Fitness Trackers Still Need to Work Out Kinks
The latest fitness-tracking wristbands need to get in better shape before they’ll earn a spot on my wrist.
Monitoring your activity levels could improve your health.
At 11:30 last Friday night I was frantically doing jumping jacks in my living room, trying to hit my activity goal for the day: 4,000 points. The more I moved, the more points I got from the Nike+ Fuelband SE fitness tracker on my wrist—and at nearly midnight I had 3,957.
Even though I had put in a full day of work, cycled for miles around San Francisco, and spent an evening out with friends, I felt compelled to keep going until I hit that magic number. So I jumped and yelled obscenities to the empty room, and after a few minutes the black, rubbery Fuelband lit up with a rainbow of congratulatory LEDs. My goal met, I slumped on the couch, victorious, and ate a bowl of ice cream.
I wasn’t always this way. A couple of weeks ago, though, I started tracking my activity—my steps, bike rides, sleep patterns, and more—with some of the newest wristbands, all of which can automatically sync activity from the band to a smartphone via low-energy Bluetooth: the aforementioned Nike+ Fuelband SE, the Fitbit Force, and the Jawbone Up 24. The idea was to see whether they could accurately log my moves and encourage me to meet specific daily activity goals without making me feel as if I were under house arrest.
I tested each wristband on its own with its accompanying iPhone app, and spent one day wearing all three on the same wrist to determine differences in their tracking skills. The bottom line: each of these gadgets encouraged me to be more active and wasn’t too obnoxious at buzzing my wrist and sending alerts to my phone. Each synced flawlessly with its companion app, making the whole experience much more habit-forming than if I’d had to connect them manually.
Even so, I’m not ready to shell out my own money for one of these. None was close to excellent. They all fit imperfectly—a big problem, since they are intended to track both activities and sleep—and their accompanying apps need to be slimmed down and simplified. I also have concerns about their accuracy. On the same day, the FuelBand SE said I had taken 9,725 steps, the Force counted 11,981 steps, and the Up 24 logged 6,785. Over weeks and months, such differences would really add up.
Here are the pluses and minuses of each.
Jawbone Up 24 ($150)
Though it still needs work, the Up 24 quickly became my favorite for its ability to blend function and style.
Like the preceding Up band, which could not sync wirelessly with a smartphone, the Up 24 looks more like a modern-art bracelet than a tracking device. A sleek wave pattern is carved into its rubber band and two gently overlapping ends make it stylish and easy to slip on or off. The single button on one of the ends of the band shows you how much power the device has and lets it start or stop tracking your sleep.
Beyond being the most fashionable of the trackers I tried, the Up 24 was the most full-featured and had the most user-friendly app. One of the best features was its “smart alarm,” which tries to wake you up with gentle vibration when you’re in a state of light sleep, up to 30 minutes before your planned wakeup time. Using this felt much less jarring than my standard blaring iPhone alarm.
The app offers a slew of features, but its “Home” tab is simply laid out, with colorful arrows indicating how much you’ve moved and slept. The app also lets you log the meals you’ve eaten—you can use your phone to scan bar codes on packages of food rather than typing the information in—and can draw in data from other fitness apps, like RunKeeper and Strava.
The Fitbit Force can do that, too, but the Up 24 takes it further by connecting to the app IFTTT (If This, Then That), which lets you use the Web to automate reactions to specific triggers. For example, I set the Up 24 to turn on an Internet-connected desk lamp every time I woke up. Or you could use it as a trigger for your coffeemaker when you get up in the morning. That would be pretty cool.
Fitbit Force ($130)
The Fitbit Force’s app needs work, but the wristband was the most comfortable overall since it’s fully adjustable. It’s the most digital-watch-like in appearance—the time even shows up first on the display, by default, though you can edit this in the app—which may also make those of us who are new to fitness tracking feel a little more at ease wearing it daily.
Furthermore, it was the easiest to use while on my arm, with a crisp, bright, slightly angled OLED display jutting out of its band and a side button that you can use to cycle through its different data fields (including time, steps taken, distance traveled, and calories burned). It’s expected to soon be able to show you incoming calls, which will make it even more useful.
I had one big concern with the hardware, though. A removable piece of plastic secures the band to your arm, making it a pain to put on and the subject of constant worrying: I fretted that I would lose this little, specialized part.
As for the app, it’s the easiest for gathering lots of information at a glance. A page for each day shows measurements like steps taken, miles walked, and weight to lose until you hit a weight goal, and these are easy to hide if you don’t care about certain metrics. It’s confusing to navigate, though, requiring several taps.
Also, logging activities is really difficult, as my fiancé can attest: he got to hear me yelling at the app for a good 10 minutes one evening, completely enraged by its inability to properly account for the calories I surely burned during a 30-minute bike ride.
Nike+ FuelBand SE ($149)
The FuelBand SE sets itself apart with its focus on competition, from the virtual trophies that you can reap for hitting certain activity goals to the way it encourages users to “win” hours (defined by five minutes of activity per hour).
The FuelBand SE also has its own system of points you earn from activity (“NikeFuel”), illustrated on the wristband with a rainbow row of LEDs that gradually change from red to green throughout the day. I liked this because it helped me think less about the specifics of movement and more about being active in general.
The bracelet looks sportier than its peers, with a stiff-framed, rounded, rubbery body and a strong clasp that opens with the push of a tiny button and closes with a satisfying click. However, this hard body made it feel like a court-ordered monitoring bracelet (not that I know from personal experience). And I hated how it slid around on my wrist while I was biking or running down the street. I popped a spacer link out of the bracelet to make it fit more snugly, but this made it too tight.
The sporty feel carries over to the Fuelband SE’s display, which is the most interesting and colorful of the three. Below the band’s rubbery face are several rows of LEDs that light up to show you various activity and calorie measurements and to alert you when you meet, say, your daily points goal. The arrangement makes it look like you have your own personal scoreboard, which is pretty cool, and although it’s bright, it can smartly adjust to the surrounding lighting conditions.
The app was easy to use if you just wanted to check your points and activity levels, but overall it felt crowded with options that weren’t always simple to find or control. Settings were spread out and sometimes repeated in a couple of different parts of the app, and there didn’t seem to be any way to add workouts or sleep—what the Fuelband refers to as “Sessions”—after the fact. I hate futzing with my phone when I’m trying to get out the door or nod off, so this meant that I didn’t end up logging most of my cycling activity and probably lost out on a bunch of points.
Hear more about wearable technology at EmTech MIT.
September 11-14, 2018
MIT Media Lab