Ranked: The 4 Best Fitness-Friendly Phones for Working Out

The 4 Best Fitness-Friendly Phones for Working Out

In many ways, your smartphone has become the ideal companion to take with you on your morning runs. Not only do they provide an easy way to listen to your favorite music and help get you pumped up, but they can also gather important information to give you a clearer picture of your overall performance.

iPhones and Android devices like the Galaxy S8 now come with a wide array of features and sensors that help you get the most out of your workout. From pedometers that track your steps, to heart rate monitors that can measure blood oxygen levels with the touch of a finger, smartphones have become a must-have for fitness buffs and casual joggers alike.

With that in mind, we wanted to find out which flagship phones are best suited for people who lead active lifestyles, as some phones will naturally be better than others at keeping track of your workouts. So after a detailed review, we present to you our best four phones for fitness-minded individuals.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

How We Picked These Phones

To narrow the field to the four best phones for working out, we set up some ground rules. None of these phones are more than one generation old, since you'll want a device that lasts. These are all premium flagship phones, so they'll have the best specs available, and they can all be purchased in the US.

From there, we limited our selection to smartphones that were no wider than three inches, as larger phablets tend to be bulkier and therefore less ideal for outdoor activities. The smartphones also needed to either have built-in sensors or downloadable apps for fitness tracking, such as pedometers that log steps, and heart rate sensors that monitor heart and blood activity.

While there are handsets such as the Galaxy S8 Active that are marketed for their ruggedness and suitability for active lifestyles, we opted to leave them out for two reasons. First, such handsets lack the premium feel and build of a flagship handset, using plastic screen panels and rubberized housings to increase overall durability. Second, These smartphones aren't as widely available as their flagship counterparts, with the Galaxy S8 Active only being available on AT&T.

Key Comparison Points

Once we compiled a list of handsets that met our initial requirements, we further narrowed down our selection using the following criteria:

  • Water Resistance: More and more flagship devices are given official IP ratings for water and dust resistance, as companies are now realizing this helps a lot with a smartphone's overall durability. Here, a higher number indicates better water resistance.
  • Weight & Dimensions: A compact frame and low weight help ensure that a phone is as unobtrusive as possible during an exercise session. A large and heavy phone will make its presence felt during extended workout sessions and can become a liability, especially when tucked inside a pocket.
  • Build: The likelihood of accidental drops and spills can increase tremendously while out for a jog or working out. Smartphones designed and built with premium materials such as rigid aluminum housings and the latest iterations of Corning's Gorilla Glass ensure a device's survivability in the event of an accident.
  • Screen Brightness: Outdoor visibility is important to determine which smartphones are best suited for sporty people. IPS LCD screens hold an advantage over AMOLED in that they use a backlight to illuminate the display, which can result in a much brighter screen. AMOLED displays don't have a backlight, instead illuminating pixels individually to give a sharper, more vivid picture — though this is generally better suited for indoor use. The "nits" values depicted here show you how bright the screens will actually get, and a bigger number is better. This information was sourced from PhoneArena.
  • Battery Life: Battery life is a significant factor for determining great phones for fitness. Being out for extended periods of time with power hungry processes like GPS and music streaming, in addition to fitness trackers all continuously running in the background, can drain a battery faster than a five-year-old in a toy store can empty a wallet. The numbers in this chart were sourced from PhoneArena, who tests battery life by simulating real-world circumstances.
  • Time to Charge: Another important element. The quicker your handset charges to 100%, the sooner you can get back to the rest of your day. Most premium handsets now come with fast charging technology built in, such as Quick Charge 3.0. The numbers in this chart were sourced from PhoneArena, who measured the time it took to go from 0% to 100% charge.
  • Native Health App: It's increasingly common for phones to ship with their own native health apps preinstalled. Not only can these apps give you a better understanding of your overall health and well being, but they also help you keep track of your exercise to get a clearer picture of your workouts and their overall effectiveness.
  • Heart Rate Sensor: Though most handsets lack this feature outright, they are available for download from both the iOS App Store and Google Play to help optimize your device's fitness data gathering capabilities.
  • Fitness Data Access: Being able to quickly view the steps you've logged means less time checking your phone and more time actually exercising. This also has an added safety benefit since you'll be less distracted. Some phones display this information as a notification, and others can show you this data without even having to turn the screen on.
  • Apple HealthKit: Apple's native app for tracking. HealthKit not only measures basic fitness info like steps taken, but it also keeps track of a wide array of data, from sleep patterns to menstruation cycles. One notable feature is Medical ID, which lets people know the owner's important medical information, such as potential allergies and heart problems, along with who to contact in case of emergencies.
  • Samsung Health: Apple HealthKit's primary competitor. Though only natively available on Samsung devices, it can be downloaded as a third-party app on almost any Android phone. While not as feature-rich as its Apple counterpart, Samsung Health still shines through in terms of fitness tracking. Besides the standard pedometer and calorie counter, there's other nifty features like a sleep tracker and an Exercise mode that tracks your route when you're out on a run.
  • LG Health: Like Apple's HealthKit and Samsung Health, this is the native health app on high-end LG devices. It's not as fully-featured as the first two, but it serves as a central hub for the fitness data collected by your phone and gives you helpful information along the way.
  • Gives History: History will show your past performance and specific routes you took, and give you a clearer picture of any improvements you may have made with your workout regimen. Some phones give you a more complete history than others.
  • Fitness Accessories: How many accessories are available for the phone? The right accessory, like an armband, can go a long way in reducing your phone's footprint and help you during a jog. We're not talking wearable tech here, just plain-old gear that goes with your phone.
  • Apple Watch Support: Much like a gated community, Apple is notorious for keeping its products locked within its own ecosystem. The Apple Watch is only compatible with iOS devices, unlike Android Wear smartwatches that will function on both iOS and Android.
  • Wearable Support: All other smartwatches, such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear, LG Watch, and other Android Wear devices, plus wearable tech like Fitbit, Garmin, and Nike fitness trackers, work with all the smartphones listed. The smartwatches, however, will only have partial functionality with iPhones due to their inherent design as part of a larger Android ecosystem.
  • Drop Tests: Drop tests help determine how resistant a handset is to physical damage. Tests are usually done starting from chest height (about four feet) and up. The drop tests performed on these phones were sourced from various YouTube channels online. We found that there were no standard drop tests for every phone in our list, so we analyzed multiple videos of different drop tests performed on the same model to draw a more well-rounded conclusion.
  • Slip Resistance: Many premium smartphones appear smooth at first glance, but actually have a subtle grit to their housings that becomes apparent when held. A handset with good slip resistance will be less prone to slipping out of your hand or armband. We used the same tilting rig we devised to determine the four best phones for clumsy people, which measured the angle (in degrees) where each phone started to slip on multiple surfaces, then averaged the numbers out.
  • Scratch Tests: Resistance to scratching from everyday objects like keys and loose coins, especially if you're the type to store them all together while you're out for a run. The near-constant motion will inevitably cause all the contents in your pack or pocket to rub up on each other.
  • Sweaty Touch Response: It can be difficult to use your phone while sweaty, as water interferes with the device's touch sensors, often making it unresponsive to your tactile commands. We tested for this by using wet fingers continually dipped in a bowl of water to navigate throughout the handset's display. We determined which phones performed the best by judging by how responsive they remained.
  • Operating Temperatures: A lot of exercise-related activities, most notably running and hiking, are often performed outside your neighborhood gym. Because of this, a device's operating temperature range has to be factored in, as running in warmer climates like the desert, or in the midst of freezing weather, can have adverse effects on your handset's performance. The numbers listed here are the manufacturer's recommended operating temperature ranges in Fahrenheit.

1. Apple iPhone 7

Apple's current flagship is chugging along sales-wise, even amidst the growing excitement for the upcoming tenth-anniversary iPhone 8. The iPhone 7, along with its native HealthKit, is a great electronic companion to take with you whenever you're out for a jog. Its native health app lets you track the steps you take with its built-in pedometer. The iPhone 7 also comes standard with a barometer that can log altitudes, which is great for tracking stair climbing and running in hilly terrain.

Image by Katie Puccio/Gadget Hacks

HealthKit also provides a very detailed history not only of your workouts, but also a wide range of health-related data, from caloric intake all the way to menstruation cycles. While the iPhone 7 has no heart rate sensor built in, third-party apps are available that can estimate this information using the LED flash and rear camera.

As far as compatibility with smartwatches and other wearables is concerned, the iPhone 7 dominates the field. The Apple Watch is the Rolex of the smartwatch world, and it will only work with iOS devices. With the Apple Watch synced, you can keep track of vital fitness information through their native Activity app.

Though they cannot fully sync, especially with iOS-specific apps like iMessage, Android Wear 2.0 devices will still work with the iPhone 7. Dedicated fitness wearables like Fitbit and Nike FuelBand will fully sync with it. This cross-platform compatibility helps land the iPhone 7 in its top spot as the best for fitness enthusiasts.

Thanks to its IPS LCD display, Apple's flagship gets high marks in terms of overall screen brightness. With a maximum output of around 632 nits, the iPhone 7's display is very outdoor-friendly, reducing the need to look closely and squint at your phone while running at the same time. This greatly reduces the risk of getting into an accident while out for a daytime jog.

The iPhone 7's 632-nit display (left) compared to the HTC 10's 432-nit display (right) in daylight. Image by Jake Peterson/Gadget Hacks

Coming in at 5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28 inches, the iPhone 7 is the most compact smartphone in this list, which lends tremendously to ease of use with one hand. Jet Black version excluded, the 7's texture has a slight grippy feel to it and provides a decent amount of slip resistance, particularly if handled with sweaty paws. Its IP67 rating ensures protection against water and dirt, and great drop test performance should give you peace of mind while exercising.

Battery life is decent on the iPhone 7, clocking it at an average runtime of 7 hours and 46 minutes. It is let down by how long its battery takes to fully charge from 0-100%, however, averaging a dismally slow 141 minutes to reach 100 percent. The operational temperature range for the iPhone 7 to work at peak performance is also where you'd expect it to be, ranging from 32 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Unfortunately, the iPhone 7 doesn't let you see any fitness data from the lock screen. You need to unlock your phone and access HealthKit to track your progress, which is one of the bigger letdowns for this handset. Apple clearly meant for its devices be used in conjunction with wearable tech like smartwatches when it comes to fitness and exercise.

The need for wearable support is a weak point for iOS, as it may turn off some who prefer to use their smartphone alone and/or can't justify the added expense of purchasing an extra device just to perform such a mundane task.

2. Samsung Galaxy S8

The Galaxy S8 series has seemingly brought Samsung back from the brink of a tumultuous year, most notably the spectacular demise of its other flagship, the Note 7. The S8 has done a tremendous job of resurrecting the brand, with steady sales that helped offset losses from the previous year. The Galaxy S8 was chosen over its larger counterpart primarily due to better ergonomics. Its smaller size along with its curved front and rear flanks make it ideal as a workout companion.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

Outside the Apple ecosystem, the Galaxy S8 is one of a handful of Android smartphones to come with its own native health app — in this case, Samsung Health. The app may not be as detailed as Apple's, but it's still a great fitness app in its own right, primarily consisting of a pedometer to log steps, and an "Exercise" feature to keep track of workouts.

A small but immensely significant feature the S8 has over the iPhone 7 is its fitness data display on the lock screen, which is even easier to access when the phone's always-on display feature is activated. This allows you to quickly glance at your phone to monitor your progress, then continue focusing on your workout.

The S8 is also the only major smartphone that comes standard with a heart rate sensor. The sensor can measure your heart rate and blood-oxygen saturation (SpO2) individually or in unison by choosing Stress level. With the ability to provide a more comprehensive overview of your workout routine and heart rate, the S8 has a clear advantage over the other phones in this list in terms of fitness data collection.

With the obvious exception of the Apple Watch, the S8 is fully compatible with wearable tech. There's a virtual sea of Android 2.0 smartwatches available for you to choose from, such as Samsung's very own Gear series of smartwatches, in addition to cheaper fitness trackers like Fitbit bracelets and Nike+ FuelBands, that can fully complement your S8 and further enhance workout data collecting and tracking.

Though not as bright compared to the iPhone 7, the S8 still has great outdoor visibility thanks to its AMOLED screen's 570-nit output. The S8 also wins out over the rest in terms of battery life, lasting an impressive 8 hours and 22 minutes off a full charge, with a total charge time of 100 minutes. The operating temperature range for the S8 is exactly the same as the iPhone 7, so the device will perform efficiently between 32 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

As amazing as the S8's wide-ranging fitness capabilities are, the flagship does have some notable shortcomings that kept it from being the best overall. As to be expected by an almost edge-to-edge all glass design, the Galaxy S8 fared poorly in drop tests. Though its aluminum mid-frame with front and rear Gorilla Glass 4 panels give decent protection against scratches from contact with everyday objects like keys, the handset is at high risk of shattering in the event of a bad spill. Any cracks that develop due to impact will also more than likely compromise the handset's stellar IP68 water resistance, which tied for first in this list.

Although its curved edges greatly aid in overall ergonomics and ease of use, its almost all-glass design also makes the S8 more slippery than aluminum-clad flagships and poses the greatest risk of accidentally slipping out of your hands due to its overall lack of texture.

3. LG G6

Following the lackluster sales of the modular G5, LG finally caved and followed the trend towards using premium materials like glass and aluminum, culminating in the gorgeous design of the LG G6. Sporting a Gorilla Glass 5 rear panel, Gorilla Glass 3 display, and an aluminum mid-frame, LG's latest flagship is a radical departure from its previous plastic iterations.

Image by Kevin M./Gadget Hacks

The LG G6 is a flagship through and through, and besides sporting premium materials, it also has been thoroughly tested for durability. It has a water and dust resistance rating of IP68 — the same as the Galaxy S8. The G6 also wins out in terms of the temperature range, as LG has thoroughly tested the device in an astoundingly wide spectrum of temperature ranges, from -27 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit. While this clearly puts the G6 in a league of its own in this regard, we'd still recommend operating the device within a more reasonable range of 32 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid placing undue burden on the phone.

As an Android handset, Android Wear 2.0 Smartwatches, and other wearable tech like Fitbit and Pebble, are fully compatible with the LG G6. These devices will fully sync with the phone to make your jogs a more hands-free experience while checking for data.

Like Samsung, LG has its own native health app, aptly-named LG Health. Compared to its more famous counterparts, LG's health app is relatively bare, only able to time and record exercise types like walking, running, biking, hiking, and in-line skating. Fitness data is simple to access and keep track of, though we did find that its pedometer consistently lagged behind Samsung Health in terms of logging steps. Thankfully, this issue is easily remedied by syncing LG Health with Google Fit, though its limitations are still worth noting.

Aftermarket accessories for the G6 aren't as widely available as its more popular competitors. But while your chances of finding the right accessory for the G6 in brick and mortar stores might be lower compared to that of the iPhone 7 or Galaxy S8, they can still be sourced relatively easily by shopping online.

The G6 scored the lowest in terms of battery life, averaging 6 hours and 9 minutes, though this was somewhat offset by its ability to quickly recharge from 0–100%, taking an average of 97 minutes.

As far as durability goes, the G6 fared the same as the S8 due to its inherent design. While the the flat design helps protect against head on drops, the G6's Gorilla Glass 3 display panel isn't as strong as the S8's Gorilla Glass 5 panel, which lends to its susceptibility to shattering when dropped on a hard surface, as drop tests clearly show. Like the S8, cracking the G6's rear and front panels could compromise its resistance to the elements.

4. HTC 10

Despite being overtaken in recent years by its competitors, HTC has continued to produce great handsets while pushing the boundaries on their smartphones' features and capabilities. The HTC U11 and its novel "squeezable" frame is a great example of this philosophy. Unfortunately, the U11's soft metal frame combined with front and rear glass panels make it an incredibly fragile device that can easily be bent. Because of this fatal flaw, we chose its predecessor, the venerable HTC 10, as the final entry in our list.

Image by Kevin M./Gadget Hacks

The HTC 10 made it into our final list primarily due to its durability. Its aluminum chassis is highly resistant to bending and scratching, as JerryRig's tests clearly show. Its rigid aluminum housing also proved to have the best texture over all the devices on this list in terms of overall slip resistance, which offers extra security when handling the phone even with sweaty hands.

A water and dust resistance rating of IP53 means the HTC 10 offers some protection against the elements, though not as thorough as the other (and more modern) flagships in this list. So while it might offer some degree of protection from rain, snow, and light splashes, care should still be taken when performing outdoor activities near water.

Despite being one of the wider and heavier phones in this list (at 5.84 by 2.83 inches with a weight of 5.68 ounces), the 10 is ergonomic and easy to operate with one hand, thanks in large part to its gently curved rear panel. Its beveled rear edges not only make it easier to wrap your hands around but also add to the phone's overall rigidity.

Image by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

With Google Fit or Samsung Health installed, the HTC 10 is more than capable of keeping up with the most active of lifestyles. Heart rate sensors, while not native to the 10, are available for download on the Google Play Store. As an added bonus, these apps give you quick access fitness data, like steps logged, by simply waking the handset and tapping the app's notification from the lock screen.

Thanks to its Android OS, the HTC 10 is fully compatible with the full range of Android Wear smartwatches and wearable fitness trackers that are currently on the market. Of course, the Apple Watch isn't an option, but with the vast selection of Android Wear 2.0 smartwatches and digital wristbands available, you're sure to find one that suits your individual needs.

Accessories, such as arm bands, that were specifically made for the HTC 10 aren't as widespread as they are for its main competitors. Even still, specialized cases and other accessories to help keep your phone safe and out of the way during workouts are relatively easy to acquire online, with many vendors stocking HTC 10 accessories stateside.

Battery life is decent on the HTC 10, with an average uptime of 7 hours and 10 minutes off a full charge. This places it ahead of the G6 and almost on par with the iPhone 7. Time to charge is great as well, as the 10 stands toe-to-toe with the Galaxy S8 with an average time of 100 minutes from zero to full charge. This impressive battery performance, paired with an amazing operating temperature range of 32 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, ensures the HTC 10 will keep up with your pace through demanding workouts.

The HTC 10, with its SuperLCD5 display, performed the worst out of the handsets on this list in terms of maximum display brightness. With an average maximum output of only 432 Nits, the 10 is by far the hardest handset to view outdoors. Though less than ideal, outdoor viewing is still great while under a shade, but care must be taken when viewing on a sunny day.

Conclusion

Though the iPhone 7 won out in the end, it was a relatively close race. As you can see, all the phones in this list are great in their own right, from the S8 with its vivid screen and amazing battery life, to the G6 with its impressive tolerance to extreme heat and cold, and the HTC 10's sheer durability. Which flagship handset would you go with or recommend as an ideal workout companion? As always, share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Cover image by Justin Meyers/Gadget Hacks; screenshots by Amboy Manalo/Gadget Hacks

2 Comments

This is a terrible and unfair comparison, probably written by an Apple fanboy. It feels like the iPhone was cherry-picked to win, or more like the criteria were set to make iPhone win. Of course if you throw in Apple-only criteria like "Apple Health Kit support" and "Apple Watch compatibility" in there's no non-Apple phones would stand against iPhone (I wonder why else would those criteria be there, if not for making the iPhone win). If those Apple-only criteria were omitted Galaxy S8 would have been the winner.

Those health app sections in the chart were mostly meant to just be informative. They weren't much of a factor in the final decision, though HealthKit is a bit more feature-rich than S Health, so the iPhone got some points there. Still, S8 got some points over the others because S Health is better than LG Health, etc.

Apple Watch support was mostly cancelled out in our final decision by the fact that the Android phones have full compatibility with Android Wear when iPhone doesn't. But still, it's a slight advantage since you get one more really solid option in terms of wearables.

I'm an Android fanboy, so I personally agree with you. I thought the S8's heart rate sensor should put it over the top, but Amboy spent a lot of time with these phones, so I trust his final judgment. Also worth noting, Amboy's a proud Galaxy S8 owner. He bought his on launch day to replace his S6 Edge, so he's pretty pro-Samsung in real life. I thought he did a really good job of reviewing these without bias with that considered.

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