2016 was a year of looking inward for most companies making wearables. Big names like Fitbit and Garmin released a handful of totally new products, but most companies focused on making improvements to their existing products. While refinements are not as exciting as brand-new product debuts can be, they show us the direction in which fitness trackers are moving.
This time last year, the open question was if smartwatches and all-purpose devices like the Apple Watch would kill fitness-only devices like those made by Fitbit. Thanks to developments made this year, we can say that both categories will likely survive—mostly because the consumer wearable landscape has expanded to encompass a few distinct categories: the “move more” devices, the serious training devices, and the all-purpose smartwatches. Most of the second- and even third-generation products that came out this year fit into these categories, and there are obvious hits and misses.
We’re going to examine each category and where it went in 2016 and then tell you our picks for best and worst device in each—along with our predictions for 2017 and beyond. If you’ve been waiting for the holiday to pick up a fitness tracker or fancy smart watch, now might be the time!
Move more, live more
The “move more” trackers are what most people buy for their friends or relatives as holiday gifts. They’re trackers that are meant to live on your wrist all day to make you more aware of all that time you spend in your office chair. They all focus on tracking the trifecta: steps, calories, and distance. But many can also monitor sleep, stairs climbed, and inactive time and track some basic workout information. Since their features are more limited than the other trackers we’ll get into, there’s not a huge learning curve preventing even the least tech-savvy wearers from using them. However, they’re also the types of trackers most likely to be abandoned after a few months of use.
Quite a few companies make great move-more trackers. Fitbit is the most obvious, and its newest device in the category is the $129 Alta. We didn’t review the Alta, but we did review other great trackers including the $99 Misfit Ray. The Alta and the Ray are meant for the same kind of person: someone who wants a tap on the wrist to remind them to be more active throughout the day and someone who doesn’t want to look like they’re wearing a fitness tracker. The Alta’s only perk in comparison to the Ray is its tappable display that can show the time and some activity stats, which will be useful if you like that instant gratification of knowing your step count on a whim. But the Ray ups the ante by tracking swimming and using Misfit’s Link system to control smart lights and music. It can also act as a shutter for your smartphone’s camera.
Both Fitbit’s and Misfit’s devices (not just the Alta and the Ray, respectively, but others as well) can be classed as “fashionable” wearables, as can many of the other move-more trackers. One of the biggest reasons for this is that most of these devices are simple—they’re not meant to have onboard GPS, a heart rate monitor, or other complex sensors—so manufacturers can take the tech needed for a simple tracker and develop more ways to dress it up.
Misfit has been doing this for a long time, starting with the bracelet and necklace accessories for its Shine tracker, then its Shine-Swarovski collaboration, and now the Phase hybrid watch that barely looks like a smart device. Misfit’s parent company, Fossil, is also doing this across nearly all of its brands, but it started by making some basic smartwatches that track steps, calories, and distance for Fossil’s own line of watches. That was a year ago, and now nearly half of Fossil watches are hybrids, and many of its brands (Diesel, Emporio Armani, and more) have hybrids in their watch families.
I can happily say that none of the basic trackers I tried this year were bad. All of them track steps, calories, and distance fairly well. The bad parts come when you examine their value for money compared to similar devices. For example, Withings’ $80 Go tracker has most of the features the Misfit Ray has, but it lacks a vibration motor (meaning it can’t send reminders and alerts to your wrist), and it’s not particularly fashion-forward. The Go is only for those who want a very bare-bones tracker; for all others, something like the Ray is a better value.
Best: Misfit Ray
Worst: Withings Go
Serious devices for serious fitness buffs
A previous misconception about fitness trackers was that they were only for people who wanted to get off the couch and get back into shape and that their value significantly decreased if you were already active. That’s not really true anymore, and many companies make devices that are meant for serious training rather than just step counting. There are different levels of these “serious business” trackers, and levels typically depend on the built-in advanced sensors they have. The two most popular ones are built-in GPS and optical heart rate monitoring, and the former is still more of a serious feature than the latter. Some trackers toe the line in between move-more and serious devices by having built-in heart rate monitoring, like Fitbit’s $150 Charge 2.
But the best serious tracker to come out this year is Garmin’s $250 Vivoactive HR. That’s not because it’s the most expensive or the most advanced device you can get. Garmin, Polar, and other companies make very high-end trackers costing over $300 that do more than the Vivoactive HR with features like GLONASS satellite reception, VO2 max estimates, onboard altimeters and barometers, to name a few.
What Garmin did with the Vivoactive HR is make many of the most desired fitness tracker features available in a solid device that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. With onboard GPS and Garmin’s own heart rate monitoring technology, the Vivoactive HR tracks a plethora of workout activities, including swimming; it also keeps tabs on your daily activity and sends smartphone notifications to your wrist. Our big issues with it were its design—anyone who knows what a fitness tracker is will be able to tell what’s on your wrist when you wear it—and the convoluted nature of its Garmin Connect companion app. We would love to see Garmin fine-tune its Connect app to make the user experience better. If it did so, Garmin’s hardware lineup and software ecosystem would be hard to beat.
Garmin does a good job of making serious training devices, but it’s not the only fish in the serious business pond. There’s the $99 Lumo Run, a small sensor that attaches to the waistband of your pants to monitor running form. This device won’t be good for anyone who wants to track daily movement, or even an athlete who’s training for a triathlon. Instead, Lumo Run helps you run better by tracking your form and suggesting ways to improve in real-time using an audio coach within its companion app. More devices like Lumo Run are coming out, and it proves that you don’t have to have a tracker that monitors every activity under the sun to get a device that’s hardcore enough to help you get to the next level in your training.
In that same vein, some serious trackers try too hard to incorporate as many features as possible. Polar’s $329 M600 is an example of this—it takes most of Polar’s typical tracker features, which are quite good, and marries them with Android Wear. This made the M600 a confusing mix of fitness tracker and smartwatch that is ultimately unsuccessful. First, it only works well with Android phones, thanks to the limitations of Google’s wearable OS and Apple’s restrictions on third-party apps. It’s also too bulky to wear all day long if you want to track daily activity in addition to workouts. While it is a true example of an all-in-one kind of device, it’s not the best that it could be—especially considering many of Polar’s other devices have a few smartwatch features, done Polar’s way and not Google’s way.
Best: Garmin Vivoactive HR
Worst: Polar M600
Anything and everything
Finally, there are the devices that try to do everything you’d want a wearable to do. Even though the overall “wearable” class of devices is still new and without a clear leading direction, some devices are trying to prove the potential of wearables beyond fitness. The best example of this is the Apple Watch, although Apple did follow the crowd a bit with its Series 2 revision.
When the Watch came out about a year-and-a-half ago, Apple pushed all the features it had that weren’t fitness-related as ways the watch could improve your quality of life and help you get off your phone more. The Apple Watch does succeed in doing that, thanks to its rich smartphone notifications and the ease with which you can actually do useful things from the device. Typically with wearable notifications, you can’t do more than glance at them to see what they have to say. Since the Apple Watch came out, Apple has done a good job making the Watch a more interactive device, allowing users to text in multiple ways from the Watch, control smart home devices, and use mini-versions of full iOS apps from its display. Of course, all these things apply only if you have an iPhone—the Watch won’t work with an Android device.
But with the $375 Series 2, Apple made a conscious decision to focus on fitness more without getting rid of any of the core smartwatch features. The Series 2 has an onboard GPS for outdoor workout mapping, an accurate optical heart rate monitor, and the device is swim-proof with its unique mechanism for ejecting water that might get into the Watch’s speakers. I predict we’ll see more trackers of all kinds becoming waterproof enough to track swimming, and the way the Apple Watch does so is refreshing and different.
It was also nice to see an Android OEM come out with something nearly as good as the Apple Watch for Google’s mobile OS. Samsung’s $179 Gear Fit 2 packages the most important smartwatch features and hardcore fitness features into one device. Since the Gear Fit 2 only works on Android devices, it’s arguably the best alternative to the Apple Watch for Android users. The main outstanding issue shared by both the Gear Fit 2 and the Apple Watch is the battery life: neither of them last more than two days on a single charge. That’s a sacrifice you currently have to make when these wearables are doing so much all the time. In comparison, plain activity trackers both basic and serious typically last anywhere between five days to a few weeks on a charge (and lightweight fashionable trackers like the Misfit Ray can go for a month or more). That’s one area that will have to improve in order for more people to invest in all-purpose wearables—when you’re spending hundreds of dollars on an accessory that you wear all day long, it should at least be able to last more than a couple days before you need to charge it again.
The one product that came out this year and didn’t totally live up to expectations was Fitbit’s $200 Blaze fitness watch. We didn’t come away from the review thinking the Blaze was a bad device, but it occupies a space in Fitbit’s lineup and the smartwatch world in general that seems unnecessary. The only smartwatch features it has are notifications (and not all of them, either—just call, text, and calendar alerts) and music control. It did take a page from Microsoft’s book with FitStar guided workouts, which let you follow moving icons on the display to do a full workout routine comprising different exercises. Otherwise, as a fitness tracker, it could be considered a mid- to high-end device since it has an onboard heart rate monitor but can only use GPS via a connected smartphone. The Blaze’s design is also an issue, mostly because you need to remove the module from its strange metal case to charge it with a bulky proprietary cable. This was the first obvious attempt by Fitbit to compete with the Apple Watch, and it definitely fell short.
Worst: Fitbit Blaze
Looking forward in 2017
We will likely see Fitbit try again to create a solid Apple Watch competitor next year. The news of the company’s $40 million Pebble acquisition points to Fitbit’s desire to incorporate more smartwatch features into its traditionally fitness-based products. The lukewarm reception to the Blaze may have prompted Fitbit to reconsider its expertise in making a true smartwatch—Pebble ostensibly knows how to do this and do it well enough to have a big fanbase that supported it through the years with crowdfunding. Pebble’s Timeline interface on its newest watches is a totally different way of separating information from the UI on Fitbit trackers, and it’s also quite different from the Apple Watch’s UI. We’ll likely see Fitbit put its spin on Pebble’s smartwatch interface in new products.
The acquisition of Pebble is one of the biggest stories in the wearable world this year. No matter how you feel about its products, Pebble was the first company to make a modern smartwatch that its customers enthusiastically embraced, and the company’s crowdfunding campaigns set records. Now, Pebble won’t be making any more products (that means we’ll never see its Core running module—unless Fitbit does something with it) and it’s ceasing support for existing watches. Anyone who has a Pebble will still be able to use it, but support has been cut off, and Pebble has already said that functionality may be reduced in the coming months.
It’s tough to recommend a similar device for anyone looking to get a different smartwatch, simply because most other smartwatches are not like Pebble devices at all. Even the Apple Watch is more limited in some ways, since the Apple Watch is only useful for those with iPhones, and Pebble’s devices worked with Android and iOS. There’s also the issue of battery life: most of Pebble’s watches last a week on a single charge, and some of them could run for 10 days. Unless you opt for a simple tracker that runs on a coin-cell battery (which lasts for about six months), you’re not going to get battery life like that on any smartwatch. If we had to recommend an alternative for Pebble enthusiasts, we’d say Garmin’s $219 Vivoactive is arguably the company’s best marriage of looks, UI, and fitness prowess, and the $269 Apple Watch Series 1 is another good option if you can live without a waterproof design or onboard GPS.
Along with Fitbit, we think wearable companies will lean toward opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of smartwatches. According to a recent report from IDC, consumers are embracing “basic” fitness trackers more than smartwatches, due to the basic devices’ simplicity. But a device doesn’t have to take the form of a generic wristband to be a basic activity tracker. We’ll likely see companies take the Fossil route—incorporating basic activity tracking into stylish devices—or the Apple route, which is undoubtably the harder of the two options. Fitness remains the most practical use for these devices, and most wearables we know today are fitness trackers in some sense. The companies that try to make true smartwatches will have to define the purpose of those devices, and what will be even more difficult is getting customers to buy into the need of that device.
Apple did what Apple does best with the Series 2 Watch: it helped normalize smartwatches and showed they could be both general connected devices as well as good fitness trackers. More people know what smartwatches are thanks to the original Watch and the Series 2, but the devices’ necessity is still ambiguous. While you can more easily justify spending $150 on a Fitbit Charge 2 in the hopes of getting fit in the new year, it’s harder (but now, not impossible) to make the case for a $375 Apple Watch that you’re not sure how you’ll most use it aside from tracking workouts. The electronic boat anchor of the tethered smartphone still holds the category back; a true standalone smartwatch that does everything without a smartphone doesn’t yet exist.
Also in the new year, we’ll likely see more wearables moving off your wrist. This has been happening slowly for the past year or two, with prime examples being Sensoria’s smart clothing and Under Armour’s run-tracking sneakers. Moov has already debuted Moov HR, which places a heart rate monitor in a headband or swim cap. This change depends on two things: the size of the sensors used to track movement and the creativity of companies using them to make products that look and feel natural. The wrist was the perfect part of the body for wearables to start with simply because it feels natural to wear something bracelet-like or watch-like all day. But the wrist won’t be the only place for wearable technology to live, especially when there are better areas of the body to track things like heart rate, breathing rate, pace, and more.
In fact, we’ll likely see more trackers come in the form of one of the first wearable technologies: earbuds. Audio companies are starting to embrace the idea of putting accelerometers and heart rate monitors in their earbuds, and ideally it would be a highly practical combo. Most people listen to music while exercising, so a reliable earbud-based monitor could eliminate the need for a music maker and a fitness tracker. We reviewed a bunch of the heart-rate toting earbuds on the market now, and the good news is that some of them are fairly accurate in detecting heart rate. It’s still a hit-or-miss market for now, but 2017 could usher in some even better, second-generation fitness buds that could go toe-to-toe with your favorite wristband.
Overall, 2016 wasn’t a year where we saw anything incredibly new or eye-catching in the combined wearable space. But we did see a lot of big companies come into their own, refining products and making some features more ubiquitous. Hopefully 2017 will bring some all-new devices, particularly some that don’t live on your wrist. We’re optimistic that we could see new companies with unique wearable ideas in the coming year, but they always have the hardest job of all—similar to the struggle that Apple and other smartwatch makers are faced with. They must prove necessity, rather than relying on intrigue, to convince consumers to give their devices a shot. At the very least, we’ll see companies trying to figure out how each of their products fits into the current wearable categories that are more likely to stick around.