Though the new Fitbit replaces the one that's been around for two years, its design hasn't changed a lick. It is, to this day, a clip-shaped doo-dad that could easily be mistaken for a Bluetooth headset. It's lightweight enough that it rarely feels invasive. In fact, even when clipped to a thin shirt, you might forget it's there. We're also pretty confident it won't chafe your skin when you clamp it onto the waistband of your running shorts -- a fault we've found with other fitness gadgets.
Like the last generation, this thing packs an accelerometer, along with an LED display you can use to glance at steps taken, calories burned and miles traversed. This time, though, it adds an altimeter to track how many "flights" you've climbed. We're using air quotes there because really, this just means changes in elevation. So, if you go on a hilly run, as yours truly did, you might log 36 flights, even if you didn't attempt nearly as many staircases. This generation also adds a clock -- something we can't believe Fitbit omitted the first time around -- along with motivational messages such (e.g.,"Burn it") and the ability to program a customized greeting when you turn the thing on (think: "Hi, Dana"). The screen only accommodates so many characters, though, so the Jonathans and Jennifers of the world are sadly out of luck.
Also new: a stopwatch that you can activate by holding down the all-purpose button on the front of the device. Annoyingly, though, once you press the button to freeze the clock, you'll have to do another long-press to see your time.
You won't find too many surprises in the box either. Like the last gen, it comes with a small, USB-powered dock that you'll use to charge it and sync it with Fitbit.com. The company says it should last up to seven days on a charge, so we were none too surprised to see that the battery life indicator hadn't budged after we spent five hours out and about. It also re-fuels quickly: in the time it took us to watch an episode of Modern Family, it ticked up from half-full to fully charged. And, like last time, it comes with a plastic holster as well as a soft wristband allowing you to wear the Fitbit while you sleep. To be honest, we're not wild about the thing, since the velcro strap can be irritating. If you have bony wrists (guilty), best to attach it loosely, as the velcro base only extends so far, and the last thing you want is to be left with a tail that'll scratch your skin and get on your last nerve.
The only other change we're aware of is that the clip is now available with subtle light blue or plum accents. Then again, if we're talking about a gadget intended to be clipped to a bra or pants pocket, does it really matter?
Setting up the Fitbit Ultra is simple and eats up just a few minutes, though once again the company neglected to include any instructions in, or even print them on the box. Still, our intuition told us to go to Fitbit.com, at which point it was obvious we had to download some software (it's Mac- and PC-compatible) and create an account -- a process that requires you to hand over your city, state, country, birthday gender, height and weight. It's at this point that you can program a custom greeting, though you can always return to that later by digging around the device settings menu on the Fitbit site.
Throughout our testing, we found ourselves keeping the dock plugged into our computer, and tried our best to get into the habit of charging the thing while sitting at our desk -- a time when we're burning minimal calories anyway. Once you do clip the Fitbit onto its dock, you'll see the battery life indicator flash briefly to let you know it's charging, and pretty soon your latest calorie counts, et cetera will show up on Fitbit's website. You can also sync the device wirelessly, but we preferred the killing-two-birds-with-one-stone effect of syncing and charging at the same time. We'll admit: there's something fundamentally addictive about seeing your numbers rise, but the question isn't so much whether this is fun, but if it's worth a hundred bucks when you could use any number of mobile apps to help you stick to a diet or fitness routine or what-have-you.
Fitbit's web interface remains clean, intuitive and free to use, though you'll still have to enter a good deal of information manually in order to get the most out of it. With food, you'll have to go out of your way to keep a food diary, but Fitbit doesn't exactly make it easy. The problem isn't even that you have to stop to log your morning Egg McMuffin. No, the bummer is that Fitbit doesn't have caloric counts for generic foods. Try and enter a bagel and cream cheese, for instance, and you'll have to choose between one sold by Friendly's and another by Bar Louie (one claims 160 more calories than the other). We ran into the same problem when we tried recording the squash and chicken apple sausage a friend served for dinner. Health and fitness magazines regularly give estimates for different kinds of produce, so it's a shame Fitbit doesn't. As it is, having to pretend you ate at Jason's Deli just to settle on a number that may or may not be right would seem to defeat the purpose of calorie-counting.
Fitbit also analyzes how well you've been sleeping, but it'll first need to know when, exactly, you got in and out of bed. (You can also do a long-press when you lie down and when you wake up.) Specifically, the website will tell you how many times you woke up during the night and how much time you actually spent sleeping, but even then, that data's closely tied to how often you moved. So, if you were lying awake with your mind racing, Fitbit may have thought you were sound asleep after all.
automatically track your steps, mileage, flights climbed and calories burned. But here's the rub: it's often wrong. One day, our mileage count was five miles higher than what we calculated using the service MapMyRun (22-some-odd miles versus 17). That's not to say MapMyRun is pitch-perfect either, but either Fitbit's off or the truth lay somewhere in between. And we have reason to believe it was Fitbit that made a mistake: because it uses an accelerometer to calculate steps, it'll interpret any movement as a step -- even your restless leg syndrome. On the flip side, Fitbit doesn't take into account the exercise you might be getting through other sports, such as cycling or skiing (forget swimming -- this thing's not waterproof), so you'll have to manually enter those, too, and keep a careful record of how long you were working out.