Activity-tracking wristbands: Why, how, and what to buy

Note: The Fitbit Force was recalled in Feb. 2014 for causing skin rashes. In March 2014, Fitbit was hit with a class-action lawsuit for the problem. We can no longer recommend the Force as a safe, useful product.

Let’s set aside the buzzwords. When some tech genius spouts off about “wearable computing,” he or she is really talking only about three kinds of devices. You have your eyewear (think Google Glass). You have your smartwatches (think Samsung’s Galaxy Gear). And you have your activity-tracking wristbands—my three favorite are the Jawbone UP24, Fitbit Force, and Basis B1.

The glasses and watches still feel like beta products, but many of the wristbands—and there are a lot of them—offer a high degree of polish, and can share tons of interesting data on how many steps you take, and how many hours you sleep, over a 24-hour period.

Whether you’re simply curious about your personal metrics, or you want to use your data to inform lifestyle changes, an activity-tracking wristband can make a great purchase. But even my three favorite activity trackers present some challenges. Choose the wrong one, and you’ll end up with a wristband that you never want to use—or, in worst-case scenarios, a band you can’t use at all. So consider the following before you buy an activity tracker for yourself or a friend.

Fashion, comfort, and fit

You won’t be hiding the activity tracker in your pocket, so you need to be comfortable with the aesthetics of the band you purchase. Is it something you’d proudly show off in public, or does the band’s design clash with your fashion sense? There’s also the “timepiece redundancy” factor to consider. Many activity trackers (including the Fitbit Force and Basis B1) double as wristwatches, so if you already wear a watch, you may have a tough decision ahead. For that reason alone, I personally prefer the Jawbone UP24. Its simple design evokes a Livestrong wristband, and it looks right at home next to my old-school wristwatch.

Image: Mike Homnick

The Jawbone UP24 is the only tracker in this roundup that doesn't try to mimic the functionality of a wristwatch.

You also need to respect the importance of comfort and fit. The UP24 comes in small, medium, and large circumferences, and if you choose this band, you should definitely follow Jawbone’s sizing instructions (and err toward a larger size, if in doubt). The Basis B1 comes with a very comfortable black rubber strap, but it is a bit bulky. Four optional strap designs, including a “premium leather” model, are also available for the B1.

The Fitbit Force has the most challenging strap of all. It’s too big to reasonably live next to an analog wristwatch, and its rubber clasp is extremely difficult to fasten down. That’s a shame, because the Force offers a winning set of features, including a simple real-time data display and Bluetooth syncing with the Fitbit mobile app. Sure, you can always get a Fitbit that stays in your pocket, such as the Fitbit One model, but I find that these types are too easily lost—or left inside pants pockets and thrown into the washing machine.

fitbit force clasp Image: Mike Homnick

The clasp on the Fitbit Force is surprisingly difficult to button down with confidence.

Because sensors matter

An activity tracker is only as good as the data it collects, and all data acquisition depends on the sensors hiding inside the band. The most rudimentary activity trackers—such as the UP24—come with a three-axis accelerometer and nothing else. Relying on a single sensor might sound like a handicap, but when paired with the right algorithms, an accelerometer can draw a fairly accurate picture of your daytime activity levels, and what your sleep patterns look like.

basis sensors Image: Basis

Some of the B1 Band's sensors directly touch your skin to measure heart rate, skin temperature, and perspiration.

The UP24, for example, examines your age, weight, and height, and then uses algorithms to report your daily step counts, how many miles you’ve walked, and how many calories you’ve burned. When you go to sleep, the accelerometer records subtle hand movements to report periods of light sleep, deep sleep, and those annoying periods of complete wakefulness. This type of step and sleep tracking amounts to table stakes in the fit-tech market, and all the trackers in this roundup use accelerometers to one degree or another.

Fitbit’s Force band one-ups the UP24 by adding an altimeter sensor to the mix. This component helps the band record how many “floors” you climb, interpreting a floor as an elevation gain of about 10 feet. Obviously, if you run stairs or climb mountains as part of your daily workout, the altimeter comes in handy. And, of course, the Force provides sleep data as well.

fitbit force steps Image: Mike Homnick

You can cycle through data on the Fitbit Force with a button press. Here it’s displaying the step counter.

The Basis B1 doesn’t have an altimeter, but its total sensor array still blows away the competition. Along with the obligatory accelerometer for step and sleep data, the band includes an optical blood-flow sensor to record your heart rate; a perspiration monitor to evaluate the intensity of your exercise; and a skin-temperature sensor to complement the perspiration monitor in gauging exertion levels. The Basis system collects all that data, squeezes it through a custom algorithm engine, and then spits out detailed reports of your daily exercise (or lack thereof).

Image: Mike Homnick

I like the Jawbone app's simple UI, but it's available only on iOS, and it doesn't provide the wealth of data that Basis offers.

Basis boasts that the B1 contains the “most advanced sensors on the market,” but earlier this year Jawbone acquired a company called BodyMedia, which is best known for its difficult-to-use activity trackers that measure skin temperature and perspiration levels. It seems inevitable that Jawbone will marry BodyMedia’s advanced technology with its own dead-simple user interface design, but currently the company is keeping quiet about its plans.

Getting to your data: Displays and software support

I’m bullish on the UP24, but mostly because I already wear a watch, and I need a tracker that’s as innocuous-looking as possible. But Jawbone’s simple, featureless design is also its Achilles’ heel: The UP24 doesn’t include any display to show your personal data in real time, and this omission is a deal-breaker for many people.

basis heart rate Image: Basis

The Basis B1 reports your heart rate among other real-time data.

In fact, unlike the bands from Fitbit and Basis, Jawbone’s tracker doesn’t even include a Web interface for viewing data. The only way to view the numbers the UP24 collects is to sync over Bluetooth with a mobile app that’s currently available only for iOS.

The FitBit Force and Basis B1 are much more generous in terms of revealing your activity data whenever and however you want. The Force features a bright OLED display that shows the current time, steps taken, miles covered, calories burned, and floors climbed. If you want more-detailed information, you can wirelessly sync the Force over Bluetooth with a variety of smartphones (any iPhone released since the 4s, along with a small collection of Android phones), as well as with your computer via a bundled USB dongle.

fitbit desktop

Thanks to desktop syncing, you can still use the Fitbit Force even if you lack a compatible smartphone. The data dive is deeper, but the experience is less convenient.

The Basis B1’s display is quite large, but it’s also relatively dim, even when you mash its backlight button. But at least its real-time data feedback is impressive. Besides showing the current time, the B1 reveals your daily step counts and calories burned, along with a real-time heart-rate report. And how’s this for a cool trick: The B1 band can sense whether you’re walking, running, or biking, and then provide real-time data that’s specific to those bursts of activity. Basis also provides deeper data dives via a browser interface (you sync to your computer over a USB connection) or a mobile app (supported devices include any iPhone released since the iPhone 4, plus six Samsung Android phones, the HTC One, and the LG Nexus 4).

Bottom line: Bluetooth syncing has removed a serious pain point in the activity-tracker market, but wireless syncing isn’t very helpful if your phone isn’t on the list of supported devices. All three companies need to get their Android houses in order, so you should proceed with caution before buying any of the trackers I recommend here.

Final considerations

All three of my favorite activity-tracking bands are water-resistant but not waterproof. This means you can wear them in the shower, but they aren’t appropriate for swimming. As for battery life, both Jawbone and Fitbit claim a battery life between seven and ten days (accurate estimates, in my experience), while Basis says the B1 will last about four days on a single charge.

basis droid dont sit v0.15 Image: Basis

The Android app for the Basis B1 Band offers motivational tools for leading a less sendentary life.

But what’s a few days of battery life between friends? If you’re serious about buying an activity tracker for yourself or as a gift, your top considerations should focus on the following questions:

  • Will I want to wear this device on my wrist every day?
  • Is this gadget compatible with my specific smartphone?
  • Does it report the data that I’m most curious about?
  • How do I feel about the tracker’s software interface, including all of its detailed reports and motivational tools?

It’s that last question that might require the most extended, deliberate investigation on your part. All three data-tracking platforms are packed with charts, graphs, and built-in utilities that hold a mirror up to your personal habits and cajole you into smarter lifestyle choices. Generally speaking, Jawbone’s approach and UI design is the most user friendly. Basis’s platform errs toward hard science and deep data, and Fitbit’s falls somewhere in between.

Still interested? Then dig into further information on the Jawbone, Fitbit, and Basis websites. It’s critical that your first experience with an activity tracker be a positive one. Otherwise, you may give up on such products entirely.

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