Review: Fitbit Zip is an affordable digital pedometer

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At a Glance
  • Fitbit Zip

Editor’s note: This review has been updated substantially—and the rating increased by a full level—after hearing Fitbit got in touch with us to offer technical support. The updates focus on issues related to background syncing, and are addressed within the review.

For months, I’ve used the Fitbit Ultra. It’s a tiny, rechargeable device that tracks every step I take; at a glance I can see the number of steps I’ve taken, how many miles I’ve walked, and even the floors I’ve climbed for the current day. And the device syncs that data to the Fitbit website and the Fitbit iPhone app, too.

I was thus eager to try Fitbit’s newest pedometer, which not only looks more fun, but is more fun to say, too: the $60 Fitbit Zip. The Zip is cuter and more colorful than its predecessor; it’s available in solid blue, white, lime (green), charcoal (black), or magenta. Unlike the Ultra’s LED display, the Zip’s screen uses LCD instead. If you have a hard time keeping those acronyms separate in your mind, the upshot is this: You can see the LED display on the Fitbit Ultra (or its successor, the Fitbit One) in the dark, because it lights up. The Zip’s screen doesn’t glow and isn’t backlit—like a traditional digital watch—so it’s tougher to see in low light. The Zip is cheaper than the Ultra or the One, each of which costs $100.

The Zip measures 1.4 inches tall, 1.1 inches wide, and 0.38 inches deep. It weighs 0.18 pounds, or 8 grams. In other words, it’s very tiny, and won’t weigh you down one iota. It ships with a color-matched rubbery case; you’ll use the case if you want to hook the Zip onto your shirt, pocket, belt loop, or sports bra. I always just plop my Ultra into my pocket, so I did the same with the Zip in my testing.

During my weeks with the Zip, I kept my Ultra in my pocket, too. They consistently reported essentially the same numbers, within a couple dozen steps of each other.

The Zip’s screen displays one of several bits of data it collects at a time. Press the screen to get it to toggle between displays, and you can see your total steps, distance in miles, a clock, your total burned calories, and the Fitbit Smiley. That last is meant to indicate how you’ve been doing recently in terms of staying physical and active; to me, it’s largely useless. I can barely tell the different versions of that smiley apart, and I also intuitively know whether I’ve been sitting around or moving about. If you log in to your Fitbit account, you can actually turn the Smile off for your device.

I also debated turning off the calories burned counter. If you leave the Zip on your nightstand all day, it will still read out some number of calories that you burned that day, based on your basal metabolic rate. (The human body burns calories just to exist. When you consume more calories than your body burns, you gain weight.) I’d prefer to see only the calories that I’ve burned through my activity while wearing the Zip—despite the approximations such numbers require.

Unlike the One and the Ultra, the Zip doesn’t track your sleep or floors climbed.

There are two ways to sync the Zip. First, it can sync to your Mac or PC via the included USB dongle—you plug the dongle in, and when your Zip is in range, it syncs to the Fitbit website over Bluetooth. If you’re using an iPhone 4S or iPhone 5, you can also sync directly to your phone over Bluetooth. (Fitbit says support for syncing to newer Android phones is coming eventually.)

In theory, you’re meant to be able to sync to the iPhone app silently in the background, thanks to BTLE. However, I couldn’t get it to work reliably at first: If I launched the app, my Zip would sync. When the app wasn’t running, it never seemed to update, despite Fitbit’s claims that it should. Neither our Fitbit press contact nor the tech support team responded to our initial queries on the issue, but a Fitbit employee who read an earlier version of this review explained that background syncing is turned off by default for the Zip. Though I had turned it on manually (Fitbit app -> More tab -> Devices -> Zip -> Background Sync), the setting was lost after removing the battery, which I did at one point (see below). Re-enabling the option got background sync working successfully, though Fitbit notes that it only works if the Fitbit app was recently running—meaning it can still keep a process alive in the background before your iPhone or third-generation iPad needs the memory for something else. That means you need to relaunch the Fitbit app on occasion to reinvigorate its ability to keep syncing in the background.

A key difference between the Zip and other Fitbit models centers on the battery. Other Fitbits require occasional recharging; the Zip doesn’t. Instead, it relies on a 3V coin battery—the sort that powers many digital watches. Fitbit claims that one battery should last you from four to six months; since the device hasn’t been out that long, we can’t yet verify those claims. A quick online search shows that replacement batteries are amusingly cheap.

When I initially synced the Zip to my iPhone, it replaced the Ultra previously linked to my account. At present, Fitbit supports just a single device per account, which in practice isn’t a serious limitation. During my first week with the device, I experienced a variety of issues: It would fail to sync properly, and it displayed the wrong time—which in turn meant it was attributing steps and other details to the wrong days part of the time. Removing the watch battery once didn’t fix things, but removing it and leaving it out for a minute—which may well have been voodoo—fixed what ailed me and it. Again, if you need to try a similar fix, remember to re-enable background syncing as described above, if it’s an option you’re after.

Whether you sync via your Mac or iPhone (or third-generation iPad), all your data gets stored at the Fitbit website. You can optionally share your data and compete amicably with friends via the website. Seeing that your buddies have 20,000 more steps than you do for the week can certainly provide some motivation to step it up.

Bottom line

Now that I successfully have background syncing working, I can recommend the Fitbit Zip heartily to cost-conscious consumers interested in getting started with digital fitness tracking of this sort. It’s competitively priced, tracks what it says it will, and seems durable enough.

I thought I’d miss the Ultra’s LED screen more than I do in practice, and I’ve found that I don’t miss the sleep tracking much, either. (I do miss the floors tracking feature, because I want that extra credit for the floors I climb.)

As an iPhone 5 owner, one of the Zip’s big draws for me was the wireless background syncing without requiring a USB dongle on my Mac. It’s surprising to me that the option is disabled by default, and—at least in my case—gets disabled when you change the Zip’s battery. But with the background sync working, the Zip seems to update my web-based stats magically, and that’s pretty cool.

Updated 1:52 p.m. ET with new details about background syncing, and to increase the rating because of it.

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At a Glance
  • The Fitbit Zip is a nice, entry-level fitness tracker. It's good as is, but needs a bug fix to earn a higher endorsement for iPhone users.

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