Lauren Goode

Wearable-Tech Fatigue and the New Fitbit Force

I had almost given up on all activity-tracking wristbands until I tried the new Fitbit Force.

You see, over the past year and a half I’ve tried a bunch of these wearable tech products, like the Jawbone Up, the Nike+ Fuelband, multiple Fitbits and others. A few months ago I even wore four at the same time, and compared how they interpreted my daily steps, sleep patterns, heart rate, food intake and more.

But then I fell off the wristband wagon. When life got super busy, the activity-tracking wristband was the first thing I ditched.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that I moved out of New York City, where walking is almost by default a competition. I had no problem meeting my step goals there. Now I’m in a community where driving and biking are the most-used forms of transportation. (In fact, I’m probably a better test case now than I was before, for these get-up-and-move devices.)

Recharging the bands became a hassle. And they all come with proprietary chargers that are easy to misplace or lose.

Another reason is that some of these bands felt too high-maintenance after a while. While they auto-record some data, other data has to be manually logged into a compatible mobile app.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, considering how much attention some of them require, I felt like I wasn’t getting enough back. Beyond my own self-motivation, few provided me with the habit-changing analysis or positive reinforcement that is promised with these bands. These were supposed to be “smart” bands, and yet they weren’t really super-smart.

Despite all this, I decided to test yet another band this week, the new Fitbit Force, to see if it offers enough features to lure me back. This particular activity-tracking wristband costs $130, and hits the market in a couple weeks. It syncs your activity data to the Fitbit website and iOS and Android mobile apps.

Fitbit Force Steps

Unlike Fitbit’s previous Flex wristband, the Force has a display, tracks stair climbing and elevation (if you are, for example, running up a hill), and in the future it will wirelessly pair with iOS 7 devices to show notifications from your mobile phone. In short, this is what the Fitbit Flex should have been.

After a week of using the Force, I can say it’s a pretty cool activity-tracking band. It’s simple, low-commitment and tracks a fair amount of data.

That said, it seems as though the whole product category has moved on to Activity Tracking 1.1, but hasn’t quite graduated to Wearables 2.0. There is competition coming in from multiple directions now. Nike just announced a new FuelBand. There are — and will be more — smartwatches that show notifications from mobile devices and also track activities. There are also purpose-driven apps that run on that device you already have in your pocket, and those smartphone sensors are getting smarter.

There still isn’t one product or solution that does it all really well.

I did not get to test how mobile notifications appear on the Force, because that software update isn’t available yet from Fitbit. I think that will be a key part of its overall usefulness, if it works.

Fitbit Force App

Setting up the Force is simple. You can plug the wristband into your laptop via USB, or pair it up with your smartphone using low-energy Bluetooth. The Fitbit apps and website are free to use, but for $50 a year you get more advanced analytics around your activities.

The Force is thicker and slightly heavier than the Flex wristband, to accommodate the display and the larger battery that powers it. But it didn’t feel bulky or geeky to me. It comes in two colors, black and slate, and the OLED display is a slick strip, like a piece of black tape, across the top of the rubbery wristband.

The Force’s clasp is the only thing that peeves me. I don’t know why, but every morning I wrestle with two plastic prongs you squeeze through railroad-track-style gaps on the underside of the wristband.

On the left side of the band is a tiny button that you press to toggle through the information on the display. This includes the time of day, how many steps you’ve taken, how many miles you’ve traveled, how many calories you’ve burned and how many stairs you’ve climbed. The stair-climbing count seemed a little off at times, but having that number on my wrist still made me think to take the stairs more often (especially when there’s an elevator right next to the staircase, as is the case at my apartment complex).

Fitbit Force Stairs

As with the initial set-up, syncing the data is super easy. On my iPhone 5, I turned on Bluetooth and left it on all week. Each morning, I would open up the Fitbit app and my data from the day before would wirelessly sync to the app. While I think Jawbone’s Up app is fun, I really appreciate the clean interface of the Fitbit app. (And, like the Up app, Fitbit pulls in data from other apps, as well — like MyFitnessPal, Lose It! and MapMyRun.)

Fitbit tracks your food intake, but you have to manually enter that in, which I opted not to do this week. The Fitbit Force also tracks your sleep duration, but you have to set it to sleep mode at night by holding down the button and waiting for it to buzz.

With the older Fitbit wristband, users can remove a nut-sized dongle from the wristband and swap out bands. Not with the new Force: This wristband is all one piece. Mine is still in great shape after a week of use, though I’ve heard longtime users of the earlier Flex band complain that the rubber bands degrade over time, making the Flex’s swap-out option appealing.

Fitbit said the Force’s battery should last seven to 10 days, even with notifications running. In my experience, without receiving mobile notifications, the wristband has lasted more than seven days.

So, the Force still requires you to manually log your food, and it’s not smart enough to just know when you’re sleeping. It doesn’t have a heart-rate sensor, skin sensors (for measuring heat flux or exertion levels). It doesn’t pick up on activities like bike-riding, which I’ve been doing more of, and it’s not waterproof enough for swimming. Side note: I also miss my watch, which is a nice, stylish watch.

As I said, this is the next step in activity-trackers, and it’s baby steps. Still, I like the Fitbit Force. It might just get me back into activity-tracking gear.


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