Guidemaster: Fitness trackers to consider before buying a smartwatch

EnlargeValentina Palladino

The smartwatch hasn't swallowed up the fitness tracker yet. While many consumers are intrigued by the Apple Watch, Android Wear devices, and the like, old-school fitness trackers can still be useful and available for the right price. The main goal of these devices remains simply tracking activity: from daily movement to intense exercise to steps, heart rate, and sleep. Most of today's fitness trackers haven't changed much aesthetically, either. They're still, by and large, wristbands.

Most modern fitness trackers are meant to be worn all day long. And many now have basic "smartwatch" features, so you don't have to fully sacrifice if you're primarily looking for a wearable to help you get in shape.

With so many devices sharing the same basic goals and set of features, it can be hard to decipher which tracker is right for you. But from our testing, there are some fitness trackers that stand out among the rest—some for their thoughtful applications, others for their versatility, and some for their focused approach to fitness training. So with spring on the horizon and 2018 resolutions still holding strong, we've looked back at the fitness trackers we've reviewed recently and selected the best ones for all kinds of users.

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Fitbit Alta HR: The best for the most of us

Fitbit Alta HR
Enlarge/ Fitbit Alta HRValentina Palladino

The easier it is to track fitness, the more likely people are to actually do it. Fitbit's $149 Alta HR is a device that makes tracking movement, exercise, and sleep so convenient that you might as well just stick with it. Its slim design makes it unassuming and comfortable on the wrist, and it has a bunch of interchangeable bands available so you can switch up its look to match any outfit or occasion.

Specs at a glance: Fitbit Alta HR
Price $149-$179
Heart rate monitoring Yes, continuous
Water resistance Rain-, sweat-, and splash-proof
Smartphone alerts Yes (call, text, and calendar)
Sizes Small, large, and extra-large
Battery life Seven days

While that feature may induce eye-rolls from some potential users or wearable skeptics, it's actually quite important for retention. The easier it is to wear a fitness tracker each day—regardless of what you're doing—the more likely it is that you won't take it off once and then never put it back on.

Despite its small size, the Alta HR includes an accelerometer and continuous heart rate monitor inside. It'll track your heart rate from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you wake up the following morning—and even in doing so, it has a battery life of seven days. The only time you'll want to take the Alta HR off your wrist is when you bathe, since the device isn't waterproof.

With continuous heart rate tracking, the Alta HR provides an interesting look into your overall health, in addition to important stats achieved during exercise. It measures your resting heart rate, your pulse throughout the day and during the night while you sleep, and heart rate during exercise, which is then sectioned and graphed into various heart rate zones in the Fitbit app.

The exercise heart rate graphs are particularly important because they can tell you how hard your heart needs to work during different workouts. Heart rate during sleep informs the Sleep Stages and Insights data in the Fitbit app, which the company introduced last year to give users feedback into how exercise and daily habits affect sleep as well as suggestions on how to get a better night's sleep based on those habits.

While the Alta HR has a tappable touchscreen that lets you scroll through the time and various daily activity stats, you don't need to use the touchscreen when you want to track a workout. The device uses Fitbit's Smart Track technology, which allows it to automatically recognize and record activities, including walking, running, and biking, whenever you're doing them for more than 10 minutes.

There's even a general "sports" category that it will automatically track, which should record any periods of activity in which your heart rate is raised. Rather than fumbling through a list of sport profiles and picking the type of exercise you want to try, you can just start working out and let the Alta HR do the rest.

Unlike most modern smartwatches, the Alta HR takes a limited approach to smartphone notifications by only delivering call, text, and calendar alerts to your wrist. For those who use the default phone, messaging, and calendar apps, these alerts are some of the most crucial to receive even when your smartphone isn't in front of you.

The Alta HR connects to Fitbit's mobile app for Android and iOS, which has been the best fitness tracker companion app for quite some time. Aside from its friendly UI, the app makes it easy to see all the data tracked automatically from any Fitbit device in addition to making it easy for the user to input data like amount of water consumed, food eaten, and more. The HR also has plenty of fitness challenges you can complete based on your location, as well as challenges you can do with friends and family or to simply beat your own record.

The Fitbit software experience, combined with the simplicity and convenience of the Alta HR, make this device the best for most users—whether you're one of the many people who made a fitness-related New Year's resolution or one who regularly changes up their workout routine. For $149, the Alta HR provides the most essential fitness features that most people can and will find useful, and its long battery life encourages you to rarely take the device off. It's the device to choose if you want the best value for your money and a device that you won't abandon in a few, short months.

The Good

  • Accurate and continuous heart rate monitoring that influences much of the fitness data collected.

The Bad

  • No built-in GPS or connected GPS feature.

Fitbit Alta HR

Price: $148.95 at Amazon

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Misfit Ray: Solid tech in a stylish frame

Misfit Ray
Enlarge/ Misfit RayValentina Palladino
Specs at a glance: Misfit Ray
Price $79-$99
Heart rate monitoring No
Water resistance Swimproof (water-resistant up to 50 meters)
Smartphone alerts Yes (vibrations for calls, texts, movements, alarms)
Sizes One size
Battery life Four months (replaceable battery)

Misfit is known for its minimalistic approach to wearable tech, and the company's $79 Ray tracker might be the most versatile of them all. While Misfit has expanded over the years to make full-fledged smartwatches, hybrid watches, and other devices, the Ray is a simple, cylindrical tracker that can have as much personality as you want it to have. With seven module colors and numerous types of interchangeable bands, the Ray could be a nondescript bracelet or a fashion statement depending on how you dress it up. The M.Y. Misfit option lets you personalize the Ray—and a bunch of other Misfit devices—before you even buy it.

Misfit makes sport, stainless steel, nylon, leather, nylon tassel, and double leather wrap bands for the Ray, with the most expensive adding just $20 to the cost of the device. That means you could invest in a few band options to make the Ray a wardrobe staple without breaking the bank. In addition, Misfit sells a necklace attachment so you can wear the tracker around your neck and give your wrist a break.

The small tube is perfectly sized to hold fitness tracker tech while also masquerading as a piece of jewelry. Inside the Ray are an accelerometer, a vibration motor, and tiny LED lights that let it track daily activity and sleep, as well as receive select smartphone notifications.

Since it has no screen or buttons, the Ray isn't a device to be interacted with like the Alta HR—but most of us don't interact with the jewelry we're wearing. Like a regular bracelet or necklace, the Ray is meant only to be worn and left alone to track your every step.

However, Misfit does give power-users the option to use the Ray as a Misfit Link remote. Link is the company's service that most of its devices connect to in order to control various actions like turning on a smart lightbulb, taking a photo on your smartphone, or controlling music playback. You don't have to use Link on the Ray, but it's another aspect of its versatility that makes this device a stylish and functional companion to wear all day long.

The Good

  • Many interchangeable band options and module finishes to choose from at affordable prices.

The Bad

  • Tracks only general fitness stats since it doesn't include many sensors.

Misfit Ray (Stainless Steel, Black)

Price: $67.64 at Amazon

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