Design: Fitbit catching up
There are many different combinations of Apple Watch types, sizes and straps, from the simple Sport to the Watch Hermès Edition. Apple’s Jonathan Ive (now departed from Cupertino) scored another design success with the Watch, and it’s really rather beautiful. The choice of straps for the Watch is immense, and users praise their robustness - where older Fitbit bands used to fail more frequently.
Fitbit's tracker wristbands are a lot more minimal, with simple screens (see below) and stark straps, available in a range of several colours. You can wear Fitbits such as the Inspire HR and Charge 3 with your regular wristwatch, but I wouldn’t wear an Apple Watch with a normal watch on the same arm - the same is true of the Versa and Ionic Fitbits, though.
The Apple Watch is your main watch, not another wristband. The Fitbit Charge 3 or Inspire HR can easily be worn as your only watch, too, of course, but can ride further up the wrist if you still love your regular timepiece.
Strap choice: The Fitbit Versa 2 (below) looks a lot like the Apple Watch, but has a smaller but still decent range of straps - with a choice of Black, Grey, Petal, Bordeaux and Emerald in Small and Large sizes. There are more luxury straps also available at extra cost: Stainless Steel links (add £89.99) or Mesh (£69.99), plus Leather (Lavender, Cognac Brown, Saddle Stitch tan, and Midnight Blue) at an extra £49.99 on top of the £199 price of the Blaze itself (which comes with one of the basic straps as standard). The Special Edition Versa has a woven strap, plus silicon for swimming or profuse sweating.
The Fitbit Ionic (below) is the closer device to the Apple Watch in terms of features, and has a range of bands, but nowhere near the range of the Apple Watch or even the Versa 2.
If you want a watch to look like a watch, then the Apple Watch and Fitbit Versa 2 or Ionic are for you. As a personal preference, we found the slimmer Fitbit Versa 2 to be the most comfortable of all the smartwatches we tested.
The Fitbit Inspire HR, and Charge 3 are also comfortable, and, in fact, mostly it’s difficult to tell you’ve got one on at all, as they are so lightweight. We found the watch-type buckle of the Charge 3, Inspire HR, Versa 2 and Ionic to be more secure than the press-in tabs of the non-HR Inspire.
Screen: draw but more faces from Apple
Apple Watch vs Fitbit specs and dimensions: The Fitbit Versa 2's 40mm display isn't all screen as it has a fairly large bezel. It does, however, use an AMOLED display, which offers deeper blacks and sharper details than the original Versa, which featured an LCD screen with 300-x-300-pixel resolution.
Now the Versa 2's screen is as good as the Apple Watch's display, which brings the comparison closer still.
The Versa 2's display is smaller than both the 40mm and 44mm Apple Watch 5.
The 38mm Apple Watch Series 3 has a 272-x-340 resolution. The Ionic is 36mm with a 348-x-250-pixel resolution. The 42mm Apple Watch 3 has a 312-x-390 resolution.
The new Apple Watch 5 comes in 40mm (394-x-324 pixels) and 44mm (448-x-368) sizes. The Series 5 - like the Series 4 before it - is slimmer than the Series 3, which means that despite the larger screens they have less volume than their predecessors.
The Apple Watch’s touchscreen is a colourful beauty, while the Fitbits’ minimalism means displays are mainly white on black with some grey, although the Versa and Ionic's colour screens are not as lush as Apple's, but do allow for more than the other Fitbits' minimal looks.
Because the screen is small, you might prefer using the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown to navigate as your finger will cover a big chunk of the display. Swiping works great, though, and this is available only on the top-end Ionic and Versa in Fitbit’s line-up - plus the Fitbit Charge 3. And the Watch’s Force Touch technology can detect soft and hard taps for different functions. It’s obviously the winner here.
You also get customisable watch faces with Apple, from digital and analogue chronometer and photo backgrounds to the new Siri watch face. You can also select watch faces on the Ionic, and even design your own.
The Watch fared very well in US Consumer Reports tests to see how scratch-proof its screen is. The Sport model was impervious to all but a masonry drill bit, and the Sapphire screen of the top Watch couldn't be scratched at all! With iPhone-like Gorilla Glass the Ionic's screen is also impressive.
If you want your wrist's screen to be always on, then only the Fitbit Versa 2 and Series 5 Watch offer this option - handy during workouts or cycle rides when you might not want to lift your wrist to your face.
There’s certainly less choice or frivolity with Fitbit, which sticks to its simple digital display on all but the Ionic and Versa 2, which can show alternative faces if you fancy it. But their less-flashy displays mean huge extra battery life for the Fitbits compared to the quickly tiring Apple Watch. The Fitbit Ionic and Blaze have touch/swipe screens like the Apple Watch.
GPS: Apple wins on built-in
The Series 1 Apple Watch didn’t have built-in GPS – it paired with the iPhone in your pocket and uses its GPS instead. That was a problem for runners away from an indoor treadmill. Yes, you can carry your phone around with you on a run, but the Watch sells itself as a dedicated exercise device, and without GPS it’s not so for runners. That problem is solved with the Series 3 and 5, which have a GPS built-in.
Using a hiking app ViewRanger you can pick from nearby hikes, get notifications about scenic points while en-route, make sure you don’t go off the trail, and record your activity tracking, all using the Watch’s GPS.
The Apple Watch Nike+ is designed specifically for runners, with a lightweight aluminium body, a special active watch face, and a perforated Sports band for better ventilation. With this special Watch, you can ask Siri to start a run. While running, you can get a distraction-free display of the distance and your pace or an advanced mode with more details about your workout.
Running GPS eats battery life, and that’s something that the Watch doesn’t have oodles of. Serious runners are probably better advised to go for a dedicated runner's watch from the likes of Garmin, but the Series 3 Watch is now a proper contender.
The Fitbit Ionic also has GPS built in.
The Fitbit Versa Lite, Versa 2, Charge 3 and Inspire HR need to connect with your smartphone for GPS functionality, although they will work with iPhone, Android and Windows Phone compared to the Apple Watch's iOS-only compatibility. The Ionic does have a built-in GPS, and as mentioned earlier will automatically turn this on when it recognises you have started a run.
To get similar features with the other Fitbits you can use the MobileRun app, which gives you the ability to track runs, walks, and hikes using GPS. The MobileRun feature is available for all users of GPS-enabled devices running the Fitbit apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.
The Apple Watch can also be tied to other iOS apps, such as MotionX GPS and RunKeeper, that use the iPhone's GPS. The Ionic comes with the popular Strava app, which lets you track your running and riding with GPS, join Challenges, share photos from your activities, and follow friends.
The Ionic's Multiple Sport Mode also lets you track your cycling (distance, location, average speed, heart rate and calories burned).
The Apple Watch’s Maps app, however, lends itself to long runs, especially in new locations. Both Watch and Ionic have weather apps so you can tell whether to put a coat on before you leave the house.
The Series 5 Apple Watch now features a new Compass, with additional location data, such as heading, incline, latitude, longitude and current elevation.
Series 5 also adds International SOS, which works by pressing and holding the side button to call the emergency services.
Taking phone calls on your wrist: Apple wins easily
With the Apple Watch you can both make and receive voice calls on your wrist. You can even use Siri for hands-free dialling.
If someone calls you while you're wearing your Apple Watch (and it's within range of your iPhone, or a cellular model that can work independently of the phone), you'll be alerted by a subtle vibration as well as an audible ringtone if you haven't set the device to silent.
Look at your watch and you'll see who's calling, along with an answer or decline button. If it's someone you want to talk to, tap the green answer button. There are a built-in speaker and microphone, so you'll be able to chat without getting your iPhone out of your bag or pocket. If you don’t want everyone else to be able to hear your conversation you need to use a Bluetooth headset, or transfer the call from the Watch to your iPhone.
The only Fitbit with a microphone (but no speaker) is the Versa 2, which uses the mic to operate Amazon's Alexa (usually a better voice assistant than Siri but Siri on Watch can give you directions or play you a song) - but you can’t listen to or answer calls using it.
The Apple Watch has a microphone and a speaker, so you can talk to it and it can talk to you (though Siri talks only on the Series 3 and later). You can also use the mic to do voice dictation, send audio messages, and chat to friends via the Phone app. It also boasts up to 16GB of storage so you can keep a bunch of your dearest photos on your wrist.
Battery life: Fitbit wins, no contest
The Apple Watch has so many potential uses (make calls, view photos, send and check messages, change music, check weather, activity tracking, digital payments, and, er, tell the time) that its battery runs down a lot faster than standard activity trackers.
Apple says you’ll get up to 18 hours of active and passive use: that’s 90 time checks, 90 notifications, 45 minutes of nonstop app use, and a 30-minute workout with Bluetooth music playback from the watch. So you need to charge every night unless you use it only to tell the time in which case you might get three days out of it in Power Reserve Mode.
As mentioned earlier, the Series 3 and 4 Apple Watch have much-improved battery life, and with light use (Activity tracking, Time and Notifications just like on a Fitbit) can last nearly three full days - and crucially a couple of nights for sleep tracking. But Apple acknowledges the weaker battery life by not having sleep tracking as a built-in app.
The Apple Watch is smart about saving what battery life it has. The watch face always turns off every 15 to 20 seconds. When you put your arm down the screen goes black. When you raise your wrist, the screen returns.
You can also put it into “Power Save Mode” in the Workout app on your phone to turn off heart-rate tracking completely during runs – although that’s not great for learning more about your run. Serious runners want detail before, during and after the run, and don’t want to carry their iPhone and their Watch with them.
Fitbits last a lot longer between charges, at around five days. The Charge 3 can run for up to a week. Fitbit re-charging time is around two hours, around the same as with the Watch. If you use the Ionic's or Watch's GPS a lot then battery life will drop considerably. With GPS turned on the Ionic will fade by 10 hours, and the Watch by five.
Anyone who’s a keen tracker user will know the fear when you are suddenly alerted to a fading battery. Every step must be counted. Overuse your Watch, and it might die during a workout or just moving around during the day.
Find out how to get longer Fitbit battery life.
Water resistance: draw
Rejoice! The Apple Watch Series 2, 3 and 4 are waterproof, "up to 50 metres" – although it's really not for deep water, as Apple explains: "This means that it may be used for shallow-water activities like swimming in a pool or ocean. However, Apple Watch should not be used for scuba diving, waterskiing or other activities involving high-velocity water or submersion below shallow depth. Stainless steel and leather straps are not water resistant."
The Fitbit Inspire, Inspire HR, Charge 3, Versa 2 and Ionic are swim-proof and safe in the water at 5 ATM (50m) - they even boast some basic swimming tracking features. Fitbit also recommends taking its wristbands off before showering because, as with any wearable device, it’s best for your skin if the band stays dry and clean. See: Are Fitbits waterproof? for more details.
Read reviews of these pool-friendly trackers in our Best waterproof fitness tracker for swimming roundup.
Rewards: Fitbit gets the medal
When they reach their personal bests or hit milestones, Apple Watch users get a special badge for each achievement, which is then stored in the Activity app on their iPhone.
Fitbit also dishes out badges for achievements, tying them to comparative distances, so you’ll get a Sahara badge when you’ve walked the equivalent distance (not all in one day!).
A real motivational plus with Fitbit (and many other activity trackers) is the ability to compete against friends. This is a fun way to push yourself that bit further: walk that escalator, leave the lift and take the stairs.
Apple Watch owners can share your Activity circles with your friends to keep each other motivated, but this is not as easy as with Fitbit, and you're less likely to have a bunch of Watch-owning acquaintances unless you spend a lot of time hanging out at an Apple Store!
Price: Apple getting cheaper
Of course, price is important when choosing between Fitbit and Apple Watch.
No one ever accused Apple of selling cheap products. Its ability to make the industry’s most expensive products into bestsellers is the reason that it’s one of the richest companies on the planet. And the Apple Watch, while in no way the most expensive watch in the world, is the priciest smartwatch.
But Apple has now cut the Series 3 price down to Fitbit smartwatch levels of affordability. Fitbit still has much cheaper options for trackers that aren't smartwatches, though.
Series 3 Apple Watches start at $199 / $199 - the same as the Fitbit Versa 2, but not the cheaper Versa Lite.
Series 5 Apple Watches start at £399 / $399, and go up to £1,499 / $1,499.
Fitbit wristbands start at £69/$69 for the Inspire, although this doesn’t actually have a heart-rate function. The Fitbit Inspire HR costs £89 / $99 and Charge 3 is priced at £129 / $149, the Versa 2 at £199 / $199 and the Ionic at £249 / $249.
Previously, even the most expensive Fitbit was around the same price as the cheapest Apple Watch - but the new low price for the older Series 3 Watch makes them the same as Fitbit's Versa 2 - although the Versa Lite is priced at £149 or $159. Note that you can often pick up a Fitbit cheaper online from stores such as Amazon, while Apple rarely offers discounts. See our updated roundup of the best Fitbit deals.
Of course, you get a whole lot more functionality for your money with the Apple Watch, but if it’s activity tracking you’re after then you save a bunch going for a Fitbit.
Compatibility: Apple is iPhone only
Fitbit is compatible with iOS, Android and Windows Phone. You don’t have to have a smartphone for Fitbit to work, as you can sync with the excellent desktop Fitbit Dashboard, but it’s good to have more syncing opportunities and be able to see some fancy stats and graphs on the go.
While only the Versa 2 and Ionic trackers can run apps themselves, a Fitbit wristband can be integrated with apps such as MapMyRun, MyFitnessPal, Runkeeper, Endomondo, Strava and more.
For obvious reasons Apple Watch is compatible with iOS devices only, so the iPhone is the only smartphone that will work with it, and you really need one for it to make sense.
Apple Watch can run other fitness apps, such as Nike+Run Club, Runtastic Pro, Pocket Yoga, Map My Run, Endomondo, and Cyclemeter GPS. New apps will be released in the future so the Watch should get better functionality as developers work out new features.
Which should you buy: Fitbit or Apple Watch?
If fitness is your primary focus then we think the Fitbit trackers come out on top (especially if you’re into multi-sports), but the Apple Watch, of course, offers a lot more than just activity tracking and heart-rate monitoring.
The expanding Apple Watch app ecosystem will make the Watch a much more versatile wearable than a dedicated fitness band. And the new Series 5 Apple Watch with built-in GPS and 4G is a major advance in Apple creating a proper activity tracker, despite its improved but comparatively poor battery life.
But that comes at a pretty steep price.
The Fitbits offer much better battery life (the Charge 3 lasts up to a week!), and so don't have to be charged every night while you sleep.
They also offer detailed sleep monitoring, which can be nearly as enlightening to the state of one’s health as one’s daytime exercise routine. And we love the motivation offered by Fitbit’s Friends league.
Crucially, if you have an Android or Windows Phone, the Apple Watch is simply not for you. Without an iPhone, it’s pretty useless.
Apple Watch users don’t need to get a Fitbit as well as their prized digital timepiece, but runners and the fitness nuts should consider adding some third-party apps or a dedicated sports watch from Garmin, Suunto or Polar, or try out the Ionic.
Of course, one big advantage of the Apple Watch is its ability to make and receive phone calls, which none of the Fitbits can match.
So for fitness and activity tracking we vote for the Fitbits, but applaud Apple for the Watch’s fitness apps that should push Watch owners to get up and move about more – something all of us gadget owners could do with to stop us sliding into unhealthy lifestyles.
Check out our Which Fitbit is Best roundup here.
Thanks to Marilisa Cannavo, a one-time Fitbit fanatic who was gifted an Apple Watch, and so offered us a real user's comparison. She misses Fitbit's friends and family leaderboard (which she always won) and other Fitbit challenges and awards, plus the ability to set her own goals rather than stick with Apple's defaults. She does love the Watch design and its ability to make and receive calls on her wrist.