The Fitbit ecosystem

Anthony Caruana
24 August, 2016
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The fitness tracker business has emerged as one of the fastest growing consumer technology sectors. Almost every smartphone maker has added activity tracking to their devices and many sportswear companies have also got in on the act.

But walk into almost any department, electronics or sports store and there’s one brand that you’ll see in almost all of them – Fitbit. Other than Apple, which stopped selling Fitbit gear when the Apple Watch was released, everyone wants a piece of the Fitbit pie.

Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, Fitbit has several wearable trackers on the market as well as their connected Aria scales.

The secret sauce: the Fitbit app

Most fitness tracker marketing focuses on the hardware. After all, this is the component that you’ll spend your money on. But even the best tracker can be let down by poor software that makes it hard to track progress and change settings.

The Fitbit app (free from the iOS App Store) provides a clear dashboard that delivers the information you want with a minimum of fuss.

When you launch the app, you’ll see a list of items starting with which device is currently connected – if you have multiple trackers it can sync with all of them and is smart enough to not double count data – as well as your step count, calories burned, active time, sleep stats and more.

Tapping on an item on the list displays trend information and allows you to easily change your goals. For example, if you tap on the step count, you can see how many steps you’re averaging per week and update your daily target from the default goal of 10,000.

You can also track your food intake by entering your meals and snacks into the app. I’ve used this extensively and the Fitbit database is reasonably comprehensive, although the rival MyFitnessPal still has the best food database in the business.

Unlike Apple, Fitbit is taking a very broad approach to communication with other fitness services. I’ve linked Fitbit with MyFitnessPal and Strava through easy-to-configure integration. There are also Fitbit channels in IFTTT so you can integrate your activity with other services. For example, I can integrate my Fitbit so particular lights that I have connected to my home automation system automatically come on when I wake up.

The social aspect of Fitbit is one of the more interesting elements of the ecosystem. You can engage in weekday or weekend challenges with your other Fitbit-wearing friends to see who takes the most steps as a way of motivating yourself to be more active.

Entry-level activity tracking: the Fitbit Flex

The Flex looks like your typical fitness band. It lacks a screen –its only display is a series of small LEDs that display your progress towards your daily step goal. Unlike many trackers, the Flex sensor can be easily extracted from the band so you can buy different coloured bands to match your clothing.

Fitbit doesn’t pitch the Flex as a sensor that’s suited for those wanting to track exercise programs. Its goal is to let you track your activity and sleep to ensure you’re not spending too much time sitting around at your desk or on the couch.

The Flex is charged over USB and will get through most of a working week between charges. However, several Flex owners I’ve spoken with say that the charger can be a little unreliable with many choosing to buy a second charger.

Sync to your iPhone is wireless over Bluetooth LE. You can choose to enable ‘All-Day Sync’, which keeps the data flowing between the Flex and your iPhone. I turn this function off, preferring to synch when I enter the app in order to conserve battery on both my Fitbit devices and iPhone.

The bottom line: If you’re looking to enter the world of activity tracking, the Fitbit Flex is a good place to start. The hardware is good, app support is excellent and the price isn’t excessive. But the lack of a display may be an issue for some.

Exercise tracking: the Fitbit Charge HR

If you need to move a step up from basic activity tracking and want to track your exercise program a little more closely then being able to track your heart rate is a useful metric. That’s where the Fitbit Charge HR steps in.

Rather than the simple, light-driven display delivered by the Flex, the Charge HR has a small LED display that tells you the time, steps travelled, floors climbed and your heart rate. Tapping on the screen or pressing the single button adjacent to the screen toggles through the different display options and these can be customised using the Fitbit app.

The heart rate is measured using Fitbit’s ‘PurePulse’ system that uses a green light that shines into your skin to detect the flow of blood just below the surface. When I tested this against a chest-strap heart rate monitor I did find one significant difference.

When training at a constant pace, such as on a run or ride where my pace was steady, the heart rates measured by the Charge HR and chest-strap were quite similar. But the chest strap did a better job of tracking rapid changes during interval training. This seems to be a challenge for many optical heart-rate monitors and not just Fitbit.

Recent updates to the Charge HR means it can now detect when you’re exercising without the need to manually start an exercise session.

The Charge HR is quite a bit larger than the Flex making it more like a watch than a regular tracker. I’ve found there are days I don’t bother wearing a watch as the Charge HR suffices although I still wear my Apple Watch when I’m busy and need access to notifications and Siri on my wrist.

The bottom line: The Fitbit Charge HR is a solid tracker that offers more than the entry level Flex and will support casual exercisers nicely.

Serious training: the Fitbit Surge

Many cyclists and runners are training data junkies – I’m one of them! As well as the ‘PurePulse’ heart rate sensor, the Surge adds a larger screen, GPS receiver and some smartwatch notifications. However, it’s not waterproof.

After several months of running and riding with the Surge, I have to say I’m impressed. Although it lacks some of the advanced features of running watches like the Garmin ForeRunner range such as cadence and vertical oscillation it captures running routes, heart rate as you’re running or riding, elevation changes and distance splits.

While running, you can easily flick the monochrome touchscreen to toggle between heartrate, current pace, time and other pertinent information.

The Surge isn’t a smartwatch – its focus is very much on activity tracking – however, it does offer some notification capability. It can display caller names for incoming phone calls and text messages. You can’t read messages, but at least you know when they’ve arrived.

Although some may see this as a deficiency, it’s a good example of Fitbit not trying to create a device that is trying to be all things to all people.

The bottom line: The Fitbit Surge is a great training watch for entry level and intermediate trainers. Advanced runners and riders may prefer some more data and those looking for a fitness-focused smartwatch may want more on the notification front. And the monochrome screen may seem like a retrograde inclusion. But the Surge is a great training companion that will fit the bill for most exercisers.

Track those kilos: the Aria Scale

Even the humble bathroom scales have been included in the health and well-being smart device revolution.

The Aria Scale looks a lot like a regular bathroom scale, but adds a couple of nifty features.

As well as weighing you, it provides a measure of your body composition and provides a measure of your body-fat percentage. The measurement works by sending a weak electrical signal through your body. The time it takes for the signal to go up one leg and back down the other allows the device to measure the resistance and then use this for an approximation of your body composition.

It’s not a perfect measure and it can be influenced by your hydration level, so it’s best to use that data as a long-term trend measurement rather than an absolute number.

The scales connect to your Wi-Fi network and sync the data to your Fitbit online account after a simple set up process. The data then syncs back to your iPhone where you can look at trend information or through a web browser on any computer. You can configure the Aria Scale for up to eight different users and the device is able to determine who is on the scale and sync the data to the right Fitbit account.

The bottom line: The Fitbit Aria Scale looks great and works well. I wouldn’t class it as a mandatory tool for effective well-being tracking, as the Fitbit app lets you manually enter your weight, but it’s easy to use and doesn’t cost a lot more that a regular set of similarly styled bathroom scales.

The Smartwatch: the Fitbit Blaze

Perhaps the biggest criticism levelled at many Fitbit devices is that they aren’t particularly attractive. Until early this year, Fitbit devices had a very utilitarian look. Sure, they worked well but, other than the Flex, all the wearables were rather chunky with thick rubber watchbands.

Facing the Apple Watch and other more fashion-conscious wearables, Fitbit has responded with the Alta and the Blaze.

The Blaze is Fitbit’s foray into the fashion market. Retailing at $329 – you’ll find it about $30 cheaper at many stores – the Fitbit Blaze boasts a large, clear colour display and interchangeable bands. There’s just one Blaze model that ships with an elastomer band that comes in black, blue and plum. For another $160, you can buy a more stylish leather band. Unlike the Apple Watch, the Blaze’s frame can also be switched as the watch can be snapped in and out.

Unlike the Surge, the Blaze lacks integrated GPS. Instead, it uses what Fitbit calls Connected GPS. This relies on a Bluetooth connection between your iPhone and the Blaze. However, Connected GPS only uses the GPS to produce a map of where you’ve run or cycled – not to measure distance or pace. In my testing, this resulted in running distances being overestimated by about 10 percent.

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the Apple Watch is battery life. I’ve rarely been able to get more than a day of use from my Apple Watch. In contrast, the Blaze can get through four of five days between trips to the charger. The Blaze’s charging system, however, is not a strong suit.

In order to charge the Blaze, it needs to be removed from its frame and placed in a charging cradle.

The Blaze doesn’t have an app ecosystem like the Apple Watch or Pebble. It does offer text, call and calendar notifications, but there’s now way to add custom watchfaces or integration with other fitness apps. However, that also means the user interface is easy to use and uncluttered.

The bottom line: The Fitbit Blaze straddles the line between fitness tracker and fashionable smartwatch. While it lacks the broad app support of other smartwatches, its focus on fitness and activity tracking, long battery life and interchangeable frames and bands makes it a compelling option for those looking for a fashionable tracker.

Tracking for the fashion conscious – the Fitbit Alta

The Fitbit Alta feels like a cross between the Fitbit Charge and Fitbit Flex. The Alta comes with the option of black, blue, plum and teal coloured bands and retails for $199.95.

While all of Fitbit’s trackers will track your steps, the Alta supports the recently added Hourly Activity tracking, which is designed to encourage you to move regularly. The Alta alerts you to take 250 steps each hour and this can be tracked in the Fitbit app.

Like the Blaze, the Alta boasts interchangeable bands with options for metal and leather bands priced at $169 and $99 respectively.

Functionally, the Alta is most similar to the superseded Charge as it has a display that shows the time, call, text and calendar alerts and activity data. But it’s slimmer. It’s important to note the Alta does not have the Charge HR’s heart rate tracking.

Fitbit seems intent on designing a different charging system for each new device. The Alta’s charging cable uses a sprung set of clamps that hold the cable in place. Unfortunately, the charger that shipped with my review unit was broken in the box. That doesn’t give me confidence in the longevity of the cable.

The bottom line: The Fitbit Alta takes many of the features of the Fitbit Charge HR, but lacks heart rate tracking. However, it has a superior display and looks far more attractive.

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