What do you expect of the best activity trackers on the market today? Innovation and tough competition among these modern day pedometers have certainly raised the bar. Some devices can read your heart rate all day and night, while others vibrate to wake you from a precisely timed power nap.
Brand spanking new to the fitness tracker category is the Samsung Gear Fit, a £169 wristband that's so sophisticated looking, with a brilliant touchscreen, that it may raise your expectations – without warrant, though.
Part smartwatch and part fitness tracker, the Gear Fit is best thought of as an accessory to one of the 18 Samsung devices with which it's compatible, including the Samsung Galaxy S5 – and not as an independent activity monitor. But even as a smartphone companion, it only does a decent job as a fitness tracker, with key features disabled by default and an app that's already screaming for an overhaul. The smartwatch features are better, but not by enough to edge out the likes of the Pebble Steel.
The Samsung Gear Fit comes in three colours options for the band: Black, mocha grey, or wild orange. You can buy additional bands in blue, green, or red. A bright AMOLED touchscreen display is the shining achievement, design-wise – slightly curved to hug your wrist, and outlined in a thin chrome edge. A single, very small button on the top of the device is the only non-touchscreen point of interaction.
On the back of the device, a heart rate sensor remains off unless you engage it. You'll also see a connection point for a charger that locks into a cradle, which connects to a USB cord, which in turn connects to an outlet brick for recharging the battery. Keep those pieces on hand, as you'll need them every three days or so.
Tap the top button once, or raise your arm quickly, and the screen turns on. You can customise what displays here (time, date, steps taken), as well as the wallpaper behind it. Whenever the screen is illuminated, you can swipe through the menus to cycle between a timer, stopwatch, activity tracking options, settings, a media controller to play music from your phone, notifications from your companion device, and more.
When actually out in the world running or bicycling, good luck trying to navigate the touchscreen. It's highly sensitive, and you really need to stop what you're doing to focus on tapping and swiping it just so. When bicycling, I had to stop riding, remove my gloves, and steady my hand just to turn tracking on and off. Then I had to confirm I wanted to stop tracking by hitting a tiny check mark, which I missed on a few occasions, meaning the band continued to record my "cycling" for 20 minutes until I noticed, even though I was off my bike and moving at a much slower rate.
The thing is, a tiny touchscreen simply doesn't work well for fitness enthusiasts. Conversely, an excellent example of sports-minded design can be seen in the TomTom Multi-Sport watch, which has one huge button that's easy to press even if you're wearing gloves or are underwater (it's for swimming, bicycling, running, and walking).
To use the Gear Fit to its fullest extent, you need two apps: The Gear Fit Manager, which houses a lot of the settings, and the S Health app, where you access your fitness data. More on those in a bit.
The Samsung Gear Fit has plenty of smartwatch capabilities, such as the ability to get notifications, and initialise an audio tone if you can't find your phone. In all, these are better implemented than the fitness features.
The notifications work very nicely. I turned them on via the Gear Fit Manager app for text messages, and noticed some options for previewing incoming messages on the Gear Fit. You can set the watch to display only the first few lines of each incoming message, or messages in their entirety. You can customise quick replies, such as "On the way," or, "Let me get back to you in a few," and send these from the Gear Fit – as long as your phone is in range. The Gear Fit relays the reply through the phone to send it.
When a new notification arrives, the watch vibrates quickly and the screen illuminates. The touchscreen interface lets you scroll to reader longer messages, if you've enabled this feature. Other notifications include alarms, schedule reminders, missed calls, weather updates, and a lot more. You can pair up notifications from pretty much any app to display on the Gear Fit.
If that sounds like notification overload, in the Gear Fit Manager app, you can check the box for "Limit Notifications," which stops all notifications except those from calls and alarms any time you're actually using the phone. (Why would you want to get them twice?) It puts the "smart" back in "smartphone."
As mentioned, the fitness features of the Samsung Gear Fit need some ironing out. One huge disappointment, for example, is that the pedometer is not enabled by default. Why oh why is it even an option to turn it off? For a product with "Fit" in its name, I should hope that the step counter is always and forever doing its job. In the Gear Fit, once you turn on the pedometer, it stays on (phew), but I'm disheartened to say that's not where the confusion ends.
Flip on your Samsung smartphone and open up the S Health app, and you'll see yet another option to enable a pedometer. The phone and app have their own step counting settings. Why does this overlap exist? If you have a Samsung Gear Fit paired to your S Health app, you shouldn't even see a second option to turn on a pedometer. (The reason: If you don't have a Gear Fit, you see, you can use the phone and app as your pedometer. Tricky).
Okay, so let's say you turn on both pedometers. If there are conflicting readings, the devices will keep the bigger number. Great – but there's more. In the Gear Fit, there's yet another function to record "walking" as an activity. Yes, you read that right – the pedometer counts your steps, but you can also record a walk separately, or perhaps in addition to your regular step count. The idea is that you can turn on "walking" when you're going for a walk, which allows you to enable a few other features, such as continuous heart rate monitoring, at least for the duration of the activity.
It takes a little time to wrap your head around all these differences, but the main problem as I see it is that you shouldn't have to. With most other activity trackers, the three-axis accelerometer inside detects when you're "going for a walk" versus puttering around the office. When it sees steady motion and an increase in speed, the companion app will show a spike in activity during this time. The Basis Carbon Steel Edition, for example, automatically records activities such as walks and runs – it knows what you’re doing based on your motion. Fitbit devices, meanwhile, don't classify the activity automatically, but in the app you do have the option to manually add the start and stop time of your walk (or run, or other activity).
Bicycling, running, and hiking. On the touchscreen, you'll see an option for Exercise, which is where you can find the "walking" option, as well as options for running, cycling, and hiking. Tap it, and you'll see your most recent summary of the chosen activity: Total time, miles, and miles per hour or calories burned (depending on the activity). Next to the summary is a Start button to begin a new round of exercise.
Confusingly, all the extra features based around activities, such as goals and that continuous heart rate monitor I mentioned, live behind the summary of your previous walk. It doesn't look like a button, though. You'd never know how to get to those settings unless you accidentally tapped the previous activity summary. Confusing!
The phone – not the Samsung Gear Fit itself – collects data about your mileage and speed, so you'll need to have the phone on hand for more detailed workout summaries. If you work out without a phone, the Gear Fit will still collect basic information, like your total activity time, and sync it back to the app, but it's pretty rudimentary without the phone.
There are some neat coaching features, similar to what you'll find in top-notch running or bicycling apps, such as Runtastic PRO. These features cause the Gear Fit to let you know when you've hit mile markers, announce your pace, or tell you to speed up based on goals that you've set.
Heart rate. The heart rate monitor built into the underside of the Gear Fit measures the flow of blood through the veins with an optical sensor. In its basic setup, it's very similar to the Basis and MIO Alpha BLE. The Basis, however, automatically takes your heart rate continuously, all day and night. And the MIO Alpha takes a continuous reading automatically while you're working out (it's a runner's watch, not a general-purpose tracker, so it's not meant to be in active mode all day and night).The key word in both cases is "automatic."
With the Samsung Gear Fit, you can take a single heart rate reading by activating the heart rate feature, and you can turn on continuous heart rate data monitoring during an activity, but it doesn't do any of that by default. I'm sure these options are meant to preserve battery life, but they really take a toll on the Gear Fit's ease of use and functionality.
I wore the Samsung Gear Fit for about a week while simultaneously wearing a Fitbit Force (yes, it's been recalled, but I'm still wearing one) and a Jawbone UP24. The Force and UP24 showed remarkably similar readings day in and day out. The Samsung Gear Fit was sometimes in line with their readings and sometimes not. Here's an example from one day's total:
- Fitbit Force: 10.44 miles (about 22,500 steps)
- Jawbone UP24: 10.31 miles (about 21,000 steps)
- Samsung Gear Fit: 10.59 miles (about 26,500 steps)
And here's another day:
- Fitbit Force: 6.24 miles (about 14,000 steps)
- Jawbone UP24: 5.6 miles (about 12,000 steps)
- Samsung Gear Fit: 4.13 miles (about 9,000 steps)
For what it's worth, the consensus is that people take, on average, 2,000 steps to walk a mile. I once counted my steps in a mile with a manual click counter and came out way above average at more than 3,093. Across all my testing, I've found Fitbit's readings to be the most accurate, in part because it doesn't just measure steps, but also provides the mileage equivalent, and that's the number I've found to be the most accurate.
The heart rate monitor showed excellent accuracy in my testing, never once giving a reading that seemed implausible, which the Withings Pulse has occasionally done. All the Gear Fit readings were in line with my normal resting heart rate and active heart rate.
Sleep. The Samsung Gear Fit will allow you to collect data about your sleep, but the advance unit I received did not support this feature during the time I tested it.
You need two apps with the Samsung Gear Fit Manager, one for setting up the device and pairing it, and the S Health app for seeing your data. Why two apps? I have no idea. A single app would be a much simpler and better solution.
The S Health app is where all your data is collected and displayed, although you can see some limited data on the Gear Fit itself. Having tested more than 20 activity trackers, I can't emphasise enough how crucial the app is to the whole experience of monitoring your fitness. The S Health app, unfortunately, doesn't display data in a way that's easy to read or understand. I never felt like the app showed me data that I care about, clearly, accurately, and in a way that gave me feedback about my life and habits. The menus left me bouncing around aimlessly. A week into testing, I still didn't have a feel for navigating the thing.
It's hard to even describe how the app looks, other than to say it shows you a lot of lists. You can pull up a graph here and there, but the information never comes across as intuitive, succinct, and useful. At least the maps of your route when you've taken the phone with you on an outdoor activity (and it was able to collect GPS data) are better.
The app collects some elevation data along the lines of what you'd see in a running or bicycling app, but it doesn't count steps climbed the way the Fitbit One does. I'm not obsessed with counting stairs climbed, but it's a feature that calorie-conscious people sometimes want because stepping burns three times as many calories as walking. In any event, it's not a feature you'll find in the Gear Fit or app.
Specs and supported devices
Samsung Gear Fit uses Bluetooth (BLE) to pair with 18 compatible Samsung phones and tablets: The Samsung Galaxy S5, Galaxy Grand 2, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy Note 3 Neo, Galaxy Note 2, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4 Zoom, Galaxy S4 Active, Galaxy S4 mini, Galaxy Mega, Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition), Galaxy NotePRO (12.2), and Galaxy TabPRO (12.2/10.1/8.4).
Some of those devices are rather large, but if you want to get the full use of the Gear Fit as a fitness tracker, you'll need to carry the device with you often, and especially when you're running or working out. The Gear Fit needs the phone to determine your location, and thus the path you ran (or bicycled, or walked) and the varying speeds you clocked on different legs of the route.
I really enjoyed fiddling with the Gear Fit in the first few days that I tested it – lifting my arm quickly to turn on the screen and see the time, swiping through the screens, taking my heart rate every so often – but a few frustrations and disappointments meant that novelty wore off quickly.
Some of the fitness features were less than impressive and confusing to find. The touchscreen, while shiny and new, isn't an effective input method while running, bicycling, or even walking at a good clip.
About 75 per cent of my complaints reside at the level of the software/firmware or app, which means they could be improved without releasing a new model. But until I see a lot of those changes, the Gear Fit sits in the middle of the pack as a very pretty accessory if you happen to have £170 burning a hole in your pocket and a companion Samsung device.
Among fitness trackers, for around the same price you can get the Basis Carbon Steel Edition, which has several shining capabilities not found in the Samsung Gear Fit. Perhaps most importantly, the Basis automatically tracks and classifies all of your activity, whereas the Gear Fit requires a lot of babysitting – turning features on and off, choosing an activity, enabling the heart rate monitor, and so forth.
If you're in the market for a smartwatch, go for the Pebble Steel. It's available for both Android and iOS, and has plenty of apps for fitness, if you want to add activity tracking to your smartwatch use.