The age of the wearable activity tracker is upon us. Popular Mechanics is here to help you choose.
It’s not time to buy a smartwatch because that technology is only beginning its adolescence, but you may be considering an activity tracker for several reasons. If your main reason is to capitalise on your medical aid wellness scheme, then buy in. But if you’re a more committed athlete, then you should consider something specific to your sport.
Tracking steps isn’t the ideal way to gauge fitness (which is why we shy away from calling them fitness trackers) and even when heart rate monitoring is used to better quantify calorie burn, the results are hit and miss. Activity trackers draw only a tiny part of the overall picture of your health and fitness, but among the many options on the market, some do it better than others. Here’s what happened when we sampled a few.
There are plenty of apps that will get the acitvity tracking job done on your existing hardware, but you’ll get better battery life with a device that uses a separate motion tracking CPU (iPhones 5S, 6 and 6S) or a chipset that supports low-power multicore activity (like the Snapdragon 801 in the Xiaomi Mi 4).
✔ You carry it with you anyway.
✖ A bit clunky to take everywhere.
Bottom line: Smartphones do as well as, if not better than, wearables at the step counting thing. R3 800, mia.africa.com
Jawbone Up 3
It works about the same as the excellent Up 2, but the bio-impedence passive heart rate monitoring does add another dimension to your health.
✔ All the benefits of the Jawbone ecosystem, with a cherry on top.
✖ Bio-impedance isn’t the most accurate way of measuring heart rate.
Bottom line: It doesn’t quite warrant the premium over the equally capable Up 2. R2 400, jawbone.com
Jawbone Up 2
It’s a basic activity tracker, but Jaw-bone’s Up application is the best at building a picture of your health and making goal suggestions.
✔ Simple, stylish design and seamless tracking when the battery is charged.
✖ Vague battery level indication, proprietary charging cable.
Bottom line: A dead simple activity tracker with a clever app. R1 600, jawbone.com
A fitness super watch with built in GPS, automatic continuous optical HRM, smartphone notifications and all-day activity tracking, this watch does it all.
✔ Multi sport tracking. Has Fitbit’s highly accurate movement-tracking algorithm
✖ Two-day battery life without using GPS or smartphone notifications
Bottom line: This is the king of the activity tracking hill at the moment. R4 300, myistore.co.za
Does all the step tracking, calorie burn estimates and sleep monitoring that the big boys do, and adds an overly complicated way of telling time to boot.
✔ Small and discreet.
✖ Unit ties itself to the user account, so you can’t pass it on to anyone else.
Bottom line: Fashion meets function. R500, misfit.com
TomTom Cardio Runner
This unit kicked off the trend of wrist-worn optical heart rate monitors (HRM) for the masses. A serious running watch for GPS tracking that syncs to a mobile app, but wait for the upcoming Cardio Spark* for all-day activity tracking.
✔ Accurate GPS and heart rate tracking.
✖ Slow GPS lock-on in new locations.
Bottom line: Only runners need apply. R3 800, tomtom.com
Jawbone’s response to the Misfit Flash. The benefit here is that it links up with a version of the fantastic Up app.
✔ You can wear it on your wrist or as a clip-on.
✖ No automatic sleep detection.
Bottom line: Small and capable. R600, jawbone.com
Withings Pulse O2
Carry the unit in your pocket, on a belt clip or even as a watch and it will also monitor your resting heart rate. But you need to take it out to measure heart rate.
✔ Small and multi-modal.
✖ No continuous heart rate monitoring.
Bottom line: The Pulse is in its third generation, but still feels first-gen. R1 700, withings.com
Samsung Gear Fit
As a second screen for a Samsung Galaxy phone it does about 75 per cent of what the Apple Watch does for the iPhone, but needs better developer support.
✔ Smart notifications. Great design.
✖ Not wearing its age well, poor app support.
Bottom line: Gear Fit changed the design language of fitness trackers in 2014. R2 500, samsung.com
Garmin Vivosmart HR
Garmin built its own optical HRM system from scratch for this device and thanks to the Connect app, this activity tracker also catches smartphone notifications.
✔ Continuous heart rate monitoring.
✖ We expected more than a couple of days’ battery life from a Vivo device.
Bottom line: While the band is innovative, it gets hamstrung by over-reliance on step tracking. R3 900, garmin.co.za
Withings Activite Pop
With automatic swim tracking, silent alarm and no charging cables, the plastic build of the Activite Pop is a cost-effective alternative to the metal finishings of its expensive sibling Activite.
✔ It looks like a normal watch and has eight months of battery life.
✖ Can store only a day’s worth of activity before needing to sync.
Bottom line: The cheaper of the two Activites makes no compromises. R2 600, withings.com
Razer Nabu X
The gaming company’s cheap activity tracker isn’t great, but there is potential for developers to climb on board and exploit the open source nature of its software.
✔ Cheap and connects to MapMyFitness
✖ Takes two apps to drive it on iOS.
Bottom line: As basic an activity tracker as you can get. R650, razerzone.com
* At the time of print the Spark was not launched in South Africa.
This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.