Maybe it was the New Year, or a general feeling of wintertime restlessness, but somehow I found myself interested in the plethora of fitness trackers that have sprouted up in the past year or so. Between the offerings by Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, and several others, there’s no better time to pick up one of these dimunitive gadgets and start getting quantified. Much of the choice comes down to personal preference, so I recently spent a week with the $100 Fitbit One and $130 Jawbone UP to see which one I liked better. I ended up preferring the One; I still use it and have returned the UP. I’m not going to do a detailed review of either device, since there are plenty of those on various gadget blogs, but while trying them both I did learn a few things worth sharing.
Overall, how was life with the Jawbone UP? When I started researching fitness trackers it looked like the Fitbit family was the way to go, but the UP had several things going for it. Its iOS app generally garnered more praise from reviewers, its wristband form factor meant not having to deal with belt clips or velcro sleep wristbands, and it was a little more compelling in some key areas due to its inactivity reminder, sleep cycle-aware vibrating alarm, and nap timer. It turns out that none of these perceived advantages proved to be very meaningful. Yes, the iOS app is very well executed–better than Fitbit’s–but it can’t compete with Fitbit’s wireless syncing, website, premium features, API, and third party ecosystem. The wristband form factor had its ups and downs. Jawbone’s sizing guidelines were accurate for me, and having the device on my wrist meant less time spent keeping track of it. But it was also annoying to have on when working at my desk (where I spend a lot of my time) and really annoying to have to physically plug into my phone to sync twice a day (as recommended by Jawbone). The inactivity reminder ended up being more of a nuisance than a help; I can’t really get up to walk around during the middle of a class lecture and I don’t want to when I’m knee-deep in code. I had high hopes for the sleep cycle-aware alarm clock and nap timer, but they just don’t have the power to magically turn an evening person into a morning person (how great would that be, though?).
Overall, how was life with the Fitbit One? I was initially attracted to the Fitbit One due to its almost universally positive reviews and established ecosystem through a comprehensive API and partnerships with many other services. I was concerned that its iOS app wouldn’t hold up to Jawbone’s, but while I wouldn’t call it gorgeous it is in fact perfectly adequate. The killer feature is wireless sync over Bluetooth 4.0 LE (low energy). It turned out being really nice to just open the app, wait a few seconds, and have the latest stats at my fingertips. You can even set the One to automatically sync with your phone every so often, which is very cool because you’ll get notifications and badges in near-real time as you accumulate steps. I did however turn this feature off because I suspected that it was significantly impacting my iPhone’s battery life. One downside of the One is having to constantly transfer it from my pocket to the belt clip to the sleep wristband, but unlike the UP, once it’s secure somewhere it doesn’t bother me. (Read on to see why the new Flex might also be an improvement in this area.) As I mentioned earlier, another huge plus for Fitbit is that it’s an open platform. Jawbone has no such plans for the UP, and even just a closed website for viewing your stats is still “coming soon.” Even if I’m not going to take advantage of the Fitbit platform immediately, it’s really nice to know that I could bust out a Python script to slice, dice, and mash up my activity data in any way I see fit (pun not intended). Fitbit also offers a premium reports upgrade for $50/year, the free trial of which I’ll probably evaluate soon.
What about the Fitbit Zip? The Zip is like the One but $40 cheaper and lacking an altimeter, rechargeable battery, and sleep tracking functionality. I don’t care too much about knowing how many floors I climb, but it does make calorie tracking more accurate. Having to replace a watch battery every few months wouldn’t be fun, though, and as annoying as the One’s wristband is I think sleep tracking is really important. But if none of these things matter to you, the Zip is a fine choice.
What about the just-announced Fitbit Flex? The Flex is Fitbit’s answer to the wristband form factor, but the actual guts of the device reside in a small plastic One-like capsule that can be removed from the wristband and placed in a pocket just like the One. The Flex is also $100, but it foregoes the display, sleep mode activation button, and altimeter. It’s a little too early to be sure, but based on some talk in the Twittersphere I’m fairly certain that even without the sleep mode button the Flex can track sleep activity comprehensively like the One, rather than manually like the Zip (no time-to-fall-asleep, times-awakened, etc.). You just have to use the website or mobile app to tell it to enter or leave sleep tracking mode. This, along with the fact that you can remove it from the wristband and keep it in your pocket, almost makes the Flex more compelling to me than the One despite it missing a display and altimeter. This is because it would be great to keep the Flex in my pocket during the day and then use its slim rubber wristband for working out and sleeping as opposed to dealing with the One’s belt clip attachment and largeish sleep wristband. Hopefully the Flex becomes available soon so I can test this hypothesis.
What about the Nike+ FuelBand? The $150 FuelBand is appealing because it’s worn as a wristband, can be used as a watch, and syncs wirelessly to smartphones via Bluetooth. However, using the UP showed me that it’s too annoying to wear a wristband for a good chunk of the day. And the FuelBand really only tracks one metric, “NikeFuel points,” which is oversimplified for my purposes.
All in all, after spending some time with these devices I’m finding myself more aware of my habits and activities than ever before. I’m looking forward to accumulating more and more data over time to help make informed lifestyle changes, and I definitely recommend that all geeks try out one of these trackers to gain new insights about their lives.