What are the fittest phones?

    Which phone best fits your fitness goals? Jenneth Orantia looks at the fitness and health ecosystems of the big three.

    Smartphones and fitness have long gone hand in hand. But the various mobile brands aren’t at all equal when it comes health and fitness capabilities. Depending on the features you’re looking for, the budget you have available and how wedded you are to using specific operating systems, apps and fitness gadgets, one brand may suit your needs better than others

    Apple: the biggest ecosystem

    It may come as a surprise to many iPhone users, but for those with a 5S or higher, your steps are being tracked automatically. These stats are displayed in the native Health app, and can also be fed into third party apps that track walking and running.

    However if you’re serious about monitoring your health and fitness you’ll quickly outgrow the iPhone’s built-in tools, which focus more on overall wellness rather than improving your activity levels. To boost the iPhone’s capabilities, you’ll need to either install a third party fitness app, which uses the device’s built-in sensors to track workouts, or invest in an external fitness tracking device.

    From Apple there are two device options: the Apple Watch Series 1, which comes with a colour touchscreen, heart rate sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope, and the more recent Series 2, which adds GPS and waterproofing. There are dozens of fitness bands and smart watches available from other brands too, but the beauty of the Apple Watch is that you can extend its features by installing apps on it — much like on a smartphone.

    With most of the major fitness apps having an Apple Watch app equivalent, this lets you leave your iPhone at home or in your gym bag when you’re exercising and still log all of your workout data. This information is automatically synced to the relevant iPhone app as soon as the Apple Watch is in Bluetooth range, enabling you to see your data in greater detail from a larger screen.

    For Apple users looking for the best mobile fitness solution, however, a third party fitness tracker may be the better option. The Fitbit Alta HR, for instance, is half the price of the entry level Apple Watch Series 1. While you can’t install any apps on it, it does offer additional functions that are genuinely useful when it comes to tracking health and fitness, including continuous heart rate monitoring and automatic activity tracking, which automatically detects when you’re exercising and categorises it into activity types (such as running or cycling). The “set and forget” ease of fitness bands like the Fitbit can’t be overestimated — just slap it on your wrist and it seamlessly tracks your workouts, heart rate and sleep without any additional input on your part.

    The more sophisticated apps from well-established fitness bands also make it easier to track goals, measure performance over time and learn how to improve your health and fitness through personalised insights and recommendations.


    Samsung: doing more itself

    Samsung has really brought its A-game to its latest generation of smartphones, which do a great job of tracking health and fitness data right out of the box. In other words, you don’t necessarily need to install any additional apps or purchase a fitness tracker to start recording your workouts in detail.

    The most recent version of the Samsung Health app is one of the most comprehensive fitness apps on the market. Using the smartphone’s built-in sensors it can track a broad spectrum of physical activities in surprising detail. It’s even smart enough to automatically detect when you’re running, and tracks everything from duration, distance and calories through to average speed, maximum speed, pace and elevation.

    The app’s dashboard presents all your health and fitness data in a visually pleasing interface. Steps, running and activity levels are depicted and, depending on the goals you entered when first setting up the app, you can quickly see how you’re progressing throughout the day. There are options to track your water and caffeine intake and an impressive range of fitness activities using customisable tiles. But don’t expect to be able to track everything with the same level of detail as runs, as most activity types are limited to simply recording the time spent doing them.

    Samsung has also opened the Health app up to third party fitness platforms, which means it can import fitness data from other sources such as Runkeeper and Strava.

    Perhaps the best thing about the Samsung Health app is that it doesn’t simply log and present your fitness metrics. The app goes that extra step in producing detailed insights and recommendations that encourage you to improve your fitness, with highly personalised reports that compare your performance against previous days and weeks — and even other Samsung Health users if you so choose.

    The heart rate sensor built into Samsung’s latest flagship phones lets you measure your current heart rate, stress and blood oxygen levels, but its placement on the back of the phone means it can’t track your heart rate while exercising. This is where investing in a Samsung wearable — which wirelessly feeds all the fitness data it collects directly to Samsung Health — comes in handy.

    The newest Samsung wearables are the Gear Fit 2 and Gear S3, both boasting bright colour touchscreens, heart rate sensors, built-in GPS and the ability to function as a music player when you pair it with Bluetooth headphones. The Gear Fit 2 has a “fitness band” design with an elongated wraparound screen, while the Gear S3 looks more like a traditional watch. Of the two, the Gear S3 is the more powerful (and priced accordingly) as it runs a smart operating system that lets you install additional apps on it.

    You can, of course, use one of a multitude of other fitness trackers and smart watches with a Samsung device, but the Health app doesn’t support non-Gear wearables. Even for the most diehard of Fitbit or Jawbone users, the Health app’s broad feature set, intelligent analytics, and gorgeous user interface are impressive enough to seriously consider switching over to a Samsung.


    Huawei: new serious player

    Despite lacking the brand recognition of Apple and Samsung, Huawei is the new big name at the fitness front, with increasingly more to offer. As well as a broad range of affordably-priced smartphones — all of which come with the built-in Huawei Health app for basic fitness tracking — the Chinese manufacturer offers a selection of fitness bands and smart watches.

    Out of the box, Huawei Health tracks your steps automatically, and displays the daily tally and calories burnt on both the lock screen and a widget in the notification pull-down menu (as well as in the app itself). You can also log cycles and runs, and there are simple training plans built into the app that get you ready for 5km and 10km runs, as well as half and full marathons. To track more data in the app — such as heart rate and sleep — you’ll need to invest in either a Jawbone UP or one of Huawei’s own fitness trackers and smart watches.

    The Watch 2, which is Huawei’s soon-to-be-released premium smart watch, ups the ante when it comes to tracking health and fitness data. As well as looking the part of a fancy sports watch, the built-in Workout app can track the usual variety of cardio workouts, recording heart rate and GPS location along with the other standard metrics. For the fat burn or cardio running options, the Watch 2 produces handy visual and vibrating alerts that tell you to slow down, speed up or keep to your existing pace based on your current heart rate.

    However, you can get a much better experience with the Watch 2 by skipping Huawei’s native apps altogether. Since it runs the Android Wear operating system, you can install a variety of popular fitness apps that you may be using already, including Nike+ Run Club, Runtastic, Runkeeper and Strava. It’s worth noting that not all apps take advantage of the Watch 2’s heart rate sensor: while Strava and Runtastic offer this functionality, Runkeeper does not.

    The other option is going for one of the more popular fitness trackers — all of which are compatible with Huawei smartphones. Ultimately, the decision comes down to the main types of exercise you do. If it’s mainly cardio-based activities, then a decent third party fitness tracker from the likes of Fitbit or Garmin that records your heart rate will typically offer a more tightly-integrated and detail-driven experience than using a smartwatch cardio app.

    If you’re looking to track other types of activities, then there are a variety of specialty apps available for the Watch 2 (and other Android smart watches) that make it the better option. Exercise Tracker, for instance, lets you build custom workouts from your smartphone and track the sets and repetitions from the smart watch app. It can even auto-recognise certain exercises based on your movements.