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Fitbit: Online Health and Activity Tracking

The Service

Fitbit is a web based personal activity recording service based in San Francisco, USA which has been around for about 7 years and focuses on their vision of bringing health and fitness monitoring technology to the masses. Between 2007 and now Fitbit has progressed from a basic online service and a single wearable step counter/tracker to a more comprehensive online service with a selection of associated activity monitoring/tracking hardware.

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The current Fitbit website Dashboard or official iPhone or Android apps present information on:

Weight

Unless you have a set of Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scales you have to enter your weight and % body fat via the Fitbit website Dashboard or official iPhone or Android apps. In addition to this basic information additional body measurements (neck, bicep, forearm, chest, waist, hips, thigh and calf) can be entered via the Fitbit website. The Dashboard can then provide trend information over time to record positive and negative progress.

Steps, Distance, Calories Burnt, Very Active Hours & Activity

If you have a Fitbit tracker you can let the hardware do it’s job and watch the trend information on the Fitbit website Dashboard.

‘Distance’ is calculated based on recorded ‘Steps’ and user inputted ’Stride Length’ for both walking and running in the settings screen on the Fitbit website. If nothing is entered in ‘Stride Length’ fields default figures are used by Fitbit based on height and gender, which are not displayed as Fitbit see the calculation used as proprietary information.

‘Calories Burnt’ is then calculated based on the ‘Distance’ and ‘Duration’ (creating Pace (‘Distance’ divided by ‘Duration’)) along with ‘Age’, ‘Weight’ and ‘Gender’ as well as changes in ‘Floors’ (depending on the Fitbit tracker used). Sadly Fitbit does not offer localisation of the service outside of the USA meaning that ‘Calories Burnt’ is measured in Cal (Calories (USA measure)) unlike kcal (kilo-calories (Global measure)). It should be noted that 1 Cal = 1 kcal, but this can cause confusion for non US users.

‘Very Active Hours’ are based on a minimum ‘Rate of Steps’, ‘Floors’ (altitude increase), ‘Duration’, ‘Age’, ‘Height’, ‘Gender’ and ‘Weight’ triggering duration recording.

‘Activities’ are manually entered as either ‘Activity Log’ details (‘Activity Name’, ‘Date’, ‘Start’ and ‘End’ time and ‘Notes’) against the data recorded by the Fitbit trackers or ‘Activity Types’ selected on the Fitbit website recording the ‘Type of Activity’, ‘Time’, ‘Date’, ‘Duration’, ‘Distance’ and ‘Calories Burnt’.

Food Plan & Calories In vs Out

The ‘Food Plan’ lets you choose a ‘Goal’ and a ‘Duration’ for achieving the ‘Goal’ in order to provide daily calorie intake suggestions  which are then presented as the ‘Calories In vs Out’ information. This relies on you entering/selecting information on what you eat throughout the day. Again this suffers from a lack of localisation options for the Fitbit Service outside of the USA, meaning that food information is very biased to the USA with no links to food information databases for the rest of the world.

Water

‘Water’ is another manual entry metric where you are given a target of the number of glasses of water you should consume per day and record your progress towards this amount.

Floors

The Fitbit One is the only tracker in the range that records ‘Floors’, achieving this via an altimeter designed into the unit assuming one floor per 10ft gain or loss in altitude as this is believed to be the average between domestic and commercial building floor heights.

Sleep

‘Sleep’ is recorded by the Fitbit One and Fitbit Flex needing a manual start and stop trigger from the user. On the Fitbit One this is done by long pressing the button on the unit. Once in sleep mode the units record the amount of movement from the user and equate this to ‘Quality of Sleep’. It should be noted that the ‘Sleep’ periods can be changed to ‘Activity’ periods, via the Fitbit website Dashboard or official iPhone or Android apps, if you wish to manually record the ‘Start’ and ‘End’ of ‘Activities’ live rather than retrospectively.

Top Badges

Finally, the Fitbit Service tries to make exercise and keeping fit more fun by awarding badges for your hard work. The most impressive ones are shown in this section of the dashboard. Along with this you can compare your achievements against friends, in what equates to a top ten chart.

Premium Service

Like all online services, there is a premium service offered for £39.99 per year with the following advertised benefits:

Get More Active or Lose Weight with Fitbit Trainer

Looking to increase your daily activity level? Reach your movement goals more quickly and see results faster with Fitbit Trainer!

How it works: Fitbit Trainer reviews your current activity level and creates a personalized 12 week fitness plan that pushes you to gradually increase your movement.

See In-Depth Analysis of YOUR Data

Are you working towards goals for better health, or looking for trends in your lifestyle? Access your personal reports to quickly identify changes for a healthier you. Reports provide in-depth analysis of your historical trends for sleep, food and activity!

How it works: Personalised reports give you easy-to-read analyses of your week’s data and recommend targets for the following week.

Rank Yourself Against Your Peers

Are you curious about how your personal stats compare to the Fitbit community? Increase your motivation and set new wellness goals by comparing your weight, activity and sleep with others.

How it works: Premium benchmarking is an interactive tool that lets you explore the Fitbit database to see how you stand up against your peers.

Track Multiple Facets of Your Life

Do you have a specific goal as part of a healthier lifestyle? Perhaps you want to quit smoking, be able to do 20 pushups, or reduce caffeine levels? Custom trackers let you track anything that your heart desires – and tracking is the first step to changing your lifestyle!

How it works: Set up a custom tracker to easily identify and monitor areas you’d like to improve. Track your commute time or how many times you eat dessert each week to see the effect on your behaviour. You get unlimited use of one customizable tracker for free, but to add more you’ll need to be a premium member.

The Hardware

There are currently four products available in the Fitbit Store:

Fitbit Zip

The Fitbit Zip was first announced back in 2012, measuring c.3cm square and 1cm thick and weighing 8g.  It uses a MEMS 3-axis accelerometer to determine steps taken, distance travelled and calories burned and although not completely waterproof it is splash, rain and sweat proof. It offers the least functionality of the current Fitbit tracker products, but was the first Fitbit tracker to incorporate a disposable battery and is the cheapest of the current offering costing only £49.99.

There are five different colours (Blue, Lime, Magenta, White and Charcoal (off-black/dark-grey) available to help provide a more fun feel and each unit has a small LCD (liquid crystal display)screen providing direct access to five different screens (see below) navigated between by tapping the screen:

  • Steps
  • Distance
  • Calories burned
  • Fitbit Smiley (highlights your recent activity level)
  • Clock

The internal memory of the Fitbit Zip is specified as 23 days and the battery life is 4 – 6 months. Recorded data is uploaded to the Fitbit online service via wireless connection to a dedicated PC USB dongle or to iPhones and Android smartphones via Bluetooth 4.0 connection to the official mobile app. Sadly there is no official app for Windows Phone. In my opinion it is aimed at the base end of users looking for something small and simple to monitor their fitness/health activities throughout the day.

Fitbit One

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Although the Fitbit One was announced at the same time as the Fitbit Zip, it looks and feels like a more modern product. It has a slim profile, measuring 5cm x 2cm x 1cm and weighing in at 8g like the Fitbit Zip. In addition to the MEMS 3-axis accelerometer from the Fitbit Zip used to determine steps taken, distance travelled and calories burned the Fitbit One also incorporates an altimeter used to calculate stairs climbed and a cylindrical vibration motor to provide vibration feedback and a silent alarm feature. The Fitbit One also extends it’s use of the accelerometer to determine quality of sleep by monitoring the amount of movement during the night requiring the unit to be moved from the clip to the included wrist band during sleeping hours. As with the Fitbit Zip, the Fitbit One is not waterproof, but will survive rain, splashes and sweat.

The screen on the Fitbit One is upgraded from Fitbit Zip LCD screen to a low energy, high contrast, OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) display, navigated by pressing a small low profile button next to the screen, providing direct access to the following information:

  • Steps
  • Distance
  • Calories burnt
  • Floors climbed
  • Flower (grows and shrinks based on your recent activity)
  • Clock

Unlike the Fitbit Zip, the Fitbit One only comes in two colours (Black and Burgundy) and benefits from an integrated lithium-ion polymer rechargeable battery which lasts about five days between charges. Charging is done via a small USB cable from either a PC or mains USB charger (not included) and the display provides a low battery and charging indicator. As with the Fitbit Flex, the Fitbit One syncs logged data to the Fitbit website via PC using a dedicated USB dongle or via the Bluetooth 4.0 connection to the official iPhone or Android apps.

The more limited colour options and additional functions make the Fitbit One feel like it is aimed at sportier types wanting to record their fitness/health activities and sleep quality to analyse later in order to improve there fitness regime, and as such are prepared to pay a little more (£79.99).

Fitbit Flex

The Fitbit Flex is the newest product in the current Fitbit tracker range released in 2013, providing both advantages and disadvantages when compared with the Fitbit Flex and Fitbit One. The main disadvantage is the lack of a user interface other than the LED lights.  Saying this, the lights do show you how you are progressing towards your daily goals with each of the five LEDs representing 20% progress. As with the Fitbit One OLED screen, the unit is blank until needed. In the case of the Fitbit Flex two taps on the LED strip causes the LEDs to light showing progress, but this is overall progress, as there is no way of distinguishing one mode of activity from another without using the Fitbit website Dashboard or official iPhone or Android apps.

Although the main tracker unit is always black, it is enclosed in a wriststrap  which, like the Fitbit Zip, comes in a plethora of colours (Black, Slate, Tangerine, Teal, Navy, Pink, Lime, Slate and Black). The battery in the Fitbit Flex is lithium-ion like the Fitbit One, lasting three to five days between charges and the internal memory is stretched from being able to save 23 days to 30 days of records before overwriting.

Yet again, syncing to the Fitbit online service is done via PC using a dedicated USB dongle or via the Bluetooth 4.0 connecting to the official Fitbit app on iPhone and Android smartphones, but a major advantage of the Fitbit Flex is that it is waterproof enough that you can keep it on when showering and even swimming although I assume that diving in would not be advised. Finally the Fitbit Flex costs the same as the Fitbit One (£79.99) causing a dilemma as to which device to choose. The question really comes down to if you want a screen or not and if you prefer to put on and keep on the device, rather than having to keep removing the device to change wearing options.

Fitbit Aria

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The final product in the Fitbit range is the Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scales which is not an activity tracker like the rest of the range. Instead, the Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scales adds automatic wireless upload of measured weight along with calculated BMI (Body Mass Index) and % Body Fat information to the Fitbit service via its internal Wi-Fi hardware. This provides an advantage over other smart scales removing the need for the user to manually log or upload their weight information.

Connectivity with other Services

Fitbit offers the standard links into Facebook and Twitter, but also offers synchronisation to other fitness and activity tracking services like Runtastic, Endomondo and My Fitness Pal, as a small example of some of the sites I have linked to. Although I try and link all my services together I have noted some issues when it comes to Fitbit linking to Endomondo, as when the Fitbit tracker is in Sleep tracking mode Endomondo still reports steps and therefor implies I am sleep walking every night. I have explained this issue to the Fitbit team and hope that it will be rectified.

The second Fitbit to Endomondo synchronisation issue I have witnessed is that although Fitbit records activities based on steps etc,  Endomondo reports all activities as either sleeping or walking meaning that I can walk at a pace of 7 miles per hour, which seems quite impressive for a human.

Finally as others have experienced you should always be careful when linking social sharing/blogging/tracking services to ensure that you do not create an infinite loop where services end up linking back to themselves or you creating death by duplication with the same information appearing again and again. This however, is not an issue with the Fitbit service, but something to note for end users.

Conclusions

Although there are other activity tracking services offered by Samsung, Sony and Nike, to name a few, with their own tracking hardware, the Fitbit service is one of, if not the oldest of, the offering and with this comes experience and polish to the product. This is evident in many areas, although product localisation needs to be implemented for the global market and not just limited to language packs.

Having used a number of fitness services in the past, the Fitbit service is by far the most connected service on the market with a plethora of partnered services, apps and third party Fitbit apps. On the whole, this connectivity with other services works sell, but in some cases the combined user experience needs to be further reviewed and polished to ensure that the experience is not degraded by the overall output of both Fitbit and the synchronised service. If Fitbit records a period of running, synchronised services should show this as running also, whereas I have observed misalignment with Endomondo in this area.

I have been impressed with my experiences with the Fitbit service, both online and hardware based, finding more value in the activity tracking than the sleep tracking although I still find it interesting. In my opinion, unless you have a specific sleep disorder that you wish/need to monitor the sleep quality monitoring feels more of a useful gimmick when reviewed in isolation, as you normally know if you have slept well or not when you wake in the morning. When sleep monitoring is assessed as part of the whole Fitbit health and fitness lifestyle tracking service it gains more value when overall trending is included. In this form, users can try different methods of improving their lifestyle or breaking a period of training stagnation by looking for changes in trend information associated with, exercise, eating or sleep pattern changes.

Finally, many Windows Phone user have been asking if and when there will be an official Fitbit app for Windows Phone as Fitbit are another future thinking company forgetting the large and increasing user base that Windows Phone offers, especially as Windows Phone 8.1 apps can be designed to work on Windows 8.1 as well accessing this user base also. I am happy to say that, since starting this article, there has been a recent update in the Fitbit Community Help Forums there is an official Fitbit Windows Phone app in development, but no expected release date has been eluded to. Currently there are a number of third party Windows Phone Fitbit apps, but none offer the level of functionality provided by the official iPhone or Android apps.

Verdict

Quality: 4 / 5

Value: 4 /5

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