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The ‘Before You Buy’ Guide For Fitness Trackers

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Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbone: The 'Before You Buy' Guide For Fitness Trackers

Leonardo da Vinci called simplicity “the ultimate sophistication," and in that regard, fitness trackers are truly refined. Fitness trackers are now as ubiquitous at the gym as a pair of white earbuds. Their popularity is a testament to the draw of technology that works well without breaking the bank.

Manufacturers like Fitbit, Garmin and Jawbone have offered connected exercise products for years, appealing to consumers who want simple functionality at a lower price. While smartwatches offer a more robust set of features, fitness band manufacturers have stuck to the basics, tracking a user's sleep and activity. Yet even within that range, pricing is variable with fitness tracking wearables range from under $20 to well over $1,500. How to select the one that's right for you? Let's begin.

What Features Do You Want?

The best way to determine the fitness tracker that fits you best is to decide which features you need. Activity tracking may come in all models, but not all devices look, or even wear, the same. Others will have features you may crave — some you may find unnecessary.

Heart rate monitors can be a big plus for users looking to maximize their workouts and track their progress. Certain models will only calculate your heart rate while you're working out — but won't read your resting heart rate. Other fitness bands, like those offered by Garmin, opt out of a built-in heart rate monitor altogether to lower costs and improve battery life, but then offer a compatible chest strap for workouts that can be purchased separately.

Most fitness trackers will include some form of sleep tracking. This varies from recording the number of hours you sleep each night, to determining the quality of your sleep based on your movements. Some models, like the Jawbone UP2 ($99) and the Jawbone UP3 ($179), can even tell when you've entered REM sleep based on factors such as your heart rate or body temperature. These can help trigger “smart wake" features, from simple vibrations or to sound-based alerts that attempt to wake the user before or after they enter an REM cycle.

Screen Or No Screen?

Digital displays are absent from many lower-priced fitness bands, like the Jawbone UP series as well as devices from Misfit and Xiaomi. One drawback of not having a screen is you can't see how many steps you've taken without checking your smartphone, nor can you quickly see the time. Displays are also useful for checking the time and providing other information.

As you move up in price, fitness devices start to offer more add-ons including heart rate monitors, GPS, sleep tracking and even reminders to get moving. Heart rate monitoring is a particularly helpful feature, ensuring you're pushing yourself hard enough during a workout but not overdoing it. Users with heart health issues or athletes looking to maximize their aerobic fitness also lean towards this feature, which are found in a number of devices, including the Fitbit Charge HR, Apple Watch and several Garmin Forerunner models.

Recovery is just as key to fitness as a workout, and a number of trackers now record a user's sleep pattern and cycles by sensing movement during the night. Devices like the Misfit Shine can detect the difference between light and heavy sleep based on motion. Others can calculate REM cycles using your heart rate (Fitbit Charge HR), your skin temperature (Jawbone UP3) or both (Basis Peak).

What Activity Will You Primarily Be Tracking?

Whether you are training for your first marathon or jogging to lose weight, there are a number of features to look for in a fitness tracker. For runners, basic features to consider are the ability to show time and lap times, the distance you have run and also your pace.

Built-in GPS makes tracking much more accurate, and is recommended for serious runners. It's available in select tracking watches, like most Garmin models, including the Forerunner 25 ($169). The Fitbit Surge ($249) and the Polar M400 ($229 MSRP, available lower at certain retailers) also have models with built-in GPS.

Swimmers have particular needs, and no trackers are made equal when it comes to being waterproof. Many are merely water-resistant and not recommended for use in the pool. The Garmin Vivoactive ($249) or the Misfit Shine ($69) for a budget option. Those willing to shell out an extra $10 can gain a few more swim-focused activity features in the Misfit Speedo Shine ($79).

Those on two wheels also have to decide whether they want to merely track their distance and calories burned, or their cadence — the number of revolutions they turn every minute. Models that supports additional bicycle-mounted sensors, include the Mio Fuse ($149).

What Form Factor Fits You?

Now that you've narrowed what you want from a device, consider how you'd like it to look. There are three main categories for fitness trackers: dongles, wristbands and watches. Dongles are generally less expensive and more basic, whereas watches tend to have more features and a higher price tag. Wristbands fall somewhere in the middle.

Dongle trackers often clip on to clothing or into a wristband. Thanks to their small size, they can also be worn on your shirt, bra or along the arm. Most models do not have displays, so dongles like the Jawbone UP Move and Misfit Flash rely on a smartphone or computer to track your workout.

Watch-type trackers are more customizable by size, sometimes have locking wristbands and occasionally a larger, round display. If you're not used to wearing a standard wristwatch anymore, that may take getting used to again.

What Apps and Services are right for you?

What do you plan to do with the data your fitness tracker gathers? To make sense of your steps, sleep or heart rate, the service that comes with your device will likely play a major role in your decision.

Fitbit offers apps and websites that are highly-rated by customers. Unlike its competitors, Fitbit's services can record several data not collected by its wearables, including stress, food tracking and blood pressure. Garmin recently released the ConnectIQ platform, which allows runners, cyclists and swimmers to download third-party applications, and also customize its watch faces.

If you're planning on purchasing a full-featured smartwatch, many activity tracking features are also included. The Apple Watch ($349 and up) incorporates Apple's Healthkit software suite which ties together health information collected from the Watch as well as the iPhone. Google also offers Android Wear, a suite of devices from differing manufacturers that connects to its health app, Android Fit, which also tracks steps while using an Android smartphone. But other brands, like Withings, also offer separate apps that don't require you to buy its classy, analog smartwatch.

The right choice is the option that works best with your fitness and health needs — and perhaps, as well, with your wallet.


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