NOTE: Story updated on Sept 16 with some additional information on Jawbone UP3
FITNESS trackers have been in the market for some time now and while there are at least a dozen brands in the market today, only the more popular ones began appearing in Malaysia recently.
One leading brand currently is Fitbit, a company that bears the same name. According to IDC’s latest numbers, the San Francisco, California-based Fitbit Inc is leading the market for wearables worldwide in terms of number of units shipped and has just entered the Malaysian market in June.
Fitbit touts a range of devices for the entire spectrum of the fitness market. For example, its lowest range is the Fitbit Zip that costs RM250 (US$61) and conveniently fits into a pocket or can be carried around your neck.
Others include wristband fitness trackers such as the Fitbit Charge, which measures the number of steps you make and your sleep patterns. The Fitbit Charge HR (heart rate) has all the functions of the Charge but measures your heart rate all day long as well.
Finally at the top-end, the Fitbit Surge, costing RM968 (US$237), is a watch-like device that’s aimed at serious fitness enthusiasts and can track much more than just steps, heart rate and calories burnt.
For this review, I opted to test the Fitbit Charge HR (RM620 or US$149) as I find that to be the most practical device to test. It’s not too high-end like the Surge as most of us aren’t fitness buffs but still has the option of the heart rate monitor. Moreover, it has a real-time heart rate monitor, which I find quite novel.
The Charge HR (pic, above) comes in two colours now – black and tangerine, with the blue hitting the stores soon. As a comparison, I also briefly tested a rival product – the Jawbone UP3 (pic, below) – in terms of price and product range, which has also entered the market.
Both units are available in major stores in Klang Valley such as Harvey Norman, All IT Hypermart, Radioshack and Machines.
Design and fit
The Charge HR is a pretty well-built device and at the same time pretty unassuming too. You can place it on either arm and it doesn’t look too out of place even when you’re dressed up for a function.
The strap is made up of a flexible rubberised material that is not unlike most sport watches. On top of the device face is a small black OLED band, which displays all the relevant fitness data. On the side is a small button that acts as a toggle switch.
What I liked about the strap is that it has a standard watch buckle-type clasp which was much more convenient to put on. The Jawbone UP3 on the other hand had a fancy hook on-type strap that I find found impractical, as it took a long time to get strapped up.
The OLED band on the Charge HR is a tad small and isn’t the brightest, which makes it hard to read. For the sake of visibility, I wished the LED band was slightly larger, especially when you’re running halfway and you need read your vitals.
Also, except for the heart rate data point which stays on for about 10 seconds, the other data points displayed such as time, steps taken is slightly too short for my liking.
When I first received the device, I had to press the side button in order to get the LED to light up to show the data. Pressing the button further in succession would then toggle the data point such as time, number of steps taken, heart rate, calories burnt and so on.
After a week or so, Fitbit issued a firmware update that added support for ‘twist toggling,’ which allowed me to just turn on the LED with a flick of the wrist much like what you can do with smartwatches these days.
What’s more is that with a tap on the band, you can toggle through your data points without having to press the button on the side. This was certainly a welcome addition to the Charge HR.
Another nifty feature with the Fitbit is that you can enter an ‘exercise mode’ by long pressing the side button. This puts you into a specialised sub mode that allows you to have a stopwatch clock, number of steps, calories burnt and real-time heart rate monitoring for a specific period of exercise. Long pressing the side button exits the exercise mode, where upon a summary of your workout will appear on the LED screen.
Meanwhile, the UP3 has a much simpler design and does not have a LED display, which I find disappointing as it can’t even tell you the time. Aside from three LED icons that tell you whether you’re in activity mode (orange), sleep mode (blue) or notification mode (white), information must be gleaned from the app on your smartphone.
A major pet peeve for me in the UP3 is that it appears that there is no way to start the exercise mode and you can only do so via the app. This is highly impractical as one isn’t likely to carry your smartphone around in order for you to start tracking your exercise.
At the back of the Charge HR, there are two green LED lights, which flicker all day long. Fitbit says this is its heart rate monitor, based on its Purepulse technology, which the company claimed is the most accurate on the market. Test against manual measurements attest to this accuracy.
The UP3 doesn’t have a real-time heart rate monitor and only has sensors that track your resting heart rate measured throughout the day. I found the Fitbit combination of real-time heart rate and resting heart rate monitoring more practical than I did Jawbone’s solo resting heart rate feature.
One thing to note however is that there have been reports that some Fitbit wearers experienced rash or skin allergy as a result of prolonged usage of the device.
Fitbit has this to say: “Customers who have had an allergic reaction to any wearable device, including jewellery, watches, or activity trackers, should consult their doctor before wearing a new device. As with any jewellery or wearable device, we recommend taking it off occasionally, not wearing it too tightly, and keeping it clean and dry.”
To be fair, not only does Fitbit suffer from this problem as other users of other brands have also reported skin allergies too. Thing is, it’s hard to say if you’re allergic to such a device until you’ve tried it, so users who are prone to allergic reactions might want to think twice before getting into it.
That said, Fitbit has said that if you are unsatisfied with your Fitbit product for any reason, you have 45 days from the date of purchase to request a full refund. If you’ve bought it via retailers, customers should be able to return purchases to the retailer based on that retailer’s return policy.
As far as charging the device is concerned, the Fitbit has a special charging cable that you can snap on to any USB charger while the Jawbone UP3 too has a similar cable but makes a magnetic connection to the device, akin to how the MacBooks are charged.
On the whole, I did find the Charge HR comfortable to wear, very light and fairly stylish to fit on the arm while the biggest selling point for the Jawbone UP3 is that it is much lighter to wear compared to the Fitbit.
Setup and daily use
The Fitbit Charge HR app is available on Google Play Store, Apple App Store as well as Windows Store, while the Jawbone UP3 app is only available on the first two, with support for Windows “coming soon”, according to its website.
After downloading the app and entering basic information such as your current weight, height and some basic targets like weight you want to work towards and the number of steps you want to walk per day, you can start measuring them on both apps.
Setup was easy and wasn’t tedious at all for both apps. However, the first time I connected the Charge HR to my app via Bluetooth connectivity, it did prompt me do a firmware update. From time-to-time, Fitbit says it would provide firmware updates and for the most part these steps weren’t complicated.
The one thing I did find a tad annoying is the synching times between the Charge HR and my app take quite a fair bit of time, especially if you’ve just turned on your Bluetooth for the first time.
I find that it can take up to a minute for the data to sync. Other times, I find that the app ‘hangs’ and doesn’t respond till I force the app to re-sync. Synching times for the UP3 was slightly better although not markedly.
Aside from this, I would say the strongest selling points Fitbit has besides being in the market longest is that it has a comprehensive set of data analytics for users to track. And it’s pretty intuitive to use.
Jawbone’s app is also pretty intuitive to use but the company has chosen to present data differently from Fitbit.
On Fitbit’s ‘Dashboard’ page, you’ll have your main data points such as the number of steps taken in a day, resting and real time heart rates, distance (km) traversed in a day, active minutes, floors climbed in a day, how many workout hours in a day, weight target, sleep times, calories in/ out per day, calories burnt and water intake per day.
Another plus point that the Charge HR has over the Jawbone UP3 is that you can view the former's data analytics using your browser. Connectivity is achieve via a small dongle provided by Fitbit that attaches to your PC's or Mac's USB port. Once connected, you can login via a web interface and get more detailed view of your workout, heart rate, exercise mode, steps taken and calories burnt, etc.
I find that most of the time, I would look only at a few key metrics such as steps taken, resting heart rate, distance traversed, workout minutes, and hours slept.
The default goal for most is 10,000 steps a day and most of the time, you’ll need to be in active exercise if you want to attain or surpass this target. In my tests, I find that the pedometer (the function that measures your steps) is fairly accurate.
However, its accuracy depends a lot on whether your arm where your Fitbit is worn is actively engaged or not. I find that if you do a lot of throbbing motion with your Fitbit such as kickboxing or sprinting, the pedometer will record steps taken when no steps are actually taken. To be fair, all pedometers do suffer from such inaccuracies and that isn’t necessary a problem with Fitbit per se.
In my test, I also wore both the Jawbone and Fitbit on both hands to find out how different both the pedometers were. Generally, I find the Fitbit reports slightly more accurate steps taken compared with the Jawbone but not by much.
One plus point is that I find the heart rate monitor to be pretty accurate too when measured against my own manual pulse measurements whether it was after a workout or when at rest. This to me is the best selling point of the Charge HR.
However, while clicking further on the heart rate icon does tell you your resting heart trend over time, it doesn’t tell you much more than that except to say that the lower your heart rate the better your physical condition is.
Off to dreamland
I find Fitbit’s sleep monitoring app rudimentary at best. Basically, it just tells the user the three stages of sleep – when you’re supposedly in sleep; when you’re restless and when you’re awake.
Presumably, it does so by tracking movements while you’re sleeping and this I suspect may not be the best way of tracking actual sleep patterns.
As for sleep tracking on the Jawbone, the company touts its bio impedance sensors, which the company claims is able to track sleep patterns accurately. The app is able to track three different phases of sleep, namely, light sleep, deep sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Light sleep is self-explanatory; deep sleep is when the body is supposed to repair and regrow tissues, build bone and muscle, and strengthen the immune system; and REM sleep is when your mind dreams.
I can’t attest to the actual accuracy of the different sleep stage in my sleep but in some cases, I suspect I wasn’t really in REM sleep when the UP3 said I was. And in some stages when my wife reported to me that I was in deep sleep, it recorded me being in light sleep state.
Perhaps the best selling point for the Jawbone app not present in the Fitbit app is that the former has an interactive analysis system on the cloud that ‘advises’ you on your optimum patterns for exercise, food intake, sleep duration et al.
Dubbed the Smart Coach system the Jawbone UP3 band provides personal advice on your goals and objectives and the more you use your device, the better the Smart Coach will understand you, according to the company.
In my brief tests, the Smart Coach did dispense personal advice as advertised. Admittedly, I didn’t spend months with the UP3 but I suspect the accuracy of such advice needs more work as some of the tips given to me were common sense tips (such as you should sleep more when my sleep goals weren’t met) and weren’t very informative.
Finally, the Charge HR automatically tracked sleeping mode without user intervention while the UP3 did not, although I’m told that the next firmware update by Jawbone will incorporate this automatic sleep mode tracking feature.
[Updated with new information on UP3]
Since the review came out on Sept 9, all UP activity trackers from Jawbone have new over-the-air software updates, which the company says would enhance users' experience in sleep and daily activity tracking, as well as expand users' insights into the state of their heart.
Living with it
I suppose the first all important question is: How long does the battery last? The answer really depends how many hours it stays on your wrist. I find that if you’re wearing it for 24 hours, it can give you no more than two-and-a-half days at best, while at 18 hours or so, three days to four days at best.
The UP3 had better battery life of up to five days but bear in mind, it doesn’t have a real-time heart rate monitor to sap its battery life. However, charging times for both devices were pretty good; on average it took under 2 hours to get it to full charge again.
Both devices also had the option to interface with many health and fitness apps but I chose MyFitnessPal to go with the time I had the Fitbit. MyFitnessPal is an app that tracks the kind of food I ate and made a daily note of my calorie intake.
The integration with the app was seamless and data from my Fitbit exercise routine did port over nicely to MyFitnessPal, helping me to take note of how many calories I’m consuming taking into account my calories burnt.
But perhaps the bigger question is whether or not these tiny devices do motivate you to go further in exercising or get you to be more conscious about healthy living?
Again, a lot of that depends on how motivated you are about being fitter and reaching your goals. If you’re looking for a miracle device that will help you lose weight and get in shape, then fitness trackers – whether it’s Fitbit or Jawbone or others – in general aren’t for you.
Fitbit however claims that its social media motivator platform called Fitbit Challenges have become a powerful motivator for the Fitbit community and acts as a catalyst for engagement. Jawbone has the same functions and calls it UP Team.
Fitbit claims to have received positive feedback from a Fitbit user survey that claims that 91.1% of its users say its platform motivates them to be more active, and 84.7% say it will help them achieve their fitness goals.
I’m not sure what to make of these figures as I suspect that isn’t necessarily true of Malaysians but I only have anecdotal evidence for this from straw polls conducted by me on people I know who have fitness trackers.
For most people I suspect, simply strapping on a device like this may simply be a novelty and as such, once the novelty wears out, so does the motivation to exercise, and that means users abandoning their trackers.
But if you’re the kind who’s already got an attitude to exercise, live healthier and aim to have more activity in your life, having an activity tracker could be a good thing.
Both the Fitbit and Jawbone are good devices as activity and exercise trackers as for the most part it claims to do what it does. I do however find that the Charge HR just edges the UP3, as the former has what I believe to be a more practical package, real-time heart rate monitoring, stronger overall analytics, and a more solid build.
Still the UP3 has some promising features too that the Charge HR does not have such as the Smart Coach although Fitbit has a similar service under its premium service -- so if you’ve a friend that has both, do try to check it out before committing.
In the final analysis, my advice would be to truly ask yourself the question as to what you’re buying such as device for before entering the murky world of fitness trackers.
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