Should You Get a Whoop Band or a Smartwatch?

Should You Get a Whoop Band or a Smartwatch?
Photo: ORION PRODUCTION, Shutterstock

If you want an activity tracker, there are a bunch of great choices out there, from budget step trackers to full-featured watches. If you’ve decided you want a ton of data and don’t mind spending extra money for it, that narrows down your options a good bit, but one of the candidates is not quite like the others. So let’s look at the question: Should you get a Whoop band or a traditional smartwatch?

Whoop is a wristband-shaped wearable that does not have a screen, but it can still track your activities. Athletes like it because it measures your “strain” from activities, as well as the “recovery” that it estimates from the amount of sleep you get and the data it picks up during sleep.

A smartwatch, on the other hand, doesn’t have this narrow focus but most of them can track activities and monitor your heart rate and other vital signs during sleep. So you can get the same basic functionality out of either type of device. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Whoop doesn’t have a screen

The biggest difference in your day-to-day experience is going to be what you’re actually wearing. For some, Whoop’s lack of a screen is a plus; for others, it’s a dealbreaker. So you have to decide how you feel about that.

No screen means you don’t have to worry about scratching or smashing it during a workout, but it also means you can’t glance at your heart rate mid-workout unless you have your phone open. This is actually nice for stationary bike workouts, I find, because I can put my phone on the handlebars with the Whoop app open. It would be a huge pain in the butt if I wanted to keep an eye on my heart rate during, say, an outdoor run.

If you want something that just tracks your activity without bothering you about it, Whoop makes sense. It also doesn’t need to be worn on your wrist. While that is the most convenient place, and Whoop ships by default with a wristband, you can also get a bicep band or tuck the unit into one of the clothing items that Whoop sells for this purpose.

Whoop requires a subscription, while many smartwatches don’t

Subscription fees are another big difference to be aware of. Whoop doesn’t actually cost anything for the hardware; you get it for “free” with at least a six-month subscription at $44/month. We have a cost breakdown here comparing Whoop to the Oura ring, if that helps. (Oura costs more to start, but has a cheaper subscription.)

Smartwatches don’t usually require a subscription. The Apple Watch works fine without one, although that depends on what apps you might want to use with it. The basic functionality is free, including the ability to see all your metrics in the Fitness and Health apps.

Garmin, the brand most beloved by runners, doesn’t require a subscription for its activity and recovery tracking features, although you can pay a few bucks to get a data plan on certain models so you can leave your phone at home. (The Apple Watch can do this, too; check with your cellular provider.)

Fitbit doesn’t require a subscription for the most basic features, but you’ll need to pay $US9.99 (A$14)/month if you want detailed metrics. These include a breakdown of your stress management and sleep scores, a readiness score, monthly summaries of your data, and the ability to see 90-day trends instead of just your metrics for the current week.

Some smartwatches have GPS

If you want to go out for runs, rides, or hikes without bringing your phone, you probably want a smartwatch. Whoop doesn’t have built-in GPS to track your location; it assumes you’re going to have your phone with you. Apple Watch, Garmin, and the more expensive Fitbit models have GPS.

If you’re going to be out without your phone, it’s also handy to know that many smartwatches can play music (through bluetooth earbuds), can place phone calls or texts if you are signed up for data service, and provide a display so you can keep an eye on the time. Some, including Apple Watch and Garmin, can let you pay for things without bringing your wallet (like, say, if you stop by a convenience store for a bottle of water). None of that is an option with your Whoop.

Accuracy varies

With so many smartwatches out there, I’m not going to do a full head-to-head comparison on dozens of models. Everything we’re talking about is likely to be good enough for most purposes. The calculations of recovery (or readiness, or “body battery,” or whatever your gadget calls it) are going to vary from algorithm to algorithm. There’s no objective metric to compare them to, so each manufacturer can argue that their algorithm is the best.

The same goes for sleep data. Although gadgets have gained the ability to detect sleep better and to make more fine-grained distinctions between sleep stages, the bottom line has still not changed since we wrote in 2016 that you shouldn’t really trust a gadget to tell you how well you slept. For example, I can sleep with three different trackers on, and wake up with three completely incompatible interpretations of how much REM sleep I got. I trust my “sleep quality” scores about as much as I trust the body fat reading from my smart scale, which is to say, it’s just not useful enough to use for decision-making.

One thing Whoop has that most smartwatches don’t: weekly and monthly analyses of your activity and sleep data. I can see each week how my recoveries and workouts compared (there’s an “optimal” zone where they match up, and I’m usually inside it). If I’ve been filling out the little diary about whether I had alcohol before bed and such, I can see a monthly readout of how that affected my sleep. Some smartwatch apps provide summaries and analyses; some don’t. Whoop definitely has one of the more detailed and readable ones.

When it comes to activity tracking, at least there is an objective metric that watches and Whoops can pick up on: heart rate. Check reviews of the gadgets you’re thinking about if you want to get a sense of how accurate they are. In my experience, the Whoop doesn’t always pick up my heart rate accurately — it seems to miss quick spikes in heart rate, for example. If I wear a Whoop alongside my old Series 4 Apple Watch, I always get a good reading from the Watch that matches my perceived effort and agrees with manual readings (fingers on my pulse, counting with a stopwatch). The Whoop sometimes agrees with the Watch’s numbers but sometimes doesn’t. If you truly care about accuracy, get a chest strap and pair it with your phone or with a compatible smartwatch.

Oh, and if you want to track how many calories you’ve burned? No device is accurate enough to rely on, so cross that off your comparison chart.

A smartwatch is better at being a watch

After all these comparisons, I think the decision comes down to two things. One, do you have strong feelings about Whoop’s subscription model? And two, do you want a watch?

A smartwatch can do a lot of things besides act as an activity tracker. It can buzz when you get notifications, it can show you the time, it can show you the weather, and more. Many can play music, pay for purchases, and ring your phone if you’ve misplaced it. It can also be a fashion accessory or status symbol, if that’s important to you. Do you want all that?

For some people, that’s a definite yes. Go for it, then — buy a smartwatch. But if all of that sounds like a bunch of distractions, and all you want is activity tracking and a daily recovery score, go with the Whoop.

Log in to comment on this story!