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Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Week with the Fitbit Force

[caption id="attachment_13117201768" align="aligncenter" width="560"]My wife's Fitbit Force (she still has hers).  The Force comes in two colors, black and "slate" (which is like a teal).  Buy it on Amazon for $130. My wife's Fitbit Force (she didn't return hers as I did). It's displaying the number of calories she's burned today. The Force comes in two colors, black and "slate" (which is like a teal). Buy it on Amazon for $130. Photo courtesy of my wife.[/caption]

When I first read about the Fitbit line of fitness trackers, I was vaguely interested in them. I felt like they were cool enough but nothing I was particularly interested in. Then I read that they could monitor sleep patterns. That piqued my interest, since I'm just not very good at sleeping. If competitive sleeping was an Olympic sport, I would be so bad, I'd be the last kid picked in gym class.

So, I've been interested for a while in better understanding how I sleep. So, when my wife decided to get the Fitbit Flex, I thought to myself how much better the Flex would be if it actually functioned like a watch, as well. So, I took another look at the Fitbit line and found the Force. I decided to get one and my wife decided to exchange her Flex for one, as well, since I did the work of tracking two down at a Best Buy here in the city.

On paper, the Force seemed like a very perfect device. It lets you follow along as you move toward various fitness goals during your day, with it's little OLED display showing you the time, the number of steps you have taken so far, distance traveled, calories burned and more. It pairs via Bluetooth with a mobile device (sort of--more on this in a bit) which allows you to compare your stats over time--which is pretty cool. As a full-time geek and an amateur hacker I also saw some serious potential in what the Force is capable of, but can't do yet.

The Fitbit Force is, essentially, a smartwatch. It exchanges information with your mobile device (well, as I said, sort of--keep reading) and is capable of giving you new information on it's own (like data collected by it's onboard accelerometer). And since the mobile app tells the Force what your fitness goals are (how many steps per day you want to take, how many calories you want to burn each day, etc), it should definitely be able to send all kinds of notifications to the Force from your mobile device. Get an email? The Force could let you know by vibrating. Get a text? The Force could display it for you on it's tiny screen--though that would probably be impractical--maybe it could just let you know who the text is from? Regardless, it could be even more smart if only Fitbit, the company, was smart enough to have their devs write the software to allow it.

But all is not even that perfect in Fitbitland, sadly...

As someone who wants to be in better shape but has no immediate health need to do so, I have only my own will power to rely on to keep myself encouraged to get fit. As a result, I need to use any and all reminders open to me to keep myself focused on my goals. Because of this, I found myself checking my Fitbit Force many times a day. Even many times an hour when I was out and about or just doing a lot of walking and/or strenuous behavior. I would often swipe through the past few days of stats to see if I could see any trends developing. Having only had the Force for a few days, I couldn't, but on the fifth day of having the Force (no Star Wars jokes, please >_<), I found a big problem with how the Force works.

No syncing without a connection to the Internet.

So, I'm on the subway. I live in New York City, I'm on the subway a LOT. I'm bored and think "I should compare my stats!" So, I pull out my iPad Mini and try to sync my Force to the Fitbit iOS app. It immediately complained that the Mini had no Internet connection. This was true. I was many feet underground at the time. I asked my wife to try to sync hers to her iPhone 5S. She did and had the same results.

This puzzled me greatly. Why would a smartwatch need an Internet connection to sync to a device with Bluetooth?

Well, long story short, it doesn't actually sync to the mobile app. It uses the mobile app to connect to the Fitbit servers where it immediately sends data to. Then, the iOS app downloads the data back to itself.

Yeah, seems pretty stupid to me, too.

I mean, I know wifi hotspots are everywhere and data plans aren't that expensive anymore, but there are still plenty of chances in life to find yourself without a connection to the Internet. What if there's a power outage? Or what if you're on an airplane? Or in a foreign country? I travel a lot, and often don't know where the nearest free wifi is. When I leave the US I'm usually not in a country long enough to make buying a wireless plan there practical. Then there's the fact that I'm a New Yorker (read: I take the subway a lot).

So, I posted to the Fitbit forums about this and, while I was met with a few expressions of mutual agreement, I was also told by someone that the simplest solution would be to just write down my data on a piece of paper until I could next find an Internet connection to sync via.

Yes, I really want to spend $130 on a device so I can transcribe the data it collects to paper. What the hell. Is this 1998 or something?

What was worse was that when I contacted Fitbit directly about this, they explained that it just wouldn't be practical for the Force to sync all of its data to my mobile device because it would take up too much space.

Right, because numbers take up SOOO much space. What the hell were they talking about??

So, I suggested they allow us to sync even some of the data but maybe not all of it. Or let the user decide how much space they want to take up on their mobile devices with tracker data. The reply I got back was typical of companies whom you make suggestions to. They said something like "we'll pass that suggestion onto our development department and we hope to implement something similar to this in the future."

Whatever. That's fine, but I was frustrated with this one thing. It made no sense and so, probably overreacting, exactly a week after getting it, I returned the Fitbit Force to Best Buy and then dropped an extra $30 on a Pebble Smartwatch. While not officially a fitness tracker, as a more traditional smart device, it has the capability to run apps that can function as fitness trackers and the most important bit to me is that the Pebble doesn't need an Internet connection to function.

Annoyingly enough, there's a caveat to that, as well, but I'll put that in a review dedicated to the Pebble Smartwatch in a few days. Regardless, it's core function, as a watch, is not hindered by a lack of an Internet connection. Granted, the core function of the Fitbit Force isn't to sync, but I'd argue it is a close second place to it's core function.

To be honest, I do miss my Fitbit Force. However, this is largely because it was a polished product and so much about the Pebble is still in development. Don't get me wrong, the Pebble is a great device and I love it. It's fitness-tracking offerings aren't up to the quality standards of Fitbit. The good news is that there is a LOT of development going on, including development in the category of fitness trackers.

So, I'll just bide my time and distract myself with the fact that, along with my Google Glass, I am living on the bleeding edge of tech--who knows what new app or service might spring up to change my world tomorrow?

So, in conclusion, if you NEVER find yourself without an Internet connection, I would actually recommend the Fitbit Force. If you're a bit of a compulsive stats checker like me and ever find yourself without an Internet connection, maybe not. It really depends on how you'll use it. The Force can remember your data for up to seven days. After that, you'll be stuck. Plus, there is no way you can access that stored data once it's more than 24 hours old. Kind of lame if you ask me.

Just my ¥2! Your results may vary. Thanks for reading!

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