I’ve been into quantified self ever since I started working with Polar and got my first heart rate monitor back in 2002. Back then, the Polar heart rate monitors only recorded your heart rate if it was above 90 (i.e. you were exercising at least lightly) and getting the data into your computer required the high end models that cost a lot of money (the S625X that I used for the screenshot below retailed at around $400). But you could get the data out into a graph like this one from my first skydive:
Monitoring your activity has become much easier since then. I got a Philips DirectLife early in 2011. Then followed my first Fitbit and some 10 months later my Nike Fuelband. I still use the two latter, but at least the Fuelband is about to be retired. Why? Because of Basis.
Philips DirectLife, Fitbit, Nike Fuelband and Basis are all activity monitors with a web service.
Let’s round them up:
The Philips Directlife is actually inferior to a fancy regular electric pedometer. Directlife’s advantage is their coach service, and that’s what costs you $149 per year (you get the tracker when you buy a yearly plan). Choosing not to renew after a year renders your device virtually useless. You won’t be able to access your old data, only your activity from the day before and the current day will be visible. You won’t even be able to access your old messages from your coach unless you pay for a new annual subscription.
The Directlife itself doesn’t have a display. You have to sync it through your computer to find out how far you’ve walked or how many calories you’ve burned. There is a scale of lights, showing you how close you are to reaching your daily activity goal. The scale lights up every time you lay it down on a flat surface. The problem is that it’s relative (0-100%) so you have no idea whether you need another half mile walk or a 10k run to reach your goal. The most forgiving feature about the Directlife is that it’s (allegedly) waterproof.
- Versatile wearing: chest pocket, pant pocket, necklace
- Expensive ($149 per year)
- Tracks steps only
- No display of data on the device
- Only syncs through USB
- Requires a week’s assessment before you get started
- No way to export your data. You lose access to your data if you don’t renew your plan.
- Requires you to keep track of the proprietary charger/sync attachment
- Easy to lose if you keep it in your pocket
- No API so third parties can develop services for users
I fell for the hype too and got one as soon as I could get my hands on it. But let’s be honest: had this not been branded “Nike”, it wouldn’t be half as cool, and without the LED display that shows up as you press the button, this would be a dull trinket. Which says a lot about Nike’s brand. It has the world’s first curved batteries (or so Nike claims) and it’s got cute animations instead of static badges. But other than that it’s still a fancy pedometer, and one that you can’t export your own data from at that. I think that people who really love their Fuelbands are either Nike fanboys, people who are impressed by the OLED screen that lights up at the push of a button and/or people who are just getting started with quantified self and haven’t really figured out what it’s about yet. The sync interface is intrusive (after each sync it launches the Nike+ website whether you want it or not) and you can only view your data on Nike’s website or in the iPhone app. The most forgiving feature with the Fuelband is that Nike’s proprietary “Fuel score” is relative and not absolute. A 200 pound athlete can’t compare calories burned with a 130 pound amateur; the athlete will always use more energy for the same exertion. But they can compare Nike Fuel.
With this device, you set your daily goal in Nike Fuel points. This is a problem if you’re carrying a bag, for example, as your arm will swing less and therefore each step will yield less Fuel points than it would have if you had your arms free.
- Robust. I’ve been wearing mine pretty much 24/7 for 10 months and it just works.
- USB contact built right in, no need for extra accessories to charge or sync
- Syncs through USB or Bluetooth (iPhone only though)
- Fuel is a relative score, so you can compare with friends regardless of how athletic you are
- Doubles as a watch
- Social, you can compare and compete with your friends
- You can set your own goal
- Easy to change time zone (when you’re travelling): the Fuelband is set to the computer’s time zone every time you sync
- The wrist is not the best place for an activity monitor. For example: carrying a bag yields less Fuel/calories even though the exertion in fact is greater
- You can’t export your data, and the only way of getting reports on arbitrary periods other than day, week or month is by doing the math by hand
- Expensive for what you get, compared to other similar devices (Fitbit and Basis) as the Fuelband only shows your steps and the arbitrary Fuel
- You can only set a goal in “Fuel Points”, which is hard to translate to any real activity
- No API so that third parties can develop services for users (although rumors back in April sad that it’s coming)
- No vibration. This is a huge miss on Nike’s behalf. Having vibration (alarms, reminders) would have made up for a lot of the other cons.
- Annoying sync – doesn’t sync in the background and launches Nike’s website when it ends
- Too expensive – logs less than the Fitbit, but costs more ($149 excl. sales tax)
I’ve been using my Fitbit together with the Fuelband and if I had to choose between the two the Fitbit would win every time. First and foremost it’s more accurate than the Fuelband; the Fitbit registers lower body movement, not upper body. This means that for example spinning or bikning would register with the Fitbit (but as steps, which sucks) whereas the Fuelband wouldn’t register it at all. Second, the Fitbit also registers how many stairs you’ve climbed each day, letting you set a goal not only for steps, but also for stairs. Third, the Fitbit also tracks your sleep. The first models of the Fitbit had issues: I sweat a lot and kept my first Fitbit in my pocket as I worked out and after about four months (if I remember correctly) the plastic case started to crumble and the Fitbit died. The soft wristband that holds your Fitbit when you sleep had a pocket that was mostly awkward to use. You could only sync to your computer and needed the charging and sync station (which meant you had to bring it on trips longer than four or five days).
The One solves most of these issues. It’s now waterproof and shouldn’t crumble even if you sweat like me. The wristband is comfortable and easy to use. It syncs to your iPhone or your Android phone through Bluetooth. The charging still requires a separate, proprietary USB device (which doesn’t sync the Fitbit, which is crazy). And the USB sync device (a separate device from the charger) is so small, you’re bound to lose it sooner or later. It has got vibration reminders/alarms (works best for waking you up in the morning), which is a huge plus.
Fitbit’s web service shows you your data and progress, as well as daily and lifetime badges. Exporting your data to CSV requires the Premium service, which costs $50 a year essentially meaning Fitbit holds your data hostage, which sucks, but at least your have the option to access it. The other features in the Premium service are reports on your progress compared to other users and your own history.
The Fitbit is a great little device, and works well for both beginners and more advanced “self quantifiers”.
- Syncs with your computer through USB or over Bluetooth to iPhone and Android devices
- Logs steps and distance walked and stairs climbed
- You can set your own goals – on a weekly basis (imho better than daily) based on steps, distance, stairs or weight
- Integrates with Withings wifi body scale (your weight automatically updates in your Fitbit when you use your Withings scale)
- Has an API so that third parties can develop services, like integration with Microsoft’s Health Vault.
- Tracks your sleep
- Social, you can compare and compete with your friends
- Invisible if you want it to be, as it can be worn in the pocket of your pants or in the small belt holster that comes with it
- Vibration alarms, works best when worn in the wristband (i.e. for waking you up discreetly)
- Great battery time
- Requires a separate, proprietary USB device to charge it
- Requires a proprietary USB device, separate from the charger, to sync through USB
- Small and slick – also slippery, especially in dress pants (I lost my One in a cab once after a wedding). Easy to forget in pants when washing them.
- Charges you extra to export your data (you need their Premium service, $49 per year)
- Confusing process when switching time zones (when you’re travelling) – you have to pair your device again.
This is a product I’ve been excited about ever since I heard about it back in 2011. Considering it just came out – a year and a half later – and that they’ve had severe problems with deliveries it’s set up to be a disappointment. But it isn’t. I’d go as far as saying that is the best quantified self device on the market. It tracks activity (steps), heart rate, skin temperature, perspiration and sleep. The worst thing I can say about it after using it for two weeks is that it’s not the best designed watch. And I miss vibrations in it, for reminders and alarms. But other than that? Awesome. I’m going to write a longer review of the basis with screenshots of the web service, which is a huge part of why the Basis is so good. The web service is a way of changing habits using gamification and tricks from cognitive behavioral therapy – you can only add new habits if you succeed with your old ones. They will offer an API for third party developers, and hopefully they’ll have their Android and iOS apps out soon as promised. One feature I really like is that when you raise your arm to look at the watch, the face lights up. Here’s a more in-depth review of the Basis activity monitor.
- Logs more things than any other of the activity monitors:
Heart rate (with satisfactory accuracy)Unfortunately, this turned out to be false
- Skin temperature
(with more accuracy than other activity trackers due to heart rate)
- Very simple interface, showing only time, date, steps, heart rate and calories – the rest is viewed in the web service after sync
- Looks like a pretty low tech watch, so non-geeks needn’t fear it
- Offers API so that third parties can build new services for the users
- Syncs with your computer through USB or with your iPhone/Android device over Bluetooth (apps are not out yet though)
- Helps you set new habits, using tricks from games (RPGs) and CBT.
- You can set your own goals in ways you can’t with the other devices, for example “morning walks” or “be active at least two hours every day”
- Needs the proprietary charger/sync cable to charge and sync through USB
- Must be charged frequently and more often than the other devices (every third-fourth day for me, depending on usage)
- Takes a while to charge (but it can be charged and used if you’re not moving around)
- No vibrations for alerts/reminders/discrete wake up calls
- Does not log heart rate correctly unless you’re sitting or lying down
- Placement isn’t optimal (see Nike Fuelband)
but due to heart rate monitoring, it’s more accurate than the other devices anyway
Jawbone UP was released back in 2011, but the company ended up recalling all units and reimbursing all owners regardless if they bought it for themselves or got it as a gift. The way Jawbone handled that was flawless, inspiring a lot of trust. I had been waiting for the Jawbone UP to be reintroduced, and I wasn’t disappointed when I finally tried it. Fact is, that when you compare price/function/accuracy this is my favorite device (note: I have yet to try the Fitbit Flex). Jawbone UP has it all: a great app for both iPhone and Android. Open two-way API, meaning I can input data to my Jawbone UP – for example my current weight from my Withings scale and output data from the Jawbone UP to other services, like Sleepio. It’s got very good battery time, on par with Fitbit One. It logs sleep, activity and the app allows you to log workouts and food in a quick and easy way. I was surprised at how easy it was to scan barcodes (however, their database is questionable at times – I scanned a Redbull which turned up as ‘oranges’ and milk that came up as ‘carrots’. I’ve asked their support, but three weeks later I still haven’t gotten a reply). It has vibration alarms, and a sleep phase wake-up call, meaning it will wake you up at the optimal time when you’re in light sleep. So far, the biggest con of it is that the button has rather sharp edges. I’ve scratched myself with it, and it’s not cuddle friendly. My boyfriend hates it when I sleep with it on. It even has a nap timer, making sure your nap isn’t too long.
Jawbone syncs and charges through a headphone jack connector. To sync it, you insert it into the headphone jack of our iPhone or Android phone. To charge it, you attach the proprietary charging adapter to a USB port, and insert the jawbone into the headphone jack of the adapter. This means the band hasn’t got a display, so you can’t just look at it to see how far you’ve walked.
- Great battery time (10 days per charge)
- Tracks steps, activity and sleep
- Timer, nap and reminders
- Vibration alarm
- Sleep phase wake-up
- Simple and intuitive food logging (barcode scanner!)
- Social, can share with friends (can keep certain aspects private too)
- Open API, two-ways (IFTTT integration!) withings (in) sleepio (out)
- Analyzes data and gives tips and encouragement
- Syncs with both Android and iPhone
- Proprietary accessory for charging – lose it and you’re done
- Timeline gets messy when you have 10+ friends
- The button has sharp edges (not cuddle friendly)
- Easy to lose the ‘cap’ on the wrist band
- Placement not optimal for tracking steps
- Other colors than black become dirty
- No display – you have to sync to find out how far you’ve walked
- Starting the iPhone app with your headphones attached means the app will freeze for 5 seconds, trying to detect the band
- Food database sometimes wacky (and support confused)
Bodymedia FIT Link
I’ve been sceptic about this monitor because it’s worn on your upper arm, which isn’t the ideal placement for comfort. Once I tried it, I had to admit that it’s not too uncomfortable – unless you’re sleeping with someone else and you’re a cuddly sleeper. The device isn’t very discreet unless you’re wearing very baggy clothes (or very puffy sleeves). Having said that, it’s very nice that once you put it on you don’t have to do anything. It measures activity and sleep without the need to press any buttons or activating different modes and it does it accurately. It has heat flux, skin temperature and galvanic skin response sensors as well as accelerometers. That, together with Bodymedia’s long experience is what makes this the single most accurate sensor that I’ve tried.
The app and the web interface leave a lot of room for improvement. They look and feel more like something from 2003 than 2013. Opening the iPhone app requires your iTunes account password, probably because you have to pay to have access to data monitoring. Without a subscription, this device quickly turns into a dumb brick - sort of like a smartphone without reception or internet. The subscription isn’t cheap – $6.95 per month ($83 per year). A lot of companies are trying to find a way to get a steady revenue stream from its customers, and Bodymedia products are marketed at people who want to lose weight and are prepared to pay for the services.
Bodymedia was recently bought by Jawbone, which is a great combination. If you applied Jawbone’s simple app interface with Bodymedia’s accuracy, you’d have the best product currently on the market.
- very accurate in terms of steps and calories
- tracks sleep
- tracks everything seamlessly, just power up and go
- syncs via USB to you computer, or through Bluetooth to Android or iPhone
- Open API
- charges through mini USB
- good battery time
- discreet (if you wear baggy clothes)
- recently bought by Jawbone
- Requires subscription to work – expensive in the long run (~83 USD/year)
- few apps (but integrated with Withings)
- awkward to wear if sleeping with someone
- awkward to wear after workout (wet band)
- awkward to wear if travelling (security)
- awkward if you wear slim fit clothes
- US and Canada only (incl. iTunes store!)
- App requires iTunes password each time
If you came here looking for advice which tracking device to buy for yourself or for someone else, I’d say go with Fitbit or Jawbone UP if you’re on a budget and/or have basic needs, and Bodymedia if accuracy is important to you. All of three are very simple to use and all the first to have great features for their price.