Fitbit Ultra Review
As a geek I tend to love to play with new gadgets, so when I first heard about the Fitbit, a lightweight, elegant pedometer that counts steps accurately and syncs wireless to a web site, of course I was intrigued. At around $100 it’s on the expensive side for a pedometer, but the technology in the Fitbit is so much better than a standard step counter that I felt it was well worth the extra cost. I pre-ordered it even before it was available for sale, and six months later, in February 2010, I finally got my Fitbit tracker.
I wore it every day since then (give or take a few days where I accidentally left it on my nightstand at home and didn’t get to track my steps). Earlier this year I noticed that the battery, which used to last a week to ten days between charges, was needing to be recharged every other day. Ah well, rechargeable batteries don’t last forever. Then about a month ago the OLED display started getting gradually dimmer. It eventually got so dim that I could barely read it at all, even in a completely dark room.
Part of the advantage of using something like a Fitbit is that the device itself gives you feedback. There have been a number of times where I’d check my step count and if I wasn’t yet over my goal of 10,000 steps per day (about 5–6 miles, depending on your gait) I’d hop on the treadmill for a bit before going to bed. Not having a display made the Fitbit substantially less useful.
Since the packaging contains no instruction manual, I checked the Fitbit website to see what the warranty period was. Damn. Only one year. I searched Google to see if anyone else had problems with a dim Fitbit display and found that the problem, while probably not widespread, was affecting others as well.
I contacted Fitbit via their online form and they walked me through updating the firmware of the device and the Fitbit software on my computer. No dice. When I informed them that it didn’t help they replied that they had sent me a replacement at no charge. Not only did they replace my tracker, but they replaced it with the new Fitbit Ultra model that includes features that the original didn’t, most notably an altimeter that tracks the flights of stairs you’ve climbed. I am completely blown away by this level of customer service. While I loved my Fitbit before, I now have an increased respect for the company. This is the type of customer service that turns people from mere customers to evangelists for your product.
The Fitbit hardware alone is impressive, and the combination of Fitbit device and Fitbit.com software makes it truly useful instead of a mere novelty step tracker.
Fitbit Ultra Pedometer
Since the Fitbit includes an accelerometer (like the ones found in many mobile phones to determine which way you’re holding or moving them) it not only works in any orientation, but can also measure the intensity of your activity and how far apart your steps are. Both the steps and distance measurements are uncannily accurate, even if you vary your stride length. I tried the original on a track, and by measuring a hallway and then walking up and down it a few times, and over short and long distances the Fitbit holds up.
The new model (which retains the $99.95 price tag of the original tracker) includes an altimeter which records how many flights of stairs you climbed, as well as a clock and personalized greeting (which is cute but of course not a necessity).
Subsequent presses of the device’s single button rotates through each of the Fitbit’s display modes:
- Steps – Shows how many steps you’ve walked today (“today” starts at midnight in your timezone, so if you’re a night owl your “day” may differ from Fitbit’s calendar day). When I travel my walking habits are sometimes a little different than while at home, but since I tend to not change my location settings it just registers whatever my steps are for that day in Chicago time (CST/CDT). Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, but it would be nice to be able to specify when you want your day to start and end.
- Distance – The number of miles you’ve walked. I couldn’t find a setting for changing from miles to kilometers, but maybe it uses your general profile settings for height and weight as a hint.
- Calories Burned – This of course is a wildly inaccurate estimation, and the calories that Fitbit shows you includes your resting caloric burn from your basal metabolic rate, so if I left my Fitbit on the nightstand it would still read about 3000 calories burned at the end of the day. There doesn’t seem to be a way to limit the caloric burn data to only show calories burned through activity without doing the subtraction yourself. I could see how people may want it to work either way, so I think it should be an option, but in general the design aesthetic of the Fitbit is simplicity. There aren’t too many things you can fiddle with, which is probably a good thing more often than not.
- Floors Climbed – The Fitbit Ultra model added an altimeter to the step counting accelerometer. It considers a “floor” as increments of about ten feet in altitude, so unfortunately it won’t count any movement on a gym stair climber. I tested walking up and down two steps of my staircase and it didn’t register another floor even after 30 steps up and down, so it really does measure the change in altitude and not fractional steps up. Of course, my steps were counted as I stepped up and down. I read a review that claimed the Fitbit counted walking up a hill as a few flights of stairs, but since Chicago is mostly flat I’ll have to wait until I can walk on hillier terrain to test that. Anyway, if your stair climbing is less than ten feet it doesn’t look like the Fitbit will count those as floors climbed at all.
- Flower – The activity flower shows how active you’ve been… recently? Is it relative to your previous activity or based on some absolute pre-programmed activity level? I’m not sure how it’s measured or how much activity constitutes another petal on the growing flower stem, but some people may like the softer show of how active you’ve been rather than the hard data of steps and distance. Personally, I prefer the hard data. Since you can show a graph of your minute-to-minute activity on the web site the flower isn’t terribly useful to me.
- Clock/Stopwatch – You can hold down the button for two seconds to start the stopwatch to time certain events. I haven’t really used it yet. This is another new feature of the Fitbit Ultra over the original tracker. I don’t know why the original couldn’t be updated via firmware to include a clock and stopwatch, but maybe there is new hardware for keeping time in the new device.
Installation and Setup
There are no instructions included, but the outside of the box directs you to a quick start web page that will walk you through downloading and installing the Fitbit software (available for Windows and Mac only – if you’re running Linux you may be interested in this open source project).
Once you’ve installed the software it’ll ask you a little bit about yourself (height, current weight, etc.) and then you’re ready to go. The software only uploads your data to Fitbit, so there’s no way to view the data on your computer without logging into Fitbit.com to see your stats. There is an iPhone and Android app as well that pulls data from the web service.
When setting up your Fitbit Ultra you can add a personalized message of only 8 characters or fewer, which is limited by the width of the display:
Then whenever you pick up your Fitbit after it’s been resting for a little while you can see the “chatter” motivational message and/or your personalized greeting:
You can turn each type of data on and off by editing the settings on the web site, which updates your Fitbit the next time it syncs:
You can also choose which orientation the display shows, depending on whether you’re right handed or left-handed. I’m a lefty but I always wear the Fitbit on my right hip for whatever reason, so the right-handed display (button on the right) is the most convenient for me. This is a new feature of the new Fitbit Ultra model, and it’s nice to have the option. It’s curious, though, that this is a setting you must change on the web site settings page, and not a feature that uses the accelerometer to flip the display’s orientation on the fly depending on which way you’re holding it.
The Fitbit syncs wirelessly to its USB base station, which doubles as its charger when you dock it. You can top off the Fitbit for a few minutes while you check your email or surf the web and it’ll keep a charge for several days. The web site claims 5–7 days of use on a single charge, probably depending on how much you use the display or how active you are. It seems to charge pretty quickly.
The Ultra stores about a week’s worth of data even if you’re away from a computer (I tend not to take the dock with me on vacation). If you take the dock for recharging but don’t bring a computer with you, the Fitbit will also store daily totals (calories, distance, and steps) for the next 30 days, but without minute-by-minute stats.
Whenever you’re within about 15 feet of the base station it’ll sync and then upload your data to Fitbit.com using a low-power 2.4 GHz ANT radio transceiver. You can force a sync by docking the Fitbit on its base station. Currently there is no option to purchase additional base stations if you wanted to keep one as a spare for travel, or keep a second dock at the office or your mistress’s apartment.
Also included in the package is a little belt holster so that the Fitbit clip doesn’t have to be stretched over a thick belt. I usually wear my Fitbit on my belt using the holster unless I’m working out and not wearing a belt, in which case I will simply clip it to the top of my t-shirt or even just put it in the pocket of my gym shorts or sweatpants.
Fitbit.com Web Site
The Fitbit.com website is an essential part of the Fitbit experience (for better or worse – there is no way to access your data directly from your computer without being connected to the Internet). Here’s where you’ll see detailed data about your movement. It saves your daily stats, and you can establish various goals:
- Weekly Steps – This is the default, and the one I’ve left as my primary goal on the dashboard. For now my goal is simply 10,000 steps per day, which is about 5 miles for me. Your mileage may vary.
- Weekly Distance – My goal is 35 miles per week, and I tend to exceed this by a little, depending on the season and if I’m traveling (I tend to do more walking on weekends and when I’m on vacation).
- Weekly Climb – The default is 70 floors, or ten floors per day. Seems reasonable. I may increase this goal to encourage me to try to walk up more flights of stairs than necessary. Yesterday I walked up and down the steps just to hit the 25 floors climbed achievement, but today I walked up and down (it only measures floors climbed, not descended) over 25 times without even trying. I’ll be curious to see if the stair counter helps me take the stairs more often just to get my numbers up. I try to be as active as possible and to take the stairs often, but until I got the Ultra I didn’t have an easy means to measure my stair climbing.
- Weight Goal – You can set a target weight and the default goal graph will show you how close you are to your goal weight as you log it. You can also log your percent body fat if you know it, and measurements of various parts of your body.
I tend to take a look at the previous day’s activity every morning before hopping on the treadmill (or sometimes while I’m on the treadmill) and while I rarely look at the more detailed graphs it’s nice that they’re there so you can see the duration and intensity-level of your activity throughout the day. As my friend Scott noted, it’s great to see specific active periods of your day, like a walk to work or the times you climbed stairs. It’s like a mini record of your life, in terms of activity, for as long as you wear the Fitbit.
You can also log your activity and what food you’ve eaten, but I tend not to use these features. The activity log is fine and lets you add other activities you’ve done, like weight-lifting, that the Fitbit raw data can’t really account for, and if I cared about how Fitbit logged my caloric burn for the day it might be nice to have all of your calorie data logged in one place that’s also tied-into your daily activity.
Unfortunately, the food database is pretty light on foods (it contains mostly USDA data for generic foods) so it tends to miss a lot of restaurant and packaged foods, and the interface for logging what you’ve eaten isn’t as polished as some other services, but it’s serviceable, and maybe the convenience of having all of this data in one place outweighs (excuse the pun) its deficiencies. I expect their food database to improve over time, of course, as people add new items and the Fitbit developers make incremental updates.
The site has evolved quite a bit over the past two years (most notably, a lot of the graphs that used to be Flash are now built with web standards so they work on the iPad and any web browser – although not all of them have been converted). This isn’t one of those projects that launched and then was forgotten about. They seem to be continually tweaking and adding onto the experience.
The Fitbit includes a wrist band so you can wear it when you sleep. Just hold the button down for a few seconds and it’ll initiate sleep mode where the Fitbit will record how well you’ve slept based on your movement throughout the night. I find the wristband to be uncomfortable, and I tend to accidentally press the button at times with my head when I put my arm under my pillow as I sleep (on my stomach).
However, since the Fitbit is pretty sensitive to even light movement I’ve discovered that just putting it into sleep mode before I go to sleep, and then turning it off when I wake up, it can actually measure the vibrations of when I get up to pee in the middle of the night. While it’s not as accurate a portrait of how well you’ve slept, it’s not too shabby. Plus, you can have a record of at least how many hours you’ve slept each night, giving yourself another health metric.
As of last August Fitbit introduced achievement badges for various milestones. The badges are separated into two groups: daily and lifetime (cumulative) milestones.
You can earn the daily badges every day (the badges screen shows you when you last earned it) and the lifetime badges activate when you cross that milestone.
I’m a fan of gamification when it’s done well, but since Fitbit doesn’t publicly show daily badges there’s not a whole lot of ego incentive to push yourself to earn one. Granted, a little icon on a web site is hardly incentive for the work it takes to improve your body, but it gives you some bragging-rights.
Fitbit emails you whenever you earn a new badge in case you miss it.
You can also view your best daily and lifetime totals. Since 04 February 2010 I’ve accumulated:
- 6,470,688 total lifetime steps
- 60 total lifetime floors (since 05 May 2012)
- 3,294.32 miles total lifetime distance
The total lifetime calories burned and activity tabs currently show this message:
This stat is unavailable while we tune a couple things. Don’t worry, your data is safe. Be back soon – Team Fitbit.
Hopefully they’ll finish building this.
If one of your friends or coworkers also has a Fitbit you can add them as a friend and choose to share some or all of your data with them so you can compete with each other (or at least see where you stack-up against your friends – the Fitbit dashboard shows you a leaderboard of where you stand against your friends for the past week). You can also join a group via the Fitbit community forums and find like-minded people that have similar goals to yourself. They really round-out the group fitness ecosystem.
If you have a Fitbit and want to be friends, I’m “jough” on Fitbit.com, although it looks like you may have to be friends with me on Facebook, or know my email address in order to add me as a friend, so if you leave a comment with your email address I’ll add you and not post your address here. You can also contact me on Twitter: @jough Being able to request someone add you as a friend by knowing the link to their profile seems like a glaring oversight.
It’s also a little weird that I can pick a unique Fitbit username, but my profile’s URL doesn’t use it, instead opting for a short hash (I’m “229BSN”, nice to meet you).
All of the above is included with the purchase of a Fitbit Ultra tracker, but Fitbit also offers a premium membership for about $50 per year that includes even more detailed benchmarks, food, activity, and sleep reports, a “trainer” that offers fitness advice (automatically?) and an export of your data in CSV or Excel spreadsheet format.
While I have no need for these premium services I like that they’re offered, and the price isn’t really all that steep (although you’ve have to decide for yourself if it’s worth it to you).
It’s a little shitty that the only way to get a copy of your data is to pay them $50, but they did introduce an API for developers to pull Fitbit data into other services, so maybe there will be a cheap or free way to get to your data in the future.
When my Fitbit’s display was dimming I decided to check out other offerings that have come onto the market in the past two years before I considered buying a replacement. I didn’t find anything even close to the Fitbit in either hardware or software.
- Jawbone Up – The Jawbone Up is an uncomfortable-looking wristband that syncs by plugging into the headphone jack of your iOS device like an iPhone or iPad. Rather than upload to a web site, the Jawbone Up data is visible only via the free iOS app. Being able to sync data directly to your iPhone while on the go is either a plus or minus, depending on whether you own an iPhone, and whether you want to use that data elsewhere. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get your data out of the device (although maybe that’s a feature of the app that Jawbone doesn’t disclose – I haven’t tried it). One interesting feature unique to the Up is that it contains a vibrating motor (like the silent vibrator in most mobile phones) that can be set to vibrate at certain intervals when you’ve been sedentary in order to prod you to get up and move around, which is an interesting idea. The Up had some early problems but Jawbone has been issuing refunds to people who have the problem. Sounds bad. I’m a big fan of Jawbone’s audio products, though, and was disappointed by their first health device offering.
- Nike+ FuelBand – Nike’s Plus system has been around for a while, and works by putting a pedometer in your shoe and then syncing to your phone to count your steps, but it requires special shoes with a compartment for the plus receiver, and I never found it to be particularly accurate. The FuelBand, like the Jawbone Up, is a bracelet you’re supposed to wear on your wrist. It has a display built-in like the Fitbit (although it looks like it contains 120 tiny LEDs instead of an OLED), and tracks your activity in terms of “NikeFuel” which is abstract like Fitbit’s flower meter, but requires watching a video on Nike’s web site to explain what it means. The FuelBand comes in three sizes with some spacers available to fit properly on your wrist. Seems really weird to me. Maybe I’m missing its advantages to the Fitbit, but this just looks awful. I’ll be interested to hear about how well it works once it’s been on the market for a while.
- Bodybugg – The first to market in this space (I believe), the Bodybugg is an armband that records all of the same data that the other devices record, except the Bodybugg is much larger and heavier. One advantage of the Bodybugg is that it has thermometers built-in to take your skin temperature. It also uses its thermometer on the side of the device to record the heat that’s coming off of your skin. I don’t know how useful this is, but it seems to be unique to the Bodybugg. Another disadvantage is that you have to pay $10 a month (or $80/year) to get access to your data. Or something. I couldn’t find anything on their web site about what the subscription is for, or what you get with it. Sounds expensive for something so vague.
- Polar FT40 – The Polar is a wristwatch that also tracks your steps and heart rate. It lets you connect to a cell-phone-sized GPS receiver to track your runs. You know, if you don’t have a smartphone.
There are numerous other heart rate monitor watches from Garmin, Timex, Omron, etc. that also track your steps and distance, but these things are in a different category than other pedometers.
The problem with the big armbands or giant watches is that they’re intrusive. I like that you can wear the Fitbit on your belt, clip it to your bra (hello, ladies), or just put it in your pocket.
The Quantified Self
As technology marches on, having access to devices that will help us record data about our lives will grow more prevalent.
I’ve been recording my weight daily for nearly four years now. I’ve been considering getting a Withings scale but now Fitbit (the company) has released the Aria scale which looks like the only strong competitor to the Withing. I have yet to buy either of these, though, so I can’t comment how the integration of a WiFi scale makes the Fitbit even more effective. It’s nice that you can link a Withings scale to your Fitbit account to get your daily weigh-ins logged at Fitbit.com. Since both scales sync with your Fitbit data you need only compare the hardware. The Aria is $30 cheaper than the Withings so it’ll be interesting to see if Withings lowers their price to be more competitive with the recently released Aria.
Both scales also measure your percentage of body fat, automatically detect multiple family members, upload your data to their web site, and allow you to post your weight to Facebook or Twitter. The two intelligent scales have so much feature parity that I’m not really sure which one to get (if either – my current scale works great). If/when I upgrade to a fancy scale I’ll post about it.
The Fitbit is one of a precious few things I wear or carry with me on a daily basis. I put it on right after my wedding ring, and even when I first get out of bed I’ll clip it to my t-shirt before staggering downstairs bleary-eyed to review my email before my morning workout. I can’t think of many ways it could be improved other than making it thinner, lighter, or longer-lasting than it already is. It’s so thoughtfully designed you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an Apple product.
The Fitbit Ultra gets my highest recommendation.