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How to choose a fitness tracker

There are few wearable categories that offer up such a dizzying number of options as the fitness tracker. The number of models and brands is ever increasing, from Fitbit and Jawbone, to Misfit and Withings, and picking between them is getting increasingly tricky.

While the previous crop of activity trackers just offered step and sleep tracking, newer bands include built-in heart rate monitors, increased sensors and smartphone notifications – making the latest bands hybrids between fitness trackers and smartwatches.

Other features to take into consideration include the smartphones the bands actually works with, the accompanying app software, battery life and the ease with which you can sync your data back to your phone or the web.

Make the right choice however, and this small bit of tech can have you living healthier and feeling better. That's where we come in....

Picking the right design

While most trackers wrap around your wrist, there are dongles that clip on to your clothing and can be more comfortable to wear. Budget trackers like theJawbone UP MOVE and the Misfit Flash can also be worn on clips or in pockets.

Of the more common wrist strap devices, some use an LED display while others take a screenless, minimal approach. The Jawbone UP3 is perhaps the most stylish of the bunch that goes without a display, though you'd be hard pressed to find a truly ugly wearable in this category - although Microsoft have had a good stab at it with the awful-looking Microsoft Band.

To screen or not to screen?

Opt for a band with a built-in display and you can keep an eye on the time and your fitness goals without firing up a phone app.

Fitbit decided to add a small OLED to display to its Charge duo, and the likes of the Garmin Vivosmart and the Samsung Gear Fit offer curved OLED displays - the latter's a gorgeous colour one. Some activity trackers, such as the Garmin Vivofit 2 or the Mio Fuse, offer basic LED displays to tell you the time and display your daily metrics.

A display usually adds a few pennies to the price-tag though, so think long and hard whether you actually need one.

Do you really want a smartwatch?

One reason you might consider a display vital is because some models, such as the Huawei TalkBand B2 and the Sony SmartBand Talk, add smart notifications to the mix too, blurring the lines between fitness tracker andsmartwatch.

On some devices you can get the full range of smartphone notifications, including third party apps like WhatsApp and Instagram, some simply pack Facebook and Twitter, and some just pack alerts for the basics like incoming calls and calendar notifications.

How much data do you need?

Steps taken and sleeping are the two main areas of focus for the majority of trackers, though each band's relative accuracy is difficult to assess - these fitness trackers weigh up your movement during the day and the night and try and guess how far you're walking and how well you're sleeping.

The most recent study found that the little-known BodyMedia Link came out on top with an error rate of 9.3%, while most other bands fell in the 10-15%. The bottom line is that the technology in today's trackers is good but not perfect. Until GPS tracking becomes the norm in fitness trackers use them as motivational aids rather than scientifically accurate monitors.

Many trackers can also make note of your workouts, swimming sessions, cycling and other types of exercise, though you'll typically need to tell your tracker what you're doing each time. The Misfit Shine, for example, which can be worn on your clothes or your wrist, needs a triple-tap to enter activity mode.

Sharing your heart?

In terms of comprehensiveness the Fitbit Charge HR is one of the best options, as it includes a heart rate monitor for 24/7 bpm readings. TheJawbone UP3 claims to be "the most advanced activity tracker known to man" due to its tri-axis accelerometer, bioimpedance sensors, as well as skin and ambient temperature sensors for resting heart rate monitoring, although we weren't overly enamoured with it during our review testing period.

Continuous heart rate monitoring technology is still in its infancy, but it enables users to track a wider range of sports, as well as gym work much more accurately. Fitbit claims to be top dog with its new PurePulse tech but its Surgeand Charge HR devices go head-to-head with the Basis Peak and the Microsoft Band in this respect.

However, Mio came out top when we tested wrist-based HRMs - so if bpm recording is important to you, maybe check out the Fuse or the Alpha 2.

See how the Charge HR and the UP3 measure up and read our guide to heart-rate training to see why bpm tracking is so important.

The app is as important as the band

The mobile app that comes with your tracker is a vital part of the equation, letting you crunch through your data, set goals, challenge your friends and so on.

First and foremost, check that your tracker works with your mobile phone of choice - most now support both Android and iOS, but Fitbit is currently the sole major manufacturer supporting Windows Phone - Jawbone is coming soon and the new Microsoft Health platform should improve matters. It's also important to remember the Samsung Gear Fit is only compatible with a limited number of Samsung devices.

There can also he a huge discrepancy in terms of the quality between a brand's Android and iOS apps. Withing's app is fantastic on both, but Misfit's Android app has been left seriously short of features compared to the iOS version, which will be of huge frustration to users who have bought there device.

It's always wise to check the comments from users of the app, and of course never make a purchase without reading our reviews first.

Battery life and charging

Battery life is an important factor to take into consideration, as having to charge your band every few days can be a real thorn in the side of your attempts to track your fitness regime, and crucially can mean you need to leave it at home or it runs out during a working day.

Most trackers require charging every week, with the Withings Pulse one of the best performers here, with its two-week battery life.

There are a few exceptions – notably the Misfit Shine, the Misfit Flash, the Jawbone UP MOVE and the Garmin Vivofit – which all use a replaceable watch battery rather than USB charging to achieve battery life counted in months rather than days.

Get a little extra

Some trackers make an attempt to track your food intake as well as your exercise, though until we all have smart chips fitted to our tongues, this is a time-consuming manual process that many users don't bother keeping up with. It typically involves tapping out what you eat and drink every day in the associated mobile apps, though Jawbone is one company that's recently made improvements to its app to simplify this process. The Fitbit app also has a handy barcode scanner if you live Stateside.

Other extra features you can look out for include smart vibrating alarms that wake you up in line with your circadian rhythms, advanced sensors for your blood oxygen saturation level, and smartwatch-style features that keep you connected to the web.

Every fitness tracker is a trade-off – between style, features, accuracy, apps, compatibility and price – so decide which features matter most to you and tailor your purchase accordingly.

Be sure to take a look at our pick of the best fitness trackers available right now before buying - it's constantly updated with all the latest and greatest devices.

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