Fit Tech: Nike+ FuelBand

[Technology can improve your life—literally. In our continuing series Fit Tech, we look at the latest and greatest in health and fitness gadgets, apps, and services.]

Pedometers are nothing new, but a new breed of connected trackers combine hardware, software, and wireless connectivity to give you a lot more than the step-counters of old. The Nike brand is no stranger to this, with its Nike+ watches, apps, shoes, and iPod integration. The latest in this lineup is the Nike+ FuelBand, a slim strip of rubber you're meant to wear on your wrist all day. I spent over a month with this $150 gadget to see if it really does help me get in shape. While I think it's one of the better movement-tracking devices around, it does have a few notable drawbacks.

The concept is simple. In the narrow rubber-and-metal band is an acceleromter that tracks movement, a very basic OLED display, and a small battery to keep it powered. Some software smarts turns your movement into NikeFuel points. The band also estimates steps, calories burned, and displays the time. That's really all there is to it.

Without GPS, the FuelBand won't track your runs, but you'll earn plenty of NikeFuel points.

This simplicity is the best and worst feature of the FuelBand. It's got one subtle button; tap it to cycle through the day's accumlation of NikeFuel, calories burned, steps taken, or the current time. The features of Nike's other, larger wrist bands haven't made the cut. You won't find GPS, or pace timers, or a heart rate monitor. The upside is that the relative lack of features allows the FuelBand to be quite small, light, and comfortable. Snap it on and you'll soon forget you're wearing it.

Fitness level: Nike+ FuelBand is appropriate for everyone from the "daily walks in the park" set to athletes into serious training, but it's clearly aimed at the less-professional exerciser. Serious athletes may want more detailed tracking features like timers, heart rate monitors, or GPS.

Best Activities: As with all fitness tracking devices based on accelerometers, the FuelBand is great at knowing when you're moving and not-so-great at knowing how difficult that movement is. If you lift weights, you're going to be grossly short-changed on the amount of NikeFuel you earn. For those that run, cross-train, play tennis, or really any other cardiovascular body-movement activity, FuelBand works well. It's splashproof, but not waterproof, so swimming is out.

The clasp is a USB connector, so it's easy to plug into your laptop to charge and sync.

Design and Specs: The FuelBand is exceedingly simple and comfortable. The clasp is secure and won't catch on your arm hair or clothing, and the band is lightweight, shock-resistant, and subtle enough to wear all day, every day. I wore mine to a wedding and nobody even noticed. One side of the clasp is a male USB connector, so you can plug the band directly into your laptop to charge and sync (Nike provides a USB charge cable, too). It also syncs well via Bluetooth with your iPhone (the Android version of the app is coming this summer).

The OLED display adjusts automatically to the ambient light conditions, so it's dimmer in a dark room and bright in direct sunlight. It's not quite as bright as it needs to be for use in the bright sun, but it's readable and better than a lot of similar devices in that regard. Battery life is a bit of a downer. Perhaps because the band is so small, there just isn't a lot of room for battery; I could go two days without charging, but I had to plug in on the 3rd. I'd love to get closer to one week between charges.

Apps and service: If there's one benefit to paying $150 for a simple accelerometer band just because it carries the Nike brand, it's the Nike ecosystem. NikeFuel has been around for years, and is supported by a number of products, including an upcoming training app for the Xbox 360 with Kinect. I wasn't happy with the iPhone app for the first couple weeks, but a recent update has vastly improved performance, fixed bugs, and even added Path integration.

The Nike+ service and FuelBand app do a good job of providing motivators. There are loads of "achievements" to earn, good web tools for tracking your history, and comparing against friends on social networks. Because it's Nike, you know there are other gadgets, apps, or even a pair of shoes that can build on your sweat investment. When it comes to fitness tracking services, there are worse places to set up shop.

It's not without flaws, but the Nike+ Fuelband is a winner.

Verdict: The real test of any fitness tracking device is: does it change your behavior? Do you work out more often, or harder, or longer than you did without it? I admit, I'm not the type to be pushed harder by a cold digital "achievment" without real-world benefits, but when the little Nike+ guy goes absolutely bonkers because I, say, earned more NikeFuel than I have on any other Wednesday, it makes me smile. It doesn't happen often, but I have found myself doing a few extra calisthenics in the living room at night when I'm just a little short of my daily goal. In speaking with other FuelBand owners, the "just a little more to reach my goal" effect seems to be widespread.

The Nike+ FuelBand isn't likely to cause a major shift in your excercising habits, but it's a good supplement to one. Setting activity goals and earning simple achievements for meeting them can make you stretch just a little more, and the comfort and convenience of the Nike+ FuelBand makes it a very good way to do that. The $150 price is a bit on the steep side for a device with so few features, but the quality and simplicity of its design make up for it.

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