Apple Watch vs. Fitbit

Both devices have strengths and weaknesses

Many Fitbit wearers purchase an Apple Watch because they are more interested in seeing notifications from their phone than in the Watch’s activity features. They might see the Apple Watch as a device that provides a much different experience as far as activity tracking of exercises, runs, and walks go.

However, after a few months, the Activity and Workout apps on the Watch become two of their favorite Apple Watch features. Even people who wear the Fitbit every day tend to focus more on the activity readings from the Watch than from the​ Fitbit. We've reviewed both devices, and they differ in several areas.

Apple Watch vs Fitbit

Overall Findings

Apple Watch
  • Measures exercise

  • Includes heart monitor

  • Assists in setting goals

  • Measures activity.

  • No heart monitor.

  • Monitors progress toward goals.

Activity Features: Exercise Is Different From Being Active

Apple Watch
  • Requires extra effort to count as exercise.

  • Counts all steps as activity.

One of the biggest revelations for Fitbit wearers is that all those active minutes they are so proud of aren’t actually all that active. The Fitbit may show 80 active minutes, which is roughly the length of the two long dog walks, while the Apple Watch records the steps but thinks that only five minutes of the movement qualifies as exercise. That’s a big difference and something worth noting when it comes to achieving long-term fitness goals.

If you walk at a reasonably slow pace (about an 18- or 19-minute mile), the Apple Watch doesn't categorize those leisurely walks as strenuous exercise. Both devices register the movement, but in dramatically different ways. The difference most likely comes from the heart rate monitor in the Apple Watch. It knows that those miles didn't take a ton of effort, while the Fitbit can't see how much work went into those walking workouts.

Goals and Coaching: Both Set Goals but Only One Coaches

Apple Watch
  • Coaches new users on setting goals.

  • Sets goals but doesn't coach for improvement.

With the Apple Watch, you can set a calorie goal each day—a number you intend to reach through movement. As the day progresses, the pink circle in the Activity app gradually closes.

Newcomers to the Apple Watch may pick 700 calories as their goal. That may sound like a reasonable goal for a relatively active person. As it turns out, burning 700 calories takes a lot more effort than you may realize. New users often miss their goals the first week. They are accustomed to burning well over 2,000 calories with a Fitbit, so surely they can hit 700, right? It turns out that Fitbit is adding the calories you burn naturally (which is a lot) into the mix. That's a skewed number when you're looking at it later in the context of how much you've burned through effort rather than just breathing.

What was interesting is the Apple Watch’s reaction to calorie-burning failures. The following week, it suggests a much lower calorie goal as something to try. When you hit it for a week, the following Monday, the Apple Watch suggests a slightly higher goal. The Apple Watch gradually scales things up from week to week, turning what was once an unachievable goal into a real possibility.

That’s a huge contrast from the Fitbit. With it, you can set step goals and see how far you are from achieving your goal, but it’s up to you to determine what’s realistic regarding goals. If you start out setting unrealistic goals, you'll appreciate having the Apple Watch gently coach you along and make helpful suggestions on what you can conceivably accomplish. 

Extra Feature: Time to Stand Up

Apple Watch
  • Reminds users to stand up regularly.

  • No "stand up" feature.

Anyone who spends the majority of the day glued to a computer screen can enjoy the gentle reminder from the Apple Watch to stand up during the day. At first, the notification comes every hour like clockwork if you haven't stood in the previous 50 minutes. Soon, you train yourself to get up and move around during the day. Just this small amount of movement can make you feel healthier and more productive during the workday. This is a feature that the Fitbit lacks.

Competition: Fitbit Encourages Competition

Apple Watch
  • No social prompts to encourage competition.

  • Encourages competitions with co-workers and friends.

One thing you may miss with the Apple Watch is competition with others. With Fitbit, you can challenge co-workers and friends to competitions in which you try to outstep each other during the weekend or on a specific day. There’s no social challenge element to the early Apple Watch’s Activity app, so there’s no way to compete with your friends in your workouts. If you are accustomed to wearing Fitbit, you know there’s nothing like a friendly competition to motivate you to get out there and move.

Final Verdict

The Apple Watch is the best choice if you are looking for smartwatch features in an activity tracker. The sophistication of its activity app, goal coaching, and stand-up notifications set it apart from other trackers. However, the Apple Watch requires an iPhone to operate. Users without an iPhone will find the Fitbit a helpful fitness companion and save a little money at the same time.