It wasn't that long ago that a bathroom scale was the only gadget you needed to track weight loss. Today even videogame consoles, once the bane of the fitness industry, are trying to help you recycle that spare tire, and of course there's no shortage of specialty doo-dads getting in on the action. The Fitbit is one of those, a little accelerometer that pledges to keep an eye on what you do so that you can just go ahead and do it, reporting back at the end of the day on how well you did at staying active. It sounds nice, but it's not quite that self-sufficient. Read on to see if it's worth the commitment.

Fitbit unboxing

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The Fitbit is basically just an accelerometer packaged in a clip-shaped body that looks a lot like a Bluetooth headset. Slap it onto your person somewhere and it begins to track your motions. Walk around and it counts your steps; sit still and it calls you lethargic; go to sleep and it monitors how well you rested -- or tries to, at least. In reality it's not so accurate; we found that if we threw it in our pocket and bounced our leg while rocking out to Faith No More's classic Epic the thing determined we were out running around the building. Not quite.


A little digging in the device's forums uncovered a note from a Fitbit employee indicating to clip it to your belt or, even better, somewhere on your upper body. Good to know... shame that wasn't in the manual. That's because no manual comes with the thing, the implication being you just throw it on and go to town. Again that's not quite the reality, especially when it comes to sleep. The Fitbit FAQ online says: "When you get into bed, you slide the Fitbit Tracker onto a wristband that is provided with the Tracker. As you fall in and out of sleep, the Fitbit tracks the movements that your body makes and can tell you how long it took you to fall asleep, how many times you woke up throughout the night and the actual time you were asleep vs the time you were in bed." When we woke up and checked the results, it said we hadn't slept a wink. Digging a little further we found the Fitbit "manual" online (a set of five bullet points on a page) that says to hold the Fitbit's single button for two seconds and wait for it to say "Start." Then, when you awake, do it again until it says "Stop."


That's certainly simple enough, but not something you're likely to figure out on your own. Everything else, though, was seamless. The base station/charger plugged into our desktop and, after a quick driver download (PC and Mac software is available), sync'd up with the Fitbit wirelessly. An hour's charge and we were good to go for the entire week that we tested it, and every time we walked near the base station it downloaded our stats, which showed up online through the Tracker website.


The Tracker site offers a simple but clean looking web interface where the heavy lifting occurs. Here you must enter in everything you eat, enter in your weight every day, and even enter in your activities. Yes, the Fitbit will count how many steps you've taken over the course of a day (and do so quite accurately once you get it out of your pocket), but spend any time doing things like weight training, cycling, or swimming, and you need to enter them manually -- particularly that last one, since the Fitbit is not waterproof. You could easily spend 30 minutes in here every day logging everything you eat and do., especially since there's no way to define a standard meal and re-use it. If you have a bowl of raisin bran with cranberries and a glass of orange juice every morning be prepared to enter four separate things (raisin bran, cranberries, milk, juice) and a quantity for each. Woe unto those who have coffee with sugar and cream, too.


There are thousands of items in the database to select for, and full nutritional information including protein, saturated fat, and fiber is stored for them. That's great, but it's impossible to get that data back out in a report. There is a selection of nice looking pie and bar charts showing caloric burn vs. intake, your weight, and a few others, but that's it. If you want to see if you'd been downing enough protein to get ripped but not enough to send yourself into ketosis you won't be able to do it here, nor can you track your water intake or any specific nutrient.


That, plus an inability to automatically track most serious physical activities, leaves this as a device for casual folks -- people who are trying to lose weight, who are getting their primary exercise through walking, and who aren't already tracking what they eat. Even for them there's the question of whether the Fitbit is worth it. The Tracker site is free to use for anyone, even if you haven't spent the $100 to buy the gadget. Without one the only thing you really lose is that daily count of steps. The sleep tracking was interesting, and while it did tell us how many times we rolled over, it assumed we fell asleep after just a few minutes in bed even though we know we were awake for much longer. It'll give you a rough idea of how restful you were, but chances are you know that already.

So, you don't need to buy a Fitbit to make use of the website, but should you get one anyway? Perhaps. Having a little thing clipped onto your belt or bra through the day is something of a good reminder that you're being watched -- even if the only thing it's watching is how much you bob up and down as you walk around. Is that worth $100? That depends on how much motivation you need to shed those pounds.

Update: As it turns out, you can define meals through the Tracker site -- something we didn't discover on our own, that is not mentioned in the product documentation, and that even the Fitbit representative we spoke with about this review was not aware of. The functionality is similar to what is now crossed out above, allowing users to aggregate foods and quantities and more quickly add them to their daily intake. A great feature... a great, undocumented feature.
Fitbit

Fitbit

Pros

  • Simple design
  • Incredibly easy to use
  • Solid website

Cons

  • Too few options for serious athletes
  • Sleep tracking seems hit-or-miss
  • Only really provides step counts
Conclusion

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