- 1 Selecting the Right Running Watches
- 2 Best Running Tracker : Buying Guide
- 3 How We Test?
Which fitness tracker is best for you and your lifestyle? People around the world walk of life are choosing to track their day-to-day activities with an electronic device. With the addition of sleep monitoring technology, even more, people are showing interest. You are here to learn the state of this art technology. We reviewed Six of the best devices on the market, thoroughly examining each for its interface and data management, portability, durability and construction quality, accuracy, ease of use, sleep tracking, and motivational power.
Selecting the Right Running Watches
In a world ever more dominated by data and associated technology, this tested subset of instrumentation for quantifying oneself is united by a few key features and design criteria. We only tested the best devices on the market that sync with and displayed data on a smartphone and computer and translate nighttime movement to track your sleep.
Initial Consideration: What’s your first impression about a fitness tracker?
The burgeoning market for formalized, daily activity tracking for each consumer is mostly driven by one of three initial objectives. Some wish to track their daily activity for curiosity and quantification. Others are interested in motivating further daily motion. The third category of consumer seeks to monitor sleep patterns to identify the ways to improve their quality of rest. Of course, many will find that the data generated by a tracker is useful for all of the above reasons. However, it is usually one or the other that gets a user in the door, so to speak.
For those who are already physically active, especially those with a personality type at the beginning of the alphabet, quantifying their daily activity is of great interest. Regardless of what is eventually done with the data, this type of user will value the depth, accuracy, and type of information collected by the highest end products on the market. For instance, our Editors’ Choice winning Garmin VivoFit has by far the best data management.
For those who are coming initially to an activity monitor in order to motivate an increase in daily activity, the associated day-to-day comparison and the manufacturer’s social networking prowess determines the suitability of the device. Again, each product we tested can serve most consumers, and we fully understand that most will appreciate all the potential applications of these devices. However, the Nike+ FuelBand SE comes with Nike’s proprietary fuel scoring rubric and a relatively long history of connecting like-minded users. These attributes combine to make the FuelBand one of the more effectively motivating tools we tested.
Keeping a heart rate monitor is a great path to improve your running or training. It not only allows your post-run condition more accurate, but it also helps you to start heart rate training in specific zones, which can make your regime more effective. Fitbit Charge 2 Heart Rate + Fitness Wristband offer the best way to get tip-top accuracy.
If you are looking primarily to track sleep, ongoing use of your device will be most convenient if that tool automatically senses when its movement pattern resembles sleep and switches its software rubric to generate a sleep graph. In our test, the Misfit Shine is the only one to do this automatic step. The Shine, with its multiple wearing options, is perhaps the best sleep tracker we tested. The graph it puts out is confusing at first, but after using it for a few weeks, you will begin to be able to correlate your subjective self-assessment of sleep with the graph output.
Best Running Tracker : Buying Guide
You’ve heard that there is a category of electronics that may help motivate you to be more active each day. Or you have been tracking steps with a simple phone app or basic Pedometer and are looking for a more user-friendly and comprehensive upgrade. Perhaps you are a dedicated athlete on a rigorous plan and wish to better monitor the non-training stressors between workouts. Maybe you feel as though you aren’t sleeping very well and wish to validate that impression and work on sleeping better. In any event, you’re considering a modern, socially networked, full-function fitness tracker. In our Best Fitness Tracker review we collected seven of the best products on the market. Along the way we learned a great deal about how you will go about choosing your own device. Everything we tested is worthy, and there are even other products available that may be suitable. Each offers slightly different features, attributes, and strengths. Here we offer general and carefully thought-out advice on sorting through the market.
The Fitbit Charge 2 is exclusive fitness tracker with heart rate monitor that earned our editor’s choice. Our Top Pick Misfit Shine is the closest comparison because it can be configured for wrist or clipped wear. If you’re a long-distance away-from-your-phone runner, or want to swim, or want a fully-connected smartwatch, go with other choices. But the Charge 2 is a do it all fitness watch for the average person.
Additionally, the One has far more usable data directly on the device. In order to sync the Misfit, the user must put it very close to the receiving smartphone and activate the phone app. The Fitbit app pulls data from the connected device. In the end, because the Misfit can be configured in a variety of ways, it earned our Top Pick award.
Durability and Construction Quality
We had no problem with the overall construction quality of the Fitbit Charge 2 . However, its battery life is near the bottom of our test. Only the Jawbone UP24 has a similar amount of time between charges. Currently there are alternatives that last for about a year between battery changes. As compared to these products, like the Garmin VivoFit, charging every 4-5 days is massive.
The One is the most accurate device in our test. The original Jawbone UP came close, while the Nike FuelBand SE was far far less accurate.
Ease of Set-up and Use
The One is the second least expensive device in our test. Only our Best Buy winner, the Jawbone UP costs less.
Pros: Secure clip-on, on device screen
Cons: Not water-resistant for swims or showers. No GPS
The Nike+ FuelBand SE is an incremental upgrade of the original FuelBand. We tested the original Nike+ Fuel Band, liked it, and like the upgrades on this version. As compared to our latest test roster, the SE is bulkier, tracks sleep in a less sophisticated fashion, but has by far the most robust built-in social network. Our Editors’ Choice winner, the Garmin Vivofit has an easier to read on device display, a more comfortable wrist-band, far more sophisticated sleep tracking, and a social network that is almost as well-developed. The Nike+ FuelBand SE is the latest iteration of a very successful product from a very successful company.
Interface and Data Management
With rudimentary data on the device itself, automatic uploading of additional information to the Nike+ app, and a well-developed graphical app, Nike does well in this category. Only our Editors’ Choice winning Garmin VivoFit has better data management.
The FuelBand is the bulkiest and stiffest wrist-mounted device in our test. Like other sorts of jewelry, one can grow accustomed to the shape and bulk, but something like the gently spring-loaded Jawbone UP or sleek wrist-watch style Misfit Shine have much greater initial comfort.
Durability and Construction Quality
The FuelBand is durable and sturdy. However, the clasp on the band came undone at least once a day in testing. The rigid shape kept it on there most of the time, but it seems vulnerable. The battery life, as compared to other rechargeable devices, is near the top of the heap.
Step Count Accuracy
It is important to note that, while Nike does indeed provide a rudimentary step count, they really want you to gauge your motion using their proprietary “fuel” score. All comparisons and social networking on the Nike+ app and community are done in fuel ratings. The fuel score is calculated from your movement using a secret formula. Rest assured that it does indeed correlate to activity levels, but it doesn’t readily compare to the data generated by other devices. Regarding step count, in our formalized testing, the SE was far less accurate than other devices on our roster. With a degree of inaccuracy averaging 14.3% off of actual, the error margin was more than twice as much as the next in line. The Jawbone UP24 scored 6.6% off of actual. The most accurate device in our test, the Fitbit One had an inaccuracy score of 0.5%.
Ease of Set-up and Use
Nike leverages their deep and ever-deepening history of inspiring and motivating action in arranging the set-up and use of the FuelBand. We had no problems with initial or ongoing use and interpretation of the data generated.
This tracker offers the most rudimentary sleep-tracking function of any device in our review. First of all, the device must be prompted to change to sleep tracking through the associated app. For comparison, the Misfit Shine does this automatically while every other device we tested can either be switched from the device or switched retroactively or both. Next, when recording a night’s sleep on the Nike, it is little different from recording a session of running or walking. Once you’ve finished the sleep session, it shows it in a darkened, muted fashion, but only shows a very rough graph of your action overnight. Nike tips their under-filled sleep tracking hand when the app congratulates the sleeper, upon waking, for the amount of activity sensed.
Nike nails it. For a variety of reasons, the Nike app and community are among the more motivational on the market. Notably, a significant number of people have bought in over the years. Also, Nike offers a whole suite of products that record and organise Fuel scores.
This is the right choice for those interested in tracking activity which already have an interest in the Nike community and a need for only rough sleep tracking.
The FuelBand SE sits solidly in the middle of the pack for the cost. With that investment, you get access to a big community of like-minded and similarly equipped active people.
If you are already in the Nike family and don’t need sophisticated sleep tracking, the SE model could be a good choice. Realize that the rigid wrist band takes some getting used to and the device needs to be plugged in for recharging.
Best Uses: Day-to-day activity tracking for casual multi-sport enthusiasts who value a big community of like-minded consumers
Pros: Solidly built and connected to a big network
Cons: Bulky and limited sleep tracking data
The VivoFit from Garmin is their first entry to the fitness tracker field. The company has a long history of creating compact personal data collection devices. As a first effort in this niche, it is impressive. It surpasses all others that we tested in practical applications, on-device data viewing, and compatibility with hard-core training software, which earns it our Editors’ Choice award. Our Top Pick Misfit Shine is more compact and aesthetically pleasing and also tracks your sleep a little better. Otherwise, the Garmin is a little better.
The Garmin VivoFit, an initial offering in the activity monitoring category, is a well-designed, practical, high-functioning device. With it, on your wrist, you can now log all of your activity, formalized and day-to-day, in Garmin’s ubiquitous Connect platform.
Interface and Data Management
Garmin has been in the activity data collection game longer than any other manufacturer in this test. Their Connect platform collects and analyzes information from sports watches and devices. Runners and cyclists have long used Connect. Hikers and mountaineers have gradually come on board, and now, with the VivoFit, even more, will be served. If you already use Connect for tracking your hiking or cycling, you can fill in the gaps between training sessions with data from this daily tracker. If you are just starting to pay attention to your activity, starting with this product will leave room for your training and record-keeping to grow. Later on, you can add a dedicated bicycle computer or training watch for even more sophisticated data collection on Connect. Further bridging this gap, it can be used with an aftermarket heart rate band.
Even if you use just the VivoFit device, the platform is easy and clear. The phone app screens are clean and easy to read. The data generated is useful, simple, and comprehensive. If you wish to dig deeper, you can. If you wish only to know how many steps you’ve taken, you have that option too. Truly setting the device apart from the rest, Garmin equipped it with a proper digital watch style LCD screen. On that screen you can see the time, your steps were taken, steps remaining in your daily goal, today’s date, and a couple of other customizable options.
Garmin includes a large and a small band for wrist carry with the tracking device. You choose from six color options, but the shape is fixed and utilitarian. Why manufacturers haven’t yet made an activity monitor that simply looks like a beautiful wristwatch is a thorough mystery. In any case, with the time display and comfortable soft band, you’ll have little to no excuse to not wear it everywhere you go.
Durability and Construction Quality
Aside from a couple wrist band disengagements (just like every wrist-mounted device in our test) we had virtually no issues with the construction of this product. Our test didn’t last long enough to test Garmin’s claimed one-year battery life, but we trust their experience with small electronics and battery life.
Step Count Accuracy
With an inaccuracy percentage of 6.4% the VivoFit wasn’t the most accurate in our test, but it fared far better than some. The devices from dedicated fitness tracker companies like Jawbone and the Fitbit Flex were just a little more accurate, while the Nike+ FuelBand came in at the bottom of the list. Your need for accuracy in a fitness tracker will depend some on your usage patterns. If you are using the device to simply compare your own efforts from one day to the next, as long as you wear the device in the same place each day, the errors will not matter and the comparisons will be apt. If you are comparing your action with that of people using other devices, however, the error amounts could matter more. Since most people use an activity monitor for personal motivation and inspiration, at OutdoorGearLab we somewhat discount accuracy in our overall scoring.
Ease of Set-up and Use
All of the small electronics we tested in this review are basically intuitive and easy to use. The only drawback to the Garmin, as compared to something like the Jawbone UP24 and Nike+ FuelBand SE is that the Garmin must be manually prompted to sync its data with the smartphone app. In practice this is pretty simple, especially as compared to the Misfit Shine. One simply pushes the button until the word “sync” appears on the screen. In order to sync the Misfit, however, the app must be opened and syncing activated with the Shine and phone right next to one another. Nike and Jawbone do it best, but Garmin has a workable solution too.
The data generated by the sleep tracking mode is useful and clear. The graphical display is easier to interpret than that of any other device in our test. The Shine offers a little more information about your sleep, but the Garmin suffices. The main drawback of the sleep tracking function of the Garmin is the fact that you must activate the sleep tracking mode. This is done by pushing and holding the button on the device until the word SLEEP is displayed. Since the LCD screen has no backlight, this must be done with some sort of light assistance. We suppose that, with practice, one could learn to count out exactly the right interval of button holding.
Purchasing VivoFit allows for an easy entry to the Garmin Connect community. Runners and cyclists have been using Connect to organize and compare their activity data for years now. In fact, a major advantage of this product is the ability to collect day-to-day info right next to your more formalized training data. Holistic training plans require quantification of the day-to-day stressors in between dedicated training sessions. Similarly, training and activity plans do better with community support, friendly competition, and the accountability that comes with both. You’ll do better at sticking to a plan and stepping it up if you can network with others. Garmin does this well. You can use just Connect to compare with friends, or you can post to Facebook and other social networks. Garmin and Connect make it easy to fully customize your active record keeping.
Essentially, this fitness tracker is appropriate for anyone that can wear this sort of device. Only those with strict dress codes won’t justify the techier and more utilitarian look. Desk jockeys, hardcore athletes, and everyone in between will find a use for all the features.
The VivoFit and Jawbone UP24 are tied for the most expensive products in our test. As compared to the Jawbone, however, the Garmin device is far more functional and practical. Only on aesthetics does the Jawbone edge slightly ahead.
Choosing the VivoFit as our Editors’ Choice was easy. The solid instrumentation in a user friendly package generating excellent and useful data gives it solidly superior scores across the board.
Pros: On-device screen and comprehensive data collection
Cons: Must be manually synced and manually set to record sleep
Best Uses:Day to day activity monitoring and down-time tracking for hard core athletes
The Shine is the tiniest device in our test, with far and away the most customizing options. The Editors’ Choice winning Garmin VivoFit is more technically advanced with a more practical application, but the Shine is sexier and smarter. Regarding technical performance, the Shine is the best sleep tracker in our review. No device we found can match its ease of use, accuracy, and value of data generated during slumber. The Misfit Shine earned our Top Pick award for its style, superior sleep tracking, and tiny stature.
Interface and Data Management
If you run a start-up tech company in this day and age, you had better have solid skills in designing a user interface. The folks at Misfit match that description and came out with a solid product. The Shine device is a compact wonder, and the associated app and data management is similarly excellent. Like with Nike products, we do wish it were a little easier to dig through the manufacturer’s proprietary activity score to find hard and fast, easily interpreted step count data. Misfit and the Nike+ Fuelband SE both use proprietary activity quantification methods. Misfit calls their score a points system. More activity is more points. You can dig into the data and find a step count, but Misfit really wants you to think in terms of points. In fact, if you record an activity other than walking or running, the score will only be communicated in terms of points. For instance, the Shine app has a cycling recording mode. In the end, after a bike ride, you only have a point score to view. No distance or any other information is logged. Nitpicking on the activity quantification aside, overall we liked the Misfit system and app.
The Shine is by far the most compact device in our test and its versatile carry options earned it our Top Pick award. If you are undecided as to how you’ll carry your activity tracker, the Misfit is perfect for you. Out of the box it comes with a wrist band and a pocket clip. One can even comfortably carry the quarter-sized device loose in your pocket. It is worth noting that, in our objective accuracy testing, there was a significant difference in the step count in wrist wear versus pocket clip mode. In fact, wrist carry of the Shine resulted in a quite competitive accuracy average of 5.7% error margin while pants pocket carry elicited an abysmal 36% inaccuracy percentage. Carried in a pocket, the Shine missed 36 out of 100 steps. Other wrist-mounted devices suffered a similar fate, but do not claim to work in a pocket. Therefore we omitted the outlier 36% error from our overall Misfit accuracy score. In the end, all that matters, just like with all devices, is that your day-to-day carry method remains consistent. The real value of a fitness tracker is in comparing and motivating further action each day. The multiple aftermarket Shine wristbands, in addition to its function as a rudimentary wristwatch, mean that you should be able to wear it on your wrist at all times.
Durability and Construction Quality
This tiny device, as long as you can keep track of it, inspires confidence and seems ready to take some abuse. We had no problems at all with the Shine’s construction or durability. The device is powered by a disposable watch battery and the company claims indicate that the Shine will track steps for at least 3-4 months before a battery replacement is necessary. Just like with all the products we tested in wrist-mount, the included wrist band periodically came undone. Aftermarket Shine wrist bands at least appear to be more secure in wrist attachment, although the rubberized device capture system always seems vulnerable. We did not test the Shine long enough to challenge the battery life claims, nor did we test any of the many other wrist mount options.
Step Count Accuracy
As noted above, the Shine delivered a competitive, middle-of-the-road accuracy score in wrist-mounted mode. However, in the pocket mode, the Shine gave a pretty poor performance.
Ease of Set-up and Use
As slick as the interface and app are, the syncing and set-up is a little finicky. Sometimes it won’t sync at all, while other times it takes a while. Also, in order to make that tiny battery last a long time, the data transmission signal from the Shine is very weak. This is fine, and a worthy trade off for compact convenience. However, it means that the device must be in very close proximity to the receiving smartphone. Essentially, the two electronics must be held immediately next to one another for over a minute. By far the easiest way to do this is to remove the Shine from wherever you carry it and place it directly on the screen of your smartphone.
The Misfit Shine is the best sleep tracker we reviewed. The device automatically senses when movement patterns have shifted from those of the awake to those of someone asleep. After recording the movements of a full nights’ sleep, the app generates a sleep report that includes a graph of the movement, an overall rest time, and an estimate of what percentage of that rest time was of greatest value. The sleep graph of our Editors’ Choice Garmin VivoFit is a little easier to view, but the device must be manually switched into and out of sleep mode.
Like the Jawbone UP24 and the FitBit 2, the Misfit Shine does the bulk of its social networking through Facebook and other existing platforms. One can join other Misfit users in a small social network, but the critical mass for good comparison and motivation just isn’t there. Both Nike and Garmin tap into their bigger brands for more robust dedicated motivational networks.
As the most aesthetically pleasing and versatile device in our test, the Misfit Shine is well suited for those that are a little on the fence about recording their activity data. If you desire more robust information and a deeper social network, other products might suit you better. If you wish only to track your sleep, the Shine may be just what you need. The tiny form factor and automatic sleep mode set it apart from the others we tested.
The Shine sits squarely in the middle of the heap, cost-wise. In fact, none of the products we tested and few on the market varies all that much in cost. The real value of the Shine, however, comes in the ability to accessorize and customize.
Awarding the shine our Top Pick honor was a natural choice. It is by far the unique product in our test. It’s tiny size, versatility, and high-tech sleep tracking mode will appeal it to many. The Garmin VivoFit is overall more technically proficient and practical, but the Shine has its own glow.
Best Uses: Everyday activity monitoring and sleep tracking
Pros: Tiny and Versatile
Cons: Slow syncing and proprietary points system
The Fitbit Flex joins a competitive and almost uniformly excellent field of products. It tracks steps and distance, records the quality of the user’s sleep, and presents and store the data almost accurately. Use social network to share the data with other. The Fitbit can be worn on the users wrist or carried in a pants pocket. With just a tweak the opening of the smartphone app, the Fitbit Flex’s data is pulled out and maintained. Thanks to the app which can organize and document the user’s diet. In living a healthy lifestyle, diet and activity must go hand in hand.
Interface and Data Management
The device syncs wirelessly with both computer and smartphone. In order for the Flex to transfer data to your PC, you must have their dedicated receiver attached to a USB port on the computer. However, once the connection is established, whether it be to your phone or computer, you only need to open the appropriate program with the Flex nearby. Data uploaded to your PC can be readily viewed on your smartphone, and vice versa. All is connected
The bulk of the information is sent via Bluetooth to your computer or phone. The Flex’s activity monitoring algorithm is tuned for wrist-wear. Fitbit includes wristbands, in two sizes, with the initial purchase of the Flex. You pick a color to start with, but can accessorize with bands in a total of seven colors. The wristband securely holds the Fitbit, while allowing for viewing of the indicator lights. The user must remove the pod for charging. Worn in the wristband, the Fitbit Flex counts steps and distance with an inaccuracy of only 2.2%. Although Fitbit doesn’t recommend it, we also tested the Flex by carrying it in our pants pocket. This is an excellent option for those that can’t or won’t always wear a band on their wrist. Predictably, because the device is tuned for the users wrist, the data from a pocket-carried Fitbit is less accurate. In this configuration, the average deviation from the actual is 3.3%. Indeed, this is less accurate than wrist carry, but not by much.
Durability and Construction Quality
We had no problems with the reliability and durability of this product. The simple instrumentation seems to remain functional. Additionally, the entire product is weather resistant. The user can wear it in the shower. The battery lasts 4-5 days of normal usage. This is on par with most of the rechargeable pedometers in our test.
Step Count Accuracy
The Fitbit Flex, in our objective testing, scored just below the middle of the pack in accuracy. The step count and distance error averaged 2.2% off from actual. Interestingly, the distance was exactly accurate (to the nearest hundredth of a mile, or about 53 feet) but the step counts came in a little over the actual amount.
Ease of Set-up and Use
For a regular computer and smartphone user, the Fitbit is easy to set-up. The device itself must be charged upon purchase, but then all of the set-up is conducted through the accompanying phone app or PC application. Our lead tester and one subsequent tester both performed the full set-up routine for the Flex. In both cases, set-up took less than 4 minutes after the device was fully charged.
The step count on the Flex is derived from the device’s digital interpretation of the integrated accelerometer. An accelerometer senses movement. If the user wears the Fitbit on his or her wrist overnight, then movement during sleep can be detected. The Flex has an algorithm to interpret movement during sleep and extrapolate the quality of that sleep. The user must “tell” the Flex to interpret the data for sleep quality, but the output is informative. The user can put the Flex into sleep mode before and after rest or can do so retroactively through the app or website interface. In our testing, the sleep graph and assessment gave by the Flex roughly correlates to a more subjective personal assessment of sleep quality.
The user can link their Fitbit account to various social media outlets, as well as share progress and inspiration with Fitbit’s online community.
Among the top performers in our test, the Fitbit is among the less expensive, creating it an ideal product for a useful fitness tracker.
Every product we tested is functional and can be recommended, and the Fitbit Flex is no exception. Ultimately we found the Garmin Vivofit with its on-device display to be more practical and useful, but the Fitbit is still an impressive fitness tracker.
Best Uses: Tracking day-to-day activity
Pros: Variety of carry options, wireless sync, excellent interface and data collection
Cons: Shorter battery life, lower accuracy
The UP24 by Jawbone is an excellent, high-end product that is only narrowly edged out by our Editors’ Choice winner, the Garmin VivoFit. If Jawbone could solve how to display data on the device, other faults would be easily overlooked. As it could not, however, we prefer the Garmin. If you like Nike+, the FuelBand SE is apt to be a better choice. If you are fashion conscious, consider this UP24 or the sleek Misfit Shine. The Jawbone is neutral as it is, but the Misfit can be accessorized and customized for your style.
The Jawbone UP24 is one of the easiest to use sleep trackers in our test. A simple and blind button push activates sleep mode, and the data is readily viewed the next morning. As a daytime activity monitor, the UP24 does well too. However, we do wish that one could view at least a step count or even an estimate of goal acquisition percentage on the device itself.
Interface and Data Management
The attribute we wish for the most on the UP24 is at least a little on-device data. There is none at all. To see even the most inceptive of data, the user must pull out a smartphone and view synced data. Fortunately, as compared to the first generation (and our Best Buy winner) Jawbone UP, the UP24 can synchronize wirelessly.
Most users found the supple and low profile wristband to be comfortable and unobtrusive. Only the Misfit Shine in wrist-mounted mode is lower profile and less bulky.
Durability and Construction Quality
We had no problems with the construction of the UP24. Jawbone continues essentially the same form as their original UP device. With wireless sync capability, the UP24 has among the shortest battery life in our review. Only the Fitbit One is similar. Our Editors’ Choice winning Garmin VivoFit, by comparison, will go for a claimed year before needing a battery change.
Ease of Set-up and Use
The UP24 needs to be charged when new, and then set up is remarkably easy. Data transfers automatically and regularly, and the app is intuitive and straightforward.
Once you get in the habit of changing the mode of the device (which can be done in the dark with a vibrating confirmation of the change) before sleeping, the data generated is useful and clear. The Misfit Shine automatically starts sleep mode, which is even easier.
Jawbone does not have its robust community like Garmin and Nike do, but the data and app can be combined with Facebook’s technology for participation in discussion, challenges, sharing, and other motivating acts.
For someone who regularly views their phone screen, the UP24 is an excellent choice.
Both the UP24 and Editors’ Choice winner Garmin VivoFit share a price at the top of our select list. For this cost, the Garmin offers on-device data and time and a bigger community of other users while the UP24 is a little more convenient for sleep tracking. Overall we recommend the Garmin at this price point.
The UP24 is, in most ways, a contender for top billing. However, the Misfit is more versatile, the Nike is better networked, and the Garmin is far more feature packed.
Best Uses: Unobtrusive day-to-day and nightly activity tracking
Pros: Unobtrusive wrist carry and easy sleep tracking
Cons: No on-device data and short battery life
How We Test?
To best test the day-to-day recording ability of fitness trackers, we lived our everyday lives while using this collection of devices. The test team included fitness trainer, corporate professionals, avid climbers, dedicated hikers and backpackers, trail runners, and people simply living their normal lives. We tested all across the country in California, Nevada, Utah, New York City, Louisville, and Colorado. Interestingly, our Brooklyn-based tester logged the most miles and steps by far, proving that everyday life in NYC is walking intensive. While using these activity monitors in daily routine, we compared ease of use, wearing/carrying comfort and convenience, motivational effect, and rough accuracy. We also received feedback on the aesthetic value of each device. “Can a user actually carry or wear this in all situations?” The wrist mounted devices are the most visible, and as such elicited the greatest range of opinions on aesthetics. But pocket-clipped devices also required aesthetic consideration.
The Nike+ Fuelband SE is the exception in that it mainly gives data in their proprietary “Nike Fuel” score, and gives no estimate of distance covered. Nike Fuel is calculated based on a hidden algorithm. Therefore, the accuracy of this scoring rubric can not be calculated. In order to assess the accuracy of the Fuel Band we used their rudimentary step count. Each of the other devices gives both distance and step count. In order to test and score accuracy, we walked a known distance and counted our own steps. We noted what each device recorded in the tests, and calculated the error percentage for multiple test laps. The final error percentage score is the average error margin over the various test iterations.
Lastly, to asses the sleep tracking of each device, we wore each device on the same arm for the same night of sleep so that we could see how each interface presented and interpreted the sleep motion data.
Criteria for Evaluation
The instrumentation involved in tracking movement and steps is pretty straightforward. Expensive or not, new-to-the field or an old hand, all manufacturers and products seem to come pretty close to one another in fundamental performance. It is, however, the way the devices and software display, transfer, store, and manage the data that most sets them apart. The best product in our test, the Garmin VivoFit, far and away led the field in data management and display. With the largest on-device screen, and integration with a data management platform that predates that of basically all of the other products, Garmin’s data management gave it an easy lead in our testing. All of the other devices we tested, in terms of interface and data management, trailed Garmin considerably matched each other in performance. We looked for the presence and usability of data display on the device, the simplicity of syncing the device with its associated database, and the ease of comparing one day’s data with another and one user’s data with another’s. No other product matched the Garmin in any one of these sub-categories. The Nike+ FuelBand SE, for example, displayed similar data on the device, but the computer database was far more limited in scope and processing power. The Jawbone UP24 has an excellent online and on-phone app but displays no information on the device itself.
It is important to note how the devices and apps record the activity data. All of the products we tested offer some sort of step count, but in a couple, you have to dig through other systems of activity quantification. The Nike FuelBand and the Misfit Shine both use proprietary activity scores. Apps from both manufacturers can be mined for the raw data in terms of a step count, but both want to force their scores. The rationale behind this is that the arbitrary score better accounts for non-straight line walking or running. Both Nike and Misfit have other sports modes. On the Misfit app one can compare one-hour soccer practice to the next with their points system. A 600 point session is more active than a 500 point session. The Nike system uses “fuel” instead of points. The accelerometer simply senses movement, so step counts or arbitrary point scores are both derived values, and the exertion of something like basketball is more than a simple step count might suggest. Therefore, argue Nike and Misfit, their proprietary scoring methods are more indicative of overall body movement. However, that logic can be turned right around. As long as the body and device are moving,
The accelerometer simply senses movement, so step counts or arbitrary point scores are both derived values, and the exertion of something like basketball is more than a simple step count might suggest. Therefore, argue Nike and Misfit, their proprietary scoring methods are more indicative of overall body movement. However, that logic can be turned right around. As long as the body and device are moving, movement is being recorded. Whether that is recorded as steps or points or fuel, the movement is logged. A harder hockey game will log a higher number than an easier hockey game. With points or fuel, the score is always arbitrary and only comparable to others on the same platform. With step recording, at least your normal walking or running workout will make some sense. In any sort of non-walking workout, the step count may not be exactly accurate, but at the least, you can compare it to users on other platforms.
After interface and data management, portability is the most important evaluation criteria. For most people, fitness equipment like an activity tracker is only as useful as it is convenient. If you do not carry it around, you will not use it. It must carry unobtrusively, but sit in a place that will effectively track movement. It must be suited to wear and carry during every moment of your day and, if you intend to take advantage of the sleep tracking feature, through the night. Our initial scan and filtering of the market, like we always do at OutdoorGearLab, narrowed the field to the seven tested products. Of those that met our rigorous initial assessment, five are built to be worn on the wrist, one, the FitBit One, is built to clip to a pocket and another, the Misfit Shine can be configured for either style of carrying. In our testing and experience, the difference in clip or wrist carry is purely a personal choice. Most will like the ubiquitous reminder to move that a wrist mount provides, while others will need the unobtrusive style of a device clipped inside a pants pocket. Of the majority that carries on the wrist, some were more low profile and comfortable than others. The Fitbit Flex and both Jawbone models sit fully in the middle of the road for bulk and comfort. The Garmin and Nike products are on the bulkier, more rigid end of the spectrum, while the Misfit Shine is less than half the size of the next largest. The Misfit, with its tiny profile and versatile carry options easily led the field in portability.
Durability and Construction Quality
These are all compact, relatively inexpensive electronics. As such, their function will vary and sometimes fail. While none of our tested devices failed, all suffered occasional inaccuracy and delay in responding. The biggest quality concern we found was in wrist attachment integrity. No device in our test mounted as securely to our wrist as even the most inexpensive wristwatch. This is unfortunate and confusing. Why not equip a device like this with any one of many available secure and compact attachment methods? Each device we tested on our wrists came dislodged at least once, while the Nike FuelBand SE came undone about once a day.
Ease of Set-up and Use
All of these devices clearly have robust software teams behind them. In the digital age, easy to use small electronics is almost a given. Multi-page instruction manuals will not be read and are therefore best avoided with intuitive initial set-up and design. Each product we tested readily passed the “take-it-out-of-the-box-and-try-and-get-started” test. We made sure to test every product at least once that way. We would hand it to a tester and say “figure this out”. It is both testaments to the market and to our initial selection criteria that every device was usable with basically no initial instruction. That being said, of course, you will get more from your purchase with a little further information.
Once you are familiar with the operation of your device and its associated app, hourly or daily data syncing between device and app becomes the primary Ease of Use criteria. Mainly, devices are differentiated by what prompts synchronizing of the data. Notably, the Jawbone UP24, Nike FuelBand SE, and Fitbit One will sync regularly and automatically. Anytime you open the app on your phone; the device has either synced recently or will be prompted to do so. The Misfit Shine, Garmin VivoFit, and FitBit Flex all need to be somehow prompted to send their collection of action data to the user’s telephone.
Further complicating matters, the Misfit Shine must be very close to the receiving phone. So close, in fact, that it must be removed from the user’s wrist. The best placed directly on the screen of the phone. For occasional syncing, this is fine. However, as compared to those that send info automatically, the required sequence seemed onerous. Finally, our Best Buy winner, the original Jawbone UP requires actual plugging in for data syncing. It plugs directly into the headphone jack of any smartphone, but this step is far more involved than data transfer for any of the other devices we tested.
Step Count Accuracy
The sensor portion of an activity monitor is fairly straightforward and basically reliable. In our testing, however, accuracy varied at least a little. The least accurate device had a margin of error many times greater than the most accurate. It must be pointed out that if and when the user’s goal is to track relative amounts of exercise and activity from day-to-day, the degree of error is hardly a factor. Provided the user wears the same device in the same way from one day to the next, the trends in his or her activity level will be clear. Therefore, degree of accuracy is not very important in overall consideration. Our scoring metric takes this into account. It is important to note the limitations of these various devices, but the actual comparative accuracy is not as important.
Sleep tracking is perhaps the newest application of personal accelerometer technology. The accelerometer in the device tracks the sleeper’s movement and movement can be at least roughly correlated with quality of rest. In many ways, it remains to be seen just how useful this feature is apt to be. For now, most devices simply report on the extrapolated quality of sleep. Real leaps and bounds in this field will come when the device and software can correlate other data, both automatically collected and user entered, with sleep information.
Currently, the data generated by an activity monitor serves to quantify and confirm the sleeper’s subjective self-assessment of the question “just how did I sleep last night?” We all look forward to the day when a device can cross-reference a deep set of answers to that question with information like diet, day-time activity, stressors, and work habits. In the meantime, the best sleep tracking devices stand out by operating on an algorithm that automatically knows when the user is asleep. In other words, the device automatically switches from tracking steps to tracking sleep when the movement pattern changes at bedtime. In our review, only the Misfit Shine will automatically switch to sleep mode. Special mention must be made, however, of the FitBit One and Flex. These products can both be retroactively switched to sleep mode.
If you manage to move the device from the pocket of your day-time clothes to your sleeping clothes but neglect to change the mode, you can go into the phone app the next morning and delineate your sleep session for reinterpretation.
Once you have worked with the design and interface of your activity tracker to collect sleep information, interpreting the graphs they put out is a bit of a trick. We found that, like with step-counting accuracy, how exactly the device tracks your sleep is less important than effectively showing differences from one night to the next. Each device is so different both in sensing and data graphics that comparing one sleep chart to the next, even for multiple devices worn on the same arm on the same night, is virtually impossible. The best devices in our test gave an easy-to-interpret graphical display of a night’s sleep, as well as a quick summary of how much overall sleep time the user got and how much of that was rest of a higher quality. Both our Editors’ Choice Garmin Vivofit and our Top Pick Misfit Shine did very well at sleep tracking.
Social Networking and Motivation
Our final evaluation criteria examined the devices’ ability to connect users with one another as well as the motivational power of the data, the community, and the device itself. Anyone familiar with summoning the willpower to exercise (and who isn’t familiar?) understands that we can use all the help we can get. Only the most compulsive of exercisers in the most physical of careers get enough day-to-day activity. The rest of us can always use more action. An activity monitor can inspire this further activity. We looked for devices that clearly communicate the activity so far for the day, and made ready comparisons to previous days’ activity, as well as to the user’s longer term averages. This simple, one-day-to-the-next comparison is by far the most important motivational tool, and all devices can do this.
Next in value is some sort of periodic reminder to move. For instance, both the Nike and the Jawbone UP24 can be programmed to give a vibrating warning if the wearer hasn’t moved in a specified amount of time. The device simply buzzes briefly on your wrist at the appointed time. The bar only goes away when the user walks around enough.
Even our most energetic and fidgety testers found this to be a desirable attribute, inspiring circulation-boosting and calorie-burning action in the midst of otherwise sedentary office days. The remainder of the devices in our test will make some sort of display of progress toward the user’s goal, but seeing this info requires some proactivity. We like the devices that digitally shouted in our faces “”Move!”, and like most those that didn’t stop shouting until we got up and moved.
Beyond the on-device and app-associated data collection, social networking can serve to inspire certain types of people. Many respond well to challenges from friends, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers. Nike does this well. The Nike+ community connects and has joined for many years, people with active lifestyles. All of the devices we tested can also be programmed to post to your FaceBook page with your progress.
History of Fitness Trackers
The recent boom in devices to track everything from your step count to your sleep cycles has a long history involving some of the world’s greatest minds. It was Socrates who first said that the “the unexamined life is not worth living,” though we can only speculate as to whether he would approve of the oversharing of this data. And the basic step counting functions of these devices can be traced back to the father of all inventions, Leonardo Da Vinci, who envisioned the first mechanical pedometer back in the 15th century. Thomas Jefferson invented one also, and they’ve been used to calculate mileage for centuries.
Another component of the fitness tracker, the wearable heart rate monitor, became available in 1981. In the 90’s, large wristwatch sized bicycle computers that could monitor speed and distance came on the market as well. But the integration of all these features into a single training device did not occur until around 2006. Whereas before, people who tracked their activities had to do so manually and compile their data through several different means, the fitness tracker rolled all these functions into one unit, and the corresponding software and/or phone app now provides the visual representation of that data.
Some of the first versions on the market, like the original Fitbit released in 2009, clipped onto the waist like pedometers, though now more models tend to be worn on the wrist. These devices have seen a surge in popularity, with 42 million expected sales in 2014, up from 32 million in 2013. Doctors and employers are getting on board as well – the Cleveland Clinic offers lower insurance premiums to its employees who wear one.
Studies involving people using activity trackers have shown that tracking an activity will prompt you to do more of it. Humorist David Sedaris discovered this first hand, and his piece for the New Yorker: Stepping Out: Living the Fitbit Life is a hilarious take on just how obsessed with tracking we can become. In his case, he kept trying to outdo himself and increased his steps until he hit 65,000 in one day or 25.5 miles. And he was sure he could do more!
Perhaps the interesting thing about fitness trackers is not so much its history but its future. Some of the newer types out there are close to a medical monitor, and manufacturers hope to have soon the capability of alerting emergency medical services if there is a life-threatening issue. There is also the privacy concern of what is done with all of the data collected. This will likely become a pressing issue if more employers ask their workers to wear one. Meanwhile, time will tell if it’s a fad, or, like the smartphone that runs its programs, here to stay.
Editors’ Choice Award: Garmin Vivofit
The Garmin VivoFit was an easy option for our Editors’ Choice award. Overall it earned the highest score and was well ahead of the pack in some essential criteria. Basically, it is the most functional and practical device we tested. The on-device screen serves as a time piece and gives the user a glimpse of today’s activity so far. It syncs readily with a smartphone app that in turn feeds data into Garmin’s sturdy training software and community. Our only wish with the VivoFit is that it automatically went to sleep tracking mode and automatically synced data with the smartphone app. As it is, entering sleep mode is a little cumbersome, and syncing data takes either a little time before viewing or requires the user be in the habit of periodically pressing and holding the device button for a few seconds.
Top Pick Award for Style and Sleep Tracking: Misfit Shine
Again, the Misfit Shine was an easy choice for this award. OutdoorGearLab’s Top Pick award is given to a device that stands out in a particular attribute. The Shine is easily the most aesthetically pleasing product we tested and is the most compact. Also, it is readily customized and accessorized and is arguably the best sleep tracker we used. All this combines with solid instrumentation and good data management to deliver a solid performance. We do wish that the device itself was better at displaying information and that the data it generated was a little more easily dissected. The proprietary points activity quantification and super simple light display both stand in the way of our highest honor.
Like a broken record, the OutdoorGearLab testing team had an easy time choosing all of our awards this time around. The Jawbone UP is the least expensive product in our test and has stood the test of time. A testament to the way this market is advancing, the UP was once nearly tied with another product for our Editors’ Choice award in our previous review. Now we have reviewed five products that far exceed both of them in function. However, as a budget option, the UP is a worthy consideration. The primary drawback is the need to plug the UP into your smartphone for data transfer. If your habits allow this, the UP’s value is very high.
Why Use a Fitness Tracker?
Your first step is actually to make sure that you are in the right category. This set of devices is wildly popular but is just one sort of personal activity tracking technology. On the simpler end, a basic pedometer will count your steps and allow you to compare one day to the next. We offer extensive advice on choosing a device in this category here. A full-function day-to-day fitness tracker, as discussed in this article, does the same thing with the addition of social networking, more robust digital data management, and sleep tracking.
The next step up would be a dedicated, GPS and/or heart rate equipped Training Watch. At this level, you get monitoring and recording of even more sophisticated activity information. The GPS receiver more carefully records speed and distance, the heart rate monitor tracks actual exertion, while the internal memory and record keeping software allow for later review of the data in much greater detail. Beyond these technologies, there is also sport specific instrumentation for things like cycling and mountaineering.
How Will You Carry It?
If indeed a full feature fitness tracker suits your needs, read on. Your first step is to decide how you will wear or carry the device. Essentially, your two options are wrist-mount and pocket or belt clipped. Wrist carry is perhaps the most efficient and practical, but not everyone can justify visible electronics in their dress code. Pocket carry is somewhat less accurate in tracking all sorts of movement, and the user needs to remember to move the device through clothes changes, showering, etc. On the market, most devices are set up for wrist carry, others are designed for exclusively pocket clip carry, while still others can be configured either way. Give some thought to your needs and decide whether you can commit to wrist or pocket, or need some flexibility. In terms of carry option flexibility, realize that because of the way these devices work in tracking movement you will collect the most useful information by carrying the tracker, in the same way, each day. Switching from pocket to clip mode will make the data generated virtually irrelevant for comparison. If you are uncertain, of course, you can try something like the Misfit Shine in its various carry modes until you settle on one.
On Device Display?
If you, like most people, will wear the device on your wrist, consider whether you would like that device to tell you at least a little data immediately. Some products display a count of steps so far today, the time, and one or two of a couple other pieces of information. Others on the market show nothing on the device. Of those that show the time and step count, some require pushing a button or tapping the device to activate the screen while others show the information constantly. In the latter category, the face of the device is essentially like a typical LCD screen digital watch. Why manufacturers cannot or will not make a full-function activity monitor that looks like a typical wrist watch is somewhat of a mystery. It is our opinion that far more people would adopt this sort of technology if the appearance were more neutral and familiar. In any event, know that you have options for what, if any, data is shown on your wrist mounted device.
Next, consider battery life and maintenance. On the market now are products that require periodic recharging and devices that use traditional disposable watch batteries. On those that require recharging, the user must plug in the device every 4-10 days, depending on the device. Those using disposable watch batteries require new power every few months, up to a full year. Because of the shape of available disposable batteries, the devices using them are limited in shape and size. Essentially, the tracker cannot use disposable batteries and still remain thin in two if its three dimensions. Rechargeable batteries, on the other hand, are built to spec for each device and the end product can, therefore, be made long and thin. Of the equipment we tested, Garmin and Misfit make trackers using disposable batteries. With a full screen and the disposable battery, the end result is a relatively large device. However, a soft band and smooth corners mitigate the size. Misfit makes their Shine device absolutely tiny by matching the shape of the overall device to the shape of a relatively large watch battery and making the on-device data display a simple circle of tiny lights that light up to indicate alternately analog time and progress toward a daily goal. Jawbone and FitBit use rechargeable batteries and end up with products that are more free-form shapes.
Finally you will need to weigh the various features and attributes available. No one product does it all, but many come close. These differences in performance and features are subtle. Each device we’ve used counts steps tracks action and sleep and records all of this in some readily viewed and easily shared format. The lesser considerations can be lumped into a few major categories. Devices differ in how they sync data, the scale and usefulness of their respective data software and social media communities, how they switch to sleep mode, how accurately they monitor rest, and alarm capabilities.
Most products on the market transfer data from the device to phone and/or computer wirelessly. Those that require plugging in are older and will soon be obsolete. Of those that sync wirelessly, some do it automatically and periodically. Others require somehow activating the device, the app, or both. The most convenient devices sync automatically and wirelessly.
Data Management and Social Network
Each product in this category has an external data management platform, and some sort of social networking capability. The big, existing sports corporations have the most advanced data management. For now, Garmin makes the only fitness tracker that works with its otherwise open source Connect software. What this means is that if you record your formalized training with a heart rate monitor and/or GPS training watch and upload that data to Garmin Connect, you can now fill in the gaps with the Garmin VivoFit device and have access to a holistic view of your action. The same thing can be accomplished on the Nike+ platform, but you must use all Nike brand electronics. The Nike+ community, since they have been at it a long time, is one of the most robust online communities. The other manufacturers out there have their own communities and users can also use more general service social media like Facebook to share the results of their fitness tracking.
It is our prediction that this sleep tracking technology will be the most effective and popular attribute of these devices. With the generation of more and more data and more sophisticated databases, a user will be able to correlate his or her quality of sleep with things like diet, activity level, and subjective, user-entered information like mood and stress level. For now, the devices track your sleep patterns, confirming or refuting your subjective answer to the question “How did I sleep last night?”. To do this, the device simply tracks movement through the night and translates that into a rough measure of sleep quality. More movement equals poorer rest.
In order for one device to track both daytime steps and nighttime tossing and turning, the device and associated software must switch movement interpretation algorithms. Only one device we tested does this automatically. All the others must be manually changed. Of those that must be intentionally switched, the easiest to operate can be done in the dark with vibrating feedback confirmation or can be retroactively prompted in the morning. Jawbone products have a button that you push to switch modes. The device vibrates to indicate successful mode change. Fitbit products can be manually switched immediately before sleep, or you can go into the app the next day and note during which hours you were asleep. The most inconvenient mode switch method is on devices that require going into the app before falling asleep.
Once you have successfully changed mode, the best sort of sleep data is a clear graphical display of overnight movement, a measure of overall bed time, and an estimate of what percentage of that time was high value rest.
Some of the devices on the market can be set to beep and/or vibrate to wake the wearer. For those sharing sleeping space with another, but not sharing an alarm time with that person, this attribute alone could be worth having. Imagine your spouse being able to be reliably woken with no interruption of your sleep. The best application of this waking feature incorporates sleep-cycle knowledge with the sleep-monitoring technology and wakes the wearer, within a specified window of time, during the appropriate part of a sleep cycle.
About the Author
Jediah Porter is a full-time part-timer. He works as a mountain guide and for OutdoorGearLab and as a substitute teacher. Guiding work requires an even mix of rock shoes, approach shoes, ice boots, and ski gear. Off the clock, he climbs and skis. He also engages in binges of mountain biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and trail-running. He goes by Jed and takes pride in using the right tool for the job, unless he doesn’t have that tool. In which case he improvises. “If you don’t have it, you don’t need it”. He has lived most of his adult life in the Eastern Sierra and tries to get to Alaska (for big mountains) and the East Coast (for family) once each year. Jed’s web site is www.jediahporter.com