Fitness trackers

Fitness trackers keep ditching buttons for touchscreens, and it’s terrible

Most of the best fitness trackers and fitness smartwatches use a combination of touchscreens and buttons. The more complicated the user interface or the more compact the design, the more it relies on touch to navigate. And while that’s fine for lifestyle watches, the touchscreen user interface is an unreliable mess on fitness tech, sacrificing usability for weight and style.

Last month, I decided to reinvigorate my marathon training using fitness technology. With every training run, interval, or half marathon I run, I try to switch to a new tracker or watch. I look at fitness trackers as a whole to see which features improve my performance. Or do the opposite, in the case of touch-based fitness technology.

Touch UI is an unreliable mess of fitness tech, sacrificing usability for weight and style.

It’s not worth saying that touchscreens and sweaty fingers are a match made in hell, made worse by the small surface area of ​​a 1-inch tracker screen or a 2-inch smartwatch screen. Nothing is more mentally frustrating and area-killing during a run than your creepy smartwatch refusing to recognize your taps and swipes on the go.

To get my test started, my fellow fitness guru, Jeramy Johnson, lent me a Fitbit Sense and an Amazfit Band 5, among other things. I knew the sub-$50 Amazfit would be basic, but I was intrigued to see how the premium Sense compared to other touch watches. Turns out it’s the same as every other watch I’ve tested.

Fitbit Sense

Source: Joe Maring/Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring/Android Central)

I live in California, where the OLED “brightness” is diluted by near-constant sunlight and always-on screens aren’t visible. If I want to see my stats while I run or pause tracking while I wait at a traffic light, I have to turn it on. But in all the brands I’ve tested, the touchscreens rarely prove to be so responsive. I’ll tap three, four, five times before anything happens; even then my sweaty fingers will slip, only for it to take several tries to change my view.

Touchscreens and sweaty fingers are a hell of a marriage.

I also discovered that the watches’ built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes are also unreliable. Rotate your wrist or move it towards your face should cause the display to activate, but many brands can’t seem to tell the difference between this and a typical running motion. So I use always on and drain battery as a compromise.

If you’re only using your tracker to start and stop workouts with nothing in between, it doesn’t matter. But I like watching more metrics during a run than a single watch screen can display. And when I try to hold myself accountable when running solo, I use advanced pre-programmed workouts that manually switch between different target paces – something I’ve typically only seen on high-end watches with proper buttons.

When it comes to fitness technology, only buttons and crowns can be trusted to work quickly and consistently. But aside from the more expensive brands, most fitness tech has ditched them altogether.

Style rather than substance

Getting started with the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic

Source: Daniel Bader/Android Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Bader/Android Central)

Today, buttons, crowns and rotating bezels have become the preserve of expensive lifestyle brands: your Apple Watch 7s or Galaxy Watch 4 Classics. This gives them a retro look on your wrist and offers more convenient navigation.

What’s ironic is that lifestyle watches don’t need buttons as much as fitness watches. Touch screens work best in our daily life when we are still or sitting; The buttons provide a convenient shortcut, but you can comfortably use your screen as a small smartphone screen under ideal conditions.

Fitness bands would benefit the most from precise controls. But increasingly, fitness brands are ditching buttons or dials as if they were old-fashioned. And maybe they are outdated, with consumers viewing buttons as unsightly or last generation.

Buttons, crowns and rotating bezels have become the preserve of expensive lifestyle brands.

Look at Fitbit. Older Fitbits like Ionic, Blaze, Surge and the original Versa had two buttons, but most of its current devices only have a haptic side divot that you press to turn it on or activate shortcuts. And while we love Fitbits for their sensors and software, a consistent theme in our Inspire 2, Sense and Charge 4 tests was that that ‘button’ often requires multiple presses to register properly. A finicky button does not create an inspired user interface.

But hey, at least Fitbits to have a semi-competent button! Most other fitness bands rely entirely on the touchscreen, and our reviewers generally forgive them for that because they’re so cheap and light, have brilliant AMOLEDs, and look sleeker than ever.

Going in this direction, fitness tech creators can succeed in the $100-and-under bracket where customers will accept some user interface frustration and missing features as part of the territory. But for more expensive purchases, I think these companies are giving way to more “hardcore” fitness companies that prioritize usability over style.

Finding the running / lifestyle balance

A fitness calendar on the Coros Pace 2

Source: Michael Hicks/Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks/Android Central)

One of my favorite new running smartwatches is the Coros Pace 2, which I recently reviewed. This smartwatch has the lightweight frame of a fitness tracker, free advanced running metrics you’d typically have to pay monthly for, and two buttons (one per crown) for simple navigation. Turning the crown unlocks the watch every time – no accidental taps or misses – after which I can access my metrics or pause a run with a quick twist and press, no problem.

Any Garmin smartwatch will provide a similar experience, as will any other Coros or Polar running watch. But the vast majority of people want a smartwatch that they can use outside of workouts as well; for them, that means a touchscreen. And frankly, most of these watches cost way more than regular people are willing to spend.

There’s a reason so many of my colleagues’ fitness watches are Samsung or Apple watches, because they offer overall quality and better button/touch hybrid navigation than a cheap fitness band. But they are not specialized for fitness the same way, and my colleague’s story about the Galaxy Watch 4 overheating for just 5K freaked me out.

Fingers crossed for a Fitbit makeover

Fitbit Charge 5 Lifestyle 2

Source: Jeramy Johnson/Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jeramy Johnson/Android Central)

What I want is for companies to bring proper buttons and crowns back into the under $200 category. Even if they add a few grams of weight, these would significantly improve the browsing experience of the fitness tracker/smartwatch. And hopefully Fitbit leads the charge.

Since Google acquired Fitbit, the company has been slow to release new smartwatches compared to previous years. Whether it’s due to the pandemic or its plans to integrate Wear OS 3 into Fitbit, the company could have a major overhaul in store.

Affordability and proper navigation buttons don’t have to be antithetical.

My colleagues who love Fitbit are concerned that this transition will harm the Fitbit brand. In my case, I’m hoping future products like the Fitbit Sense 2 will have revamped the navigation controls to more easily control Wear OS 3. And as a happy side note, it’ll make navigating its fitness tools easier, too.

I suspect many casual fitness fans would disagree with me and would gladly accept unreliable touch controls on a more complicated operating system that relies on buttons. But I expect a fitness tracker revolution that means we no longer have to accept the frustrating status quo.