Jawbone Up review

Back in July, Jawbone did something surprising. The company, best known for its Bluetooth headsets, announced it was cooking up a wristband called "Up" -- a wearable device that would track the wearer's sleeping, eating and exercise habits. At the time, we didn't know much more than that, but given the company's expertise in wearable tech, we assumed it would at least have a Bluetooth radio, tying it together with all the other products Jawbone sells.

As it turns out, the wristband doesn't sync your vitals wirelessly and for better or worse, it doesn't work quite the way we thought it would. To use the wristband, you'll need an iOS device -- no other platform is supported, and there isn't even a mobile website to which you can upload all your data. Then again, it does things other fitness trackers don't: it monitors when you're in deep or light sleep, so that it can wake you when you're just dozing. And because it's waterproof up to one meter and promises up to 10 days of battery life, it's low-maintenance enough that you can wear it every day, which could be key to making some healthy lifestyle changes. So how did Jawbone do, stepping so far outside its comfort zone? And should you consider this over identically priced fitness trackers such as the new Fitbit Ultra? Let's see.

Design and fit

There's not much to Up, which is a good thing considering you're supposed to wear it day in and day out. The band, available in three sizes, is made of springsteel wrapped in thermoplastic, hypoallogenic rubber. Most importantly, it's waterproof up to one meter (3.3 feet), and dries quickly, which is what allows you to wear it continuously for days at a time. In contrast, you'd need to remove your Fitbit every time you take a shower.

Unlike most wrist candy, the band doesn't fasten but instead has open ends that curl around your wrist -- not unlike a snap bracelet. One end is topped off with a metal piece that you'll press every time you want to let the band know you're going to sleep, getting out of bed or beginning / ending a workout. (There's a vibration motor inside and also an LED light that flashes different colors, so you'll get plenty of feedback confirming you're in the right mode.) On the other end, there's a metal cap covering a 3.5mm headphone connector, which you'll need to sync the band with your iDevice and also re-charge via your computer's USB port (the band comes with a small USB adapter specifically for this purpose).

The wristband is thinnest at the edges, though for the most part it's about as wide as those ubiquitous Livestrong bands. Still, it's discreet enough that it can pass for a proper bracelet (a rugged, slightly masculine bracelet, but a bracelet nonetheless). It's also available in seven colors, though if you'll indulge us for a moment as we dole out some fashion advice, the black goes with more outfits and calls less attention to itself on days that call for dressier digs. As for fit, Jawbone has a printable ruler that you can use to measure the circumference of your wrist. Based on that single measurement, we ended up with a bracelet that fit snugly, but didn't come close to cutting off our circulation. And that's just fine with us: the last thing you want is a bangle sliding down your wrist and hitting the palm rest every time you peck away at your laptop.

Setup and charging

To set up and use the wristband, you'll need to download the free, corresponding app from the App Store if you haven't already. Then, just plug the band into your iDevice's headphone jack, open the app and follow some onscreen instructions -- in particular, entering your name, email address, height, weight and sex. Within a minute or so, then, you should be up and running.

And that, friends, about describes how you'll be using the wristband on a daily basis (minus the part where you enter your weight, of course). You'll need to plug the band into the headphone jack every time you want to sync it. The truth is that Up has a rated battery life of ten days, which means you could spend the better part of a week wearing this thing 24/7 and not syncing it. Still, we quickly fell into a pattern of syncing our vitals at least once a day, if only because we were curious to see how well we slept this time.

Similarly, we chose to charge most days, even though we didn't have to. After 18 hours of use, we were still at 87 percent capacity; after about two days, we were down to 35 percent. So perhaps Jawbone's claim of ten days was exaggerated, but you can at least use this for a few days uninterrupted. Ultimately, though, we're at our least active when we're sitting in front our PC, so we don't mind going under the radar for a little while and letting a few burned calories go unrecorded -- even if we're not running low on power.

Also, we should tell you that although we didn't lose either the proprietary USB charger or the cap covering the end of the bracelet, we had to go out of our way not to. We got into the habit of placing both the cap and dongle in a clean corner of our desk whenever we weren't using them, but we can see where a less meticulous person could lose them within the first week. Which is bad, because that bracelet becomes a lot less comfortable (and more conspicuous) when you remove the metal cap to expose the male 3.5mm headphone jack connector. Jawbone is quick to point out that although a wireless radio would have eliminated the need for wired syncing, it would have made for a thicker bracelet, and shorter battery life. So at the end of the day we can live with the tethered setup, though it is pretty clumsy.

iOS app

The app organizes your data by day, and then according to three overarching categories: sleep, activity and food intake. When you launch the app the first thing you'll see will be a bar graph for the current day called the "Me screen," which features three vertical, color-coded bars arranged side by side, representing the hours you've slept, the number of steps you've taken and how many energizing meals you've consumed. At the bottom of the chart, you'll also see some basic stats, including how long you slept and how many steps you walked. Even without those numbers, though, you can tell at a glance roughly how well you've been doing. For instance, the blue sleep bar will be taller if you've gotten seven hours of shut-eye instead of five. Want to put that all in context? Swipe that chart to the right and you'll see yesterday's graph. You can't pick a day from a calendar; you just keep swiping until you reach the day you want.
With us so far? Good. By default, Up has certain daily goals in mind -- say, seven hours of sleep per night. You can change these to whatever you want; the point is, each day's bar chart will show percentages above each category. So, if you slept five hours and 44 minutes instead of seven, you'll see a grade of 82 percent for the day. Exceed that goal and you'll see a halo effect around the bar, a subtle but clear reward for a job well done.

You can dig deeper into those charts, but not much. If you tap the bar chart, it'll turn into a longer-form graph called the Live Feed, which you can only view in landscape mode. Here, the bars are smaller and the information is more granular, but the idea is the same. You'll see color-coded bars on a horizontal axis, representing the hours in the day. Swipe through it and you'll see up-to-the minute stats on what you ate, how that food made you feel, how many steps you took and whether you were awake or in deep or light sleep. Up tosses in a few extra pieces of information at the bottom of the screen, including your mileage, calories burned and time spent doing something active. When it comes to sleep, that means seeing a breakdown of how much time you spent in deep versus light sleep. You can't filter the Live Feed according to date or the type of data. And the information itself isn't much more detailed that what you'll see at a glance on the home screen. It's certainly not materially different than the stats Fitbit collects.

Social feed, challenges and other features

In addition to hosting all this info in pretty charts, the app is home to a handful of other features. It's from here that you can take a photo of your meal or set an alarm to wake you up when you're in light sleep (more on both of these in just a bit). You can also set the wristband to buzz as a way of reminding you to get up and move if you've been sitting "too long," whatever that means for you -- it could be every fifteen minutes or every hour, depending on how sedentary you are.

And what would a fitness tool be without a little social networking? The service allows you to befriend other Up owners, at which point all of their activity -- everything from their sleep quality to how what they ate -- will appear in a list, aptly called the Feed. You can also create so-called teams with groups of people, and also pose challenges to them. In fact, if you're more private you can pose challenges to just yourself if you're the modest type -- e.g., "How much sleep can I get this week?"

Activity tracking

Like Fitbit and other fitness products, Up packs a pedometer, allowing it to gauge your activity levels by tracking the number of steps you take. (The second-gen Fitbit Ultra does it one better, though, with an altimeter that monitors how many flights you've climbed.) All told, our mileage counts seemed a bit generous, but then again, we had the same complaint about Fitbit. For example, on a day when we did not work out, it said we walked 4.26 miles. That seems like a stretch given that on that particular day, all we did was walk to the subway (about half a mile), from the subway in Manhattan to our office and back (another three-quarters of a mile in total), and from an apartment in Brooklyn to a nearby park (one mile, roundtrip). Then again, we do appreciate that when we worked out on the elliptical machine, which requires you to make some pretty sloppy, ill-defined steps, the band did a good-enough job approximating our mileage.

When you're beginning a workout, you can press the end of the band once to let it know you're about to exercise. (Likewise, you'll want to press it again when you're finished.) The idea is to distinguish between normal moving about and a concerted workout, but given how limited the data selection is, we don't really see the point. Whether we call it a workout or not, the band knows how many steps we're taking, and in either scenario, it doesn't account for metrics such as pace or heart rate. The only time we felt compelled to set the band to workout mode was when we set a personal challenge in which we wanted to see how much time we could spend exercising in a given week. Otherwise, you won't lose any credit if you forget to send the band into workout mode, which is actually all too easy to do.

Food diary

Up claims to track what you eat, but it would be more accurate to say that you track what you eat -- when you remember to. Whereas the wristband has sensors that can monitor your sleep and activity patterns, the food tracking bit is based completely on input from you -- specifically, photos you take of your meals using your iDevice. A couple hours after you eat said meal, you'll see an alert on your device asking you to rate the meal using one of five emoticons -- a selection that includes options like stuffed, sleepy and OK. The idea isn't to track your calories or to shame you into eating healthier, but to track how you feel after you eat certain foods, and then, over time, give you credit for eating meals it's learned are energizing. (By this metric, then, you can game the system so that it thinks Big Macs are nutritious.)

We see a few problems here. One, even after wearing the band for several weeks, we often forgot to photograph our food until we had two bites of food left. Secondly, even when we did remember, we were hesitant to be That Guy in the restaurant, snapping pics of our meal with a cell phone. It's one piece of the Up regimen that just doesn't feel natural, which is ironic, since the bracelet itself is designed to blend in and not call attention to itself as you carry on with your daily routine.

Most importantly, though, this cutesy food diary ultimately couldn't persuade us to lay off the pizza, cookies and bagels, even though they invariably leave us feeling sleepy, unsatisfied and a tad sheepish for eating like a five year-old. Having used both Up and Fitbit, we found it more useful to see a list of our daily caloric intake against the calories we were estimated to have burned that day. Now it's true, Fitbit's food tracking system is sorely in need of a makeover: right now, it requires you to choose your meal from a list, which is mostly populated with items from specific cookbooks and restaurant chains. Still, as annoying as it is to pretend your bagel and cream cheese came from Friendly's, it still gives you some approximation of how much you're consuming. That's all we want, really. We don't need photographic evidence of that cheeseburger that's only going to pad our behinds.

Sleep analysis

Like Fitbit, Up uses sensors to track your sleeping patterns, though Jawbone goes a step further, recording how much time you've spent in deep versus light sleep. Which brings us to one of the band's marquee features: it doubles as an alarm, sending vibrations through your wrist when it's time to start the day. Setting this up through the app is simple enough: just select the time as well as the days of the week you want it to go off (e.g., Monday through Friday). Once you're ready to retire, send the band into sleep mode by hold down the edge of the band until it vibrates and a blue LED light flashes. When you get out of bed in the morning, hold the end of the band again until it vibrates and flashes green.

But here's the twist: Up wakes you within half an hour of your alarm, depending on when you happen to be sleeping lightly (and therefore easier to rouse). Indeed, there was one morning when we were already sleeping fitfully, and the band began vibrating 30 minutes before we needed to get out of bed. And though we were none too cheerful about this 6am interruption, we have to admit we weren't terribly groggy either.

The problem is, when you don't urgently need to get up, it's all too tempting to grab your cell phone, set a new alarm and doze for an extra 30 minutes. What's more, those vibrations are fairly easy to ignore, as the wristband falls silent after a minute or so. It would be helpful if the band could use its step counter to detect when you're out of bed, and then turn off the vibrating motor -- kind of like how your bedside alarm won't shut up until you hit dismiss (or at least snooze). Ultimately that day, we did what many of you would have done: we nodded off for another half hour. As it happens, though, we went on to have the kind of spazzy morning where we mistook body wash for shampoo, so perhaps Jawbone was on to something by waking us when it did.

In addition to tracking your sleep states, the wristband collects data on how long you took to nod off and how many hours you slept in total -- data that it uses to spit out an overall sleep quality rating. Fitbit does this too, although it actually tells you how long it took you to fall asleep; Up's iOS app shows a slim bar at the beginning of your sleep graph, illustrating how long you were awake, but that length of time isn't actually visible. Maybe Jawbone will throw that into version 2.0. Not a deal-breaker by any means, though we're naturally curious about such things.

Then again, when it comes to sleep tracking, Up's data is more accurate and also, thorough. Fitbit, for instance, will tell you how many times you awoke during the night, but that tally appears to be based on activity detected by the accelerometer, which means you could, in theory, fool Fitbit into thinking you're asleep when really you're staring at the ceiling, worrying about the day ahead.

Reports of breakage

Soon after we began our testing, we started hearing grumbling from early adopters, who reported their wristbands had suddenly and mysteriously stopped working properly (hit the links at the bottom of this post for examples). Sure enough, after less than two weeks with ours, the vibration motor became unresponsive, making it impossible to take advantage of that smart alarm feature. (Fortunately, the device continued to collect data, so even though the band didn't vibrate when we put it into sleep tracking mode, it still came back the next morning with stats on how much shut-eye we'd gotten.)

Jawbone sent us a new band, and has been issuing free replacements to everyone who's reported issues with their devices. Once we received it, all we had to do was plug it into our iPhone and agree to sync our existing account with this new band. At least that part's painless. Still, within 24 hours we noticed the vibration motor had once again appeared to stop working. This time, it didn't register any data.

This apparent pattern is troubling for a couple reasons. For one, Jawbone owners have been reporting a disturbing range of issues, including difficulty syncing with iOS and sharply depleted battery capacity. Travis Bogard, vice president of product management and strategy, said he suspects these myriad problems might all stem from the battery not being charged enough. Then again, he admits the company's engineers haven't yet diagnosed the underlying problem. Which brings us to our second concern: until Jawbone is able to explain why its devices are malfunctioning, it won't be able to deliver any kind of long-term fix. Offering replacement devices makes for smart customer service, but it sadly won't do much good if these secondary (or even tertiary) devices eventually brick too.


It's a shame the Up wristband is breaking all over the place, because it's otherwise a promising idea for a gadget. Jawbone's on the right track with the hardware: the band is comfortable, waterproof and doesn't call much attention to itself. It can tell when you're sleeping deeply, as opposed to lightly dozing -- something competing fitness trackers can't do. Sure, we wish the Up band charged wirelessly, but we appreciate that by nixing a Bluetooth radio, the company was able to make the battery life as impressive as it is. All told, it's the kind of device we can easily see ourselves wearing day in and day out (and we should know: we tested this for weeks).

Where Up really needs work is in its app: as slick as it is, it feels more shallow than Fitbit's website, and it isn't quite as fun to use either. It would also be nice to see Up expand beyond iOS to Android and other platforms. The good news, though, is that this is precisely the sort of thing Jawbone can keep working on, even now that the Up has begun shipping. The company says it will release an app for Android. And it can most certainly beef up the current app so that early and later adopters alike can benefit from additional features.

But all that means little when the device routinely malfunctions. Though the company says a minority of users have reported breakage, it's telling that both of the units we tested over the past month have bricked -- one of them within 24 hours. Worse, Jawbone hasn't yet diagnosed the root cause of these problems, a collection of maladies that run the gamut from a rapidly draining battery to a silent vibration motor. We still feel that the Up has promise, but until its engineers iron out the kinks, we can't in good faith recommend it.