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The Best Fitness Tracker…

Garmin Vivofit 3

The most functionality you can find in a low-cost fitness tracker.

The Garmin Vivofit 3 offers the most features of any fitness tracker we could find under $100. Being smaller than most wristwatches, it’s about as low-profile as a device with a built-in display can get, too. (That being said, the display is quite small.) It’s customizable, with 17 different band options, including white, red, and even camo. Our testers also appreciated Garmin’s intuitive physical interface, clean and user-friendly app, and integration capabilities with MyFitnessPal for nutrition tracking. Also unique in a fitness tracker under $100, the Vivofit 3 can track a range of different movements automatically with its MoveIQ algorithm and even alerts you when you’ve been sedentary for too long.

Throughout testing, we had no issues with syncing or pairing (unlike the iFit Link, which we cut after it failed to log our workouts multiple times). The Vivofit 3 outperformed the similarly priced Fitbit Flex 2 (also $99) in every test from step-count consistency, to ruling out false-positives (counting false steps). And while our testers appreciated the even lower profile of the Flex 2, which doesn’t have a built-in display, we preferred the slightly bulkier Vivofit 3 precisely because it did have a display. It’s also the only basic fitness tracker we could find under $100 that can sync with an ANT+ chest strap heart rate monitor (not included) for zone training and more detailed information during workouts.

Unlike any of our other contenders, the Garmin Vivofit 3 uses a replaceable battery that’s good for about one year, rather than rechargeables that have to be plugged in once a wee. Our testers all agreed that this was more convenient for round-the-clock, long-term tracking.

You can replace the Vivofit 3’s coin-style battery, but make sure the thin, blue gasket remains in place to maintain the unit’s 5 ATM water rating.

And while the Fitbit app was, admittedly, our favorite overall, we were still big fans of the Garmin Connect app. Our testers all said it looked clean and was only slightly less user-friendly than the Fitbit’s. The data visualizations, detailed workout reports, easy viewing, and its ability to filter activities and progress over the course of several months all won the Garmin Vivofit 3 bonus points.

Similar to the Fitbit Flex 2, but slightly larger because it has a built-in display and features a heart rate monitor, the Fitbit Charge 2 comes with more features than most devices under $150, and also comes with the most user-friendly app we tested. If you’re OK with not having GPS capabilities to track your distance workouts outside, but want to keep tabs on your general heart rate and calorie-burn trends, this is going to be your best option. (It’s also capable of syncing with your phone’s GPS, if you’re willing to carry it in addition to your device.)

The Fitbit Charge 2 was a clear favorite right out of the box. Our testers clamored over its straightforward usability and intuitive interface. Everything about it, from setup, to syncing, to tracking our first exercise was just easy. It just worked, too, unlike the comparably priced iFit Axis HR, which failed over and over to sync our exercises and only had one workout mode (distance). In contrast, Fitbit has a seemingly limitless catalog of trackable exercises. It was also one of the most attractive of the higher-end trackers with built-in heart rate monitors, which seemed to get bigger and clunkier proportionate to their price tags. It’s just 0.29 oz heavier than the Garmin Vivofit 3, which doesn’t have a heart rate monitor, and is just slightly larger. The Charge 2 only comes in six different color options, but that seemed more than enough to us.

Do you actually need a heart rate monitor?

It depends. The optical heart rate sensors used in even the best fitness trackers aren’t very accurate. (Even our top heart rate monitoring pick was off by an average of about 15 beats per min.) If you’re just interested in watching your all-day heart rate trends, or getting slightly better data on your caloric output during training, then yes. If you’re looking for more precision for zone training, you’re better off with an EKG heart monitor, or a device that can pair to one, like the Garmin Vivofit 3.

In terms of performance during testing, the Charge 2 was comparable to the other devices, meaning that although it was off on just about everything except for the “distance from steps” measurement (which it actually aced), the other contenders were off by about the same margin. Its standard deviation during our step-counting test was 14.73, which is just under the average across all the devices we tried. As with the other heart rate monitoring devices we looked at, both the maximum and the average heart rates recorded by the Charge 2 during exercise were off by 16 and 14.33 beats per minute on average, respectively, with no clear bias toward high or low readings. The TomTom Touch, Garmin Vivosmart HR, and Fitbit Surge were the only devices that fared any better; although, not by much. Even the Touch, which was the top performer in our heart rate monitoring test, was off by an average of 7 bpm. This makes the Charge 2 (and actually any of the trackers that we tested) less than ideal for zone training, but still useable for tracking relative intensity during workouts and all-day heart rate trends.

The Fitbit app is also the most aesthetically pleasing option our testers found, as well as the most user-friendly. The level of information isn’t as detailed as the Garmin Connect app, but we just liked using the Fitbit app more. Unlike the Garmin app, it also comes with its own nutrition tracking, and you can set goals and movement alerts, or connect with friends to keep you motivated.

Tracking multiple exercises was seamless; just swipe to the exercise menu and tap the device to scroll through the six preset exercise options (which range from interval training to bicycling, but can be customized through the app), and hold down the button to start. For movements that can be tracked with its accelerometer (walking, running, etc.), it will record distance and even route and elevation if you’ve enabled GPS pairing with your phone. For more complex exercises, the Charge 2 relies on the heart rate monitor to determine effort and logs the activity through the app, deducting the calories expended from your daily total.

The Charge 2 is also the only tracker we tested with a relaxation mode, which guides you through two or five minutes of deep breathing to slow your heart rate and help reduce stress, which we thought was a really creative and potentially beneficial use of the heart rate monitoring function.

Garmin Vivosmart HR+

GPS, heart rate monitoring, and everything else you could want in a fitness tracker — for less than the competition.

Choosing between Garmin’s top-of-the-line Vivosmart HR+ and the Fitbit Surge was actually a pretty tough call. They’re both strong products that include most of the same features. Both have well-designed and well-executed apps, and they both worked seamlessly out of the box. The difference comes down to the details. For one thing, the Vivosmart HR+ is $200 — $50 less than the Surge. It’s also completely waterproof and can be used to track swimming, which the Surge is not rated for (though some intrepid users take theirs in the pool against the manufacturer’s recommendation).

It has just about every feature you could cram into such a small device: heart rate monitoring, onboard GPS, smart notifications from your phone, exercise tracking and movement identification through MoveIQ, the Garmin Connect app with MyFitnessPal integration, and, of course, the ubiquitous daily step/calorie/distance count. The device itself is only a little bit bigger than the Fitbit Charge 2 or iFit Axis HR, which made it more comfortable for long-term wear than the Surge. The simple interface features a large display with swipes for navigation and a single button for selection — the design is minimal and attractive.

From left: the iFit Axis HR, Vivosmart HR+, and Fitbit Charge 2

Another thing that impressed us was that the Vivosmart HR+ was the only device we tested that you can calibrate for improved accuracy: When you first set up the device, it asks you to take a brisk walk or jog for 20 minutes to establish a baseline so that future heart rate and calorie measurements will be more accurate. The Vivosmart HR+ also displays the weather directly from your phone, which no other device does. You can even use it to locate a lost smartphone, as long as it’s within Bluetooth range and paired at the time.