Counterpoint & Perspective: Other Activity Trackers

Do a web search for “activity trackers” right now.  Go ahead, do it.  What do you see?  Almost every link is a gadget reviewer providing their thoughts or comparison of the latest and greatest device to come to market.  Readers beware: this blog is NOT going to turn into one of those sites!

When I post to my blog here it blasts off a link to my Facebook, Twitter, & Tumblr pages.  Since my recent fitness tracker posts (HERE and HERE), many of my friends and family have reached out to me privately with questions about the devices.  This made me realize two things:

(1) – People want to know why I jumped right to the Fitbit Force for myself, and Fitbit Flex for my wife.  What about the competition?  Keep reading to learn more about my decisions.

(2) – Folks have asked me if I’m now suddenly a fitness blogger.  Perhaps I need to clarify the purpose of this blog, the focus, and the future.

So let’s get right to it….

BLOGGING: WHAT MOST MATTERS TO ME

Folks at companies such as TechCrunch and Engadget are employed, paid to provide their thoughts, comparisons and analysis of new devices as they come to market.  We as consumers should expect them to cover EVERYTHING they can, providing us a portal to visit where we can learn from their data and get professional, relatively unbiased assessments.

Sites like mine, ran by individuals, can delve deeper into the personal side of things.  Suddenly the review isn’t just about which device functions better in a short term test, but rather what I may prefer, as a person.  Some folks love coffee, others prefer tea.  Some people crave chocolate, others ice-cream.  My blog is about me, my opinions, and my own very specific experiences.

Realizing that this is now my third post in a row about fitness devices, it may seem like health is the focus of this blog.  Ignore the trend, and understand the author.  Only those appliances which I choose to bring into my life will be featured here.  If the tool does not interest me or serve some purpose in my life, chances are it won’t earn any attention in my blog.  Today it is fitness gear, tomorrow it might be a new laptop.

This blog is and always will be stories about my life, my observations, and my hopefully objective but definitely personal opinions.  Enjoy!

HOW I GOT ON THE ACTIVITY TRACKER KICK

Back in September 2013 my iPhone was upgraded to the new 5S model, which features the M7 motion processor.  Then a month later people started to release apps which took use of this processor. Apps such as those listed in THIS article.  As I began to play around with these new programs I quickly realized that I had been perhaps to quick to dismiss the idea of an activity tracker in the past.  Suddenly these fancy pedometers were indeed something I wanted to explore.  Could they serve a useful purpose in my digital life?

Since my phone is always on me it seemed like I might be able to find a nice activity tracker app and avoid having to buy any extra hardware.  However I quickly learned that the current apps available right now failed to provide an accurate estimate of the measurement that matters most to me: CALORIC BURN.

With my new-found interest in an activity monitor, I had two goals/measurements that matters to me:

  1. ACTIVITY– Encourage me to be more active.  Record my activity data so that I can become more aware of my lifestyle, and attempt to move more.  Get fit & healthy.
  2. CALORIC BURN– Calculate my calories burned each day, so that I may compare it against my caloric intake data, which I record on MyFitnessPal daily.  This would help me make sure that I reach/maintain ideal goals such as weight, BMI, etc.  

My search for iOS apps started with a free pedometer, but quickly moved to Nike+ Move.  They give you good information & inspiration to get moving, but provide no caloric burn data.  While the Nike+ Move app does not provide caloric data, the Nike+ FuelBand app does– but it also requires the purchase of their wristband device.  So I’d have to keep looking.

There are only a few apps that will show calories burned, such as the Argus by Azumio app.  However they all use very basic step/calorie calculation to determine caloric burn.  These figures were proven in my testing, and do not properly reflect a person’s Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).  Same goes for the Moves app

While there are other apps that I’ve tried, none of them seemed to do what Fitbit claims to do: determine your TDEE based on data recorded by their devices.  It won’t be long before someone uses the M7 processor to render that data with the same accuracy that the Fitbit claims.  But that is only useful to people whose phone is on their body most of the day.  As discussed in my prior blog posts, the phone as the sensor doesn’t work for everyone, especially those whose phone resides in a purse, on their desk or in a charger during most of the day.

After whetting my appetite for motion-based data I came up empty in search of an iOS app that could use the M7 processor.  But now I had this crazy drive to learn more about modern “pedometers” and chose to dig deeper and find out my true TDEE.  For months I’ve been using MyFitnessPal to record my caloric intake, and using their estimate for TDEE.  Could technology provide me a true, more accurate depiction of my daily caloric burn?

FITBIT WON ME OVER … OR DID THEY?

Once I had determined that no iPhone app would do what I wanted to my satisfaction then the hunt began for an “activity tracker” that would meet my needs.  Remember, up until now I had been happy using online calculators for BMR/TDEE.  I’m not a personal trainer, or a hard core athlete.  Just an average guy looking to stay fit and healthy using some fun gadgets along the way, and although using the “averages” these web calculators give you, these devices intrigued me.

Lucky for me, reviews of these modern “pedometers” kept popping up in my tech-based RSS feeds, especially since the holiday season meant new versions were flooding the market.  This made it very easy to find articles, so I started there, reading about the various options, comparing specs and doing the normal shopping research.

One of the more vital bits of input that I received during my initial research were replies to Facebook posts I made asking my dear friends & family to give me their feedback.  Who used what device?  What had they heard “on the street” about various brands?  What recommendations did they have?

From this small sampling came maybe a dozen people’s feedback, which mirrored what I had been reading online.  The Fitbit Flex or Fitbit One were always the most recommended, followed closely by the JAWBONE UP24 device or its predecessor.  Only one person had the Nike+ FuelBand giving it a spot in last place.

Not surprisingly the lesser know devices were not even mentioned, such as the rather new Misfit Shine, the Striiv Smart Pedometer, or even the Withings Pulse.  There are obviously others, but these were the most commonly found during my research.  Next I began to search the fitness forums where devices like the or BodyMedia LINK were being discussed.  However the BodyMedia device at seemed more appropriate for a more advanced athlete.  Given the monthly fee you had to pay for their service, devices like the BodyMedia were less desirable to me.  Many users of fitness forums also preferred to just use a heart rate monitor, but we’ll talk more about that in a moment.

As I considered what device to buy it was important to me that the user base be large.  Not only for the support of the community (examples: Fitbit, Jawbone) but also knowing this data might help improve the quality of the data offered by the manufacturer.  Also knowing the company would be around for the long haul was important.  If you wander into your local stores you will find two brands (Fitbit & Jawbone) command the majority of the physical retail space for activity trackers.  There are others, but none as well-stocked in product as those two.

As I found myself then narrowing it down primarily to the JAWBONE UP24 and the Fitbit Flex or Fitbit One, I began to look at user reviews instead of just tech site reviews.  Quality issues with the Jawbone products became apparent.  One of the replies to my Facebook query was by someone who was on their third Jawbone UP device.  “Customer service is great..but the product..not so much” she wrote.  Was the new Jawbone UP24 going to be plagued by the same quality issues, or would this new Bluetooth-touting version have improved build quality?

And at the same time it seemed the Fitbit was not without fault.  I had read a few articles about the rubber “bands” breaking, and one friend of mine had already roasted through his own Fitbit Flex band.  The saving grace there: the bands were meant to be replaceable making this a cost-issue, but not anything that caused the device a terminal death.  Still, would this cost make the Flex a poor purchase?  Was the Force band better, especially since those units were not “swappable” to new bands?  And ultimately was that better than historic quality concerns with prior Jawbone devices?  Hair-pulling began!

Just hours before I made my final purchase I was tossing my decision back and forth.  My final logic internally sounded something like this:

  • BodyMedia: Due to the placement on your body (upper arm) and the monthly service costs, it was easy to eliminate this from the running even though the heart rate monitoring seemed like a more accurate way to measure caloric burn.
  • Nike FuelBand: No integration with MyFitnessPal made it the lease desirable wrist band.  I also didn’t care for how it felt on my wrist when I had test-worn one.  And the whole concept of “Nike fuel” didn’t interest me– it seemed too much a gamification.
  • Jawbone UP24: Definitely in the running and I really liked the new orange version.  But I remained worried from reviews about the quality issues.  And the design might cause the ends to snag on clothing (long sleeves, jackets).  The app looked nice, but overly cartoon-like to me.  No dashboard (web) just your phone app.  No display.
  • Fitbit One: Small and easy to hide, a nice OLED display.  But I was worried I would lose it, or forget it in the laundry.  Plus when I buy things I usually get the latest, greatest and best version.  The One seemed nice, but “old” compared to Flex/Force.
  • Fitbit Flex: Wrist location was my preference over a small pocket device, but the lack of a display compared to the Force or One made it less desired.  Again, not the best but still a very nice device.  Ultimately this is what my wife would pick.
  • Fitbit Force: Best of all worlds- you got the OLED display I loved on the One, but with a nice wrist placement.  I don’t currently wear a watch, and the Force gave me that feature.  Stair climbing data over the Flex, bonus!  Online reviews almost always chose the Fitbit over the Jawbone, and they seemed to have higher quality ratings over the Jawbone, too.  App screen shots indicated it was laid out in a basic, clean, and simple fashion.  And finally, the web dashboard won me over.  When I’m near my work or home computer I want the larger screen and full keyboard– access to my data on the web is a great thing!  PS: Future software updates should allow for iOS notifications to to push out to the Force, too!

Winner: Fitbit Force.  It came down to the UP24 vs Force, but in the end the display, web dashboard, iOS app design and online reviews/recommendations pushed me into the Fitbit camp.

Now I am nearing the point of two weeks with my Fitbit.  But the question that has haunted me since my first weekend with the device keeps ringing in my head is … do I trust the data provided?  Is this somehow better than just using a calculated TDEE?  And to really determine any of this, how do I qualify the Fitbit figures?

With a huge shoot-out comparison of devices, that is how!

counterpoint-wristbands

COMING SOON: COMPARING THE FITBIT TO ANOTHER PEDOMETER WRIST BAND, 2 HEART RATE MONITORS & MORE TESTING!

Since my purchase two weeks ago I’ve been analyzing every bit of data I can get from the Fitbit, comparing it to online calculators and apps on my phone.  It appears I’m not the only person out there trying to do these comparisons; check out two other articles HERE and HERE, just to show a few.  No matter if you trust the Fitbit data or not, THIS ARTICLE from Northwester University speaks of the benefits we gain have from the data our phones and other devices might provide us.  Especially as this data quality improves over time.

After I published my most recent blog post HERE showing my treadmill walk and variations in that data I began to brainstorm for ways to determine caloric burn accuracy against the Fitbit.  Thus far the Fitbit has done a good job getting me to be more active, but the second goal was caloric burn– and I wanted to verify accuracy.  And most trusted sources suggest a Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) is the best way to collect accurate data about your caloric burn.

Since the Fitbit shows caloric burn over time, the only way to really compare would be to wear an HRM or similar device all day just like I wear my Fitbit.  My research brought me back to the BodyMedia LINK, a device you wear all day with an HRM built in.   I’m not ready to shell out the $6.95/mo you have to pay for their software to work, but if they want to send me a device to test I’d be more than happy to give it a go!  I’ve ready enough data from enough personal trainers to give the BodyMedia device all the confidence in the world!

For now I’ve opted to start smaller and just compare a few workouts on my treadmill to the Fitbit using a more basic HRM.  To accomplish this I would need a HRM that would record my workout and then be able to compare that data to the Activity logged in the Fitbit app.

From my days spent tinkering in the automotive aftermarket car audio world I was familiar with the brand Scosche, so when I found their Rhythm Device it caught my attention (and the bright yellow color kind of makes it hard to miss!)  Reviews seemed hit or miss, with some people saying the data would cut out sometimes.  But with many praises and the fact that it was arm-mounted instead of chest-mounted (which sounded more comfortable to me), it sounded worthy of a try.  Plus the device would work with a variety of apps beyond their own, which was nice.  The only real downside to the device is that it runs classic Bluetooth instead for Smart BT 4.0 so the battery life suffers.  But I didn’t stop there…

When you talk fitness and HRMs to anyone the name POLAR is bound to come up.  With over 30 years making devices in this industry they are  a leader and the benchmark.  Heck the Schwinn 270 Recumbent Bike that I want has HRMs built into the handles, yet STILL works with POLAR chest strap HRMs.  Technically there are many companies now making BT4.0 HRM devices that would work with that bike, but none are as well-known or trusted as POLAR.  So I began to research their offerings, eventually determining that the Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Sensor is best option.  POLAR has an app that can record the HRM data, but like the Scosche it can be used with other apps such as the Digifit iCardio app for example (a popular one amongst MyFitnessPal users).

BUT WAIT .. now that I had two HRMs to test against the Fitbit, I also stumbled upon a device I wasn’t even aware of a month ago– the Polar Loop Activity Tracker device!  Just released a few weeks ago, you can find their micro site for the device and more info HERE.  While their POLAR FLOW software does not yet integrate with MyFitnessPal, the features seemed to fall somewhere close to the Force. And best yet, it can sync directly to your HRM — meaning when you workout, the Loop actually uses the HRM data for caloric burn, rather than the estimates you get from a device like a Fitbit!  No need for HRM software, the wristband does all that for you.

If you want to read more about the POLAR Loop check out THIS REVIEW which speaks highly of it.  Then after that, read THIS REVIEW which speaks less than stellar about the device.  Even having read both of those, I’ve decided to give it a try– and now my plans for the next blog installment will be:

  • Review the Scosche Rhythm.  Compare the HRM data it collects for step-based cardio activity to the Fitbit for purposes of determining Fitbit accuracy.
  • Review the Polar Loop Activity Tracker.  Compare first the HRM data it collects (using the H7 chest strap) for step-based cardio activity to the Fitbit, but then also to the Scosche.  And finally, compare the step-based daily calories data it collects to the Fitbit daily data.
  • Review the GeoPalz iBitz.  Picked this up for our daughter, figured she might like to play along.  I’ll write a brief blurb about it in my next blog post, and let you know if it was worthy of it’s relatively small price of admission.

Check back in a week or two… MORE FUN IS YET TO COME!

Advertisements

Published by

Ari Jay Comet

Sharing my life experiences. Interacting with technology. Digital self-expression. Binary is black, white, and many shades of grey.

5 thoughts on “Counterpoint & Perspective: Other Activity Trackers”

  1. I had a Fitbit One which I liked but couldn’t keep up with. After I permanently lost the second One, I orederd a Loop and a Force. The Loop arrived in early November. The Force in late December.

    The Force had one HUGE flaw. When I was walking fast for exercise (4 mph) it would under count my steps by 25-40%. Not at 3.5 mph. Not running. Only walking at or very close to 4 mph! Pretty bizarre. Fitbit concluded that I had a faulty device and agreed to replace it. Then they had their rash of rashes and my replacement never came. Finally, a few weeks ago, they insisted on sending me a check instead.

    As the world’s leading Force proponent and a man with a scientific bent, I would challenge you to repeat some of my experiments. The easiest thing to do is to get on your wife’s treadmill and walk one mile each at a variety of speeds say, 3, 3.5, 4, and 4.5 mph. Record your steps at the beginning and end of each speed. Then calculate your average stride (actually step) length at each of those speeds. I’m betting that you will get reasonable values at all speeds except 4 at which speed your step length will become ridiculously long. Of course you stride length didn’t go wonky, your Force just started dropping a lot of your steps.

    I’ve never had a Flex to test but suspect there is some kind of flaw in all of Fitbit’s wrist based algorithms. I’ve bought a third One now to test with. It does not have the 4 mph problem.

    I’ll be happy to share my data with you if you like.

    1. Hmm– that is very interesting. I may indeed have to take you up on that offer. However it is worth noting that in any cardio-based exercise I’m a huge fan of HRMs. Meaning that while it is surely nice to see step/distance data from your activity tracker (Loop, Force/Flex, etc)– if you are walking/running for the purpose of exercise, I feel the HRM is a better meter of caloric burn.

      However the argument can and should be made that any step-based activity should NOT require a HRM. But as you noted, there can be errors in the math. My wife noted the other day that she could “fast walk” at a certain speed (I think it was around 3.7 mph) but she could also “slow-run” that same speed. Those two different methods meant a different stride, and a very different “arm swing” too— so i suspect that is the difference you’re seeing. However, the Fitbit devices SHOULD be able to tell the distance/difference in their math (the treadmill obviously cannot).

      Thanks for your feedback– all very good data. I’ll certainly add that testing to my list of “fun things to research” and will let you know what I find when I can. First up, a week long trip to Disney with the family. Lots of steps to record, fun fun fun!!!

      1. It occurred to me after I wrote that last post that you have a much more precise way to compare actual steps with those reported on the Force or Flex. You have a foot pod! I’ve never had one of those but almost bought one just to prove to Fitbit that I had not lost my mind.

        By the way, if you come up with a significant discrepancy, one of Fitbit’s standard response is that their trackers do not count steps accurately on a treadmill … that you must move forward through space for their step counting magic to work. In my tread mill experiments, the Force counted steps perfectly at all speeds other than 4 mph. Anyway, I finally had to repeat my experiments on a track to get the faulty device diagnosis. It’s pretty hard to maintain a set, steady pace walking on the ground but I got pretty good at it :-).

Comment or Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s