July 13, 2012 -- intro: It used to be that picking a TV or a laptop was one of the hardest tech buying decisions you'd make -- and when it came time to pick up a less-common gadget, like one that could improve your health and fitness, there'd be one choice, at the most.
That, however, is not the case anymore. As we all strive to be fitter and as technology pervades our lives, a handful of digital fitness gadgets have emerged.
Many of them work similarly.
They all contain accelerometers and other sensors to record your footsteps or even your sleep time. You have to wear them (How else would it know what your body was up to?) and they will track your activity.
They also can be wirelessly connected to show you your fitness data and progress online. These are also meant to be worn all the time.
Some are more focused on workouts but, overall, they are meant to monitor your overall physical activity. Every step counts.
So which of the new crop of fitness gadgets is the best? I've been testing the FitBit Ultra, Nike+ FuelBand and Motorola MOTOACTV -- three of the top choices -- for the last couple of months. Below are the results.
quicklist: 1 category: Option 1 title: FitBit Ultra ($99.95) url: http://www.fitbit.com/product text: The FitBit was really the pioneer in the new category of fitness gadgets and, in many ways, still leads. The small plastic device clips on to your clothes (I wear mine on my pants or bra strap) and can easily be concealed. I like the fact that I can wear the FitBit to work and no one will notice it. But easy to conceal also means easy to misplace. In fact, I had the original FitBit and it found its way into the washing machine accidently. It never recovered.
But this isn't about a dead FitBit. The FitBit is one of the most advanced trackers. It tracks steps, stairs climbed, calories and even sleep time and quality if you decide you want to sleep with it on. (I tested that for about one night; I found it very annoying to sleep with a gadget on.)
You can see basic information on the FitBit's little LCD screen and control it with a small button, but when you sync it to your wireless network or plug it into your computer, it uploads all that data to your fitbit.com account. It's all very easy to set up and the site and software do a great job of presenting your fitness activity in clean charts and very attractive graphs. When you are logged in to your account, you can also set goals, input your weight (or do it automatically with FitBit's Aria Scale), and track your food. It provides a very full view of your health.
I also like the little flower icon that appears on the LCD screen; leaves are added the more active you are during the day. It is actually very motivational.
But where the FitBit doesn't compare as well to the others comes with its mobile features. FitBit offers an app, but it doesn't pair directly with the FitBit. Only when your FitBit is near its wireless dock will it send your info to the app or fitbit.com.
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quicklist: 2 category: Option 2 title: Nike+ FuelBand ($149.00) url: http://nikeplus.nike.com/plus/products/fuelband/ text: The Nike+ FuelBand, on the other hand, goes on your wrist. And it's one of the coolest-looking things you can put on your wrist.
Coated in a rubber material, the FuelBand has a screen but it's made up of a series of colored LED lights. You control the display with a small button on it. And hidden in the bracelet's clasp is the USB port.
The FuelBand does track calories and steps, but mostly tracks your "fuelpoints." Fuelpoints are based on your steps, but this is really Nike's motivation currency. You set how many fuelpoints you aim to hit in a day and it lets you know when you have reached that point. At the start of a new day, it zeros out the fuelpoints.
While FitBit's flower is motivating, I became obsessed with getting fuelpoints everyday. I'd get up and walk more or take the stairs instead of the elevator. It is, by far, the most motivational out of the bunch. The band also has Bluetooth built in so you can pair it with your iPhone and the app will show you your points and steps on the fly -- no need to connect to the Internet or be near a docking station like the FitBit. (There is no Android app yet, though Nike has been promising one.) You can also plug the bracelet into your computer to charge it and upload the data. Nike's software and apps are full of eye candy; graphs are bright and easy to read.
However, it's not perfect. The bracelet isn't ideal for business meetings or nice events, and I found it to be flaky, at times. After a few months of use the FuelBand stopped registering my steps. I had to reset it a few times to get it to start working again.
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quicklist: 3 category: Option 3 title: Motorola MOTOACTV ($249.00) url: https://motoactv.com/ text: The Motorola MOTOACTV can be clipped to your clothes or you can wear it on your wrist with the optional $30 watch band. However, the ACTV is larger and chunkier than the rest. The device looks a lot like the iPod Nano with a full touchscreen, but it's actually thicker than Apple's little music player.
If you can get over the size of the ACTV (which I really couldn't) it actually provides a lot more functionality than the others. It has all the same fitness tracking capabilities -- it tracks steps, how far you've run, etc. -- but it also can track elevation and your running route with its built-in GPS. There's also a heart rate monitor and it doubles as an MP3 player. Motorola even provides some nice-looking red earbuds in the box. The device is more for workouts than everyday fitness monitoring.
But the standout feature of the ACTV is how it pairs with your phone. It only works with Android phones, not the iPhone, but download the ACTV app from the Google Play Store, pair the phone with the ACTV via Bluetooth, and you will be able to see your text messages or missed calls on your wrist. It's a smartwatch of sorts but, again, the real focus of the gadget really is on monitoring your activity. Within the app, you can also view your steps, miles run, etc. And because it has a touchscreen, it is easier to navigate on the device.
But, ultimately, that touchscreen is the device's downfall. Because it has a full 1.6-inch LCD touchscreen, it had to be charged every two days or so, while the others could last days without having to be recharged. It also costs more than the others at $250.
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quicklist: 4 category: title: What to Buy? url: text: The truth is that all of these devices are good choices for the person looking to keep track of their physical activity. They will all keep you motivated and give you a good assessment of your activity through charts and graphs.
However, in the end I ended up sticking with the FitBit after the weeks of testing. I can go to meetings or even weddings with it on, and I have never had any issues with it not registering my movement. That said, the FuelBand is a great option for those that don't care much about concealing their fitness gadget. Hey, they might become as common as laptops or TVs soon.
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