Life-tracking tools for a better, healthier you: Fuelband, Fitbit, UP compared

People are looking for ways to improve their health and modern mobile technology is helping with devices like the Nike+ Fuelband, Fitbit Ultra, and Jawbone UP.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

If you want to track, monitor, and record all the details of your run, bike ride, swim, or other intense physical event, then there excellent devices on the market for your specific needs. For the other 23 hours of the day when you are walking to the office, sitting at your desk, going for a simple jog, walking the dog, and even sleeping then you may want to consider the Fitbit Ultra, Nike+ Fuelband, or Jawbone UP. I purchased and have been using all three for a period of time and this article brings all of my thoughts together in an attempt to help you make an informed choice. You can check out the three devices and screenshots of the mobile apps in my image gallery.

I previously wrote some first impressions and other posts on these three devices, but this one brings them all together and presents my longer term usage experiences. You can read these past posts too that will give you some background on my purchases:

Image Gallery: Check out the three devices and some mobile screenshots.
Image Gallery: Fitness devices and their docks
Image Gallery: Nike+ Fuelband iOS app

Motivation is key to success

These devices can be used to track training periods and workouts, however the primary reason I will always have one with me now is to serve as a motivational tool for everyday living. I try to workout three times a week, but often get busy with work or family life, stay seated at my desk and work for long periods, don't feel like getting out in the rain, or just feel like chilling out and watching a movie. I have found that I am more active when I carry one of these devices and I think the long term benefits far outweigh the cost of the device. I take the stairs more often, go outside and walk a bit further to reach my goal, get up and tour my office on a regular basis, and have just enough motivation to get me up on the elliptical machine or go for a run where before I might have just convinced myself I didn't need to do anything. IMHO, these tools work and all three are valuable. Jawbone included a quote from the American Medical Association on their site that states, "Health studies prove that individuals who tracked their activity increased activity by more than 26%, lost weight, and lowered blood pressure."

In each section below, I'll focus on my long term usage experiences since I covered specs and other details in my previous articles. There is also a table at the end of this article that compares key elements of each device. The sections for each device include:

  1. Form factor and design
  2. What is tracked?
  3. Mobile apps and connectivity
  4. PC/Mac apps and connectivity
  5. Can others help motivate you?
  6. Price and availability

Fitbit Ultra

I picked up a blue Fitbit Ultra at CES in January and have been using it for two months. When looking at these three devices, it is clear that the Fitbit Ultra is the BEST at tracking your entire life, including steps, distance traveled, calories burned, flights of stairs climbed, sleep and sleep patterns, and daily nutrition. If you want a single device that tracks it all then this is the one to purchase. My 15 year-old daughter was so impressed with the one I am using that she spent her own money and purchased a plum one last week.

Form factor and design

The Fitbit Ultra is a clip-on accessory that you can clip on your belt, bra, shorts, or other piece of clothing. You get a holster clip in the package in case you need to connect it to a thick belt or something since you don't want to spread the Fitbut Ultra too far apart and break it. I wear jeans to work quite a bit so I just carry the Fitbit in the small pocket located above my large front pocket. The soft touch outside helps keep the Fitbit safe in my pocket.

I think the small display with blue fonts is excellent and love the way it is integrated into the device without you even knowing there is a display present. The encouraging and motivational statements that appear when you pick up the Fitbit add some character to the device and include statements such as:

  • Woot!
  • Let's go
  • I Like U
  • Go (username, aka "palmsolo" for me)
  • Rock On

Three messages are stored at a time on your Fitbit and when you sync they may be updated with new messages. Your username is also shown after these statements to add a personal touch. The Fitbit Ultra is compact and light and you won't even really notice you have it with you most of the time. The one thing about this is that you also have to remember to move it between your outfits (work, home, exercise, pajamas, etc.) and try not to forget it in a pocket when you put your clothes in the wash. You also have to remember to bring the band along on trips if you wish to track your sleep.

What is tracked?

The Fitbit Ultra is the king of tracking and gathers data using the motion sensor and altimeter. Data tracked includes:

  • Steps taken
  • Miles traveled (you can enter walking and running stride lengths)
  • Calories burned
  • Calories consumed (manual entry through apps and web interface)
  • Time you went to bed
  • Time it took to fall asleep
  • Times awakened
  • Total sleep
  • Time of day
  • Floors climbed
  • Stopwatch function

You can put your Fitbit into a mode for tracking a specific activity (jog or night of sleep) by pressing and holding down on the button.

Mobile apps and connectivity

You can find a Fitbit application for iOS in the App Store, but there are no other Fitbit mobile applications at this time. I hope they launch an Android app soon and a Windows Phone app would be great too. In the meantime, you can login to the Fitbit website with your mobile browser and get some access to your data and the food logging utilities.

Thankfully, the folks at Fitbit have opened their API so you can use lots of iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and Android apps to connect data collected through those apps with your Fitbit tracking data. Apps such as Lose It!, Runkeeper, Endomondo, MyFitnessPal, Facebook, and more can be used in conjunction with your Fitbit Ultra.

There is no direct connectivity between the Fitbit Ultra and any mobile device as the data on the mobile phone is synced through the web.

PC/Mac apps and connectivity

There are Mac and PC clients for Fitbit and you must download and install the application to be able to connect your Fitbit and get data from it into the server. The Fitbit comes with a dock that connects via USB and then the dock talks to your Fitbit via WiFi to sync data through the Fitbit Dashboard. The app is simply a sync manager/conduit utility for the web interface and the dock.

The complete Fitbit system is managed via the website and your Dashboard. You can see historical data, log events, log food, connect with others, manage your Fitbit, enable/disable applications, manage all of your privacy settings, and much more. You should spend time getting to know the website since it is quite exhaustive. You have full control over what parts of your data others see, including your body dimensions, goals, achievements, and each piece of data that is captured.

I wish I could connect the Fitbit through my computer or mobile phone without the wireless dock since you have to pack it when you travel and there is no other alternative connectivity available.

Can others help motivate you?

Fitbit supports adding friends through Facebook, email, or simply knowing others with a Fitbit that you connect with. There is a leaderboard for steps, distance, active score, and very active minutes that you can use to help motivate you and encourage others. You can earn badges too for reaching different goals and levels.

Price and availability

The Fitbit Ultra is available now for $99.99 in either blue or black. Everything you need is included in the package; the Fitbit Ultra, holster, charging/WiFi dock, and sleep tracking band.

Fitbit also takes things to the next level with their Premium service that is available for $49.99/year and gives you several more features, such as Fitbit Trainer that gives you a personalized 12 week fitness plan, in-depth data analysis, and more. I haven't tried this aspect out yet, but after my Aria scale arrives I may give it a test too.

Fuelband and UP »

Nike+ Fuelband

As I previously wrote, it is extremely difficult to buy a Nike+ Fuelband right now (see my previous post for a tip that helped me get mine) unless you are willing to pay at least double the price for one on ebay. It is a pretty simple device, but extremely well designed and as I mentioned a few times it doesn't take much to motivate people and push them just a bit so that they become more active.

Form factor and design

IMHO, the Nike+ Fuelband has the best form factor out of these three life tracking devices. The Jawbone UP is close, but Nike solved the missing cap issue and direct PC connection with its slick USB bracelet closure design. The band is covered in soft touch material and comes with two removable links in the package so you get three opportunities to customize the fit with each size you order. I ordered a large and ended up with neither of the two provided links being needed to fit my wrist. The link removal tool works well and Nike seems to have thought of everything with the design and sizing.

The metal clasp, with Nike+ logo, is strong has held the Fuelband on my wrist through a number of runs and other activities (such as working in the shipyard). The fact that the clasp opens up to reveal a USB connector that I can plug into the included stand/dock or straight into my Mac/PC is genius too.

The display on the Nike+ Fuelband impresses everyone I show it too with the bright white lights, marquee animations, and colored Fuel status lights. I like that the display also shows the time and for the past couple of weeks my watch has been placed into a drawer and left behind.

I know that Nike is heavily focused on advertising, but am confused about some videos and graphics that show people playing basketball and soccer as part of the Fuelband ads. I have never been allowed to wear a bracelet playing basketball and even take off my wedding ring. Even hidden under a sweatband, it seems a bit dangerous to play contact sports like basketball and soccer with a Fuelband on. I am getting ready to get back out on the rugby pitch and there is now way I am wearing the Fuelband out there.

What is tracked?

The Nike+ Fuelband is the most basic of these three life trackers and gives you the following on the display:

  • Fuel count
  • Calories burned
  • Steps taken
  • Time (not really tracked, just shown on the display)

That's it folks. Nike Fuel is its own fitness currency that is calculated using the 3-axis accelerometer in the Fuelband and in other Nike devices. The primary usage is to set goals and then get active to achieve them. In the initial setup I chose a goal level of 3000, which seemed a bit aggressive considering I work in an office environment. However, I wanted to challenge myself a bit and knew the only way to reach my goal was to get out and exercise. Over the past week I have reached my goal three times and was close a couple of other times.

Mobile apps and connectivity

Again, the only mobile application for the Nike+ Fuelband is for the iOS platform. The iPhone/iPod touch app does let you connect and sync directly between the Fuelband and your iPhone via a Bluetooth wireless connection. The app also syncs via the Internet to your data on the Nike server. I love that the Fuelband connects to the iPhone through Bluetooth and am willing to take the hit on battery life to gain this ease of connectivity.

The Fuelband iOS app is pretty powerful and lets you view your current Fuel status, daily/weekly/monthly/yearly activity, set your mood for the day, view friends daily or weekly Fuel status, and see all of your achievements. You get notifications when you reach goals or earn awards and can even view fun clips of the award. You can also manage your profile and your Fuelband right from your phone, including changing your daily goal. The daily goal is not set in stone and is designed to allow you to change it if you want, especially when you know you have some intense activity planned.

Nike has stated an Android app will be out this summer and given that these other devices do not have an Android app, I think this will help sales of the Fuelband and make it that much more attractive.

PC/Mac apps and connectivity

You need to install the PC or Mac utility to be able to plug in your Fuelband and get data up to the server. You can plug your Fuelband in directly or use the cool included stand/dock. I have the stand/dock at home on a Mac and simply plug in directly at work on my Windows 7 PC. Nike leads with this design and ease of functionality that means I don't have to remember to take anything else along when traveling.

You can even charge up your Fuelband through this USB connection, either directly or with the stand/dock.

Can others help motivate you?

You can use the iOS app and connect to your Facebook friends that have the Nike+ Fuelband setup through Facebook. The problem at this time is that there is a limited number of Fuelbands out there so I only have one Facebook friend who has a Fuelband.

You can also Tweet out your achievements if you like, which can be used to help motivate and encourage you too.

Price and availability

The Nike+ Fuelband retails for $149, which is $50 more than the other two products I looked at. This is expensive, but the design is superb and the motivation is simple and effective. Nike holds limited online sales of the Fuelband and they haven't said when they will actually get full stock in so people can buy them through their online store. Life may be a sport, but the real sport is being able to actually buy a Fuelband.

Jawbone UP

Jawbone makes some of the best Bluetooth headsets ever and I have also purchased two of their fantastic Jambox portable speaker units. There was quite a bit of excitement for the launch of the Jawbone UP and I was able to pick one up on the first day. Unfortunately, the UP did not live up to its promises and the CEO offered full refunds to everyone. Mine worked fine for a couple of months and then the vibration died, but I wanted to give them another chance and had a replacement sent that now has intermittent vibration loss. I will discuss the Jawbone below and state while I do like it, but I would never recommend anyone actually buy a current version.

There was supposed to be multiple colors and sizes, but only the black launched in limited sizes so I ended up with a large even though the sizing chart showed I should get an XL (not available).

Form factor and design

Like the Nike+ Fuelband, the UP is a bracelet/wrist band form factor device. There is no clasp on the UP, but the two ends overlap to secure it to your wrist. Under one end is a 3.5mm headset jack that is used to connect directly to an iPhone. Unfortunately, the cap on this tends to fall off and Jawbone had to send out replacements as people started losing them quickly.

The other end has a button on it that you use to switch between normal, active, and sleep modes. The modes are indicated with a small color indicator that appears under the soft touch material on the outside of the band. The UP is also covered in soft touch material and feels good on the wrist. It is narrower and lighter than the Fuelband. There is no display on the UP, just the indicator light area.

What is tracked?

The UP has three main modes for tracking movement, sleep, and eating. Movement tracks your steps and can also be placed into active mode for tracking workouts and runs. You can also set regular reminders so you can have the UP vibrate every 45 minutes if you don't have any activity. As an office worker this is a great way to remind me to get away from the computer and walk around a bit. I know this has encouraged me to be a bit more active during the day.

The sleep function is slick and shows you quality, light, and heavy areas of sleep. The smart alarm functionality was the main thing I like about the UP since it would vibrate within a half hour of when I wanted to get up at the time of light sleep. This function alone could be a marriage saver as no blaring alarm is needed to wake me at 4:15 am so my wife can continue to sleep. Unfortunately, the vibration function keeps failing on my UP bands so an unrealiable alarm is worthless.

The eat function is basic and requires that you take photos of the food you eat to log it. While I understand the simplicity of this type of food logging, I never saw much value in it and only used it for a couple of weeks. Jawbone provided a link to a study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine that shows food logging, even as simple as taking photos and recording what you eat, helped study participants lose twice as much weight as those that did not log their food intake.

Mobile apps and connectivity

There is only an iOS app for the Jawbone UP, but at least you are able connect via the 3.5mm headset jack directly so no PC is required to get the data from the UP. The iOS application has been updated a few times since launch and overall I am pretty happy with it for movement and sleep tracking. You can sync the UP, view your data, manage the UP settings and alarms, participate in challenges, and view information on your friends.

PC/Mac apps and connectivity

There is no PC or Mac application or connectivity with the Jawbone UP. You use a special USB dongle to charge the UP, but there is no desktop software or web interface for viewing and managing your data. All data is viewed on your iPhone or iPad.

Can others help motivate you?

You can connect with others through the UP software on your iPhone, but there is only one person left on my "team" so it isn't worth anything to even collect and share the data anymore. Jawbone has several challenges available and you can even create your own to try to encourage people to get healthier, but again there are not many people using the UP anymore so it is worthless.

Price and availability

The Jawbone UP sold for $99.99, but is currently not available and we have no idea when, or if, they will truly come out with an updated model.

Summary table and recommendations »

Comparison table

Fitbit Ultra Nike+ Fuelband Jawbone UP
Form factor Clip on Wrist band Wrist band
Mobile app iOS & 3rd party API iOS iOS
Direct mobile connection N Y Y
Sleep tracking Y N Y
Weight 0.4 ounces 1.13 ounces (Large) 0.67 ounces
Battery life 5-7 days 4 days 10 days
Price $99.95 $149.00 $99.99

Which life tracker(s) do I prefer?

Even though the Nike+ Fuelband doesn't track sleep or nutrition, I still prefer it as my primary daily device. The simple Fuel status and goal indicator gives me a quick way to check how my day is going and provides quick motivation to help me achieve my daily goal. However, as a gadget geek, I also carry the Fitbit Ultra around since the amount and type of data tracked is interesting and valuable to me.

Sleep tracking with the Fitbit Ultra and Jawbone UP is quite interesting, but after a couple of weeks of tracking I realize my sleep patterns are pretty consistent and I never changed any of my actions to alter my sleep.

Tracking your daily food and water intake is not part of the devices themselves, but the Fitbit Ultra and Jawbone UP work through the web browser and 3rd party clients to help you log meals as part of the complete life tracking package. I only logged food for a couple of weeks since it is something that requires time and effort and I am not that diligent about trying to manage my daily calorie intact at this time. However, I ordered the upcoming Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale and when that arrives I may spend more time tracking and managing my dietary goals. The Nike+ Fuelband doesn't support this aspect, but connecting some third party food logging apps (such as Lose It! and MyFitnessPal) should be possible if Nike decides to add this functionality in the future.

I like aspects of each of these three devices and because I have used all three I don't think there really is one that is perfect. My perfect daily tracker would combine the form factor of the Nike+ Fuelband, the activity tracking, app compatability, and friend network of the Fitbit Ultra, and the vibration alerts of the Jawbone UP.

With the skyrocketing cost of health care in the U.S., I would love to see companies giving discounts or insurance refunds to people who actively use these life tracking devices and show minimum levels of activity or improvement over time.

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