Want an activity tracker but can’t decide whether to buy a Fitbit wristband or fork out for the rather lovely Apple Watch? We pit Apple Watch vs Fitbit to see which comes out best on various aspects: fitness tracking, heart rate monitoring, design, price, apps, battery life, and so on.
Fitbit doesn’t actually label its wristbands as smartwatches. The closest it gets is calling its Surge device a “superwatch”, and the Blaze as a "Fitness Watch". Otherwise the correct term is activity trackers. Fitbits don’t run multiple apps like a smartwatch, but they are directly comparable on many of their fitness-measuring functions, design themes and functions.
As a direct comparison we’ll look at the Apple Watch vs the Fitbit Alta, Fitbit Charge 2, Fitbit Blaze and Fitbit Surge. The Fitbit Flex 2 is the cheapest wristband but has a far more minimal display screen, and no watch function.
Keeping fit doesn’t mean you have to be a gym freak or marathon runner. Keeping active throughout the day offers real health benefits too, and both the Apple Watch and Fitbit activity trackers are superb at getting you moving more.
The Apple Watch and Fitbit activity trackers measure steps taken, distance travelled and calories burned. They also show you how many minutes you’ve been active during the day. Each tracks your progress over time and can store historical data, and you set daily goals for yourself.
The accuracy of the trackers is probably less important than how they show your trend of activity and performance against user-set goals.
In addition, the Fitbit wristbands (excluding the Flex 2 and Alta) have an altimeter that counts distance climbed (take the hilly route home, not the flat one). The Fitbits also sync weight data from the optional Fitbit Aria scales. As a result the Fitbit models range from everyday fitness and active fitness (like the Apple Watch) and further to sports and performance fitness – with the Surge supporting running, cross-training, biking, strength and cardio workouts.
Serious runners have dismissed the Apple Watch for their needs, preferring the Surge or other dedicated running watches from the Garmin or Suunto. But that looks change with the release of the Series 2 Apple Watch, which features a built-in GPS just like the Fitbit Surge.
Fitness is obviously at the core of the Fitbits, whereas the Apple Watch counts activity tracking as one of its many features.
The Apple Watch offers two main fitness apps: Activity, which is all about health, movement, wellness and your daily routine; and Workout App, which tracks running, cycling and walking. All this data is collected on your iPhone via the Activity app, although users can get a more holistic view of their health by using the Health app, which integrates data from multiple sources, not only the Watch.
While they work brilliantly with the iPhone, Fitbits do not officially support Apple’s Health Kit, although integration is offered by third-party apps.
You can see at a glance how far you are with your daily movement and health goals by looking at the Apple Watch’s colourful three rings, which light up to show your progress. The Move ring shows calories burned. The Exercise ring displays how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve achieved. And the Stand ring shows how often you’ve stood up to stop sitting down. The aim is to complete each rung every day. It’s a great motivation tool.
Apple defines exercise as any activity that’s equivalent to at least a brisk walk. The Watch looks at your heart rate and movement data, so just going for a walk might not move that green ring as much as you’d think. It wants you to get your heart pumping a bit faster. The Apple Watch learns your habits so will push you harder the more active you get over time.
We love the Apple Watch’s ping to remind you if you’ve been sitting around too long – time to stretch the legs and get the heart rate up for a bit, or at least stand up. Basically it’s a get-off-your-arse alert, from the taptic pulses to your wrist to notifications, that you’ve been idle for a long period of time. You can actually get an alert even when standing up because what the Watch is actually measuring is your lack of moving about.
Fitbit's Reminders To Move work in the same way, and are found on the Alta, Charge 2 and Flex 2.
The Apple Workout app gives you real-time stats for exercise time, distance walked/run, calories burned and pace, but at the moment it relies on third-party apps to make it a proper sports tracker, and until the release of the Series 2 Watch we didn’t find the Workout app accurate enough for running (see below in our GPS comparison).
The lack of built-in GPS (see below) puts the Series 1 Apple Watch behind the Fitbit Surge in this regard, but the Series 2 Apple Watch is now a real contender. The Watch's compatibility with some excellent third-party running apps improves on some of these initial failings.
Read next: Fitbit Charge 2 review
Heart rate monitor
The Apple Watch and Fitbit Charge 2, Blaze and Surge use something called photoplethysmography to measure your heart rate. This uses safe green LED lights on the underside of the wristband to detect blood volume and capillary-size changes under pressure. When your heart beats, your capillaries expand and contract based on blood volume changes. The LED lights reflect onto the skin to detect blood volume changes.
Blood is red because it reflects red light and absorbs green light. When your heart beats, the blood flow in your wrist – and the green light absorption – is greater.
The Fitbit Charge 2, Surge and Blaze monitor your heart rate continuously, 24/7. They can store heart rate data at 1-second intervals during exercise tracking and at 5-second intervals all other times.
On the other hand (or should I say wrist?) the Apple Watch checks your heart rate only every ten minutes during the day. However, it does record your heart rate continuously when the Workout app is turned on, so you get constant feedback during training sessions. The Watch’s built-in heart-rate monitor does support external heart-rate monitors too.
The Apple Watch impressed the testers at US Consumer Reports: “We pitted the Apple Watch against our highest-rated heart-rate monitor. Wearing both, our testers hit the treadmill – first walking slowly, then a little faster, then a jog back to a walk.” The test found “no significant differences” between Apple Watch and the dedicated heart-rate monitor, with both reporting similar readings.