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The Self-Tracking Stuff that Broke

Technological troubles during my month of self-tracking.
June 29, 2011

Despite the fact that I am an editor at Technology Review, I am not typically someone who loves gadgets. And I have a low tolerance for getting them to work. So the fact that most of my self-tracking endeavors went smoothly is testament to the fact that these tools are, for the most part, ready for the average consumer.

But a number of technical glitches interrupted my self-tracking experiments. About a month and half after I started using my fitbit, the tiny screen, which rewarded and chastised me based on my daily activity, went blank. The device still tracked my activity and uploaded it to my fitbit homepage, but no more immediate feedback on the number of steps taken and calories burned. After some emails from Fitbit tech support, they told me to send the defective device back in order to get a replacement. My fitbit page has been sadly blank for the last two weeks, but they promise the new one is on its way. A quick scan of the Fitbit forums suggests that a number of users have had problems, though many of these can be fixed with firmware updates. And Fitbit users love their devices but are not impressed with the company’s technical support.

The headband for my Zeo—which records electrical activity during sleep–also broke; it refused to hold a charge, no matter how long I left it charging. Zeo quickly sent me a new one, which did the same thing. The second time around, I went through standard customer service and got another replacement headband. This one is still working. (Ben Rubin, Zeo’s founder and chief technology officer, says this problem is limited to refurbished units that are sent out on loan to journalists and others.)

I had initially planned to track heart rate as part of my self-tracking experiment, so I ordered a blue tooth enabled Polar Wearlink heart rate monitor through RunKeeper. I never got it to work. I replaced the battery, ordered a new monitor, and asked multiple more technologically gifted people than I to give it a try. Nothing. (Jason Jacobs, Runkeeper’s founder, says that replacing the battery and making sure the chest strap is wet usually fixes the problem. He speculates it’s an issue with my phone.)

For anyone considering buying a heart rate monitor that uses your smartphone as the display device, consider whether you want to carry your phone for every workout. I always take mine on runs, since I use runkeeper to track the distance. But I’d rather not strap on my phone for my kickboxing class.

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