Fitness tracker vs smartwatch: which is right for you?

Weighing up the features you need

A fitness tracker or smartwatch is one of the best ways to hold yourself accountable when trying to be more active. Knowing which device is best for you, though? That can be tricky.

Both perform very similar roles, but you may find yourself favouring one.

A Fitbit Inspire 3 and Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 with watch faces pointed towards each otherCredit: Fitbit / Samsung

A fitness tracker is a type of advanced pedometer. A frequently thin device with a small screen, it’s a subtle addition to your wrist. Fitbit tends to dominate the budget fitness tracker field, but there are options from other brands like Amazfit.

It tracks your steps throughout the day while also monitoring the calories you’re burning, and sometimes your heart rate and the number of stairs you’ve climbed.

A smartwatch does all these things but also includes dedicated apps. Usually providing you with more advanced workout features, a smartwatch also allows you to reply to texts or emails from your wrist, listen to music without needing your phone, and even help guide you back from a long (and potentially confusing) hike.

Brands are similar to your phone including Apple, Samsung, Google, as well as Garmin.

There are many types of fitness trackers and smartwatches, encompassing different features, brands, and styles. That’s why we’re here to help you figure out what’s best for your situation.

Size, Style and Display

What are the visual differences?

A Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 with yellow strap on the wrist of a woman, who has her hand in the pocket of her jeans.Credit: Samsung
The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 is one of many smartwatches available.

Both fitness trackers and smartwatches fit on your wrist, but they look quite different. A smartwatch usually looks like a regular wristwatch. Different sizes are available but the average size is generally between 40mm and 45mm.

Apple Watches and Samsung’s Galaxy Watch range offer various sizes, so you can opt for a smaller 40/41mm or 44/45mm-sized bezel. Smaller still is the Google Pixel Watch at 30mm/1.2 inches.

Many Android-based smartwatches use a circular display while the Apple Watch range has a rectangular screen that looks less like a traditional watch. Most smartwatches use an OLED screen which means you get a clearer and sharper image that is easier to see, even in bright sunlight.

Your wrist size and favoured look will dictate your preference, but you can always buy watch straps that match your style (or a specific occasion).

A fitness tracker is smaller on your wrist and tends to favour a thin screen solely used to display information rather than look good.

Screens can still be reasonably clear in bright sunlight, but they’re often pixelated and less modern. Lighter on your wrist, they can feel less noticeable throughout the day.

The Mi Smart Band 6 on the wrist on a person using a rowing machine.Credit: Mi
Fitness trackers, such as the Mi Smart Band 6, tend to be thinner, with smaller screens.

Tracking and Functionality

What features does each one offer?

Fitness trackers and smartwatches will provide you with basic tracking and functionality. That means they will keep an eye on how many steps you take each day, and monitor the number of calories you’re likely to be burning.

Most fitness trackers and all smartwatches will also track your heart rate so you can see if your body reacts unusually to anything. It can be helpful as a health warning sign and to confirm that you’re pushing yourself appropriately while walking or working out.

While these devices can track you heart rate, they are not medical devices. If you have any concerns about your health, seek professional medical advice.

Person using the heart rate feature on their Apple watch.Credit: Apple
Smartwatches, such as the Apple Watch, often come with heart rate tracking.

A fitness tracker is simple and focuses on the essentials, while a smartwatch is more advanced, which can be off-putting if you want to keep an eye on basic stats.

A smartwatch can stop you from needing your phone so much, though, as you can listen to music or podcasts through it and check other apps.

A fitness tracker is suitable for anyone on a budget looking to make tentative moves toward better health. A smartwatch is best for an avid runner, gym enthusiast, or someone that loves technology.

Battery life

How long will they last between chargers?

Battery life is much better with fitness trackers than with smartwatches. A smartwatch will last for up to two days at most between charges, but most (such as the Apple Watch range) need charging every day to a day and a half.

The only exceptions are high-end and rugged smartwatches such as the Apple Watch Ultra, which lasts around three days, and some Garmin smartwatches which last two weeks or more. 

Most fitness trackers will last for five days at minimum with many lasting up to 14 days between charges. A fitness tracker is the best option if you want to avoid charging your devices too often. 

Close-up of a Garmin Epix Gen 2 smartwatch on a wrist, with a hand pressing a button on its side.Credit: Garmin
Battery life varies between devices, but Garmin has some of the longest lasting smartwatches.

However, these figures can decrease depending on how you use your wearable. If you have a particularly active day or two and use the device’s GPS a lot by going for a long hike, for instance, the battery will deplete faster.

Take each figure with a pinch of salt and assume it’s lower in reality. Recharging is often relatively quick with at most two hours giving you back a full battery.

All the devices use proprietary chargers – i.e., chargers used solely for this purpose. Some smartwatches will also charge wirelessly if placed on a charging station. If you already have a smartwatch with its own wireless charging station, this can be useful, providing it’s compatible.

Pricing

What can you expect to pay?

It’s possible to pay very little for a smartwatch, but we wouldn’t generally recommend these. A no-name smartwatch under £50 tends to be a glorified fitness tracker rather than a true smartwatch.

For the genuine article, you should look towards brands like Apple, Samsung, Garmin, Google, and Fitbit. Such devices tend to cost £150-£350 depending on the performance of the smartwatch, its size, and its features.

The more features, the pricier it tends to get. One distinction is whether the watch has a cellular connection. That means it has its own mobile signal (requiring a separate SIM contract) so you don’t need your phone nearby. It’s rarely essential for most people and bumps the price considerably.

Fitness trackers are much cheaper. Even a basic £25 fitness tracker will suffice for someone that only wants the essentials.

However, a pricier device like the Fitbit Inspire 3 may suit more people with a balance between price and features. Spending around £50 or more will get you heart rate monitoring and reliable battery life.

The most expensive fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit Charge 5, are bordering on offering the same features as a smartwatch while being slightly smaller on your wrist.

Which is right for you?

Smartwatch or fitness tracker

Any purchase involves a lot of consideration. What’s your budget? Why do you need or want a new wearable?

A fitness tracker is ideal if you want to keep costs down. It’ll track the basics like how many steps you take and how many calories you burn, while also tracking your route (via your phone).

Spend a little more and you can also keep an eye on your heart rate. For someone that can’t decide, the Fitbit Inspire 3 is a good solution for most people, offering most of the features you could need but without the complexities (or price tag) of a smartwatch. If you aren’t sure what you need, here are five things to consider when buying a fitness tracker.

The Fitbit Inspire 3 with a yellow strap on the wrist of a man with a yellow shirt.Credit: Fitbit
The Fitbit Inspire 3 is a good solution for most people.

If you want more features and consider yourself a power user, you need a smartwatch. Count on spending £200-300 for the best option.

iPhone users should favour an Apple Watch, while Android users should go with a Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 or 5.

If you like to look fashionable, either is a good choice with plenty of watch strap options and different colours to choose from.

If you’re a keen runner or hiker, a Garmin smartwatch is the best solution as they’re made for ruggedness over good looks.

Don’t forget to consider waterproofing if you plan on swimming with it. Most smartwatches and fitness trackers are water-resistant and so will handle a swim just fine, with some watches being water-resistant for up to 100m. 

Why you should choose a fitness tracker

  • Inexpensive – A fitness tracker is very affordable while still being practical. 
  • Ideal for dipping your toe in – Not sure if you really want to keep an eye on those steps? A fitness tracker is a small investment to make. 
  • Subtle design – Not everyone likes wearing a watch and a fitness tracker is light enough for slender wrists to not be noticeable.
  • You hate charging things – A fitness tracker only usually needs charging about once a week at most. 
  • You want something simple – Straightforward to use, a fitness tracker will feel comfortable if you’re unsure about new technology.

Why you should choose a smartwatch

  • A great watch replacement – If you’ve been wearing a watch for years, a smartwatch is a natural modern upgrade.
  • Extensive features – A smartwatch is more than just a fancy pedometer, allowing you to listen to music and reply to messages quickly from your wrist. 
  • Easier to customise – It’s possible to swap straps on some fitness trackers, but a smartwatch has more customisation options, such as different watch faces and often more high-end straps. 
  • You want motivation – A smartwatch goes further than simply congratulating you for your achievements. It also monitors your pace and can help you compete with yourself more efficiently than a fitness tracker. 
  • You want to use your phone less – Able to replace your phone in some ways, a smartwatch saves you from pulling your phone out of your pocket so often. 
Jennifer Allen

Written by Jennifer Allen she/her

Updated:

Jennifer is a roving tech freelancer with over 10 years experience. Based in Swansea, Wales, her bylines include TechRadar, T3, FitandWell, Top Ten Reviews, Eurogamer, NME, Lifewire, Mashable, and many more.

She graduated from Swansea University in 2006 with a degree in Media and Communication Studies. Following that, she studied at Staffordshire University, resulting in a post graduate diploma in Computer Games Design. Much of her studies focused on how games and technology have an effect on society. In the past, she has spoken to BBC Sounds about social media and gaming. She is also a member of BAFTA Cymru.

Her main areas of interest are all things B2B, smart technology, wearables, speakers, headphones, and anything gaming related. You’ll find her writing everything from product reviews to buying guides, as well as how-to guides to simplify using the latest tech.

In her spare time, she is usually found either gaming, watching the latest indie film, or attempting to train her pet guinea pigs. She is yet to succeed in her efforts.

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