Woman wearing Fitbit smartwatchWhen you’re looking for a fitness tracker or a smartwatch, the first thing you’ll notice is there are a lot of choices. When you’re choosing a standard watch that just tells time, you’re basing your selection mostly on style, but when you have to pick between a smartwatch or a fitness tracker, you’re basing your selection on what features you’re interested in.

If you’re wondering whether you’d prefer a smartwatch or a fitness tracker, here’s a quick breakdown of how they are different, what features each has, and what you should consider before you make your choice. If you’re a serious fitness enthusiast you may be interested in a GPS watch, so we’ll take a look at those too.

What’s the difference between a smartwatch or a fitness tracker?

Fitbit family of fitness trackers and smart watches

A fitness tracker is designed to keep track of your health and exercise. A smartwatch keeps track of your fitness too, but it also keeps you connected by delivering notifications and updates on your wrist.

There is a lot of overlap between the two. You can find fitness trackers that display texts and app notifications on your wrist just like a smartwatch, but a fitness tracker’s intended purpose is to focus on your health and daily activity monitoring.

Like a fitness tracker, a smartwatch will keep you up to date on how many steps you’ve taken, the distance you’ve covered, the calories you’ve burned, and some will also give you 24/7 heart rate. People choose a smartwatch over a fitness tracker so they can stay connected to their texts, calls, email, and other social media updates.

GPS and GPS watches

When you begin your search for a fitness tracker or smartwatch, one of the features you’ll see offered is GPS. GPS (Global Positioning System) can locate wherever you are in the world thanks to a process called triangulation. Triangulation is determined by satellites, and to accurately track you a signal is bounced back and forth while you’re running, walking, biking, or hiking. GPS can be very accurate, and it’s a great feature if you’d like to see maps of where you went on your run or you want a more precise idea of your speed or how far you ran.

One thing to note if you’re interested in GPS is that it’s offered as built-in GPS, connected GPS, or in GPS watches. Built-in GPS gives you precise tracking for your distance and will map out your routes right on the watch so you don’t need your phone along for your run. With connected GPS, your fitness tracker or smartwatch will use your phone’s GPS to track you, and you’ll always have to carry your phone along if you want to map your work out.

A GPS watch is a watch with GPS onboard. While it can have a simple style and tracking like a fitness tracker, GPS watches may offer you smartwatch features like touchscreens, on-screen workouts, music storage, and text or call notifications. GPS watches are a favourite for runners who are trying to improve endurance and pace, and cyclists love them because they can identify speed, pinpoint exactly where they might have struggled on their ride, and map out where they’ve been.

Why choose a fitness tracker

With a fitness tracker on your wrist, you can track every step, run, and workout. If your main goal is to have a very detailed outline of your health and fitness data, a fitness tracker may be a perfect choice.

Fitness trackers are simple to use and easy to wear

Most fitness trackers are designed like a bracelet. They’re usually quite thin, light, and made from water and sweat resistant materials so they stand up to all-weather workouts. Some fitness trackers have small touchscreens while others are styled like a watch with buttons you can press to scroll through your data.

A fitness tracker tracks all of your daily activity

Did you walk from the garden back into the house? Your fitness tracker will count those steps. Climbed up 10 flights of stairs to get to work? A fitness tracker will track your all-day activity, and that means your steps, distance, elevation, and the calories you burned during that activity.

When you have a fitness tracker with advanced features you’ll be able to choose custom workout profiles like hiking, HIIT training, and weight training and track those. Depending on which fitness tracker you choose you may be able to track swimming too, and some trackers offer multi-sport tracking if you do different sports during your daily workout. Many different types of fitness trackers will also track your sleep, so you can wear it all night and see how many hours of REM and light sleep you’re getting.

Fitbit data

Fitness tracker apps offer additional tracking

With a fitness tracker, you should be able to look down at your wrist and see if you’re meeting your fitness goals. Once you sync your tracker with the companion app, you’ll be able to track even more. Some companion apps will offer you food tracking, water-intake tracking, and weight loss or gain.

You can see all of your data over days, weeks, months, and if you wear it long enough, years. That data is great if you want to see how you improved or where you need to improve.

Fitness trackers with heart tracking and GPS

While a fitness tracker tends to be a simpler device than a smartwatch, you can find models with 24/7 heart rate monitoring and built-in GPS from brands like Fitbit, Samsung, Garmin, and Polar.

Why choose a smartwatch

Samsung Galaxy Watch4 44mm Smartwatch with Heart Rate Monitor
Samsung Galaxy Watch4 44mm smartwatch with heart rate monitor

If you want an all-in-one watch that keeps you as up-to-date on everything just like your phone does, a smartwatch could

be the choice for you. Wearing a smartwatch is a lot like having your phone right on your wrist, and you can receive and answer phone calls, reply to texts and emails, get directions or view maps, and get all of your favourite app updates.

At the same time, a smartwatch can also track your fitness, and some models offer you onboard workout programs you can follow along.

Smartwatches have a watch-like style

If you like the style of standard watches and don’t want to wear a fitness bracelet, you’ll love a smartwatch. Many of the different types are styled like a standard watch, with interchangeable watch straps, round faces, and eye-catching bezels. Some have black and white or colour touchscreens, while others use buttons to scroll through your options.

With a smartwatch, you should be able to see all of your data right on the screen of your watch. While you can sync your watch with your phone or computer, you’ll be able to access the same information on your wrist.

Smartwatches keep you connected via your favourite operating system

Apple Watch Series 7 (GPS) 45mm with Midnight sport band

Just like you choose an Android or Apple phone, you can choose a smartwatch that runs on the Android or Apple operating system. The Apple Watch is the only smartwatch that runs the watchOS operating system, but there are many different types of Android smartwatch that run Google’s Wear OS.

While you don’t have to stick to the same type of operating system your phone runs, you may find some smartwatches have features that only work when paired with a compatible phone. For example, some smartwatches will only let you answer calls if you have a phone with a similar operating system.

If you choose a Wear OS watch you should be able to load apps on it that run independently of your phone. That means you can still track your fitness, but you can leave your phone at home.

Smartwatches track your fitness too

As I already mentioned, some smartwatches offer you step-by-step workouts right on your wrist. You can also find smartwatches with multiple workout options to customize how you track your fitness, and they’ll also track everything fitness trackers do including distance, steps, calories burned, and in some cases, elevation.

Like fitness watches, smartwatches have companion apps you can use to track even more data. One of the biggest differences between a fitness tracker and a smartwatch is that you can add apps to your smartwatch. If you use Strava or Runkeeper to monitor your runs, you’ll be able to use that app right on your wrist.

Smartwatches offer heart rate monitoring and GPS

Apple heart rate monitoring

There are many different smartwatches with 24/7 heartrate monitoring, and with a touchscreen on your wrist, you can see your heartbeat in real-time. Smartwatches from brands like Nokia, Garmin, Apple, Fitbit, and Samsung offer accurate heart rate monitoring, and over time will let you know your resting heart rate as well as how you perform in different heart rate zones. Some will even offer a Pulse Ox sensor to monitor your oxygen saturation level, and the Apple watch has a built-in electrocardiogram to detect irregular heartbeats.

While some smartwatches offer connected GPS to monitor your fitness, you will find smartwatches with built-in GPS. They can track your running pace precisely, and monitor the routes you run while providing coaching to improve your speed or endurance.

Should you choose a GPS watch, smartwatch, or fitness tracker?

smartwatch or fitness tracker?

There are advantages to choosing each of these devices. In general, a fitness tracker is perfect for someone who wants basic or somewhat advanced fitness tracking; someone who would wear something to keep them active and give them the motivation to get moving every day.

The person who chooses a smartwatch wants all the features of their smartwatch right on their wrist, and they love having the option to take calls or answer texts without picking up their phone. A smartwatch will track fitness too, and you have the added bonus of adding your favourite fitness apps to your watch so you can keep track of your workouts.

A GPS watch is the perfect accessory for a serious fitness enthusiast. With built-in GPS and real-time fitness tracking, you’ll be able to use the features on the watch to improve your endurance, speed, and more.

Will you choose a GPS watch, smartwatch, or fitness tracker? You can find all three on Best Buy right now.

Shelly Wutke
Editor TV & Home Theatre
I'm a Vancouver freelancer and tech enthusiast. When I'm not writing you'll find me on my farm with my alpacas, chickens, and honeybees. Visit my website Survivemag


  1. Thank you this was , very helpful to explain the difference in these watches ,when a person is not formiliar with electronics and is explained very well in simple terms ,so I will know what I would like to buy thank you dianna

  2. Would a fitness tracker be a wise gift for someone who wears an ICD please? He would be more confident being able to track his blood pressure levels during the day or an evening out.

    • Hi Susan,

      I sent your question to the smartwatch team at Best Buy’s head office and got this reply: None of the watches will track blood pressure – that is in the future at some point.

      If it is ECG/EKG you are after, currently Fitbit Sense & Apple Watch S6 & S7 have it.

      Best regards,

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