As fitness trackers converge, everyone’s sprinting toward confusion

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Fitbit Alta Fitness Tracker GG
Is it an activity tracker, a sport watch, a smartwatch or all three?
Photo: Fitbit

2016 has been a tough year for fitness trackers, with scientists questioning their effectiveness and headlines boldly proclaiming that “fitness trackers don’t work.”

And yet, sales of fitness trackers are healthier than ever, while struggling smartwatch makers are desperately trying to reposition their gadgets to muscle into the fitness market. So what is going on? If fitness trackers really don’t work, why are consumers still buying them?

New competitors blur the boundaries between fitness wearables

Long before the Apple Watch was a even twinkle in Jony Ive’s eye, fitness wearables were going strong. Fitbit’s first activity tracker came out in 2009, while Garmin released it’s first sports watch way back in 2003.

Today, as smartwatch makers struggle to find a killer app for their multifunction wearables, they are increasingly focusing on fitness, combining the functions of activity trackers and sports watches into a single device, in the hope that this will lure away some Garmin and Fitbit buyers.

In response, the fitness specialists have added features to their wearables to make them smarter. The result is a confusing array of similar gadgets that perform similar functions in different ways.

To make sense of what’s happening, you need to take a look at the different device categories. While they might all seem superficially similar, they are in fact quite different.

There is more than one species of fitness tracker

Apple Watch features two built-in fitness apps: Activity and Workout. The former tracks your activity all the time, whereas you only use the latter during exercise sessions, such as running.

This distinction between “Activity” and “Workout” has always existed in fitness wearables. While Apple combines these functions in a single device, they have traditionally been accomplished by separate types of gadgets, known as activity trackers and sport watches.

All fitness wearables are not the same
All fitness wearables are not the same.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

While there are some superficial similarities between activity trackers and sport watches, they differ in a number of very important ways.

At the most fundamental level, they have completely different purposes. Activity trackers are cheap, mass-market devices targeting unfit people with the promise that they will help you to get in shape by providing motivational feedback. In contrast, sport watches target people who are already serious about their exercise, and want analytical data that will help them improve at their chosen sport. Early sport watches focussed exclusively on running, but these days they tend to support cycling and swimming as well.

Traditionally, these distinctly separate markets have resulted in distinctly different form factors. Activity trackers tend to be basic bands you wear around your wrist. The design is minimalistic, with few controls and little or no display. In contrast, a sport watch needs a large display to show your pace and distance during workouts, plus physical buttons to start and end your workouts and change the metrics on the display.

Why smartwatches can’t compete with dedicated fitness wearables

While activity trackers and sport watches are designed to perform specific functions, smartwatches are multifunctional. In addition to combining activity and workout tracking, they support third-party apps. They also tackle non-fitness-related functions, such as contactless payment, messaging and notifications.

The sheer breadth of applications for a smartwatch means they must adopt a highly flexible user interface and form factor that can accommodate all these different functions. In practice, this tends to mean they become jacks of all trades and masters of none.

For example, physical buttons are ideal for a sport watch. You can feel them under your finger as you run, which means you can operate your sport watch during a workout without having to look down at the device itself.

In contrast, the touchscreen user interface of devices such as Apple Watch means you must raise your wrist and look at the display every time you interact with it, which risks taking your attention away from the road ahead.

Touchscreens also don’t work when wet, which is not great if you get sweaty or go for a swim. And the transmissive (backlit) displays of a smartwatch drain so much battery that they get turned off by default, so you must wait for them to activate every time your raise your wrist. Plus, they can be hard to see in daylight. That’s why sport watches normally opt for always-on, outdoor-visible reflective displays instead.

In comparison to an activity tracker, the fancy graphics and processing power of a smartwatch are vastly over-specced, which makes them an expensive option if all you really want is a step counter.

So, while smartwatch makers like Apple and Samsung are now targeting the fitness sector, it is by no means certain that they will succeed. Serious athletes (whether amateur or pro) are still likely to want devices genuinely tailored to their needs, while those who just want to count their steps, or buy healthy gifts for friends and family, are likely to be drawn to cheaper alternatives.

But can fitness trackers compete with smartwatches?

Fitness specialists such as FitBit and Garmin have not been watching idly while Apple and Samsung attempt to move in on their territory. Rather than retrenching and sticking to what they know best, they are attempting to take the fight to the big brands’ home turf.

Fitbit has launched its Blaze smartwatch and Surge sport watch, while Garmin and TomTom are adding activity-tracking features to their sport watches in an attempt to broaden the devices’ appeal. With all these new smartwatches and hybrid wearables, the market is getting very crowded and confused.

TomTom has even resorted to marketing its sport/activity hybrid watch by two different names: “TomTom Runner 3” and “TomTom Spark” in an attempt to appeal to these two distinct markets.

As a runner, I now have to put up with irrelevant interruptions from my TomTom during my workout, telling me that I have just taken 10,000 steps — a metric relevant to activity tracking but meaningless to most runners. In other words, the addition of activity tracking features actually makes the TomTom Runner 3 less good for runners.

I can see what manufacturers are trying to do with these hybrid devices, but by trying to be all things to all people, they risk falling into the same trap as smartwatches and ultimately pleasing no one. There is something to be said for sticking to your knitting.

Breaking down fitness wearables
Breaking down fitness wearables.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Survival of the fittest: Which species of wearable will prevail?

This year’s headlines screaming that “fitness trackers do not work” were referring specifically to activity trackers, rather than fitness trackers in general. The research the stories cited focused on step counters, and care should be taken when attempting to make generalizations about these results. It tells us nothing about sport watches or smartwatches.

The research is not even applicable to all activity trackers. After all, some trackers do far more than just count steps. Apple’s Activity app, for example, also tracks standing and exercise, provides reminders and encouragement, and even lets you share your progress with friends and family. None of these features were included in the research. So it is just not good enough to conclude that because one activity tracker (a now-discontinued product) does not help, then none of them do.

A great deal more research is needed before we really know if activity trackers are effective motivational tools. And even if it turns out that they are not motivational, they can still be useful to some otherwise-motivated users who just need a gadget to monitor their progress.

Even supposing that consumer interest in activity trackers wanes as a result of these negative headlines, this is unlikely to have much impact on the broader fitness wearables sector. People will always go running, cycling and swimming, and they will want something to log their workouts. Perhaps that is why Apple is focusing on sports more than activity tracking in its marketing of Apple Watch Series 2.

Regardless of the fate of standalone activity trackers, there seems to be an emerging consensus among all fitness wearables makers that activity trackers and sport watches are converging — perhaps to become smartwatches. Personally, I hope this does not happen. The compromises involved result in devices that perform many tasks badly, rather than a few tasks well.