Garmin has been around longer, making sports watches that over time have evolved to behave more like smartwatches in recent years. So you can start paying your way or listening to music without having your phone nearby.
Fitbit arrived on the scene after Garmin and started with fitness trackers before adding smartwatches to its collection of wearables. Fitness tracking remains at the core of what it does, but it’s now exploring how it can better monitor your health and activities like running and swimming.
Both offer a variety of different models and options, making it hard to work out which one is actually the best fit for you. That’s why we’ve pulled together this guide to help make that decision an easier one, picking out the biggest differences in the hardware, software and features that these two wearable heavyweights have to offer.
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Garmin launched its first Forerunner watch back in the early 2000s and since then it’s added a range of lines including its Vivoactive and Fenix watches. All have sports tracking at the core, offering a range of different designs and mix of features.
Some of the most popular models are:
One of the staples of Garmin’s fitness trackers and watches is the promise to deliver big battery life. Whether you go for something cheap like the Vivofit fitness tracker or something high end like the Forerunner 945, Garmin will generally offer close to a week of battery life and in many instances longer.
It also takes into great consideration that using features like GPS or heart rate monitoring while tracking an activity can greatly reduce battery. So watches like its outdoor-centric Fenix series include an UltraTrac battery mode to give you more tracking time while reducing the rate it records data like GPS. You’ll also find new power saving and battery modes that switch off power hungry features you don’t regularly use to retain battery for the features you do use.
On the Venu, Garmin’s most smartwatch-like device, it’s the only device in its collection that features a colour AMOLED display that can be used in an always-on mode. It still manages multiple days of battery life, despite using a more power-hungry display technology than the transflective display technology Garmin uses on the majority of its other watches.
We think it’s fair to say that when it comes to what Garmin’s watches and fitness trackers can actually monitor, there is a lot. Those feature sets vary across devices and ranges, but many of the core features run across the ranges to offer a more consistent and familiar experience.
So from Vivosmart to Fenix, you’re going to get 24/7 activity tracking, continuous heart rate monitoring and sleep monitoring. You’ll also get some of Garmin’s more motivational fitness tracking features like Move IQ and adaptive step counts that are designed to keep you moving during the day in subtle but very meaningful ways. You can also find features like stress monitoring, guided breathing exercises, women’s health tracking and Garmin’s Body Battery monitor. This looks at metrics like sleep and heart rate to determine the energy levels you have for the day.
When it comes to sports tracking, this is really where Garmin’s devices excel. It covers core sports like running, cycling and swimming (pool and open water), offering a host of rich metrics you can delve into during or after activities.
When you’re willing to spend more on watches like the Fenix or Forerunner 945, you’ll also start to see sports profiles for more outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, climbing or even paddleboarding. These more niche pursuits still offer a rich set of activity-specific metrics. You’ll also find features like mapping and navigation to make them more useful when you’re out exploring.
Heart rate drives many of Garmin’s features that seek to get you thinking more about your training and recovery as well as measure effort levels during exercise. In most instances, Garmin will let you pair up an external chest strap, if you question the reliability and accuracy of the sensor baked into its wrist-worn devices.
While Garmin’s watches and trackers are predominantly designed for sport and fitness, they do now behave better as smartwatches.
When you decide to pay more for something like the Forerunner 245 or Fenix, you’ll get more in the way of smartwatch features. That includes payments, and a built-in music player. The latter lets you pile on your own music or playlists from the likes of Spotify and Deezer. That includes storing them offline so you don’t need to be connected to your phone to listen to them.
If you care about apps, most of Garmin’s watches with the right amount of storage also have access to the Connect IQ store. This is where you can find apps, watch faces, data fields and widgets. That Connect IQ support can vary. So the Forerunner 45 is compatible, but will only let you download watch faces. Pricier Forerunners though will give you full access.
Fitbit’s first wearable was a pedometer-style device that centred on counting steps and tracking your sleep.
It still cares about tracking your fitness, but it can now do a better impression as a watch and offers a rich array of connected features that make it worthy of a place on your wrist.
The key members of the Fitbit family are:
Even from its early tracker days, Fitbit has sought to promise close to a week’s worth of battery life. Years later, that hasn’t changed and it has even made good progress dealing with the fact that full fat smartwatches still have a battery problem.
Its latest Versa 3 and Sense watches promise up to 6+ days, which is impressive when you consider the kind of display and features the watches have to power. Its Inspire 2 and Charge 4 fitness trackers also promise to comfortably last a week between charges. The Inspire 2 actually promises to go for 10 days, which is the longest battery life a Fitbit wearable has been capable of.
Adding always-on display modes to its latest smartwatches will impact on battery life just like it does on Apple and Samsung’s watches. It might be a big reason why Fitbit is introducing a new fast charging feature that gives you a day battery from a 12-minute charge.
Fitness tracking is really how Fitbit made its name and it underpins every device it’s launched or is in the process of launching.
Every Fitbit will track your steps, monitor your heart rate 24/7, monitor sleep and buzz you with inactivity alerts during the day. Those sleep features are some of the richest available on a wearable platform digging deep into insights and offering additional metrics fuelled by monitoring heart rate during the night.
More recently, it’s added menstrual health tracking with some data viewable on its smartwatches. You’ll get guided breathing exercises and its new Sense watch can even indicate your body’s response to stress.
When you want to look beyond steps and sleep, most Fitbits are equipped to track a range of sports. It offers automatic activity recognition when you don’t want to manually tell your device you’re about to go running and swimming.
The Charge 4, Versa and Sense now offer built-in GPS to make mapping outdoor activities easier to do and you have Fitbit’s PurePulse heart rate sensor to unlock training in heart rate zones and features like Active Zone Minutes and Intensity Maps. Fitbit’s watches and Charge 4 flagship tracker also track your swimming, though currently only works for pool swimming only.
Fitbit users also have access to its Premium platform, where you can find programs and workouts you can follow and gain deeper data insights from the sensors on board their watch and tracker.
On Fitbit’s fitness trackers, it did its best to offer smartwatch-style features. Given the screen and design limitations, it was always going to be difficult to go beyond things like basic notification support.
That has changed significantly since it entered the smartwatch space and the likes of the Versa and Sense can do more when you’re not sweating it out in the gym.
Fitbit’s wearables work with Android and iPhones giving you features like notifications, payments, apps, watch faces and built-in music players. Its latest smartwatches also add smart assistant support for Amazon’s Alexa with Google Assistant support to follow.
The experience using a Fitbit with an Android phone or iPhone is largely consistent, though features like responding to notifications for example is an Android-only feature.
Like Garmin, you have access to an app store here too. Fitbit’s App Gallery is still growing as a platform, but does include some high profile names like MySwimPro and Spotify. The latter though will only let you control the streaming service, not pile on offline playlists like you can on the Garmin. If you like watch faces, Fitbit offers plenty of variety here too and you can keep up to 5 faces on its smartwatches at one time.
Garmin or Fitbit?
So, do you go with Fitbit or Garmin? As we’ve said, there are a lot of different devices to choose from on both sides and all offer varying features and looks.
The decision between the two platforms we think comes down to a few areas that might sway you one way over the other.
If you care largely about fitness tracking as opposed to recording runs or hikes, Fitbit still feels like it offers a better experience here. Its devices and companion app are easy to use and it still offers the richest most useful sleep tracking you can find on a wearable. For beginners, it’s a much better fit. Fitbit also offers more cutting-edge sensors geared towards serious health monitoring with its ECG and skin temperature sensor that now appears on its new Sense watch.
If you spend more time tracking sport and yearn for masses of data and battery life when you’re on the move, Garmin’s watches and trackers in general will serve you better. They offer reliable tracking and the ability to add external sensors means you can improve accuracy and the amount of metrics you can record.
Outside of tracking, both offer plenty. Garmin has some desirable features that you won’t find on a Fitbit. Like proper Spotify support and useful safety and assistance features. Fitbit though has that smart assistant support if that’s something you value having on a watch.
The decision between these two big names in the wearable world really comes down to what you value most. They both now offer very accomplished devices that impress on both hardware and software fronts. It’s clear though that they excel in different departments and we hope we’ve helped you establish just what those are to help guide your decision.
This article is part of TechRadar's Get Fit in 2022 series – a collection of ideas and guides to help get your new year's health goals off to the right start, whatever your current level of fitness.
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Michael is a freelance journalist who has covered consumer technology for over a decade and specializes in wearable and fitness tech. Previously editor of Wareable, he also co-ran the features and reviews sections of T3, and has a long list of bylines in the world of consumer tech sites.
With a focus on fitness trackers, headphones, running wearables, phones, and tablet, he has written for numerous publications including Wired UK, GQ, Men's Fitness, BBC Science Focus, Metro and Stuff, and has appeared on the BBC Travel Show. Michael is a keen swimmer, a runner with a number of marathons under his belt, and is also the co-founder of YouTube channel The Run Testers.