Wearable buying guide: Which one is best for you?

There are wearables for tracking your daily activity, tracking your focused outside sports, and for serving as a companion to your smartphone. Use this guide to help narrow down the choices and find what works best for you.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

In addition to my obsession with phones, I also thoroughly enjoy the world of wrist-mounted mobile technology. I've reviewed a large number of wearables over the past few years and wanted to provide you with a guide to help you figure out which one might be best for your needs.

While there used to be a wide variety of smartphones available, the world has narrowed down its choices primarily to an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy device. Wearables are still new to most people and the market is saturated with devices priced from $20 to more than $10,000. Figuring out which one to buy can be a bit daunting so I'm offering my two cents to try to help you out.

Wearables range from basic activity (step and sleep) trackers to advanced smartwatches to full-blown GPS-enabled bands that can help you improve your athletic performance. We all have different needs and there is definitely no "best" device for all of us. It's a bit easier to recommend a best smartphone that fits most people's needs, but wearables are even more personal.

Why do you want to wear a device?

One of the first questions to ask yourself is, "Why do you want to secure a wearable device to your wrist?"

Activity tracker: If you want to track your motion 24/7, then you should look at a dedicated activity tracker. Smartwatches may work to provide this capability, but are generally much more costly and have much lower battery life so they are not ideal for those who want to track motion without worrying about charging all the time.

Activity trackers generally have 3-axis accelerometers inside to track your motion to measure steps, distance, and sleep. Some have coin cell batteries so you can wear them for six months to a year without charging while others last about a week. A few also have basic smartphone notification support, but they are not really smartwatches.

Fitbit is a bit unique in that all of its devices can track steps climbed through the use of an altimeter. Since I work in an office on the second and third floor, having an altimeter is actually very useful in helping me skip the elevator which in turn helps improve my health a little bit every day.

GPS sports watch: There is a difference between an activity tracker and a GPS sports watch, but the newer GPS sport watches are starting to add in activity tracking for the other 23 hours of the day you are not working out in order to provide you with a single wrist-mounted device to do it all.

If you don't run, cycle, swim, hike, or get outside and exercise then you can skip looking at a GPS sports watch. If you do participate in outdoor sports and want to track the details of your workout, then you need to decide which sport(s) you want to track as that will quickly narrow your focus.

I personally love to run and also bike from time-to-time to mix things up. A good hike in the mountains is also something I enjoy so these are the activities I want to track. Beyond the activities, you then need to evaluate how far you want to go in capturing your data and what you want your watch to show you as you workout.

The most popular GPS sports watch models come from Garmin, Suunto, TomTom, and Polar. I've used Garmin, TomTom, and Polar devices so have included a couple of these in my comparison table. If you primarily bike, then there are dedicated bike computers you should look at for capturing all of that data.

Smartwatch: If you are looking for a companion to your smartphone for communication triage, quick access to glanceable data, or to leave your phone aside then you should look to picking up a smartwatch. If a smartwatch is what you want, then the best choices are an Apple Watch if you own an iPhone, an Android Wear watch if you have an Android smartphone, and a Pebble Time if you want a lower cost device that works with either iOS or Android.

There aren't many options when it comes to an Apple Watch, but there are several different Android Wear devices to choose from. Form factor, style, and price are the main differentiators in Android Wear so see which matches you best.

What, if anything, do you want to measure?

After figuring out why you want to have a wearable mounted to your wrist (activity tracking, GPS sports tracking, or as a smartwatch), you then need to look a bit deeper at the available devices to see what you want to measure.

Activity tracker: There usually aren't too many options when it comes to dedicated activity trackers since they all measure motion, but counting flights of stairs and measuring your heart rate are two things to consider. Only the Fitbit Charge HR measures both while the Fitbit Charge skips the heart rate functionality.

Jawbone has new UP3 and UP4 bands that measure your resting heart rate once a day, but every Jawbone I have owned has failed at least once so I can't personally recommend buying one of them. Jawbone does have an excellent smartphone app and ecosystem though.

GPS sports watch: Integrated optical heart rate monitors are also making their way onto GPS sports watches, but for more accurate heart rate accounting all GPS sports watches connect to ANT+ or Bluetooth chest straps.

All GPS sports watches capture GPS data while there is some variance in a devices ability to measure cadence, stride length, running index, intervals, laps, heart rate zones, altitude, temperature, and much more. Each manufacturer has dedicated websites where you can log in and view all the fine details of the data captured by your GPS watch so look around and see which matches your needs best.

The Fitbit Surge functions as a basic GPS sports watch, but the available fields on the watch are not customizable and there are limitations for the more serious athlete. The Fitbit Surge is a great daily activity tracker and a decent GPS sports watch for the recreational runner who is not that concerned about improving performance or capturing all the data possible.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the Polar V800, that has a battery life of 30 days as a watch and 13 hours with active GPS enabled. You can run, cycle, hike, swim, and more with the V800 while it captures a massive amount of data so that the system can help coach you to improving your performance.

Smartwatch: Unlike the other wearables, smartwatches aren't really focused on measuring data. However, the Apple Watch and many Android Wear watches do have integrated optical heart rate monitors to measure your heart rate throughout the day. I personally find the activity tracking on the Apple Watch to be far superior to the experience on Android Wear. The Pebble Time can support some movement tracking with third party app, notably the Misfit app.

How much do you want to spend?

After you've gone through and figured out why you want a wearable and what you want to measure, then you should be down to just a couple of choices. You can then make your choice on how much you want to pay for the device. Value is dependent on your available funds and how much the device will do to improve your life.

Activity tracker: For first time wearable buyers who just want to track the basics, you really can't go wrong with a Misfit Flash at $20 or $30. The Misfit smartphone application is very good and if you decide to put the device in a drawer after a month of use then the trial hasn't cost you much.

GPS sports watch: For those who want a good GPS sports watch that just want to track running, then you can't go wrong with a Garmin. I love the Garmin website and ability to customize it to your liking. Garmin's GPS sports watches do an excellent job at accurately tracking you with GPS and you can pick up something to run with for as low as $130. The latest Garmin Forerunner 225 has a heart rate monitor and functions as a daily activity tracker for $300.

A device like the Polar V800 is designed for the serious athlete who wants to track multiple sports and while the MSRP is over $500 you can find the V800 on Amazon for just over $300. Did you know that the World Cup champion US women's soccer team uses Polar devices to track practice and improve the athlete's performance?

Smartwatch:Smartwatches don't necessarily have an easily defined function like activity or GPS tracking, but once you integrate one into your daily life you may find the convenience is worth the price. While price impacts your decision, your choice is primarily defined by what kind of smartphone you want to connect with the watch.

Older model Android Wear devices can be found for around $150 with new ones in the $300 range. The Apple Watch starts at $350 for the 38mm Sport Edition, but can go over $10,000 for one made with gold. The Pebble Time is available for $200.

Which are my favorites?

Not considering price, my favorite activity tracker is the Fitbit Charge HR, my favorite GPS sports watch is the Polar V800, and my favorite smartwatch is the Apple Watch. I would look rather ridiculous wearing all three so tradeoffs have to be made to pick just one to wear on a daily basis.

You can always devote a GPS sports watch just to the times when you are actually outside participating in your activity though so picking two is always an option.

Compare, research and buy

(Follow the link for a full review of each product on our sister site CNET.)

Wearable Price Smartphone notifications GPS Battery life Heart rate monitor
Misfit Flash $20-$30 No No Up to 6 months No
Jawbone UP Move $50 No No Up to 6 months No
Jawbone UP2 $100 No No Up to 7 days No
Garmin Vivofit 2 $100 No No 1 year No
Garmin Vivosmart $150 Yes No Up to 7 days No
Fitbit Charge $130 Caller ID No 7-10 days No
Fitbit Charge HR $150 Caller ID No Up to 5 days Yes
Garmin Vivoactive $250 Android, iOS Yes Up to 3 weeks No
Sony SmartWatch 3 (Android Wear) $170 Android Yes 1-2 days "No, some do"
Apple Watch Sport $350-$400 iOS No 1 day Yes
Fitbit Surge $250 Android, iOS Yes Up to 7 days Yes
Microsoft Band $200 Android, iOS, WP Yes 48 hours watch, 2.5 hours GPS Yes
Garmin Forerunner 225 $300 Android, iOS Yes 4 weeks watch, 10 hours GPS Yes
Polar V800 $310 iOS Yes 30 days watch, 13 hours GPS No
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