What's the difference between smartwatches and fitness trackers?
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What's the difference between smartwatches and fitness trackers?

Wearable devices are more common than ever. But ironically, the words "fitness tracker" and "smartwatch" have become more confusing. People struggle to understand how these product categories are different, a problem that leads to dissatisfied customers and wasted money.

Fitness trackers and smartwatches both have their place in this world. But we will try to find which product belongs to your wrist.

Fitness trackers prioritize health and exercise

An illustration of the Fitbit Charge 5 fitness tracker.

Almost every component of a fitness tracker revolves around health and exercise. Fitness trackers use unique sensors to record your heart rate, sleep, workouts, stress levels, and more. They contain easy-to-use software that encourages healthy habits, they're generally swim-proof, and they often last several days on a charge.

Fitness trackers need to connect to your phone to provide detailed health and fitness readings. A fitness tracker's screen can show your heart rate and step count, but it's too small for graphs or charts.

Additionally, most fitness trackers rely on the user's smartphone for GPS functionality. Some people won't need GPS tracking, but it's useful for cyclists or runners who want to retrace their route and see where they slowed down, sped up, or reached an interesting heart rate. (Some fitness trackers have built-in GPS, so you don't have to pick up a phone on your run.)

But in recent years, fitness trackers have become more “smartwatch-like”. It's not uncommon for a fitness tracker to show notifications for texts or calls, for example, and NFC contactless payment support is usually included in high-end fitness trackers.

And some fitness trackers look like smartwatches! The Fitbit Sense, for example, has a large color touchscreen. But as you'll learn in a minute, there's more to a smartwatch than just a big screen.

Smartwatches extend the capabilities of your smartphone

Apple Watch Series 8 in multiple colors.

A smartwatch uses advanced features to extend the capabilities of your phone. Smartwatches focus on communication, smart home control, and work-related tasks. They often support a ton of apps, including things like Spotify or Google Maps, which you can control from your wrist.

Your average smartwatch uses a large color touchscreen. And if you pay extra, it can even support cellular connectivity. This allows you to walk around without your smartphone and continue to stream music, receive calls or texts, or perform most other tasks.

By the way, health and fitness are an integral part of this equation. Smartwatches can track your exercise, sleep, and heart rate. Expensive units like the Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch tend to offer the same fitness-focused features as a proper fitness tracker. Plus, they're generally water resistant for swimming and offer guided workouts for a small monthly fee.

But health and fitness are rarely the main selling point of a smartwatch. And in fact, fitness trackers are way ahead in this area – they tend to last several days on a charge, and of course, they often sell for less than $100. Compare that to the average smartwatch, which needs to be charged every day and can cost several hundred dollars.

The distinction is not always clear

The Galaxy Watch 5 in a maze.

Years ago, the difference between a fitness tracker and a smartwatch was pretty clear. A fitness tracker was a glorified pedometer, while a smartwatch was an extension of your smartphone.

But we've reached a point where fitness trackers and smartwatches perform similar tasks. You can receive text messages or make contactless payments on a Fitbit, for example, and every self-respecting smartwatch packs advanced sensors for health and fitness.

The growing demand for large-screen fitness trackers has also muddied the waters. We now have products like the Fitbit Sense, which has a large screen and offers a very limited selection of "smartwatch features". I'm inclined to call the Fitbit Sense a fitness tracker, but I wouldn't flinch if a journalist or reviewer called it a smartwatch — the distinction isn't always clear.

That said, don't get too hung up on terms like "fitness tracker" or "smartwatch." These words are useful for describing a device's features, but they never paint the complete picture.

Which should you buy?

The Garmin Venu 2S on my wrist

For some people, choosing a smartwatch or fitness tracker is a simple task. If you only care about health and fitness, a Fitbit Charge is easy to recommend. And if you like taking calls or controlling Spotify from your wrist, there's always the Apple Watch or the Galaxy Watch, which practically double as fitness trackers.

But maybe your needs are not so simple. Maybe you want the best possible fitness experience with a few smartwatch features — that's where products like the Fitbit Sense or the Garmin Venu come in. These devices sit on the border between "fitness tracker and the “smartwatch”.

Heck, you can even ditch that two-party system for a third option; the hybrid connected watch. Simply put, a hybrid smartwatch is just an analog watch with basic "smart" functionality. I'm a big fan of the Withings ScanWatch because it tracks things like exercise and heart rate without becoming a huge distraction.

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