It all started with an innocent Vergecast hotline question. The gist was: what are some screenless wearables that offer health tracking in the vein of the Fitbit Flex but weren’t expensive like the $300 Oura Ring?
Not a single good answer came to mind.
For better or worse, the simple fitness bands of just a few years ago aren’t really a thing anymore. The aforementioned Fitbit Flex and other bands like Jawbone Up or Misfit Ray don’t really have modern-day analogs. The closest thing I’ve seen these days are devices like the Amazfit Band 7, the Fitbit Inspire 3, the Garmin Vivosmart 5, and Xiaomi’s Mi Band 7. The problem is they’ve all got screens.
The only answer I had for our caller was the equivalent of an apologetic shrug because, unfortunately, the expensive Oura Ring was the best option. (That, or cobbling together a bunch of half-measures that would be more expensive than the Oura Ring.) The whole experience left me unsettled. When I started wearing fitness trackers in 2014, I was a diehard Fitbit Charge fan with no lack of alternatives. These days, I can barely find any interesting ones to review. It left me wondering: where have all the fitness bands gone?
Smartwatches offer more bang for your buck
You’d think there would be more fitness bands because, frankly, they don’t have a lot of the issues that plague smartwatches. Fitness bands can last weeks on a single charge, whereas most flagship smartwatches from Apple, Samsung, and Google need to be charged daily or, at the very least, every other day. They’re discreet, can be worn alongside your cool mechanical watch, and are perfect for 24/7 wear. You’ll never find a fitness band as bulky as the Apple Watch Ultra. Notification fatigue is real. Generally speaking, smartwatches are also more expensive than fitness bands.
Even so, the fact is that smartwatches can do more overall. While fitness bands (screenless or otherwise) can last longer, you still need to look at your phone for everything else. Smartwatches can’t completely replace your phone, but they can help the tech fatigued look at them a lot less while staying connected.
“Smartwatches have far more utility than a Jawbone or simple Fitbit would’ve had ten years ago,” says Julie Ask, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “You still can’t buy one for less than $100, but you can buy them for less than $300.”
The line between fitness bands and smartwatches has also blurred to the point where it feels like smartwatches offer more value
It’s not just that smartwatches have gotten cheaper. The line between fitness bands and smartwatches has also blurred to the point where it feels like smartwatches offer more value. This has been happening for a while but really solidified in 2021. You need look no further than Fitbit’s lineup that year. The Fitbit Charge 5 launched at $180, a $30 increase from its predecessor. The Luxe — its fancy fitness band — came out the same year, costing $150 for the regular version and a baffling $200 for the special edition. Meanwhile, its midrange Versa 3 smartwatch cost $230. Even if you didn’t actually use all of the Versa’s extra features, it felt like the better buy simply because it did more.
Outside of Fitbit, in 2021, Apple was selling the Series 3 and SE for $180 and $280, respectively. Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 started at $250. Amazfit’s GTR and GTS 3 smartwatches cost $180 and did just as much as, if not more than, the Charge 5.
It’s no wonder, then, that smartwatches are the more popular choice among consumers. Forrester sent me some numbers from its 2023 consumer benchmark survey, which says 32 percent of online-savvy adults use smartwatches compared to 19 percent who use fitness trackers. Meanwhile, a 2023 IDC report notes that bands only make up 6.4 percent of the market. While IDC expects fitness bands to stick around for the handful of folks who prefer them, their market share is expected to decline to 4.8 percent in 2027. The report also notes that it expects smartwatches to grow from 31.2 percent of the market to 32.8 percent in the same time period.
Fitness bands ain’t profitable
So, for bigger brands, fitness bands just aren’t a smart investment. And for smaller, more experimental wearable companies like Oura and Whoop, it literally doesn’t pay to create affordable alternatives. These types of companies hang their hats on high-tech, science-based products, and one-time hardware sales also aren’t enough to keep servers running, fund necessary research, or get a product through the FDA clearance process. That’s why you increasingly see smartwatch alternatives come with pricey monthly subscriptions.
“If I were a small company, the only way I would get funded is if I have a services model,” says Ask. “And the only way I get more money is if I have a services model and can show I have a positive impact on consumers — which means they’re paying for the service.”
Anecdotally, I can confirm that whenever I’ve asked wearable makers and health tech companies why they pursue subscriptions, this is the answer I’ve gotten. (Garmin remains the sole exception.) It’s not unique to the wearables category, either. The same reasoning applies to the smart home and any type of connected gadget at large.
Will fitness bands make a comeback?
If recent product launches are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that fitness bands will be the dominant force they once were. There is demand for screenless wearables, however. They’re just different from the ones you once knew.
All the screenless wearables I’ve tested recently either focus on specialized wellness tracking or are expensive as hell. Sometimes both. None of the options I’ve tested in the past few years fit what our caller was asking for. The Bellabeat Ivy, for example, is designed for people who menstruate who want to get better in touch with how their cycle impacts their overall wellness. The Ava tracker is specifically meant to help people conceive. The Nowatch is a $300 tracker that’s meant to help you be more mindful — it’s not great at traditional health tracking. The Whoop 4.0 is for hardcore athletes and costs between $16.60 to $30 monthly, depending on your membership.
Meanwhile, the Oura Ring is not the only smart ring out there. There are a lot of people working on alternatives precisely because it’s less distracting, more comfortable, and more discreet than a smartwatch. There’s the Evie Ring from Movano, which is currently seeking FDA clearance as a medical device. Ultrahuman also has a smart ring. Happy Health is working on a smart mood ring to evaluate your mental health. Samsung has also filed a patent for a smart ring. And even though there’s a lot of interest in this form factor, smart rings have a long way to go.
At the end of the day, smart rings — and other screenless fitness trackers — all have the same problem as fitness bands. A smartwatch can simply do more. Any alternative has to give you a compelling reason why you would be willing to pay the same for less.