to interpret product test results.
Our survey of more than 800 Wirecutter readers told us that when they shop for a fitness tracker, they prioritize a slim design with a display, accurate step counting, waterproofing, and an integrated heart-rate monitor. We also interviewed industry experts Jill Duffy of PCMag and Ray Maker of DC Rainmaker, and discussed heart-rate monitoring with Clinton Brawner, PhD, a clinical exercise physiologist at Henry Ford Medical Center in Detroit.
The lines that separate a dedicated fitness tracker from a GPS running watch, a smartwatch, or even a smartphone have never been blurrier. Now you can find fitness trackers with GPS and push notifications, running watches with fitness tracking, and smartwatches with both. But as our testing reveals, a device that’s designed to do all of those tasks isn’t necessarily good at any of them.
Generally speaking, if getting information or advice on your overall activity level is your primary goal, a fitness tracker is your best bet. These devices provide at-a-glance feedback regarding steps taken (as well as reminders to get up and move), measure the intensity of your exercise, and report on the quality of your sleep. Taken together, these measures can help you make positive changes to your health. Because their batteries typically last four to seven days between charges as opposed to the couple of days you get from a smartwatch, they give you a more complete picture of your fitness level. Such devices also let you set up friendly competitions among your relatives and friends who have trackers of the same brand, and their ability to pass data to other health apps on your phone enhances the value.
If you’re more curious about your daily movements, or if you want a quick way to track a run, you may be satisfied with the tracking capabilities of a smartphone and apps. Unless you turn it off, your iPhone (5s or newer) tracks your step count automatically in the Health app, and Google Fit on Android can track your steps, too. However, a smartphone is less practical for providing the whole picture of your wellness efforts unless you carry it on your body constantly. And it can’t track your heart rate or sleep quality without additional hardware or software.
No matter which of these options you choose, Brawner told us, “The most important thing is for people to be more active. If technology helps to motivate someone, then I am all for it. One trick doesn’t work for all.”
Two new models from Garmin—the Vívosmart HR+ and the Vivoactive HR—plus two from Fitbit—the Charge 2 and the Blaze—Samsung’s Gear Fit2, the UA Band from Under Armour, and the TomTom Touch fulfilled the criteria we followed on our last go-round: all of the expected activity tracking (steps, stairs, sleep) plus onboard heart-rate monitoring.
I set out to test these products both as a group and individually. To gauge step-count accuracy, I wore five of the new bands plus the winners of the last round (Vívosmart HR and Charge HR) simultaneously for two full days, paying attention to which devices’ instructions recommended wearing on the dominant hand versus the nondominant hand, if specified (I received the Charge 2 and the TomTom Touch later and tested them separately). I compared their readings with an older-model Omron pedometer, which was the winner of a Good Housekeeping test I once helped run (that is unfortunately no longer available online). Step counts were generally consistent among models from the same brand (meaning the Fitbits counted consistently high and the Garmins consistently low). So they all work fairly well if absolute accuracy is less important than just getting a general figure you can aim to improve.
The major low-end outliers: The TomTom Touch and the UA Band deviated from the control pedometer on average a mind-boggling 48 percent and 31 percent, respectively—terrible enough that we opted to disqualify them from further testing. One of the best performances came from the Samsung Gear Fit2, which on one day was one step different from the control, though that most likely is a coincidence; still, it was only 3.6 percent different the second day, so as far as step accuracy goes, it was most impressive.
To home in on what might be affecting the accuracy, we tried several ways to isolate arm movement from leg and hip movement. First, I clapped along to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” (resisting the urge to also slap my thighs) to determine if arm movement minus leg movement registered as steps. This would be particularly important for anyone who sits at a desk and doesn’t want their arm movement to register as steps while they’re sitting. The claps foiled all but one wrist tracker—the consistently low-counting Vívoactive HR.
I also took the trackers for a stroll pushing a grocery cart around my local supermarket to see if they could capture my strides when my arms weren’t moving. This is important because you want to get credit for stepping even if your arms aren’t moving, like if you were carrying something. Only two trackers registered any of the steps I took—the Fitbit Charge 2 and the Blaze—and even then they registered just a percentage of those recorded by the control.
In the gym, I did a marathon set of 90 kettlebell swings to determine whether arm-plus-hip movement logged any steps. The purpose of this is to see if a rhythmic, non-stepping hip movement can foil the trackers. The kettlebell swings were counted as steps by all of the trackers, including the control hip pedometer.
Next, I ran for one mile at a steady pace on a treadmill to see how well each device captured distance traveled. My movements were even and consistent in this test, as would be expected in a steady-state run. All of the trackers contain technology that determines stride length based on factors such as your height and movement intensity. On a few of them, you can set your particular stride length manually to improve accuracy. Instead of calculating and entering mine, I used the defaults in this treadmill test, assuming that most people might not fuss with something the trackers are supposed to automatically figure out.
Because three of these trackers have onboard GPS, I also did a few tests to gauge its accuracy. I ran four laps (1 mile) on a standard track, and I ran 1 mile in my neighborhood, as measured by MapMyRun.com.
The Garmins came the closest to matching the actual distance on both the indoor and outdoor tests, and the Samsung was not far behind. The Fitbits, which do permit customized stride length, both came up short, clocking in at 0.79 mile (Charge 2) and 0.81 mile (Blaze) on the 1-mile treadmill test (similar to the results I got last time with the Charge HR, Surge, and Fitbit One).
The bottom line when it comes to step-count accuracy: All of the manufacturers concede that accuracy can vary. After all, wrist movements are consistent with leg movements only when someone is striding forward in a more or less straight line, which is not always how people move. But given that these devices’ ultimate intention is to capture the user’s activity and encourage more of it, all models that made it past our initial round delivered adequate performance. To determine your personal baseline, wear your new device for a few days without making any concerted effort to change your usual habits, and then use those numbers to build on.
An onboard heart-rate monitor is only as good as its accuracy. Having an idea of your resting heart rate—the slowest rate, measured in bpm (beats per minute), at which your heart pumps blood, a figure best taken before you get out of bed in the morning—helps you gauge improvements in your overall fitness. A resting heart rate that lowers over time is one indication that your heart muscle is getting stronger and more efficient at pumping blood.1 The other benefit to heart-rate tracking is the ability to quantify your training intensity.2
I performed two tests pitting each band against a Garmin chest-strap monitor: a five-minute steady-state treadmill run and a sequence of 30-second intervals of jumping jacks and recovery. For each, I recorded heart-rate readings every 30 seconds during the exercise and for two minutes of recovery following.
When we last tested for this guide, trackers were generally slow to notice an increase in heart rate over short intervals when compared with the strap monitor, and in far too many cases they overshot or undershot the control heart rate by more than 5 bpm (on the very outside of the tolerance that exercise physiologist Clinton Brawner told us is acceptable for training use). We’re happy to report some good news: The Garmins and the Samsung performed remarkably well on the steady-state runs, with readings for the most part within a beat or two of the chest strap.
The jumping jack test wasn’t as successful; after my short interval of effort (30 seconds); every wrist tracker struggled to catch my heart-rate peak before it fell during the recovery period. The Samsung was most successful, often catching my elevated heart rate within a split second after I took my readings.
The bottom line is, if heart-rate training is your primary aim, you’re better served with a strap monitor. Otherwise, relying on the talk test (checking that you can say a few sentences without excessive breathiness) or gauging effort based on how you feel on a scale of 0 to 10 may be a better intensity indicator for your workouts, regardless of what your wrist monitor is telling you.
Finally, I spent some quality time with each band individually, assessing comfort, user friendliness, and overall impressions. I even wore four of the contenders to bed to get an idea of how they compare as sleep trackers. One of the most interesting takeaways: I used standard sleep tracking on the Fitbit Blaze for the first night of sleep, and it wasn’t very detailed, so I used the “sensitive” sleep tracking setting on the second night (which is turned on via the website, not the app). It’s apparently really sensitive, recording many of my movements as my being restless/awake—I’d be making an appointment with a sleep lab post-haste if I actually snooze this poorly! (I got similar results with the Charge 2 when I tested it separately in both regular and sensitive mode.)
The Vívosmart HR+ is the latest update to our former top pick. The most significant new features are onboard GPS tracking and activity auto-detection, both of which performed above average in our tests. It still includes all the standard fitness tracker functions we’ve come to expect: step and stair counting, distance traveled, calories burned, and sleep statistics. But its long battery life (4 to 5 days without GPS) and full waterproofing (down to 50 meters) give it an edge. It will stay charged almost 4 days longer than the Gear Fit2 if you don’t use the GPS, and unlike the Fitbits and the Samsung, you can wear it in the shower after your workout.
Compared with the original Vívosmart HR, the Vívosmart HR+’s most significant new feature is the integrated GPS. This is not a huge surprise from Garmin, a company best known for its association with the technology. Although it is impressive that the developers managed to fit a GPS receiver and an HR monitor into such a small package—it is just 1.4 grams heavier than the first model, sticks up only a hair more, and is just as comfortable as long as it’s not strapped on too tightly (the raised lip of the heart-rate monitor can leave a dent).
With the added GPS, you’re able to get more detailed information about your walks and runs, such as distance and pace. It also informs some of the workout modes, which include run-walk intervals and a virtual pacer that alerts you if you’re moving slower or faster than your pre-set pace. The GPS proved accurate, though it took longer to connect (minutes rather than seconds) than the near-instant, but much larger Vivoactive HR—that’s the cost of going small. If you want to use it on a bike ride, you’ll have to select the outdoor “cardio” setting and change the activity classification later in the app or within your account at connect.garmin.com. Even without GPS, we found the distance-measuring capabilities (based on internal algorithms that take into account height and cadence) of all three Garmins to be excellent on our 1-mile treadmill test.
The other interesting addition is Move IQ, Garmin’s activity-detection software. If you head out for a workout—running, walking, biking, swimming, elliptical training—and don’t remember or don’t bother to turn on the correct exercise mode (or any exercise mode at all), this technology auto-detects that you’re being more active as long as you do it for 10 minutes or longer, and even classifies what you’re doing. You get credit on the app for your hard work, though the details aren’t as robust as when you use the timed workout modes. Fitbit and Samsung have similar software, so while this is a good add, it’s somewhat de rigueur now in high-end trackers.
Though Garmin tells us that the HR+ uses the same Elevate heart-rate measuring technology as the first Vívosmart HR, our tests showed that its measurements were much more accurate than its predecessor’s. This was particularly true during the steady-state run, during which the HR+ produced near-perfect data when compared with a dedicated heart-rate strap. However, like most wrist-based trackers, it struggled to keep up with short intervals, not registering a peak in my heart rate until I’d already entered my rest period. Overall, if your heart-rate training predominantly requires you to hover around the same bpm in steady-state exercise, you’ll be happy with the HR+, but if you want to use peaks and recoveries, or you need to measure your heart rate more accurately for medical reasons, you’re still better off with a strap.
Naturally, the HR+ tracks more standard information as well: steps walked, floors climbed, calories burned, distance traveled. In terms of step-count accuracy, it consistently undercounted the control pedometer on our tests (as did the previous iteration), yet it counted both hand claps and kettlebell swings as steps—more or less a breakeven in the end. (Overall, we’d prefer a tracker that tells us we haven’t done enough than one that consistently overcounts.) Like the others, it auto-detects sleep and provides a log of hours spent awake and in light and deep sleep, based on your movement.
The touch-sensitive passive OLED screen does the job and, unlike the Fitbits and Samsung Gear Fit2, its backlight comes on with a touch—no twisting of the wrist to get it to pop up. Garmin claims the battery will last for up to 5 days of activity tracking without GPS, which seems about right in our testing. That said, it’s not nearly as nice to look at as those full-color active LED screens, or even the passive full-color Vívoactive HR.
The screen views are customizable, with displays showing step count, flights of stairs climbed, intensity minutes (a measure of workout intensity over the course of a week), calories burned, distance traveled, and heart rate (current and average resting). You can receive all manner of smartphone notifications—phone, text, calendar, email, and social media. It has optional music controls, at-a-glance weather forecasts, and a handy “find my phone” feature that lets you play Marco Polo with your misplaced phone if it’s in Bluetooth range. If you happen to own a Garmin VIRB camera, you can use the Vívosmart HR+ as a remote control for that as well, but we didn’t test this function. Like its predecessor, it’s completely waterproof to 50 meters (as opposed to just “splash-proof” like Fitbit and “water-resistant” like Samsung) for worry-free use in the shower or pool.
The Garmin Connect app and website have seen no major updates since our last test (when it had just received a huge overhaul), and remains utilitarian, customizable, and detailed, though not as easy to navigate as Fitbit’s app. However, Garmin’s Apple Health integration gives you more flexibility in how you use your data compared with the Fitbit, which still has no plans to integrate with Health.
The app that Garmin offers with the Vívosmart HR+ can’t compete with Fitbit’s, and that’s its biggest flaw. Garmin Connect has steadily improved from its early days, but it still feels overly complicated next to the Fitbit’s streamlined simplicity. This is largely due to the fact that Garmin uses this app to sync data from such a large variety of devices ranging from fitness trackers to cycling sensors to top-of-the-line triathlete and mountaineering watches. Meanwhile, Fitbit only needs to focus on the casual fitness tracking audience. As a result, Fitbit’s app shows everything a person casually tracking his or her fitness could want in one scrollable screen, whereas Garmin Connect requires multiple screens to show the same thing. It’s not bad, it just sometimes feels like a convoluted way to access the info you’re after.
The other area in which Garmin lags behind Fitbit is in social integration. When it comes to fitness, friendly competition is a great way to inspire improvement, and although Garmin isn’t hurting for users, the company doesn’t have the audience of step-count-focused users that Fitbit has. Garmin is making strides to change that by installing activity tracking in a number of its newer GPS watches, but its core audience still skews much more heavily toward enthusiast runners and cyclists.
With the impressive Gear Fit2, Samsung has bounded back with a vengeance from the embarrassment that was the original Gear Fit. This Fit2 had the most accurate heart-rate results in our tests—even for intervals! Plus, it incorporates movement auto-detection, multisport workout options, and GPS tracking for outdoor workouts. It’s also a decent smartwatch in its own right, with options to receive notifications from almost every app on your phone that offers them. In addition, it’s gorgeous and oh-so-slim on the wrist—and the most comfortable to wear, in our estimation—which is remarkable considering all it packs in. However, it’s not fully waterproof, so no swimming or showering. If it had iOS support (or at least PC support) and a longer battery life, it could have snagged a top pick. Alas, it’s Android-only (4.4 and above) and lasts just two days between charges.
The auto-activity tracking is a real highlight. After about 10 minutes of a sustained activity, the unit vibrates and the screen switches to a timer that indicates approximately how long you’ve been doing said activity, with a nice “Keep it up!” message to boot. It registers that you’ve stopped within a minute or so, and rewards you with the words, “Well done! That was a great [walk/run/ride].” It sounds cheesy, but we won’t lie: We missed it when testing other trackers that aren’t so cheerleader-y (Garmin’s “Move Bar Cleared” is a nice effort but kind of underwhelming). It has a pleasant way of goading you to get off your duff after a long period of sitting still; after 50 minutes of “inactive time,” a screen reminds you it’s “Time to get on your feet.” In comparison, the Garmins just say: “Move!”
The GPS is another area where we had some issues. Most GPS-enabled watches let you wait until the GPS signal is acquired before you start the workout timer. When you select an outdoor activity with location, Samsung starts a countdown from 3, then tells you to start your workout, with no immediate acknowledgement that it has found a signal (later, possibly some miles into your run, it will tell you if it hasn’t).
I did one 7-mile run in which the Gear Fit2 didn’t find a signal for at least the first 3 miles. During the time it’s not connected to the satellites, it makes an estimate of distance traveled based on internal algorithms and my step cadence. For this measurement, it did an acceptable job on my 1-mile treadmill test, so the estimating is probably okay, as long as you’re not a stickler on record-keeping. When the GPS does record, though, it is very accurate and even shows a graphic map of exactly where you went on the unit’s screen (it’s very cool).
The Gear Fit2 was also the most accurate step counter as compared to the pedometer I wore. On the first all-day test, it was one step different, which has to be mostly a coincidence, as on that day I rode my bike to and from work, taught a running class, trained clients, and worked out, as well as walked a bunch. Indeed, I found that it counted kettlebell swings and claps as “steps.” Day 2 wasn’t quite so dead-on, but overcounting by only 3.6 percent isn’t too shabby.
Its full-color touchscreen offers a lot of viewing options. It’s dark unless the wrist is raised (to save power) but reacts quickly and reliably. You can completely customize which scrollable screens are shown; and screens for steps walked, floors climbed, and heart rate can be expanded for a history and two weeks’ worth of data can be viewed at a glance. There are even manual counter screens where you may keep track of your water and caffeine consumed, respectively, as well as a “together” screen that can show you if you’re ahead or behind other users in a step-count challenge; it’s a nice idea, if you happen to know anyone else who uses the S Health app (of the nearly 400 contacts in my phone, only two came up).
The Gear Fit2 can be set up to play music from your phone within Bluetooth distance, including Spotify, or from the 4 gigabytes of internal memory on the unit itself, which can be loaded from tracks saved to your phone. Finally, there’s also the option to download various apps from the Samsung Gear store.
The Gear Fit2 has 15 workout modes for more detailed exercise tracking, but a few of those are for specific exercises like squats and lunges, which show a graphic of how to properly perform them; these are cute, but largely extraneous. Annoyingly, there’s no option for “cardio,” and the “other workout” doesn’t track heart rate, so when I did my jumping jack interval test, I ended up using the indoor treadmill mode to capture my pulse.
As with Garmin, the Samsung app is also a bit of a weak point. Or should we say “apps”—you need two, one to control the Gear Fit2’s settings and the other, S Health, to interpret and log your activity data (plus two more “helper” apps if you have a non-Samsung Android—these run in the background, though). In a way, we didn’t mind that there were two—it made it easier to figure out how to change settings on the device rather than digging around in one app for that info.
S Health suffers from the same problem as Garmin Connect: With so much customizability, it can make finding the data you want overly complicated. Still, it’s all there, for your data-drilling-down pleasure.
Another quibble is that the screen does turn off even during workouts, and though it becomes visible again quickly with the flick of your wrist, there’s a slight delay that can be bothersome during a fast-paced workout. Another complaint: I wasn’t always getting regular HR readings in the passive mode; one day, I ran a five-mile race with it on and deliberately didn’t set the workout mode—it didn’t take a single reading during that time, when quite clearly my pulse would have been significantly elevated. Finally, it’s lovely to look at, but only when you can see it. It gets a terrible glare in sunlight, making it very tough to read during outdoor activities.
Another minus is the battery life. With moderate-to-heavy use including smartphone notifications (but not always GPS), we had to charge the Gear Fit2 about once a day, which is well below the three to four days claimed by Samsung for “typical” use. That said, it became an easy habit to plop it on the charger while I showered and it charges quite quickly. I also found that all that Bluetoothing for notifications killed my Google Nexus 5X battery even faster, so I now turn the Bluetooth on only when my phone is in my bag or similarly less accessible.
It’s also not fully waterproof, though with an IP68 certification it would be able to handle an accidental dunking (up to 30 minutes in 5 feet of water).
Activity trackers started out primarily targeting sedentary people to help them become less sedentary, with a focus on step counting. Recognizing that newly active people often become more active, manufacturers added workout modes, to both encourage exercise and keep users from outgrowing their devices. We’ve now reached the point where a next-level tracker with more reliable GPS tracking and more detailed measurements can make sense for fitness buffs who want more data, but aren’t as concerned with running-specific metrics.
Among these next level trackers, the waterproof Garmin Vivoactive HR is your best bet. It covers all the basics as well as any tracker and adds Garmin’s Move IQ activity auto-detection, plus 15 built-in activity modes: run, bike, walk, pool swim, run indoor, bike indoor, row indoor, walk indoor, golf, row, SUP (stand-up paddleboard), ski/board, and cross-country ski, plus strength, cardio, and “other” that you can design yourself. Within each activity, you’ll get pertinent data, from pace to lap count to stroke rate (rowing), and more. There are a few limitations; for example, heart rate is disabled during swimming—though this is true of any heart-rate monitor that isn’t operating with an analog remote. These lower-powered systems can’t transmit through water. But the bigger problem is its size. It’s big. It was huge on my small wrist, but even our big-wristed staffers who tried it out found it cumbersome. Even with all the nice activity-tracking options, you might not feel comfortable wearing it all the time. But for tracking workouts, it’s a new go-to.
If you’re a dedicated runner, Garmin’s true running watches offer more features (such as VO2 max estimates and pacing calculators), but really, this does the job for most runners’ purposes. I found that the GPS connects extremely quickly—mere seconds rather than minutes compared with smaller trackers. But even if you don’t want a GPS connection for tracking your location, the Vívoactive HR does a great job measuring distance traveled using internal algorithms, as evidenced in our 1-mile treadmill test. We also had no trouble tracking bike rides.
During a 50-meter swim, I found the Vívoactive HR’s length count a little unreliable (it’s supposed to detect when you turn around), but I’m a very slow and erratic swimmer, so that could have been an issue. If you’re a golfer, the ability to download 40,000 course maps is pretty awesome, and the skiing mode’s ability to measure 3-D speed by “calculating the speed and distance on an incline versus latitude and longitude” sounds interesting, though we didn’t test either.
The Vívoactive HR’s heart-rate monitoring is very good. It aced our steady-state test (with its only bad readings at the very beginning before starting and the very last recovery reading). It registered a somewhat elevated heart rate at the end of the 30-second jumping jack intervals, but the good news is that the Vívoactive HR is equipped with an ANT+ receiver, so if you want more accuracy during heart-rate training, you can wear a compatible chest strap. (We don’t understand why the Vívosmart HR+ is not similarly outfitted.)
As a step tracker, it has a serious undercounting problem—it was more than 9 percent and 15 percent low on the two testing days, respectively. Its lack of sensitivity could be interpreted as a good thing, though, as it was the only wrist tracker to not count a single clap as a step—and you’ll have to walk that much more to hit that magic 10,000 number. Still, if you want a really accurate pedometer (or you’re in a competition against someone with a more sensitive tracker), you may want to look elsewhere.
The device has a passive full-color screen that is always readable yet conserves battery (the backlight comes on with only a touch); Garmin claims up to 8 days of battery life without GPS use and 13 hours of continuous GPS. In addition to all those activity screens, you can opt to show a weather widget, your calendar, and, of course, your smartphone notifications—everything from calls, texts, and emails, to calendar reminders to social media alerts. (Though we missed not being able to respond to the messages received, like we could on the Samsung.) More widgets are also available from the Garmin Connect IQ app store. There’s so much to view in the watch itself, you barely need to look at the Garmin Connect app at all.
In his review of the first Garmin Vívosmart HR, CNET’s Dan Graziano dinged Garmin in his otherwise positive review by saying, “If you have friends or family members that own a Fitbit, however, I recommend you buy the Fitbit Charge HR. Friends don’t let friends track fitness alone.” We agree that a bit of friendly competition can go a long way when you’re trying to improve your fitness. And if a whole slew of your friends are into fitness tracking, the odds are good that they’re on Fitbit. But unless social support is your top priority, we think most people would benefit from the improved waterproofing and accuracy of our other picks.
Among the heart-rate–tracking Fitbits we tested, we think the Charge 2 is the way to go. (We will be testing the company’s cheaper, step-count–only trackers for a future update.) Like all the Fitbits we tested, it’s not as accurate as our other picks, especially when it comes to heart-rate tracking and distance estimation. But the sleek design, reasonable price, and user-friendly app can make it a satisfying device for people who want to be a part of the Fitbit ecosystem.
The Charge 2’s screen is much larger and more readable compared with the tiny screen on the original Charge HR. While it’s not a touchscreen, it is tap-sensitive, letting you scroll through stats by tapping it with your finger. It’s not the most intuitive gesture, but it works. Like all Fitbits, it conserves battery by staying dark and blank until you turn the face upward or press the side button. When lit, it provides just the basic info you need: an up-to-the-moment summary of steps, current and average heart rate, distance traveled, calories burned, floors climbed, and active minutes (measured based on an increased intensity of movement and HR). With a push of a button, you can pull up an activity menu of seven options (you can select these from 19 options via the app; some of the more surprising are martial arts, pilates, and tennis). Even more interesting, Fitbit added a Relax setting exclusive to the Charge 2, which takes you on a simple guided breathing exercise of either 2 or 5 minutes in length. There’s also a stopwatch mode.
Our favorite new feature of the Charge 2 is move alerts (which were also added to the Blaze in a software update). When the device recognizes that you haven’t moved in a while, it’ll prompt you with cute phrases like “Wanna stroll?” and with 10 minutes left in a sedentary hour, it encourages you to get up and take whatever steps remain out of 250, or approximately 2 to 3 minutes of walking. We prefer this more charming approach (comparable to Gear Fit2’s gentle, “Time to get on your feet!”) over Garmin’s impersonal move bar, which just blinks at you and implores, ”Move!” (There’s no need to shout!) These reminders are programmable based on time of day, so you don’t get them, say, in the middle of the night, unless that’s how you roll.
The Charge 2 also links seamlessly to the excellent Fitbit app, which is still the gold standard in activity data storage and organization. It’s clean and easy to navigate, with high-line info on the home screen and plenty of depth to dig into details.
However, accuracy was never a strong suit of wrist-mounted Fitbits, and the Charge 2 is no different. As a general activity tracker, the Charge 2 registered high on step count, which isn’t a huge surprise, as it counted both claps and kettlebell swings as steps. On the plus side, it, along with the Blaze, were the only two trackers that counted any of the steps I took during my grocery cart test, but even then, it captured only a fraction of them.
The Charge 2 and the Blaze also have what Fitbit calls SmartTrack, which auto-recognizes activities like a brisk walk, a run, or a bike ride if you neglect to turn on the activity mode. Once completed, the activities show up in the app, but not on the screen during the activity, as the Gear Fit2 does. When you turn on the workout setting manually, you capture a lot more info: All measured heart rate and time elapsed, and calories burned (again, just an estimate) as well as other data pertinent to the type of workout you’re doing, such as distance traveled, and pace.
The Charge 2 doesn’t have onboard GPS like the Garmins and the Gear Fit2, but instead, like the Blaze, has what Fitbit calls “Connected GPS,” which uses your phone for measuring distance traveled. Though the Garmins do a good job of estimating distance with or without GPS, our testing showed that the Charge 2 is woefully inaccurate at measuring distance traveled without GPS. It registered just 0.79 miles on our 1-mile indoor treadmill testing and 0.92 miles during a separate 1.6-mile outdoor walking test conducted against the Strava GPS app. You may get better results if you program your actual stride length into the app, but I didn’t bother because measuring it is annoying and, frankly, not something most people would bother to do. However, things may be getting better soon. In the time since we tested in September 2016, Fitbit released a software update that supposedly improves indoor distance measuring, in part by using stride data collected via Connected GPS; I will retest and update soon.
The previous issues are slightly irritating, but at least they’re consistent. The one potential dealbreaker for the Fitbit is its subpar heart-rate monitoring accuracy. There’s even a class-action suit pending against Fitbit for fraudulent claims about its heart-rate monitors’ accuracy. On my tests, the Charge 2’s (and the Blaze’s) heart-rate readings were all over the place—even in the steady-state run, which almost every other tracker we tested managed to ace. As with the Garmins, both Fitbits also struggled to keep up with my heart-rate peaks on the interval test and didn’t always catch the recovery drops, either.
Aside from the inferior heart-rate tracking, a few other quibbles: The Charge 2 is equipped to receive smartphone alerts only for missed calls, texts, and calendar alerts (email and social media alerts are not supported); these scroll painfully slowly on the screen, and longer text messages are curtailed. If you want more robust smartwatch-like alerts from a Fitbit, the Blaze can scratch that itch (though it would’ve been nice if it could respond with canned replies, like those available on the Samsung Gear Fit2). Also, the Charge 2 (like all Fitbits) is merely “sweat, rain and splash proof” instead of waterproof. So you need to take it off when you bathe or swim.
Our former top pick, the Garmin Vívosmart HR is still a worthy choice, if not as advanced as the new HR+ and not quite as on-the-ball with its heart rate tracking. Otherwise, it looks, feels, and performs the same as our top pick.
The Blaze is a fine offering from Fitbit, with a sharp, full-color screen, robust smartphone notifications, and Fitstar-guided workouts; however, we don’t believe these differences from the Charge 2 justify its $50 higher list price, plus it’s a lot larger on the wrist, which not everyone likes in a fitness tracker.
Fitbit Charge HR was a former top pick, and it’s an acceptable option if you want heart rate info and don’t mind the tiny screen, but you’ll probably have to find it on close-out as it’s no longer available on Fitbit’s site.
Another of our picks from the last go-round, the Jawbone UP3 still has merits even in this ever-advancing fitness tracker world. It’s about as unobtrusive on the wrist as trackers get, and uses passive heart rate to inform its app data and provide actionable wellness advice. But it lacks active heart-rate monitoring and a screen of any kind. To make matters worse, Jawbone’s problems are now much larger than their inability to compete on features: Business Insider recently reported that the company is out of inventory with no current plans to restock and has even stopped paying customer service contractors due to a lack of funding. We’ve reached out to Jawbone for comment, but have yet to hear back.
We tested the UA Band, part of Under Armour’s heavily promoted HealthBox. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t measure up: In my two-day-long step-count tests, its accuracy was abysmal, though consistently so: 30 percent and 32 percent too low, respectively. Weirdly, it also registered “steps” when I was putting it on, probably on account of the band’s fussy clasp that I could never quite get to stay fastened. It’s also stiff and the fit is odd: too oblong for my wrist, so it creates pressure on the top and bottom yet is a little loose on the sides. Finally, the underwhelming PMOLED display looks fuzzy.
We also began testing TomTom’s new fitness tracker, the TomTom Touch, which the company claims can measure body fat percentage and muscle mass along with standard fitness tracker metrics such as heart rate and display messages. However, it performed so poorly in our basic all-day step-counting tests (registering almost twice as many steps as our control on both days!) that we’re setting it aside for now.
While initially intriguing, we dismissed the Microsoft Band 2 during our last test due to its consistent overpromising and under-delivering, questionable fitness tracking accuracy, and awkward landscape-only screen view. It has now been discontinued.
The Fitbit Surge didn’t make our cut, as its GPS features were substandard compared with what was available in fitness-tracking running watches when we tested. For a sticker price of $250, you can do much better.
The Polar A360, reviewed in our last roundup, simply didn’t measure up in either its tracking or other functions, and was particularly disappointing in its heart-rate measurements, especially since that technology, in chest-strap form, is what Polar is best known for.
We plan to soon take a look at non–HR-enabled models such as Fitbit’s Flex 2 and Alta and the Garmin Vívofit 3, and updating our clip-on coverage; we’re testing the Fitbit Zip, Fitbit One, Withings Pulse Ox, and Withings Go. We’ll report back when we have details.
Apple’s September 7 announcement of the Apple Watch Series 2, with independent (no phone needed) GPS tracking and swimproof water resistance, improves that smartwatch’s feasibility as an all-activities tracker. We’ll update this guide with more about how the Watch Series 2 performs after we’ve had a chance to check it out.
The Pebble 2, now available for pre-order, is the latest smartwatch from Pebble, but it lands right in the middle of the line between fitness tracker and smartwatch (see our blog post to better get what we mean). It’s slim and relatively small for a smartwatch, water resistant to 50 meters (and therefore “swimproof), it has a heart rate monitor, it tracks walks and runs without a phone (roughly), and encourages you to sleep more and be more active. And at $130, it’s competitively priced in this fitness-tracker category. We’re putting the Pebble 2 through testing against our top pick in early October, and will consider whether it’s an alternative pick for those who want better access to their phone notifications from their wrist device.
The Mio Slice got some attention when it was announced at CES in January for its unique Personal Activity Intelligence (PAI): Unfortunately, the release date has been pushed out over and over again; its fall release is delayed once more.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: October 6, 2016