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How to buy a smartwatch or fitness tracker

There's a truckload of fitness trackers and smartwatches to choose from. Here's how to find the one that's right for you.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're shopping for a piece of wearable tech in 2017, you're facing compromises. Smartwatches and fitness trackers aren't really the must-have devices many companies hoped they would be. And no, you don't really need one. But if you're looking for a piece of tech for your wrist, here are the best choices right now, followed by a list of what you need to consider.

In this article

The best smartwatches and fitness trackers right now

The best smartwatches right now

For most people, The Apple Watch Series 1 is all you'd need. But if you want to swim or use GPS away from your phone, the Series 2 is the one to get. (And note: If you have an original Apple Watch, there's not a huge need to upgrade to the Series 2 unless you really need that swim-proofing or GPS tracking.) But the Apple Watch wins mainly because it's well hooked-in to iOS, and functions as a great wrist-remote. The Apple Watch isn't perfect by any means, but its feature set is ahead of the competition.

The decision gets harder for Android users. Android Wear is the most hooked-in platform that connects to Google's apps and services (including Google Assistant), and Android Wear 2.0 is a big improvement. But there aren't any truly great watches for Android Wear yet. LG's Watch Sport and Watch Style, the first to have the updated software, are full of limitations.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The best watch hardware isn't Android Wear at all: it's the Samsung Gear S3. Samsung's large smartwatch has deep features and decent fitness tracking modes, plus use-anywhere Samsung Pay (which requires Android). But it requires a separate set of Samsung Gear apps and syncs to Samsung S-Health for fitness. This requires more conduits and app plug-ins than you might have patience for. It's not as seamless an experience, and sometimes feels too removed from core Android functions.

If you have an Android phone and you're absolutely sold on getting a smartwatch, the Samsung Gear S3 is the best option right now, but that could change once older Android Wear watches are updated to Android Wear 2.0. We're also waiting for Fitbit, Misfit and other companies to release their smartwatches in 2017.

The best fitness trackers

A Fitbit is the right choice for most people. The whole range can track the basics like steps, distance, calories burned and sleep, and some can even measure heart rate and include guided breathing sessions.

One of the reasons we recommend Fitbit is for the app. If one of your friends owns a fitness tracker, there's a good chance it's a Fitbit -- the company has the largest user base. The benefit of this is being able to compete with friends and family members in a variety of competitions, which helps keep you motivated and more likely to reach your goal. The app also integrates a number of third-party devices and services.

  • For most people, the Fitbit Charge 2 is the tracker to get. (Note: The just-announced Fitbit Alta HR should be considered as well.)
  • For a more basic (and swim-proof) tracker, we recommend the Fitbit Flex 2.
  • Looking for a fitness smartwatch? The Fitbit Blaze is worth a look.
Sarah Tew/CNET

The best non-Fitbit tracker

A reason to skip the Fitbit would be if you're already invested in an ecosystem like Withings or Garmin. In that case, it's best to get one of their trackers.

The best GPS watches

Athletes and outdoor enthusiasts are better off with a GPS watch to accurately measure pace, distance, speed and other metrics.

All of these watches are waterproof down to at least 50 meters, include multiple sport profiles, can track daily fitness metrics like steps, sleep and heart rate, and can display notifications from an iPhone and Android phone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The best GPS bike computers

Cyclists should consider a GPS bike computer for measuring distance and speed. These devices can also connect with other sensors on your bike to measure additional metrics like cadence and power.

Shopping for wearables: What you need to know

The wearable market is getting smaller. Fitbit bought Pebble, Jawbone has pivoted away from consumer trackers, and other companies (such as Motorola) have put their smartwatch plans on hold. But there's still a wide variety of smartwatches and trackers to choose from. Here's how to find the right one.

Android or iPhone?

That still matters, to a degree. The Apple Watch works with iPhones -- and only iPhones. Android phones work with Android Wear. Samsung's Gear S2 and S3 watches work with Android phones, too. Both Android Wear and Samsung watches pair with iPhones, but in a more limited way that is nowhere as good as what the Apple Watch offers. Fitness bands tend to work cross-platform, but not always.

Does charging a watch annoy you?

Many premium smartwatches still have battery life of two days or less between charges. The Apple Watch, Google's Android Wear watches, and Samsung's Gear S2 and S3 are high-maintenance, and need daily or every-other-day charging. Are you ready to live with that?

If so, the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear S3 or an updated Android Wear 2.0 watch might be worth a try. Pebble's long-battery smartwatches still exist, but Pebble's sale to Fitbit and Pebble's uncertain watch future as a platform means we don't recommend current models anymore.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Do you want a great fitness tracker?

Most wearable bands and watches aim for fitness tracking, but some are better than others. The best pure overall fitness tracker is still the Fitbit Charge 2. Garmin also makes several good alternatives, and good running watches.

Full-featured smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Android Wear 2.0 watches can track activities and work with many third-party fitness apps, but connect mainly to Apple Health and Google Fit for synced data.

Read more: Is it rude to buy someone a fitness tracker as a gift?

Do you want to swim with it?

Many wearables are water resistant to at least wash-your-hands or quick-dunk-in-a-sink level, but the list of real swim-proof trackers and watches is short. You want to look for 3ATM or 5ATM, or anything that suggests meters of water resistance.

The Apple Watch Series 2, Fitbit Flex 2, Withings Steel HR, Misfit Ray, Garmin Vivoactive HR and Garmin Forerunner 235 are some of our favorite swim-friendly wearables. The Pebble 2, Pebble Time and Time Steel are swim-friendly, too. But they don't all do swim tracking.

For swim tracking, look into the Garmin Vivoactive HR, Garmin Fenix 3 HR, Garmin Forerunner 735XT, Apple Watch Series 2, Misfit Ray, Withings Steel HR and Fitbit Flex 2.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Watches with built-in phones aren't great, but they exist

Some smartwatches come with phone service inside. The Samsung Gear S3 Frontier, LG Watch Sport and Verizon's upcoming Wear24 work with SIM cards and can function as independent phones. Samsung and LG's watches work with T-Mobile and AT&T, while Verizon's Wear24 is, well, Verizon. Phone service can be useful in case of emergency, but it drains battery life on the watch and requires an extra monthly payment (currently $5 a month on T-Mobile, $10 a month on AT&T) to use. AT&T allows phone-number syncing across devices.

You can pay for things with your watch

Lots of smartwatches support mobile payments now. They mostly work the same way. Apple Watches have Apple Pay. Samsung's Gear S2 and S3 watches can use Samsung Pay. It adds an extra wrinkle on the S3 model with MST, a technology that works at regular credit card terminals as well as tap-to-pay ones. Android Wear 2.0-updated watches will work with Android Pay as long as the watch has NFC. Not all Android Wear watches do. Right now, in fact, the only Android Pay-enabled watch is the LG Watch Sport.