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Tom’s Guide
Tom’s Guide
Dan Bracaglia

Smartwatches vs. fitness trackers — how to choose which is right for you

A photo of the Fitbit Charge 6 and Garmin Forerunner 265.

Deciding between a smartwatch and a fitness tracker is tricky business. Nearly all smartwatches these days provide health and fitness metrics, while many fitness trackers are capable of running third-party apps, receiving texts and more. This is to say, the line between the two is blurrier than ever. So, let’s clear things up a bit.

Generally speaking, smartwatches are more technology-packed and therefore more capable than fitness trackers. Think of them as a complementary device to your smartphone—models like the Apple Watch 9 and the Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 can do many of the same tasks their smartphone counterparts can.

Fitness trackers, on the other hand, are more dedicated to, you guessed it, keeping tabs on our workouts and well-being, though many offer features beyond that. Some can even pay for your Starbucks. They also tend to be smaller, lighter and more affordable than smartwatches. 

With that covered, let’s address some common use cases. 

My budget is $100

If you’re shopping on a budget, we’d recommend opting for a quality fitness tracker over a subpar smartwatch. Popular trackers like the Fitbit Inspire 3 offer great bang for the buck for about a Benjamin. 

That said, if your heart is set on a smartwatch around this price point, we suggest you keep your eyes out for deals on well-reviewed models. The Apple Watch SE, for instance, can be picked up right now for just $109 in this early Black Friday deal (which certainly won’t last long).  

I want to send and receive calls

While plenty of fitness trackers can receive messages and call notifications, for the best wrist-based calling and texting experience, you’ll definitely want a smartwatch. And for total independence from your smartphone, consider a cellular-capable model and a data plan. If you have an iPhone, you'll need an Apple Watch, and if you have an Android phone, you'll need either the Pixel Watch 2 or the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5.

Those who want to install an array of third-party apps and/or browse the Internet should also choose a smartwatch. Fitness trackers are simply not built for these tasks. 

Tracking my workouts matters most

This one is a tie. With fitness-focused brands like Fitbit and Garmin now in the smartwatch game, and vice versa, you’ll find excellent workout tracking features in both styles of device. Sensors for tracking pulse, blood oxygen saturation, minutes active, distance and more, come standard in nearly all modern wrist wearables. But for the most straightforward fitness monitoring, go with a tracker.  

I want something discreet yet capable

The Fitbit Charge 6 is a fitness tracker with some handy smartwatch-like features. (Image credit: Future)

Not everyone finds tech wearable fashionable. If discretion is key, a fitness tracker will be your best bet. Models like the Fitbit Inspire series look more like bracelets than geeky gadgets at a glance. And some fitness trackers,  like the Garmin Vivomove Sport, are actually pretty fresh-looking. The same can’t be said for Apple’s ginormous Apple Watch Ultra series.  

I want to track my sleep & recovery

The best devices for tracking sleep and workout recovery tend to be fitness trackers, like the screen-less Whoop 4.0 or even the Oura Ring 3. However, Garmin smart watches also offer fantastic rest and recovery metrics, as do Fitbit watches. For insights just into sleep, though, we recommend sticking with a tracker, as they tend to be smaller, lighter and more comfortable to wear to bed.

I want features that will keep me safe  

If safety is a top priority, a smartwatch is a better bet than a fitness tracker. Flagship models, like the Apple Watch Ultra 2, Samsung Galaxy Watch 6, Google Pixel Watch 2 and many more offer fall detection, which can be a lifesaver when no one else is around. The Apple Ultra series also has a built-in siren that can be used to signal for help. Most smartwatches also offer an emergency calling function.  

I’m still not sure which device to get

For those still stuck in the middle, fear not. There are plenty of cross-over devices that straddle the line between fitness tracker and smartwatch. The Fitbit Charge 6, for example, sports a sizable screen and onboard GPS, with support for Google apps and mobile payments. 

For more details on the latest tech wearables, check out Best Smatwatches and Best Fitness Trackers buying guides. 

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