Activity Tracker v Smartphone

There’s no denying the first 5 months of 2014 have seen massive progress when it comes to fitness tracking and wearable technology. Barely a week goes by without an update or newly released product and/or smartphone app. It was only within the last month that Facebook announced that it was buying Moves.

Whilst there are many early adopters, there are also those who are not yet convinced or perhaps waiting to see whether one of the most noticeable absentees from the market (i.e. Apple) will throw their hat into the ring with an iWatch. As this is not a rumour site I decided to focus on what is currently available.

I also noticed an update to the MyFitnessPal app to make use of the built-in motion sensor in the iPhone 5s (an accelerometer linked to the ‘M7 Coprocessor’ to enable continuous motion tracking).

So the question became: Activity Tracker v Smartphone?

N.B – This post is to be updated shortly as the Garmin Vivofit now supports MyFitnessPal. The test results for step count remain valid but the ability to link with calories in/out is a major new development. I’ll update as soon as I’ve had chance to test properly for a week.

The Test

Garmin Vivofit vs iPhone 5s

To discover my preferred method of measuring daily activity I decided I would start the day by getting up, eating breakfast and heading straight out for a 30 minute walk.

The test would focus primarily on the walk, but I would also keep the test active throughout the day.

At 9.20 am I finished off my porridge and left the house armed with the following technology:

On the wrist

In the pocket

iPhone 5s with:

  • MyFitnessPal
  • Moves
  • RunKeeper
  • Breeze

The rationale behind the Garmin FR620 and RunKeeper was to also include the ability to track the walk by satellite (GPS) and the strides (i.e cadence) on two separate devices (I’ll return to cadence later).

If you are anything like me, I charge my smartphone overnight and usually collect the phone from its charging position as I leave the house in the morning. Today was no different, so at the start of the walk the apps were all showing zero steps for the day.

The Vivofit had remained on my wrist overnight and had, therefore, tracked my movement through breakfast and leaving the house. At the start of the walk it read 315 steps.

Garmin Vivofit

I then walked the following route as summarised on the GPS by both RunKeeper and Garmin Connect. The first reading is taken from the iPhone’s GPS, the second from the Garmin FR620 (note the near perfect consistency!).

Activity Tracker


Activity Tracker v Smartphone

Garmin Connect

The screen shots showed the steps in the apps something like this:


Moves App


Breeze App


MyFitnessPal App


The Vivofit finished the walk looking like this.

Smartphone v activity tracker

Deducting the initial 315 steps (taken before leaving the house) the activity tracker measured the walk at 3,653 steps.

After walking inside (9 steps) the Vivofit displayed the following data from syncing with Garmin Connect.

Activity Tracker v Smartphone

The little blip at 8am is my movement making breakfast just before leaving for the walk.


activity tracker v smartphone

Clearly there are some differences between the devices but also differences between the apps even when utilising the same hardware in the iPhone 5s. This (I can only assume) must be down to differing algorithms used by the apps. Nevertheless, the data is all pretty consistent.


As a little test I used the average cadence monitored by both the Garmin FR620 and RunKeeper to see if a little manual calculation could assist in any way.

[average cadence (in strides per minute) x walk time (minutes)]

  • Garmin FR620: 3,630 steps   (109 x 33.3)
  • RunKeeper: 3,463 steps           (104 x 33.3)

I don’t have an explanation as to which device or app is correct or why there are the differences you see above. On that basis, I’ll turn to what I find the most useful method of analysing the data on a daily basis.

The following screenshots also show the total steps for the day.


Activity tracker v smartphone

I really like the interface but you can see an obvious problem from the readout below! With running all of the apps and keeping bluetooth enabled continuously, my phone ran out of juice at approximately 15.40 whilst I was out cycling. Whilst this isn’t the fault of any particular app it does raise an important question which is highlighted nicely by this graphic.

activity tracker v smartphone

Other than the battery issue, I really like the Moves interface and layout. It is particularly useable in the way it presents a vertical timeline of each activity. Facebook could be onto to something here!


activity tracker v smartphone

Brilliantly simple layout but with Breeze being RunKeeper’s walking app it does beg the question why the two do not benefit from greater integration for all daily activities.


activity tracker v smartphone

Whist I don’t record all of my food intake religiously I do love this app. The newly enabled step tracking (which can be disabled within the app) now shows all of your calorie in/out data on one neat display. The simple horizontal line showing steps taken towards your goal makes for an incredibly useful tool when displayed underneath the net calorie data.

You can also sync MyFitnessPal with an array of other 3rd party fitness apps (in my case RunKeeper) to pull through the calories expended during your entire day including cardio exercise. Users already familiar to this app will also be aware that it is without question the class leader in calorie tracking from utilising barcode scanning direct from the smartphone’s camera.

Garmin Connect

activity tracker v smartphone

The Vivofit (full review here) is the simplest of all activity trackers in terms of usability and the new style Garmin Connect is also dead easy to master. I can’t fault the interface, but without the ability to integrate with a tool such as MyFitnessPal it is lacking that final edge for full daily analysis. It does, however, have the ability to track every metric possible to do with your fitness and daily activities.

Complete Day Summary

smartphone v activity tracker

As time went on the gaps grew bigger. The biggest gap will be attributable to the 2 hours or so that the phone died whilst I was out cycling. Having said that, not many steps were being taken at that time so the gap is not huge. Where the real difference lies is the time in which the iPhone was stuck on charge whist the Vivofit remained on my wrist.

The calorie measurement was not really on test here as the various apps log energy expended in very different ways. MyFitnessPal also pulls in the calorie data from RunKeeper so is also showing the energy expended whilst out on my bike. The Vivofit is showing the calories expended based on the number of steps together with just ‘living’ in general.


What I really want is an accurate log of all of my steps, cardio and calories all in one place. Step accuracy seems pretty consistent across the board, at least as far as the early morning walk was concerned. Clearly, with the Vivofit having a battery life of one year and the ability to remain on the wrist at all times, it is going to have the advantage in tracking every bit of motion throughout the day. The iPhone sensor appears equally as accurate but its major hurdle is the inevitable battery charging together with the fact that, as it is not a wearable, it will spend some time flat on a desk.

The apps are all exceptionally good from a user interface perspective. If I had to choose my winner for today’s exercise, it would be MyFitnessPal but this is only on the basis that Garmin Connect does not support the ability to log calories in (i.e food/meals). It would have been a toss-up between Moves & Breeze had it not been for the very recent update for MyFitnessPal now utilising the full motion sensing capabilities of the iPhone 5s.

The ideal would be a wearable communicating seamlessly (and continuously) with an all-encompassing fitness app to track all data from walking through to cardio and then combining that calculation with daily food intake. Through a combination of adding the additional data I receive from the Vivofit to the readouts from MyFitnessPal I am nearly there.

In the meantime, I think I’ll need to work out how to keep my phone battery from dying during the day!

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