Self-tracker round-up: Basis, Fitbit, Jawbone, Fuelband, Bodymedia

Posted on Jan 9, 2013 in Gadgets, Health and Fitness, Reviews
Self-tracker round-up: Basis, Fitbit, Jawbone, Fuelband, Bodymedia

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:

Curve of my heart rate during my first skydive

My heart rate jumped from 127 (double my resting rate) to 172 from adrenaline.

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:

Philips Directlife

Philips Directlife

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.

Pros

  • Waterproof
  • Versatile wearing: chest pocket, pant pocket, necklace

Cons

  • 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

Nike Fuelband

Nike Fuelband worn on my arm

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.

Pros

  • 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

Cons

  • 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)

Fitbit One

Fitbit One next to a Fitbit Ultra

On the left: Fitbit Ultra, on the right: Fitbit One

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”.

Pros

  • 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

Cons

  • 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.

Basis
Basis monitor worn on my arm

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.

Pros

  • Logs more things than any other of the activity monitors:
  • 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”

Cons

  • 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

Jawbone UPJawbone 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.

Pros

  • 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

Cons

  • 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.

Pros

  • 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

Cons

  • 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

Summary

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.

(Note: I have yet to try the Misfit Shine, the Fitbit Flex and the Amiigo - I have high hopes for the two latter.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/micko.hjort Micko van Gagnef

    Have you looked at MetaWatch?

    Would be great to have a comparison with the Basis and are really looking forward to you longer review of the Basis!

    http://techcrunch.com/2012/07/28/move-over-pebble-metawatchs-new-strata-aims-to-make-a-splash-on-kickstarter-too/

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      I haven’t seen it, but it seems like it’s more like Pebble: a smartphone accessory with a fitness monitor option. I see it more as a Pebble competitor, and I see neither Pebble nor MetaWatch as Basis competitors yet. A pedometer/odometer function in a smart watch is nice, but if you’re really into quantified self, you’re most likely interested in more.

      Thanks for the tip though, I appreciate it!

      • Robin Mayes

        Have you tested Fitbug’s new products. I would be interested in your opinion when comparing them to Fitbit’s and Nike’s. They seem to have a similar product but at half the price

        • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

          No, I haven’t. But it seems as if that is a good product for companies or groups. I think that one thing that makes the Fitbug Air cheaper is that it uses regular batteries, and not rechargeable ones. Thanks for the tip, I’ll see if I can get my hands on one.

  • neekalus

    Looking forward to your more detailed review of the Basis band!

  • http://www.facebook.com/fantasha Fantasha Kassam

    Great review! I love my Basis Band!

  • Joe sobolewski

    Is the user able to keep the data with the Basis or is there a charge to access it like the fitbit?

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      I don’t think there’s any way to export your data from Basis, but since they promise an API I’m thinking you can use your data in any way you want through third party services. However, the latter is true for Fitbit as well.

  • http://twitter.com/BodyBuildingIYP BB Is Your Passion

    Thanks for posting this- it’s the first one I’ve seen to include the Basis and I’ve been checking each week for it since November when they started shipping! Looking forward to the more detailed review.

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  • http://icecrown.se/ Therese Göterheim

    thanks for a realy good test! I bought a fitbit one today, If I had not read your test I would have bought a nike fuleband. So if i dont like the fitbit i will send U a bill ;)

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      I think you’ll like it. It’s simple, great and much better than the Fuelband!

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  • http://twitter.com/joshbalt Josh S.

    A couple comments on your Cons for the Nike Fuel Band. It does sync in the background using the iPhone with the app installed. And your con about the wrist not being a good location is totally unsubstantiated and the example you have is silly at best because FitBit isnt able to log the difference between carrying a bag or not either.

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      I was actually talking about the sync on your computer, not your phone. The screens are in the foreground. Basis, Fitbit and Bodymedia do it differently.

      You’re wrong about the wrist. When you hold something in your hand, you swing the arm in smaller movements than if your hand is free. Your legs move the same. So Fitbit will calculate the proper amount of steps/energy. The Fuelband will calculate fewer steps and/or a lower energy expenditure. The same walk with a bag in my hand yields fewer fuel points than the walk with my hands free.

    • http://www.beaugunderson.com/ Beau Gunderson

      I stopped using my FuelBand because it was impossible to use a computer with it on (while I don’t rest my wrists directly on my laptop they are close, and the FuelBand is big enough that it touches my laptop and is then forced into my wrist if I wear it). For me, at least, the wrist placement is awful.

      • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

        I agree. The Fuelband is bulky, and its in the way when I type on my Macbook Air. The Jawbone UP is better, and that’s because it’s thinner. It’s more similar to a watch wristband, whereas the Fuelband is unreasonably thick. If you look at the Lark it deals with that issue by making it thinner on the “inside” of the arm.

  • abqandrea

    I wore a bodymedia arm band for a full year and it was EXTREMELY accurate and a great device overall. Yes, it looked odd. Yes, I got a ‘dent’ in my arm after a few months. But technologically it is the direct ancestor to the Basis. And that was 4 YEARS ago that I had mine.

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      I actually bought one during my last trip to the US, and I’ve been using it in parallell with other devices. I’m going to look at the data and compare it and the Jawbone UP as well.

  • Facebook User

    Great article, thank you!

    When you say “Does not log heart rate correctly during intense exercise”. Is it still usable or a total disaster?

    I would like to use it for my spinning class and if that’s not reliable at all it will be a no buy for me.

  • http://www.cmogle.com/blog cmogle

    I’m massively disappointed with my Fitbit Flex – I’ve had several Fitbit Ultra and One models. I pre-ordered Flex without even checking the features. The wristband is uncomfortable, the charging cradle is poorly designed and the UX to check progress or change modes is truly laughable. However, perhaps the worst thing overall is that they do not track floors climbed. I’m probably going to go back to another Fitbit One, but I’m giving it another week.

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      Interesting. I’ve e-mailed Fitbit in UK and asked if I can have a band for review. So far, they haven’t got any in stock, but I’m looking forward to comparing it with the Jawbone UP.

  • Christine

    Which of these gives the best/most accurate info about sleep activity? That’s my main reason for getting one, with the pedometer/activity measure being second. Not worried about calorie burning/diet.

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      I’d say that Basis or Bodymedia are the best from this perspective, as they are seamless – no need to push buttons, they log sleep seamlessly. Second best: Jawbone, because it’s so simple to press the button. Fitbit One is a hassle with the wrist band.

      I’d go for the Jawbone Up right now, as the Basis isn’t available yet (and they can’t give any shipping date), and because Bodymedia’s FIT Link costs $115 plus $83 per year.

      • Christine

        Thanks so much for the prompt reply!

  • Cam
    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      I haven’t seen it before, but it looks interesting. It has some challenges, one similar to the power generating insole: if it’s too thick and requires bigger shoes, it won’t be a hit. But I’m going to keep an eye on Sensoria. Thanks for the tip!

  • Robert Besaw

    Great reviews. I liked my UP quite a bit. Couple cons to point out. If you sweat excessively it can cause a rash. Other note is that if you ride a motorcycle it screws up the distance completely. So you have to either turn it off during a ride to work or just remember you didn’t walk 2K steps in 15 minutes.

    The basis is exactly what I want but reviews of it are pretty critical right now. Hopefully they’re going to improve and release again.

    • http://www.digitalmcgyver.com/ Micke Kazarnowicz

      Thanks for the addition. I didn’t know it registered on motorcycles! Also, my Jawbone UP broke, and I had a nightmare with Jawbone’s European support (on a side note: it seems that the American part of Jawbone has no idea what Europe is doing and vice versa) that ended with me not getting a replacement for over a month. I decided to take it back to the Apple store in the US where they told me that Jawbone is known for having an abysmal customer support. Apple store took it back and offered a replacement or store credit after 4 months because of this.

  • lm

    hey michael, i’ve done a lot of research on activity loggers. i’m really just looking for something that can monitor energy expenditure in some form every minute or so, and give me access to that raw data (not interested in apps or included software). nike fuel seems pretty locked down, fitbit only allows partners to have ‘intra day’ data, and jawbone seems to have significant quality control issues. it’s crazy but i’ve been looking at motionwatch 8 (http://www.camntech.com/products/motionwatch/motionwatch-8-overview) just because it seems relatively accurate and designed to make raw data access easy, though it’s hugely expensive and designed for medical professionals. do you have any suggestions? maybe something less cool (no ui, cloud software, etc) like a polar monitor would actually be better?

  • jocelyns

    Hi. I’m a bodymedia user do to accuracy. Got a fitbit flex and tried to use it as wanted something less unobtrusive but after 2 weeks of wearing simultaneously the calorie burn was too far off–especially during different types of exercise (baseline was equal) to go with it. Curious how off the basis is as it uses different censors.