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Should You Buy a Fitness Tracker, Running Watch, or Smartwatch?

Flat 3d isometric woman running on smartwatch with heart rate monitors, counting calories, count steps and GPS technology function.
Jiw Ingka/Shutterstock.com

There are lots of different wrist-wearables out there, from cheap and simple fitness trackers that do little more than count your steps to full-on smartwatches that can make phone calls and program your workouts. Put simply, with so many different options touting different features it can be hard to know what kind of device is right for you. Here’s how to decide.

Update, 10/6/22: Checked content for accuracy, product availality, and dead links. Updated Galaxy Watch3 to Watch5, Apple Watch Series 6 to Series 8 and Apple Watch SE to the 2nd Generation.

What’s the Difference Between Fitness Trackers, Running Watches, and Smartwatches?

Woman using a watch while exercising.

There are three rough categories of wearable fitness devices. (Or at least, non-niche wrist-wearable ones; we’re not going to talk about cycling computers, power-output monitors, or the fancy motion tracking stuff that’s being used by professionals in lots of different sports).

You’ve got fitness trackers that are as simple as it comes. They count your steps, maybe track your heart rate, and sometimes show notifications on a small screen, but they don’t do a lot else. Think of a classic Fitbit and you’ve got the archetypal fitness tracker.

Then you’ve got running or multisport watches. They have a built-in GPS so you can accurately track your runs or rides and leave your phone at home. Most will also play music, come with some kind of run coaching features, and have physical buttons—so you can smash that lap button instead of fumbling at a touch screen with your sweaty fingers.

Finally, you’ve got smartwatches. These are full-blown, app-loaded, touch-screen toting wrist computers. It’s the Apple Watch, the Samsung Galaxy Watch, and one or two other devices. While they are often designed with sport and health tracking in mind, that’s far from their full feature set. Expect to be able to make phone calls, receive texts, navigate to your barber, call an Uber, and lots more.

Of course, these buckets are way too simplistic as you’ll see when we go a little deeper. There’s overlap between all three categories and, especially around the edges, things get very fuzzy. Garmin’s Vivoactive line, for example, are great running watches with a lot of smartwatch features, while the Venu is the same—but a little sleeker and with a nicer screen. Neither has anything close to the same app options as you get with an Apple Watch, but nor are they just GPS-trackers.

So, let’s dig in.

Should You Buy a Fitness Tracker?

Woman using a fitness tracker.

Fitness trackers are as simple as it comes. They generally use an accelerometer to count your steps and measure your sleep. Many will also track your heart rate and have a screen to display notifications if your smartphone is nearby. To see anything but your most basic daily stats, you’ll need to use an accompanying app.

Fitness trackers’ simplicity is both their best and worst feature. Because they mostly just count steps, they tend to have five-day, seven-day, or even longer battery lives. You can just wear them all day, every day, without having to worry too much about charging.

Unfortunately, it also limits how much they can do. While the Fitbit Inspire 2 can track your heart rate, for example, it has to connect to be connected to your smartphone to track your running distance and speed. You have to upgrade to the Fitbit Charge 4 before you get a built-in GPS.

Fitness trackers are really designed for people who work in sedentary jobs and want to move around a bit more. There’s a reason that the 10,000-step landmark has become such a cultural thing: a lot of people aren’t walking anywhere close to that amount.

On the other hand, if you’re already active and want something to record your runs, track your gym sessions, or give you advanced data to work with, most fitness trackers will fall a bit short.

Some Fitness Tracker Suggestions

If you think a fitness tracker is what you’re after and want a full buying guide, give our review of the 5 best fitness trackers a read, but Fitbit is the biggest name in the fitness tracking game. You won’t go wrong with the Inspire 2. If you want something non-Fitbit, check out the Garmin vivosmart 4.

If you want the low-profile look of a fitness tracker with some more advanced features, check out the Fitbit Charge 4. It has a built-in GPS so it can track your outdoor runs, rides, and swims.

Should You Buy a GPS Running Watch?

Man using a running watch.
Breslavtsev Oleg/Shutterstock.com

GPS running watches and multisport watches are designed to accurately track runs and other outdoor activities, like skiing, cycling, and swimming. Their big advantage over a basic fitness tracker is that they’re smart enough to be used solo. Most can even hold some music. You really don’t need to bring your phone along for your mind-clearing run or open-water swim.

But running watches aren’t just slightly smarter fitness trackers, they also have running-specific features. One simple one: easy-to-press physical buttons. If you’re sprinting laps of a track, tapping or swiping a touch screen at full pelt to reset a timer is no fun. Running watches have a dedicated “lap” button so you don’t have to.

Similarly, multisport watches do more to track and display your pace and distance in real time. Built-in coaches program workouts with suggested speeds, and you’ll get alerts if you’re running too fast or slow. High-end, outdoor-focused watches, like Garmin’s Fenix line, even have built-in maps so you can navigate and plan your routes as you go.

To make things more confusing, however, some running watches have started to get smaller, lighter, and to have more of a healthy lifestyle focus. Garmin’s Venu watches, for example, won’t look out of place on your wrist at all but the most formal events.

And, of course, most sport watches, even if they’re big and rugged, still count steps and track your heart rate throughout the day, not just when you’re up a mountain or on the trails. They’ll also display notifications on their (usually big) screen and, depending on the model, you might be able to make contactless payments, monitor your water intake, and track your menstrual cycle. When you’re just using them like this, their battery life can last a few days or even a week. With the GPS on, however, you’ll need to charge them far more frequently. Like, between every long run.

The big reason to buy a running watch is to quantify the workouts you’re already doing. The advanced running features are awesome—if you’re running a lot. Buying one, however, is unlikely to motivate you to start bashing out 10+ mile runs every Saturday.

If you just want to track your steps or sleep, or even just the occasional couple of park laps, running watches, even the more lifestyle-focused ones, are probably overkill. You’re likely better off with a fitness band, at least to start. They’re significantly cheaper.

Some Running Watch Suggestions

Garmin is really the big player when it comes to running watches. If you want something affordable, check out the Garmin Forerunner 45. For a lifestyle watch with running features, the Garmin Venu has the best screen and is easy to wear all day.

On the other hand, if you want the best that Garmin has to offer (that looks normal on your wrist) get the Garmin Forerunner 945 Music or Fenix 6 for better multisport features.

Should You Buy a Smartwatch?

Grid app drawer on the Apple Watch SE 2022
Justin Duino / Review Geek

Smartwatches, despite having the same form factor and overlapping feature set, are a different beast from fitness trackers and running watches. While they can track runs and workouts, measure your heart rate, and tell you how well you slept, that’s just a subset of their features.

Expect smartwatches to have a much wider variety of apps and features that are useful throughout the day, not just when you’re working up a sweat or sleeping to recover. You’re likely to be able to do things like call an Uber, calculate tips, control your smartphone’s camera remotely, and even play games or scroll through Twitter. (Why you’d want to do some of these things is up to you.)

The smartwatch bucket has the fuzziest edges because the more capable they get, the more tightly they have to integrate with another ecosystem. The Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch lines are the closest things available to true wrist computers and communicators. They can take phone calls, respond to text messages with more than preset replies, and have the option to do it all over an LTE connection.

At the other end of things, Garmin’s Vivoactive and Venu watches are that bit more lifestyle focused than Garmin’s pure sports watches, with better looks, slimmer profiles, and a mindful breathing app, but they can’t integrate as tightly with your phone. You can tap the screen to answer calls, for example, but all it does is answer with your smartphone. Similarly, you can respond to text messages—but only with a couple of presets.

Devices like the Fitbit Versa 3 sit somewhere in the middle. It can answer calls and you can respond to texts with presets, plus it brings Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant to your wrist. It’s definitely some kind of smartwatch, but at the same time it’s not in quite the same category as a Galaxy Watch5.

One big thing you need to be aware of with smartwatches is that the more feature-filled they are—and the more you use them—the worse their battery life. The various Apple Watches and Samsung Galaxy devices last between 24 and 48 hours on a charge. You really need to plug them in at least every other day. The Versa 3, while a little less capable, gets about 6-days between charges with basic use.

If you’re mainly looking for something to track your activities, a smartwatch is more than you need. Their extra features are great but having another device to charge every few days gets annoying, quickly.

On the other hand, if you want something to track your activities that you can also use to check your to-do list, listen to podcasts, make calls, and even let you leave your phone at home when you head to the shops, a smartwatch might be just what you want.

Some Smart Watch Suggestions

For a breakdown of the best smartwatches you can buy right now, check out our latest guide, but here’s the crux: The best smartwatch for you really depends on what smartphone you use. The Apple Watch only works with iPhones, while Samsung’s devices play nice with Android. You can use other smartwatches with an iPhone, but you lose out on a lot of features; an Apple Watch tightly integrates with iOS since they’re both part of the same ecosystem.

For Apple fans, it has to be either the Apple Watch Series 8 or Apple Watch SE. For Android users, the Samsung Galaxy Watch5 is as good as it gets.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »