My experience with a Fitbit, a Garmin, and an Apple Watch
My experience with a Fitbit, a Garmin, and an Apple Watch In January 2022 I got a Fitbit Charge 5 and overall I was very happy with it. I was getting about seven days of battery life in the...
My experience with a Fitbit, a Garmin, and an Apple Watch
In January 2022 I got a Fitbit Charge 5 and overall I was very happy with it. I was getting about seven days of battery life in the beginning. Starting a few months ago though, the tracker's battery capacity began to noticeably diminish. About six weeks ago (so January 2023), battery life fell off a cliff and I had to start charging the tracker every twenty hours.
Such a steep degradation of battery health in a single year is... not impressive. I have $80 wireless earbuds that still last the eight hours they've been getting since I bought them two years ago. A $250 fitness tracker should not have this issue.
So, I could have contacted Fitbit support about it, but they would have just given me a discount coupon to buy a new device. Their support is pretty garbage like that.
I also could have done the thing where you order a brand-new device from Amazon, and then return the old one, but my Fitbit Premium subscription was ending in February (2023) anyway, so I started looking at alternatives.
It pretty much came down to either a Garmin Forerunner 255 or an Apple Watch Series 8. Any other fitness trackers or smartwatches that had a comparable feature set, either cost more than I wanted to spend, or their sensor accuracy was trash.
Seriously, most fitness trackers are terrible at actually tracking things. There are a lot of research papers that report the accuracy of metrics collected by various fitness trackers and smartwatches as part of their findings. Some trackers and smartwatches (and even some entire brands) have such abysmal accuracy that their overall trends are meaningless. I read dozens of these papers, and accuracy was the biggest factor in pointing me towards Garmin and Apple.
For Garmin, the accuracy of their devices is kind of all over the place. Their smartwatches are okay at tracking fitness and health metrics like heart rate, sleep, stress, calories burned, etc. Their more dedicated fitness tracking devices though, like the Forerunner, Fenix, or Epix, are more accurate. However, even for these fitness oriented products, the accuracies of individual metrics differs between models, and doesn't necessarily get better the more money you spend (and you can spend a lot of money on Garmins).
What I ended up buying was a Garmin Forerunner 255 (on sale for $320), because its overall accuracy was similar to my Fitbit Charge 5. The Garmin's accuracy is better than the Fitbit for some metrics, worse for others, but not significantly so for anything specific. For both fitness trackers, accuracy is more than good enough for meaningful trends.
More importantly, Garmin does not rent-seek a subscription to allow you to access metrics your tracker already collects, like Fitbit does with Fitbit Premium. With Garmin, you pay for your device once, and you get access to all of your data that it collects. You don't even need to use Garmin's apps or website, or connect the device to your phone. You can plug your Garmin into your computer and sync its data to open-source programs instead if you really want to.
For Apple, the Apple Watch was very tempting. Here's a fun fact: for almost every metric that it tracks, the Apple Watch Series 8 (and Series 7, and SE, and Ultra) is in a league of its own in terms of accuracy for wrist-based trackers. It's an astonishingly accurate device. However, there were a few reasons I didn't buy an Apple Watch:
- The price of $430 for the 45 mm Series 8 is steep, over $100 more than what the Garmin costs (and over $300 more than what my Fitbit cost).
- Only 18 hours of battery life. If the accuracy of the Apple Watch wasn't literally the best, I'd say its battery life was pathetic.
- The Apple Watch doesn't have some features of the Garmin that I really like:
- The Garmin displays a "morning report" with a variety of useful and interesting information when you wake up, such as suggested exercise for that day, sleep statistics, the weather, and others.
- The Garmin tracks not only my VO₂ max, but also whether I am, based on recent exercise, detraining, maintaining, or increasing my fitness, complete with reports for your acute load and aerobic targets.
- The Garmin tracks stress, which is fairly accurate in my experience, and asks if you want to take a moment and do some breathing exercises when your stress reaches a certain threshold. It's surprisingly nice to have.
- Garmin allows third-party developers to write and publish watch faces on their Connect IQ Store.
- Garmin Connect, via their web interface, supports importing most of the data my Fitbit collected, so I'm not losing anything by not getting an Apple Watch (because there are apps that support syncing Fitbit data to the Apple Health app).
- Garmin Connect also supports, via their iOS app, syncing most of the data it collects to the Apple Health app (so I don't have to worry about a break in continuity of my fitness tracking data, it's all in one place).
My initial impressions of the Garmin were good. In terms of software and fitness tracking, everything was solid. I didn't like the band the watch came with as much as the one my Fitbit had, but it's just a standard 22 mm watch band and very easy to replace. For an immediate replacement, I dug around for my old Pebble Time Steel, and its band fit pretty well on the Garmin.
I also bought a screen protector for the Garmin, because I already knew I was bad about bumping my watch on stuff and the Garmin is bigger than the Fitbit (feels fine on the wrist though).
Unfortunately, I never found a good screen protector for the Garmin. I tried four different brands. Three of them were tempered glass, one of those for a different watch but the same size as my Garmin, and the fourth was a film protector. All four brands, across nine installation attempts (they all came with multiple protectors in a pack), installed by me and friends (to make sure I wasn't just habitually fucking up), failed within at least three days of installation. Some of them didn't even last twenty-four hours.
When I say "failed" I mean, sometimes the screen protector just popped off the watch while walking down the sidewalk, never to be seen again. Sometimes air bubbles showed up two days after installation, when there were none present before. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning, and half the protector would be detached. Each time I replaced a protector, the watch glass was thoroughly cleaned to make sure nothing on the surface was causing a loss of adhesion.
This was a frustrating experience.
By the end, I basically gave up and figured I would just have to buy a case instead. There are cases for the Garmin that have a glass screen protector built in, but their big issue is that when the watch gets wet, water always gets trapped between the case glass and the watch glass. You then have to take the case off, dry the watch off, dry the case off, clean the watch glass, clean the case glass, then put everything back together. It's a process.
But wait! When I was shopping around for a case, I discovered a 45 mm Apple Watch Series 8, on sale, for $350. I bought it immediately. I've been wearing both watches (schwarzkopfing) for a week now. I'm going to return the Garmin in a few days.
Having to charge the Apple Watch every day sucks. Not being able to use the always-on-display if I want any semblance of decent battery life sucks. Seriously, I accept zero excuses for why the Apple Watch doesn't have a reflective display that uses ambient light to, you know, display things. My Garmin does this and it works great. My Pebble did this in 2013 and it worked great then too. Apple makes too much money to have an excuse for the awful battery life of the Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch doesn't do constant heart rate monitoring unless you have started a workout, unlike every single other fitness tracker and smartwatch I have ever seen or used. That sucks, but I'll excuse it since the heart rate tracking accuracy is better than any other wrist-based tracker, and even some dedicated straps.
The Apple Watch needs more buttons. The little scrolly wheel with its haptics and noises is very nice, but the watch needs more buttons. Even the Apple Watch Ultra with its "action button" needs more buttons. Three is not enough. The watch especially needs a "back button" so I don't have to keep tapping in the corner or swiping to go back one screen in an app.
My Garmin doesn't have a touchscreen, just five buttons to do everything. I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about that, but I don't mind it at all. Ideally a watch would have a touchscreen and buttons, but buttons trump touchscreen for control when it matters most, like, I don't know, exercising.
That's (mostly) the limit of my complaints with the Apple Watch though. It doesn't have the stress tracking like the Garmin (I suspect it will be added at a later date), but it does have ambient noise monitoring, and that's very useful for a college student who goes out frequently.
The Apple Watch has much more accurate sleep tracking, for every sleep stage, than the Garmin (and the Fitbit). The sleep reports differ quite a bit between the Garmin and Apple Watch, especially for deep and REM sleep, but the awake times are pretty similar. So, it seems that my Fitbit was wildly overestimating my awake times during rest and giving shittier sleep scores than I deserved. Thanks, Fitbit.
The Health app is pretty nice. It doesn't have as many fitness-oriented features as Garmin Connect. Specifically, it's missing a lot of the trend interpretations, such as if you're training, or detraining, how well you're targeting your acute load and aerobic zones, etc. However, these are all things that Apple could add later, and I suspect they will head in that direction eventually.
Neither the Fitbit nor the Garmin were very capable as smartwatches, they're primarily for fitness tracking, so having what's probably the best smartwatch experience has been new to me, and overall it's pretty neat. I'm not sure how much I will actually use the smartwatch features, but if I ever get a smart bulb or something, it'll be nice to turn it off from the comfort of my bed.
The Sport Band that came with the Apple Watch is very nice. Eventually I will replace it with something a little more secure. It seems like people lose their Apple Watches while wearing the Sport Band worryingly often, especially when swimming. It is very comfortable though, and looks good on my wrist. I really want to whine and complain about the prices of the watch bands Apple sells. Unfortunately, it turns out that watch bands in general are just way more expensive, to get a quality product, than I would have ever thought.
I am eagerly awaiting my friend's purchase of an Apple Watch Ultra, so I can check the fit of the Alpine Loop on my Series 8, and see if it's nice enough to drop $100 on.
The culture of data collection and subscriptions for mobile apps is disgusting. A dollar or two a month for an app that has ongoing costs (like server infrastructure), is regularly updated, and doesn't track and steal every bit of data it can mine, is not a bad thing. Most apps on iOS are not like this though.
An app that provides a step counter "complication" for my Apple Watch should not have a subscription. It should not need to track any information about me. This sort of abuse needs to be legislated and regulated to extinction. Apple's claims of respecting its customers' privacy are meaningless while they allow such a culture of abuse to thrive on the App Store.
I currently have one of those cases with a built-in screen protector on my Apple Watch. It collects water between the case glass and the watch glass, like I complained about earlier. I am currently shopping around for screen protectors, but it seems like the options for the Apple Watch Series 8, thanks to its curved display, are kind of ass.
Considering how fast my Fitbit's battery life fell off a cliff, I was concerned about battery health on the Apple Watch. AppleCare seems to make that mostly a non-issue though, with free battery replacements. (Battery health wasn't a concern with the Garmin, considering that my Forerunner 255 gets about seventeen days of battery life.)
Overall, the choice between the Garmin Forerunner 255 and the Apple Watch is one of tradeoffs. Each watch has various pros and cons worth considering for fitness and health tracking, and overall I think you couldn't go wrong with either one.
Don't buy a Fitbit though.