There is a battle being waged for the hearts and arms of Americans that want to be more fit. At the most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, dozens of companies showed off their wearable fitness-based products. A market that just a few years ago was nearly nonexistent is not the hottest in the tech sector.
This last weekend I was browsing at a local Nike store and watched as two tweens were putting on their new Nike+ FuelBands for the first time, so ubiquitous is the technology that it doesn’t seem odd for an eleven year old to track their daily step count.
For nearly six months I’ve been working with various fitness trackers from the Jawbone to the FuelBand and while I’m sold on the usefulness of the devices (for most people) each one has had a design limitation that has detracted from their usefulness.
For the last month I’ve been working with the new FitBit Force, the watch-styled fitness tracker from FitBit which offers a wrist-based look at daily activity.
The Force is With Me
Most recently I picked up the new Force, the latest device from the company that’s defined the fitness tracking market. Beginning with their ungainly fitness pocket-based devices, FitBit has made an affordable line of tools and coupled them with a website and app that are clean, friendly and easy to use.
The Force is worn on the wrist and is the first of the company’s devices to include a full display on a wrist-worn tracker. The Flex, which also is worn like a watch, has a display that only shows a line of dots which are to indicate how close the user is to their goal. The FitBit One, which is worn clipped on to clothing or in a pocket featured a full display but isn’t designed to wear on the wrist.
For me, there’s little motivation to wear a fitness tracker on my arm that’s not also a watch—if I’m going to take up the space on my wrist that a watch usually occupies, I want to at least know the time and be able to see my fitness stats without pulling an iPhone out of my pocket.
So the Force solves a problem that I have with devices like the Jawbone Up and the previous Flex, giving it the power of devices like the Nike FuelBand.
The Force features sleek lines and while it’s a bit wider than I thought it would be based on photos on the site, it’s rather unobtrusive on the wrist.
The Force is water resistant, not waterproof, a bit of a drag for anyone that might want to take the device in the pool or the locker-room shower post workout. I’d love to see a waterproof Force because I’d often remove it for showers and then forget to put it back on again.
On the wrist-side of the device is a connector port to charge the Force and a supplied USB-to-Force cable is available. In our tests the Force ran for about a week between charges, but as it’s a good idea to buy a backup cable if you’re often on the road, in the office or places where you might forget to charge up the Force.
The display is very bright (at night in bed too much so) and the Force can be configured to run through stats in a variety of orders and displays can be turned off entirely using the FitBit app.
Thanks to the low power Bluetooth connectivity the Force can update occasionally during the day as long as an iPhone (or Android phone) is in proximity. Launching the app initiates a full sync. As advertised, this seemed to have virtually no effect on the battery power of my iPhone.
The Force uses internal accelerometers in order to determine movement, which means that for a cyclist or gym-goer the Force won’t do any better at measuring activity than any of the rest of the current crop of devices.
The Fitbit software allows users to manually enter activities so it can track bike rides and trampoline sessions, but the readings then are confusing. Wear the device while bike riding and you might find that it considers you to have walked a huge number of steps, for example. Enter your cycling time and distance and you’ve got lots of steps and also your riding mileage.
Some users (as of this writing) have been reporting skin irritations with the Force, though in our opinion this isn’t due to anything inherently different about the Force but due to having a rubber-like band pressed against one’s wrist all the time in a post-watch era.
The biggest drawback of the Force is the wristband itself. The clasp is a plastic fob with two small “arms” that press through the underlying holes to hold the Fitbit Force to the wrist. I should have put “hold” in quotations as the Force constantly fell off during testing. Any time I’d remove a long sleeved shirt or rub my arm against any object the Force would pop off my arm.
The issue comes down to a design flaw. Picture a belt, the epitome of secure attachment, which works by threading a row of holes through a buckle. With the force that row of holes sits under the buckle and a pair of prongs pops through the holes. Any motion that pulls against the band pops the prongs out, as they’re just held in by friction.
For someone that’s coming back to fitness or just getting started, the Force (and other fitness trackers) are great. Set a goal and watch through the day as you get closer to that goal. You can even compete against your friends and even strangers for total steps and general fitness.
The cyclist using Strava to track segments will probably love the self-metrics that are capable with the Fitbit Force—after all it’s possible to create a KoM for your own daily life. Challenge yourself to walk around the cubicles more often during a day.
Those who exercise a great deal will still need to weigh the merits of a fitness tracker. As with other devices in this category the Fitbit Force is a motivational tool. It displays total number of steps, flights of stairs climbed, miles walked and calories burned which is all great motivation for the sedentary or semi-active.
The Force will track your sleep patterns (how long you’re asleep, how many times restless and how many times awake) and that’s incredibly helpful for someone trying to diagnose their energy levels and whether they’re getting enough recovery.
It also works with the Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale via the FitBit software, sending weight and body fat information to the online tracker.
To help motivate the active user the device buzzes when you’ve hit your goal, though I usually was just confused about why my Force was shaking. The site and app also provide badges for achievements.
The biggest bummer comes the day the FitBit is left at home. While you can add “walking” as an activity, you don’t get any credit for it. More than once I fell drastically behind a friend on my week’s step count because the Force was on my nightstand, sitting there to keep dry during my shower. There’s not much that reverse motivates me like losing 13,000 steps in a single day and it’s the main reason I’ve never ended up staying with a fitness tracker.
The FitBit Force is, aside from a few issues, the strongest contender for the fitness tracking crown. It combines the best design and interface and world-class software into a compact wrist-borne device.
If fitness tracking is your aim, the Force is currently the strongest choice as the Jawbone Up doesn’t contain a clock and the Nike FuelBand hasn’t seen a design refresh in a while.
Aside from the issues with the band I had absolutely no problems with the Force and found myself more than once walking to town for an errand that might have otherwise seen me in a car.