Next time you find yourself sequestered in an afternoon board meeting, take a peek around the table; you may notice a curious trend. While smartphones seemed to bring about the untimely demise of digital and mechanical watches, more advanced gadgetry and a trending interest in personal fitness have yielded a new habit: smartwatches and fitness trackers.
Perhaps the largest dog in the fight, Fitbit has created a reputation for reasonably accurate and durable devices that blend with your daily attire, all while providing information on steps taken, calories burned and even heart rate. If you’re looking to increase your awareness of personal health, you might be wearing one already.
Around the same time Fitbit emerged on the scene, smartwatches, featuring Android and iOS software, began popping up across the urban landscape. Earlier versions typically compromised health features for business-minded functionality — email, datebook, text notifications and the like. Now, however, the fitness tracker and smartwatch markets are blurring the lines, with products on either side offering a bevy of new opportunities.
Certainly not the only options available, the new Fitbit Ionic and updated Apple Watch Series 3 are, perhaps, the most readily obtained examples of this high-tech category. Both have launched within the last two months, and both are targeting the $300-$400 price range. With so much in common, what sets them apart? And what justifies such an investment in electronic baubles, outside of curiosity?
To put them to the test, I spent seven days wearing both — one on my left wrist, and the other on my right. It was a conversation-starter at the least, but, hopefully, my experience can offer some insight if you’re considering taking the jump yourself.
Built for an active lifestyle
If you’re considering a smartwatch, it’s likely the activity tracking features are a component of your interest. Whether you choose the Apple product or Fitbit’s latest solution, both devices use optical sensors and green lights, along with accelerometers and GPS, to collect enough data every day to make an Excel spreadsheet blush!
Most often, it seems would-be buyers are looking to count steps, and these devices can do that quite well. The more advanced sensors, however, are at least equally notable. Specifically, one of the newest trends in so-called “wearables” is advanced heart rate sensors. With either watch, you’ll be able to track things like resting heart rate, minimum and maximum heart rates, and even the newest buzz-word: heart rate variability (HRV).
While I will concede that high-intensity training isn’t top on my to-do list, I took the opportunity to put both watches through their paces — indoors and out.
Although the Fitbit Ionic can automatically detect several types of exercise (something the Apple Watch presently lacks), I opted to begin my workouts manually, ensuring comparable results between the two.
Through multiple laps around the path at Lake Alice, I found each watch did an impressive job graphing my route. During the run, however, I found more useful information on the Apple Watch screen, such as “Active Calories” (calories that are burned above-and-beyond your basal metabolic rate) and notifications every mile to keep me informed of my lap times and distance.
That isn’t to say the Fitbit was a slouch. It, too, gave me a running tally of calories burned — though only showing total calories — and a constant notification indicated my mile time at that exact moment. On both screens, I could see an ongoing update of my current heart rate. Here, the Fitbit used a multi-tiered indicator to help me understand which heart rate zone I was in, based on my age, weight, and other health factors, where the Apple Watch was less-detailed.
At the end of my outdoor adventure, both devices gave me a breakdown of my efforts, showing a map of my route, minimum, maximum, and average heart rates, total time, and other detailed metrics. Swapping to my phone, I was able to dig through the respective smartphone apps to learn even more — or humble brag to my friends by sharing screenshots and graphs.
Indoors was similar but different.
Running on a treadmill, both devices disabled GPS tracking, naturally. In the case of the Apple Watch, Apple says their software learns your pace and stride length over time, based upon running outdoors with GPS active. A similar feature exists on the Ionic, but I noticed the Apple Watch showed a distance which more closely matched the mileage reported by my treadmill.
Broadside of a barn
Of course, all of that data is useless if it isn’t accurate, and I did note discrepancies between the two watches.
In the case of footsteps, I attempted controlled tests wherein I would count my own steps mentally and then check my number against the two trackers. Satisfyingly, I often found both had come to the exact number I recorded myself. Some variables could cause inconsistencies, however, such as holding a water bottle in the same arm as the step counter or using a great deal of hand gestures while speaking.
The trend was consistent, as well. In both devices, I observed that regular, daily activities could produce “phantom steps.” Between the two, the Fitbit always recorded fewer steps than the Apple Watch — something that led me to believe it was more accurate. The Apple Watch has an ace up its sleeve, however, because it pairs with your iPhone. Using the data from both the watch and phone, the Apple Health app deduces a more-vetted final step count.
For example, if I found myself in a heated phone conversation, wherein I might throw my arms about as if trying to take flight, the watch would see that motion as walking. With my phone in my pocket, rather cleverly, the Health app would recognize that one device is counting steps while the other isn’t. Using a sort of machine logic, the additional movement wouldn’t be included in my final step count, thus producing a more accurate result.
It’s a neat feature, and something only possible in a multi-device ecosystem, such as Apple insistently creates.
The other two major data points — heart rate and sleep tracking — I found to be equally impressive on both watches — but not without their caveats.
For heart rate, I noticed each tracker would occasionally record startling spikes that were either too high or too low. I once ran up a flight of stairs only to observe the Fitbit reported a pulse rate of 46 BPM. A quick check manually confirmed that estimate was about 70 BPM too low.
Still, neither product proved infallible in this sense, and it makes the point that these watches are best viewed as useful and insightful but not medical-grade monitors.
Sleep tracking was equally intriguing.
First, it should be noted that the Apple Watch does not, by default, track sleep. Earlier models (Series 1 and Series 2) had unimpressive battery life, and it seems Apple always intended them to be charged overnight, rather than worn. With the Series 3, on the other hand, battery life in the non-cellular model lasted me more than three full days, and sleep tracking was completely viable, as a result.
I wandered into the Apple WatchOS App Store and found an app that provided detailed results and tracked sleep automatically. For those interested, the app tested is called “Auto Sleep”, appropriately.
Compared to the Fitbit, the tracking with my Apple Watch was slightly-less detailed, giving me duration of sleep, time awake, time in deep sleep, resting heart rate, and sleep effectiveness (measured as a percentage). Missing — and missed — was Fitbit’s sleep level estimates. On the Ionic, a graph would provide insights to time in the three main sleep phases: light, REM, and deep sleep. Although much of that could be extrapolated from the graph on the Apple Watch, it was something I legitimately wished to have back.
Life on the job
Fitness was, for me, only half the consideration. These devices are intended as “smartwatches”, and, as a small business owner, I had hoped they could prove useful during the suit-and-tie portion of the day, as well.
Interestingly, while both devices traded blows during exercise, it was their usefulness during meetings and work that outlined the greatest disparities between the two.
With the Fitbit Ionic, I was able to receive useful updates throughout the day, such as text messages, email notifications, and “who’s calling” alerts. This was great, and it was valuable to me to have that information, without reaching for my phone during an interview. Unfortunately, that was roughly the extent of it, as the Fitbit’s simple software means it isn’t possible to answer calls, read incoming emails, or even reply to text messages from the watch itself.
On the other side of the fence, this is where the Apple Watch really came into it’s own. It may sound ridiculous, but using my voice to dictate lengthy text message responses was completely viable — in the right setting. Even answering phone calls with the built-in microphone and speaker proved oddly useful when I found my hands covered in shredded hash browns one afternoon but needed to catch an incoming call.
Then there was the wealth of other applications. As you might expect, the Apple Watch allows for the installation of its own apps, as well as bite-sized version of many of the apps already on your iPhone.
As an example, Nest, makers of the popular smart thermostat, have a WatchOS app which permitted me to control the temperature of my home remotely, right from my wrist. Although Pandora didn’t support streaming directly from the watch, their app enabled me to control playback on my phone. Weather applications, stock tickers, calendar notifications and even a camera app, which allowed me to take a picture from my smartphone, while the phone was set on a tripod across the room, are all included in the package.
It’s an impressive list that will only grow with time, and it’s a compelling argument for the device, if you’re already within Apple’s walled garden.
Other items of note
There’s so much more to both of these products, but here are a few remaining points that stood out to me during my seven-day trial.
Having used both in direct sunlight and pitch-black conditions, I’m happy to report that both have capable displays that are easy to read in any lighting. At night, each proved a bit brighter than I liked if they happened to light up during the sleeping hours, but simple settings on either will allow you to disable auto-waking the screen.
Notably, Apple’s product includes a good deal more horsepower under the hood. The cost, expectedly, comes in reduced battery life when compared to the Fitbit Ionic (three-plus days as opposed to five-plus days), but that heavy-lifting ability means animations and transitions on the Apple Watch tend to be faster and more fluid. It was a deliberate choice by both companies, but the responsiveness of the Apple Watch stood out against its competitor.
In terms of design, both keep the formula reasonably simple, opting for a look which hopes to blend in — both in the boardroom and at the gym. To this end, it was my opinion that Apple’s product achieved a more subdued, suit-friendly appearance, but I was impressed how versatile each proved to be. Likewise, both companies offer replacement armbands in a variety of styles, should you find the included bands not to your liking.
Something else that struck me about the design, was the contrast between the two. Apple opted for rounded corners and simple lines, where Fitbit chose an aesthetic based on sharp edges and flat surfaces. One implication which I didn’t expect was the consequence of that more aggressive design language when paired with cuffed sleeves. Throughout the day, as I would check notifications and fitness stats on the Fitbit, I would find that my sleeves would catch on those hard edges as I set my arm back to my side. It’s silly, but it was appreciated that my other sleeve would slide cleanly over the Apple Watch, requiring no manual adjustment to fall back into place.
Sometimes, it’s the little things.
Finally, both watches included magnetic charging cables, come with multiple band sizes in the package, feature Bluetooth connectivity for wireless headphones, and are each water resistant to 50 meters. Both also include proprietary card-free payment systems (Apple Pay and Fitbit Pay, aptly). Yet, Apple’s solution here proved more viable, as only a handful of banks support Fitbit Pay at this time, and mine was not among them.
Summing things up
If this comparison is a battle, then there is no clear-cut victor. The right watch will depend on you and your personal application. I was very impressed with both gadgets, and the construction of each seemed durable and precise. More likely, the right choice has more to do with the hardware you already own.
For the crowd sporting iPhones, the Apple Watch Series 3 seems like the obvious decision. It was easy to use, integrated perfectly with other Apple products and provided such a robust feature set, that it truly stood out beside the Fitbit.
Some have pegged the Apple Watch as a smartwatch with fitness features thrown in, but that feels undeserved to me. While super athletes may better pick at the flaws in that regard, I noted no disadvantage in its ability to track my workouts and daily activity. Previous studies on prior Apple Watches found them to possess the most accurate wrist-based heart rate sensor at the time and likewise concluded that their GPS tracking and step counting were equivalent to the best out there.
To those well-invested in Android phones — or even Windows phone users, and anyone still using a flip-phone — the Fitbit Ionic is an excellent product that continues the company’s reputation for quality training devices. Attempting to justify the elevated cost over other Fitbit models are the more smartwatch-esque features, like notifications and contact-less payment. The lengthy battery life and detailed, web-based app make the Ionic a strong contender for your dollar.
In either case, one week with an activity tracker (or two) demonstrated to me the value of having a better understanding of how my daily routine can impact my overall health. If you’ve sat on the fence as this market emerged over the last few years, consider giving it a try — even at a lower price point. Anything that increases awareness of your personal health and provides feedback and rewards to go farther everyday seems like a worthwhile investment.
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