Recently, Fitbit abruptly stopped selling its new fitness tracking wristband, the Fitbit Force, due to complaints that the device was causing skin rashes. This was a major setback not just for the company but — call me a narcissist — for me. I’d been putting the finishing touches on my review of several fitness tracking devices and had been poised to declare the Fitbit Force my winner. Instead, I’ve had to scramble and name a new champion, non-skin-rash-causing division.
But first, what is a fitness tracker, and why would you want one?
These devices — variations on wristbands, watches and pendants — promise to monitor your physical activity during the day and, in some cases, the night. They link up via Bluetooth to special apps on your phone or tablet. They keep a careful log of how many steps you’ve taken, how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed, how many calories you’ve burned. Should you slack off, they’ll note the idle hours you’ve wickedly wasted.
The future for fitness trackers is surely bright. Eventually, wearables will measure all manner of personal data — your blood composition, your temperature, your cholesterol, your mood — reliably and unobtrusively. They’ll smoothly sync with your scale, your toothbrush and your toilet. They’ll offer actionable reports about your body. This is already close to happening.
But for now, as I see it, the only people who will truly benefit from these fitness trackers are the folks who want to motivate themselves to walk more. The trackers do a fabulous job of tallying your steps, urging you to rack up higher daily counts and congratulating you when you hit your goals. One co-worker who has kids and not much time to exercise sets a target of 15,000 steps per day. If he sees he’s coming up short as the day winds down, he’ll force himself to take a constitutional around the block and make up the difference. It keeps him moving.
Yes, you could buy a simple, dedicated pedometer for $6. But it wouldn’t record digital logs for you, letting you riffle through your data on your phone.
It wouldn’t send you an alert when you’ve hit your daily step goal. Perhaps most important, it wouldn’t look nearly as cyborg-y on your wrist.
If you’re willing to shell out for a fancy device, these are my recommendations, ordered from weakest to strongest. All of them will measure steps taken and calories burned, so the differentiating factors have to do with the form of the device itself, or ancillary capabilities, or the user-friendliness of its associated app.
The central flaw with the Jawbone is that you can’t check your step count on the device itself. The wristband has no digital readout, which means you have to bring up the app on your phone if you want to find out how many steps you’ve taken. Especially annoying during a jog, when you might have ditched your phone at home.
The Pulse, as its name suggests, lets you check your heart rate by pressing your index finger to an optical reader. I found the results I got were inconsistent, even from moment to moment. And the Pulse often failed to take a heart rate reading at all. Worse, the app provided by Withings is a total mess — hard to navigate, overly complex, visually confounding.
Nike FuelBand SE
Two problems with the FuelBand: 1) Nike insists on scoring your activity in terms of “Fuel” points and “Hours Won,” which are proprietary metrics that nobody cares about. Just give us our step counts and leave it at that. 2) Nike also insists on branding the exterior of the wristband. The device I borrowed from the company was emblazoned with a lurid, orange Swoosh, which made me want to leave it at home when I was trying to look vaguely stylish in the evening. The other bands offer plain-black options and tend to call less attention to themselves. I should note I did like it when, on a day of particular sloth, the FuelBand encouraged me by scrolling “GO SETH GO” across my wrist three times.
The Basis has the look of a beefy watch, which may not be what some folks are after, stylewise. It does an excellent job tracking steps and calories. Most intriguingly, it constantly measures your heart rate via an optical reader on its back, which takes your pulse through your wrist. I found it interesting to watch my heart beat change in different circumstances — after a workout, say, or during a date. With its big readout and its pulse-taking abilities, the Basis is the best conversation starter of the bunch.
Two nice things about the Misfit: 1) You can clip it anywhere, using a built-in magnet pendant. 2) You don’t need to charge it with a USB cable. It has a watch-style battery. Of course, you’ll need to replace the battery at some point. But I prefer this to recharging the device every four to seven days, which is what most other fitness trackers require. The Shine was my favorite tracker that, so far, has not been shown to cause dermatological problems.
Prior to seeing the skin-rash news, the Fitbit was the easy winner for me. The wristband is stylish and sleek, with clear readouts of everything you want to know right there on your forearm. I liked its silent alarm: It can vibrate on your wrist to wake you up at an assigned hour, not bothering whoever might be next to you in bed. The Fitbit app is also beautifully designed and a joy to use — much more so than the apps for the other trackers.
So, if you are willing to gamble that you’re not prone to skin rashes (only 1.7 percent of Fitbit Force users had rash problems), maybe find yourself a used Force, go forth, and self-quantify.
If, on the other hand, you are worried about a skin reaction, your options are these: 1) Get the previous Fitbit, the Flex, which has a limited readout display on its band but is otherwise a fine alternative. 2) Get the Misfit Shine, as mentioned above. 3) Wait. The Samsung Gear Fit will release in April and looks great, and Apple is rumored to be cooking up a smartwatch with fitness tracking capability. Patience, like fitness, is a virtue.