By John Seiley
Success in the “wearable tech” category remains elusive despite numerous prototypes and product releases. It continues to be something that either could be cool or the next big thing, depending on who you ask. The category itself is rather expansive and currently encompasses a wide array of devices that have various functions. Their commonality is that instead of you holding them, they “hold you.”
Of all these devices, fitness trackers seem to be the most practical and realistic, and seem to be gaining traction with consumers. I’m predicting big things for this sub-genre as Apple almost certainly will release a device of this kind in the near future. But what exactly is a fitness tracker?
The device itself is usually worn around the wrist, like a watch, although some of them do not tell time (the product that is subject of this review does). Its main purpose is to serve as a motivator for physical fitness. It contains motion trackers that are able to provide data about your activity throughout the day, and syncs with your smartphone, tablet or computer to display the results. Accuracy to a fault is not currently available in any product, but the stats are reasonably on point. The accompanying app usually gives you the ability to record food and liquid intake and other stats, giving you a more precise picture of your overall health. Battery on trackers last much longer than smartphone batteries, with most not requiring a charge till the end of a week. There is potential for fitness trackers to do even more than they currently do with software updates, but for now they function as described.
Personally, I grew tired of my first fitness tracker shorty after buying it, the second-generation UP from Jawbone. It should be noted that anything you wear should suit your sense of style, and the UP is perhaps best at doing this. But the one I bought lacked Bluetooth sync, requiring a manual plug into the headphone jack of any phone or tablet. This has since been remedied with the new UP24. What has not been remedied is the lack of a display. Having an object on your wrist is the perfect opportunity for “glanceable” data, and UP does not take advantage of that, not even to the benefit of battery life.
So I decided to exchange my UP for the Fitbit Force, a new product from a brand that has more satisfied customers among my group of friends than any other wearables company I know of. What the Force lacks in design appeal it makes up for with a subtle look and a power-efficient display. If the UP looks more lululemon, the Force looks more Under Armour.
The actual design of the Force employs rubber for the band and metal and glass for the display piece, but neither are bulky, and actually caused my father to remark that it looked “stealthy”. Of the two colors currently available, I chose black, the other being a subdued blue. I had heard the device comes off easily, but it actually requires a good finger squeeze to put on and remains secure. When strapped on, the display piece is positioned a little farther back towards the outside of my wrist when I hold it in front of me than I would like, but it’s certainly not unusable. Overall, I think the design is basic and satisfactory.
The appeal of the Force for me is all about that display. With the click of a button you can cycle through time of day, steps taken, calories burned, floors climbed, distance travelled, or set a timer. It’s nice having extensive data available after syncing with the app, but in most cases, I just want to check how close I am to the World Health Organization’s recommended 10,000 steps, or how many calories I burned. Making this viewable at a second’s notice on your wrist is a huge advantage, especially during exercise. It’s even made me check for time more often (whereas I used to pull out my phone or tablet).
In my experience of using the Force, it’s data output seems slightly different than the UP I previously owned. The UP, although not making it’s stats readily available on your wrist, was more realistic with things like steps taken once you synced to the app. After my typical 60 minutes of exercise, it would log around 7,500 steps. My Fitbit has me reaching 8,000 after the same amount of time. That’s not a huge difference, and I’m not particularly interested in an extremely precise figure when it comes to steps. For calories burned, floors climbed, and distance travelled it seems more accurate. As long as I’m getting an idea of how active I’ve been at a moment’s notice, that suffices. And battery life, a week, is just as good as the best competitors.
Another feature that I really enjoy is the silent vibrating alarm. When your alarm goes off, the Force vibrates just enough to stir you from sleep. So much better than a buzzing alarm clock.
The Fitbit app, which complements the Force and is required for extra functions, allows you to see your movement from the previous night’s sleep, set goals for yourself, log your food and drink intake, enter your weight, or even track your movement with your smartphone if you wish. It also plays well with other apps, so taking action in a linked app will update the Fitbit app.
One problem that is probably software related is the initial setup of the Force. I have verified that this problem is not unique to me, but also may not be widespread. When I activated the Force, instead of adjusting to my time zone and displaying the time of day, it started counting time from the second of activation. When it got to 12 hours 59 minutes from activation, instead of displaying “13:00” it displayed “1:00”, as if it were cycling through the hours of the day. This was bizarre, but was fixed by simply re-activating the device once more. Not a major issue, but still a puzzler.
Overall, though, I can say that I really think something like the Fitbit Force is the ideal realization of wearable technology. I can’t see a day in the near future where people will want to wear more than one wearable at a time, and the wrist is the natural place to design for because of its relation to our eyes and the permeation of the watch. People also like their tech to function simply and be good at specific things. The Fitbit Force is exactly that.
Perhaps it’s greatest value is simply it’s motivating power. No, fitness trackers are not as minutely precise as you might expect, but getting an overall picture of how healthy your behavior is can be a real “lift” and give you the push you need to keep going. I see this as a wonderful new function for technology.
P.S. A future software update will enable the Fitbit Force to display caller ID from an incoming call on the iPhone. I find this an exciting new function, but did not have an opportunity to test it, so it doesn’t affect any of my opinions in this review.
1/28/14 UPDATE: Today the button on that activates the display on my Fitbit Force stopped working, locking in place, and I’m exchanging it for a new one. One other note about the Fitbit App – it also has a social aspect that you can opt into that adds a level of competition with friends by sharing your stats.
2/22/14 UPDATE: Fitbit issued a recall of all Fitbit Force devices on February 21, 2014 as a cautionary measure following reports of skin irritations affecting some users. It will no longer sell Fitbit Force. I was somewhat disappointed the product was recalled due to an issue that affected so few people, but I respect the company’s concern for its users. I am going to be experimenting with some other solutions for fitness tracking and may post a review of different options.