Want an activity tracker but can’t decide whether to buy a Fitbit wristband or fork out for the rather lovely Apple Watch, now at Series 3? We pit Apple Watch vs Fitbit to see which comes out best on various aspects: fitness tracking, heart-rate monitoring, design, price, apps, battery life, and so on.
Until it launched its new Fitbit Ionic smartwatches Fitbit didn’t actually label its wristbands as smartwatches. Its old Surge device was dubbed a “superwatch”, and it called the Blaze (also now discontinued) a "Fitness Watch". Otherwise, the correct term is activity trackers.
Aside from the Ionic and Versa, Fitbits don’t run multiple apps like a smartwatch, but they are directly comparable on many of their fitness-measuring functions, design themes and functions. And many feature on-wrist notifications such as Caller ID and Texts - which, to be fair, are the most used non-fitness apps on most smartwatches anyway.
As a direct comparison, we’ll look at the Apple Watch (including the new Series 3) vs the Fitbit Alta HR, Fitbit Charge 2, Fitbit Versa and Fitbit Ionic. The Fitbit Flex 2 is the cheapest wristband but has a far more minimal display screen, and no watch function. Also read our Fitbit Versa review, Fitbit's latest smartwatch.
Keeping fit doesn’t mean you have to be a gym freak or marathon runner. Keeping active throughout the day offers real health benefits too, and both the Apple Watch and Fitbit activity trackers are superb at getting you moving more.
The Apple Watch and Fitbit activity trackers measure steps taken, distance travelled and calories burned. They also show you how many minutes you’ve been active during the day. Each tracks your progress over time and can store historical data, and you set daily goals for yourself.
In addition, the Fitbit wristbands (excluding the Flex 2, Alta and Alta HR) have a barometric altimeter that counts distance climbed (take the hilly route home, not the flat one). The Fitbits also sync weight data from optional Fitbit Aria scales.
As a result, the Fitbit models range from everyday fitness and active fitness (just like the Apple Watch) and further to sports and performance fitness – with the Ionic supporting running, cross-training, biking, strength and cardio workouts.
Serious runners dismissed the original Apple Watch for their needs, preferring the (now discontinued) Fitbit Surge or other dedicated running watches from the Garmin or Suunto. But that changed with the release of the Series 2 Apple Watch, which features a built-in GPS just like the Fitbit Ionic.
The Series 2 Watch has been replaced by the Series 3, which has a faster processor and better battery life. A version with built-in 4G is also available so it can work without having to take your iPhone with you when you exercise.
This makes it a closer match to the Fitbit Ionic, which (with similar built-in GPS, onboard music, notifications and contactless payments) can take care of most of your exercise needs without requiring you carry a phone or wallet around.
Fitness is obviously at the core of the Fitbits, whereas the Apple Watch counts activity tracking among its many features.
The Apple Watch offers two main fitness apps: Activity, which is all about health, movement, wellness and your daily routine; and Workout App, which tracks running, cycling and walking. All this data is collected on your iPhone via the Activity app, although you can get a more holistic view of their health by using the Health app on your iPhone, which integrates data from multiple sources, not only the Watch.
Read here for some great tips and advice on how to use the Apple Watch Activity app.
While they work brilliantly with the iPhone, Fitbits do not officially support Apple’s Health Kit, although integration is offered by third-party apps.
You can see at a glance how far you are with your daily movement and health goals by looking at the Apple Watch’s colourful three rings, which light up to show your progress. The Move ring shows calories burned. The Exercise ring displays how many minutes of brisk activity you’ve achieved. And the Stand ring shows how often you’ve stood up to stop sitting down. The aim is to complete each ring every day. It’s a great motivation tool.
Apple defines exercise as any activity that’s equivalent to at least a brisk walk. The Watch looks at your heart rate and movement data, so just going for a walk might not move that green ring as much as you’d think. It wants you to get your heart pumping a bit faster. The Apple Watch learns your habits so will push you harder the more active you get over time.
We love the Apple Watch’s ping to remind you if you’ve been sitting around too long – time to stretch the legs and get the heart rate up for a bit, or at least stand up. Basically it’s a get-off-your-arse alert, from the taptic pulses to your wrist to notifications, that you’ve been idle for a long period of time. You can actually get an alert even when standing up because what the Watch is actually measuring is your lack of moving about.
Fitbit's Reminders To Move work in the same way, and are found on the Flex 2, Alta, Alta HR, Charge 2, Versa and Ionic.
The Apple Workout app gives you real-time stats for exercise time, distance walked/run, calories burned and pace, and with the update to watchOS 4, it got a whole lot better. It's easier to use, but importantly now works with 80 percent of gym equipment so you'll get the data from the running machine or bike you use at your local.
The Apple Watch and heart-rate-checking Fitbits use something called photoplethysmography to measure your heart rate. This uses green LEDs on the underside of the wristband to detect blood volume and capillary-size changes under pressure. When your heart beats, your capillaries expand and contract based on blood volume changes. The LED lights reflect onto the skin to detect blood volume changes.
Blood is red because it reflects red light and absorbs green light. When your heart beats, the blood flow in your wrist – and the green light absorption – is greater.
The Fitbits monitor your heart rate continuously, 24/7. They can store heart rate data at 1-second intervals during exercise tracking and at 5-second intervals all other times.
On the other hand (or should I say wrist?) the Apple Watch checks your heart rate only every ten minutes during the day. However, it does record your heart rate continuously when the Workout app is turned on, so you get constant feedback during training sessions. The Watch’s built-in heart-rate monitor does support external heart-rate monitors too.
Also, in watchOS 4, Apple has improved the Heart Rate app which now measures your resting heart rate and your recovery heart rate, and can give you notifications if anything seems awry.
Fitbit says that the Ionic and Versa have also improved heart-rate measurement, as the LED sensors have closer contact to the wrist.
The basic formula for losing weight is to count calories in and ensure you are expending more calories out through exercise. Both the Watch and Fitbits help you count these calories.
The Apple Watch uses motion and heart rate data to determine calorie count, which then dictates the Move metric of the Activity app. As you continue to wear your Apple Watch it will better learn your habits, average heart rate ranges, and normal activity levels, helping to make calorie counts more accurate.
Unlike Fitbit, Apple splits apart "resting calories" (calories you burn just by existing) and "active calories" (burnt through more vigorous activity). The Move ring is interested in Active, not Resting calories, which is a little more rigorous than Fitbit’s approach. Fitbit allows for "resting calories" too.
Your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) is the the amount of calories that your body burns while you are at complete rest (with muscles relaxed, such as asleep) to keep itself alive (sustain vital organs such as your heart, brain, nervous system, lungs, kidneys, liver, muscles, and skin) and digest food. (Technical bit: Resting Metabolic Rate is not the same as Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which excludes the calories burned digesting food.)
If you set your calorie-burn target high on the Apple Watch you'll need to walk the equivalent of 20,000 Fitbit steps.
However, some Apple Watch owners have complained about calorie-counting inaccuracies, which might be down to the Watch's occasional inability to accurately record distance (and the fact it doesn't detect exercise automatically: you have to tell it you're cycling, running etc). The Versa and Ionic recognise when you’re running and automatically enter Run Mode - starting the GPS or connected GPS - and even automatically pause when you do.
Fitbit estimates the number of calories burned based on your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), calculated using your height, weight, age, and gender. The trackers that measure heart rate go into more detail, with the calorie burn estimate taking heart rate into account.
Fitbit calorie tracking begins at midnight and incorporates the calories burnt while sleeping – which is obviously missed by the Apple Watch that has to charge overnight. When you sync your tracker, Fitbit replaces the estimated calorie burn with your tracker's data.
You can also manually log fitness activities, so the calories burned during those activities are also taken into account. When you log your meals each day you can set a Fitbit Food Plan that estimates your daily calorie consumption, and records the number of calories you have burned and eaten so far in the day.
Scientists are increasingly linking weight gain and poor metabolism to sleep deprivation, so getting a good night's sleep should be part of your health, fitness and weight-loss strategy. Sleep loss can lead to an increased prevalence of diabetes and obesity. We should all be aiming for 8 hours of sleep per day.
8 hours is a worthy aim, but unrealistic for many (such as parents!). Between 6 and 7.5 hours is maybe a goal you'll hit more often.
Because its battery life is limited (see below), Apple recommends the Watch be charged every night - so sleep monitoring isn't built in. You can install a sleep monitoring app, but you might have to charge your Watch during the day, which isn't ideal. The Series 3 Apple Watch's battery life is much improved, however, so can (on light, non-GPS use) last nearly three full days and two nights.
See the screens above to compare the Fitbit Sleep screen and the third-party Apple Watch sleep app Sleep Watch, which you need to download separately and pay for. You can see that the two apps were pretty close on measuring the time I was asleep (not a great night, I admit!).
We found that the auto-sensing sleep function on the Fitbit worked a lot better than on Sleep Watch, which sometimes took relative inactivity on waking as continued sleep. Fitbit also goes into much greater detail on the different Sleep Stages you go through.
If you use Fitbit Alta HR, Versa, Charge 2 or Ionic to track your sleep, you can see a record of the Sleep Stages you cycle through at night. While you’re asleep each night, your body typically goes through several sleep cycles: Light Sleep, Deep Sleep, and REM sleep that’s associated with dreaming.
Sleep stages are traditionally measured in a lab using an electroencephalogram to detect brain activity along with other systems to monitor eye and muscle activity. Fitbit’s trackers can’t match this level of medical accuracy but can estimate your sleep stages every night.
Fitbit estimates sleep stages using a combination of movement and heart-rate patterns. While you’re sleeping, your device tracks the beat-to-beat changes in your heart rate, known as heart rate variability (HRV), which fluctuate as you transition between light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep stages.
Apple’s Activity and Workout apps look glorious, of course, but Fitbit’s appealing multi-phone app features more stats and data graphics. Fitbit also wins by having a rich desktop dashboard to collect and organise your activity data.
The Versa and Ionic work with the Fitbit Coach, which combines dynamic video workouts with Audio Coaching sessions to help users increase endurance, speed and form. With (introductory) pricing of £7.99 a month, Fitbit says the app will grow to include advanced tools with a library of programs and workouts to deliver personalised adaptive health and fitness coaching.
The Versa and Ionic might measure up better against the Apple Watch when they have a much-expanded range of non-fitness apps. Right now its apps are very limited outside of Fitbit's impressive health and fitness functions, plus notification features - but more are being released, and there are over 500 to download. If you want a large range of non-health apps then the Watch or an Android equivalent will suit you better than a Fitbit, although they do feature Caller ID, text message and calendar alerts on screen.
Wearing both Watch and Versa or Ionic we found that the most used Apple Watch apps were Notifications, which are ably handled by the Fitbit smartwatches too - and in a less graphic way by the less smart Fitbit trackers too. If the Apple Watch has a "killer app" it's probably Activity - so the Fitbits compete very favourably for the most-used daily apps despite offering fewer third-party apps.
There are many different combinations of Apple Watch types, sizes and straps, from the simple Sport to the blingtastic Watch Edition. Apple’s Jonathan Ive has scored another design success with the Watch, and it’s really rather beautiful.
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 Alta HR and Charge 2 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 2 or Alta 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.
The Apple Watch is your main watch, not another wristband. The Fitbit Charge 2 or Alta 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.
Apple Watch vs Fitbit specs and dimensions: The Fitbit Versa with its 34mm display and a 300-x-300-pixel resolution is slightly smaller than the 38mm Apple Watch (272-x-340 resolution). The Ionic is 36mm with a 348-x-250-pixel resolution. The 42mm Apple Watch has a 312-x-390 resolution.
Strap choice: The Fitbit Versa (below) looks a lot like the Apple Watch, but has a smaller but still decent range of straps - with a choice of Peach, Grey, Black, White, Blue, Lavender and Charcoal 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.
If you want a watch to look like a watch, then the Apple Watch and Fitbit Versa or Ionic are for you. As a personal prefer,ence we found the slimmer Fitbit Versa to be the most comfortable of all the smartwatches we tested.
The Fitbit Alta/Alta HR, and Charge 2 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 2, Alta HR, Versa and Ionic to be more secure than the press-in tabs of the Alta and Flex 2.
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 Blaze in Fitbit’s line-up. 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.
There’s certainly less choice or frivolity with Fitbit, which sticks to its simple digital display on all but the Ionic and Blaze, 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.
The Series 1 Apple Watch doesn’t have built-in GPS – it pairs with the iPhone in your pocket and uses its GPS instead. That’s 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 2 and Series 3, 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’ll 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 Blaze needs to connect with your smartphone for GPS functionality, although it 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 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). You can also use the mic to do voice dictation, send audio messages, and chat to friends via the Phone app. It also boasts 8GB of storage so you can keep a bunch of your dearest photos on your wrist, as well as 2GB of music.
Other Apple apps include Calendar, Camera Remote, Weather and Apple Maps. And there's a huge range of downloadable apps for the Apple Watch.
The Fitbits are limited almost exclusively to fitness features. In addition the Alta, Charge 2, Blaze and Ionic all feature Caller ID and Text notifications, buzz and show on screen who’s calling when your phone (iPhone, Android or Windows Phone) rings. The Ionic and Blaze also have on-watch music controls, and the Ionic has 2.5GB of storage - enough for 300 songs, or your favourite podcasts and audiobooks.
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 Apple Watch has a 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. 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.
Rejoice! The Apple Watch Series 2 and 3 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 Series 2 and 3 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 Series 1 Apple Watch is water resistant (like the Fitbit Alta HR, Charge 2 and Blaze), but not waterproof so you shouldn’t submerge it in water at all. Apple’s states: “Apple Watch is splash and water resistant but not waterproof. You can, for example, wear and use Apple Watch during exercise, in the rain, and while washing your hands, but submerging Apple Watch is not recommended. The leather bands are not water resistant.”
The Fitbits are sweat, rain and splash proof, but only the Flex 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.
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.
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.
The cheapest Apple Watch costs £249/$249, for the 38mm aluminium Series 1 Watch with Sport Band; the larger 42mm model is priced at £279/$279.
Series 3 Apple Watches start at £329/$329, and keep going up to the £1,299/$1,299 White Ceramic edition (£1,349 if you want the 42mm).
Fitbit wristbands start at £69.99/$59.95 for the minimalist Flex 2, although this doesn’t actually have a watch function. The Fitbit Alta HR costs £129/$149 and Charge 2 is priced at £139/$149, the Blaze at £179/$199 and the Ionic at £299/$299.
So even the most expensive Fitbit is around the same price as the cheapest Apple Watch. And you can often pick up a Fitbit cheaper online from stores such as Amazon, while Apple rarely offers discounts.
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.
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 the non-Ionic trackers can’t 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 3 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, and so don't have to be charged every night while you sleep.
They also offer 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.
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.