Fit Tech: Fitbit Ultra

[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.]

The Fitbit greets you with motivational messages.

The slick little Fitbit Ultra ($100) is more than just a pedometer: It can track your mileage, calories burned, altitude, sleep patterns and has a full suite of fitness tools behind it. As a soon-to-be marathon runner, I wanted a tool that could motivate me to meet my long distance goals. Did the Fitbit Ultra help me make the most of my training? Read on to find out.

Fitness level: From novices to mountain climbers, the Fitbit will satisfy walkers and runners of all levels.

Best Activities: Walking, running, hiking and stair climbing are the best activities for the Fitbit.

Design and Features: The Fitbit Ultra clips to your clothing unobtrusively so you can wear it while you’re working out and throughout your day-to-day activities. It comes in two colors: blue and plum. The outside of the Fitbit is black while the inside of the clip is color. Your Fitbit Ultra comes with a syncing/charging station, a sleep armband and a belt holster (though you don’t need the holster to clip the Fitbit to your body).

The Fitbit is pretty tiny.

The Fitbit Ultra has a built-in accelerometer that measures motion patterns and tells you how many calories you’ve burned, the number of steps you’ve taken, your distance traveled and your sleep quality. The built-in altimeter measures your vertical climb up hills and stairs.

There’s a small OLED display on the Fitbit that displays all of this information. Using the single hardware button on the Fitbit, you can toggle through Steps, Distance, Floors Climbed, Calories Burned, Flower (which grows as you increase in activity) and a clock. Holding down the button will kickstart the Fitbit into stopwatch mode. You can also personalize this display with your name. When you pick up the Fitbit, it will say something like “Hi Ginny! High 5!” or some other sort of motivational message.

The flower shows you how active you are.

The display’s blue text is easy enough to see indoors, but once I got outside with it, I had a hard time reading the text. This is annoying especially for outdoor runners. Not being able to quickly glance at your Fitbit and see your mileage because the sun is too bright is disruptive. I’d have to cup my hand around the Fitbit in order to see it.

While the Fitbit clips on to your clothing pretty snugly, mine actually became detached while I was riding my bike. And I’m not alone: I’ve read other reports online of people losing their Fitbits while working out. This might be a deciding factor when choosing between something like the Nike+ Fuelband, which fits around your wrist. While I like how you can keep the Fitbit obscured by your clothing, the Fuelband bracelet design might make it more secure on your body.

Syncing your Fitbit to the Web is a snap. Your stats will automatically upload to Fitbit.com whenever your Fitbit is within 15 feet of the base station. The base station must be plugged in to your Mac or PC in order for the syncing to occur, however.

Using the included armband, you can also wear the Fitbit to track your sleep habits. After you sync your Fitbit, you can see how restful your sleep was. The FitBit records anytime you wake up during the night. I’m an incredibly light sleeper so my statistics weren’t all that surprising. According to Fitbit, the purpose of this feature is to help you sleep better though I didn’t have much luck improving my sleep habits.

Web services/mobile apps:

The Fitbit Web dashboard.

You can then track your weekly steps and calorie burn via the Fitbit website. When you log in, you’ll see how many steps you’ve taken for the day, the number of floors you’ve climbed, miles you’ve traveled, calories burned, and your overall active score. You’ll also see what badges you’ve earned, like the 10,000 Steps badge or the Top Daily Climb badge. You also get some neat statistics on your progress. For example, when I climbed 25 floors, FitBit said that was the equivalent of climbing the La Danta Pyramid.

If you’re looking to cut some weight, the Fitbit Web dashboard lets you create a food plan. You can opt to do a personalized food plan based on your activity, or you can opt for a sedentary plan. This plan starts out low and lets you earn calories as you are active throughout the day. Logging food can be kind of a pain and sometimes takes a lot of guesswork, but if you’re serious about losing weight, this is a good way to keep tabs on your habits.

The Fitbit also has an accompanying mobile app (for Android or iOS) that shares a lot of the same features as the Web app. The app lets you log food and your activities while you’re on the go and give you a quick look at your progress through the day.

The Fitbit with the charging station, armband and belt clip.

Verdict: The Fitbit is an excellent choice if you are a runner or a power-walker, or if you could stand to be a little more active in your life. Earning badges is an addictive way to gain more mileage in your daily activities (and thus burning more calories). For my marathon training, the Fitbit motivated me through some of my hardest workouts. It also kept me moving on my rest days as I still wanted to meet my daily calorie and steps goals.

If you prefer other fitness activities, like elliptical machines at the gym, swimming, or cycling, the Fitbit might not work for you as it only tracks steps and altitude. Another downside is that there’s no music integration so you’ll have to carry a separate iPod or your phone for tunes. Finally, beware of the Fitbit falling off during activity—that’s a sad way to lose $100. If you tend to misplace your possessions easily, you might opt for a Nike+ Fuelband or a fitness watch instead.

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