Posts Tagged ‘review’
My wife Amanda and I love to travel and walk around new places, eat new foods, and experience a bit of different culture (even if that culture is just a another region of the U.S.). This Fall we spent a week in San Francisco and its surrounds. One of our favorite regional dishes is a seafood stew called “cioppino.” It’s a spicy, tomato-based sauce that’s loaded with seafood (mostly shellfish), sometimes a few vegetables, but mostly fish. It’s delicious, there are a lot of variations, and it’s fairly low-calorie, especially if you split an entree portion of it with someone, as my wife and I tend to do.
Did I mention variations? All of the cioppinos we’ve had have had mussels and some kind of white fish (although one replaced the white fish with salmon which was also excellent). Most have clams and shrimp. A couple of them had calamari rings and crab. Most are served with garlic bread.
We had cioppino twice during our first time in the Bay Area together back in the Summer of 2009, at Tadich Grill (which claims to be the oldest restaurant in California), which was our first cioppino, and at the Fisherman’s Wharf Boudin restaurant, which was better. While it’s hard to compare our recently sampled dishes with those we tried three years ago, our second time around in San Francisco we wanted to plan better. This time we did some research to find out some of the best places in SFO to try cioppino, and we were not disappointed (although some were clearly better than others).
All in all, we tried five different cioppinos during our seven day stay. We ate the shit out of cioppino.
1199 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Cioppino price: $19
This unassuming bistro in the heart of The Mission featured the best cioppino of our trip. Beretta features great craft cocktails, Italian small plates, salads, bruschetta, and pizza. They only offer one entree per day. On Tuesday (at least when we went) their offering is cioppino. Because of that, and based on reviews that claimed it the best cioppino in San Francisco (which thus means best anywhere), we made a special trip.
Where Beretta excelled was in their broth, which was spicier (not spicy hot, just nicely spiced) and more delicious than any of the others we had. They added some fresh basil at the end which was unique to Beretta’s cioppino. Sure, they had mussels like every other cioppino, but they also added calamari which was a great addition. The portion size was average (i.e. a large two quart bowl) and Amanda and I split it, along with a panzanella salad.
552 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Cioppino price: $38 (enough for two)
Sotto Mare is a charming little neighborhood Italian restaurant in the North Beach section of San Francisco. We went on a Thursday night and it was packed with locals and tourists alike. While we waited for a table the hostess offered us a glass of house white or red wine, which we accepted and enjoyed while waiting for our table, which turned out to be at the counter.
We ate our last cioppino this trip at Sotto Mare and it was either first or second best, depending on what you mean by “best.” While Beretta had the tastiest broth, Sotto Mare wins by just the sheer volume of seafood. Their “enough for two” crab cioppino arrived in a massive silver soup cauldron and must’ve contained a couple pounds of shellfish.
They call theirs “The ‘Best Damn Crab Cioppino’ with seafood” and they’re not just boasting. Our cioppino did indeed contain an entire crab, chopped up, and pre-cracked so we shouldn’t have to use a cracker to pop the shell.
We sat at the counter by the kitchen where we enjoyed dinner and a show, although it was very very hot there. Still, the festive atmosphere, watching the waitstaff abuse the happy-go-lucky cooks who laughed as they were being yelled at, and the happy slurps of our fellow diners, most of whom were also eating cioppino, was worth the trip.
Follow up cioppino with a cappuccino and a cannoli at one of the classic cafes in North Beach afterwards (if you can eat another bite after stuffing two pounds of shellfish down your gullet) and browse through the stacks at the City Lights bookstore. It’s all very romantic.
1 Al Scoma Way
San Francisco, CA 94133
Cioppino price: $39
Scoma’s at Fisherman’s Wharf offers what they call the “Lazy Man’s Cioppino” because most of the fish has already been shelled for you. They offer the recipe on their web site (although you may want to make my cioppino recipe, coming soon, instead, as it was better). Scoma’s was the most touristy of places we tried, but what do you expect, they’re located at Fisherman’s Wharf, the most touristy of San Francisco locations.
Scoma’s cioppino is very good (as it should be, they’ve been serving it for years) but at $20 more expensive than Beretta for a similar portion, it feels like you’re paying for the location (and we didn’t even get to sit at a table overlooking the bay).
Sam’s Anchor Cafe
27 Main Street
Belvedere Tiburon, CA 94920
Cioppino price: $26
Sam’s was the worst cioppino of our trip, and it was still really good, so we did pretty well. It wasn’t on our list of the best cioppinos in San Francisco – we just happened to be visiting Tiburon via the ferry and it looked like a nice place to stop and have lunch (although our waitress said that their cioppino has been featured on the Food Network – twice). The price for the lunch portion of cioppino was the same as their dinner menu, so maybe it’s the same exact dish. It was an ample amount for one person.
Their menu claims it includes “dungeness crab, clams, prawns, mussels, fresh fish, in a spicy tomato broth” but there wasn’t much crab (although it does tend to disintegrate in the broth).
Of all of the restaurants we visited to try cioppino, Sam’s had the best view.
It’s nice to take a ferry somewhere – Tiburon, Sausalito, Larkspur, Angel Island – and just get out on the bay. Tiburon was a cute, relaxed place to visit and walk around. It’s not as crassly commercial as Sausalito, but then there’s not as much to see either, unless you’re into natural beauty.
2362 Market Street (between 16th St & 17th St)
San Francisco, CA 94114
Cioppino price: $22
Catch in the Castro is a lively upscale seafood place that technically doesn’t offer cioppino, but instead has a “seafood stew” that just so happens to resemble cioppino in most ways.
We ate our first cioppino this trip at Catch (after seeing Vertigo in the historic Castro Theater, which was awesome). Catch’s version is very good, although by the end of the trip I think this one ranked second to last.
Their cioppino includes – aside from the usual tomato broth – mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, crab, and some sort of white fish. It was very tasty, and the broth was a little more interesting than all but Beretta’s (although the chorizo broth that accompanied the mussels appetizer was so good we couldn’t stop drinking it).
Cioppino is such a simple dish, inspired by the Italian fisherman that settled in San Francisco, lived in North Beach, and shaped the local cuisine.
It’s easy enough to make at home, and I foresee cioppino being a regular staple of our weekend dinners.
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.
As a follow-up to yesterday’s post some people have asked me how noisy my treadmill, the True PS300 is in actual use.
I took a short video with my iPhone to demonstrate:
As you can hear, the audio is a little exaggerated by the iPhone mic but it’s pretty obvious that my heavy footfalls are much louder than the sound of the motor (which I don’t really hear at all) or the deck itself. If you’re lighter than I am (and at my current weight of 298 lbs, you probably are) it will probably not even be as loud for you.
Something to note is that our treadmill is in the basement, sitting on a vinyl treadmill mat, on top of a carpet, on poured concrete. So your mileage may vary if you place it on a hardwood floor that isn’t the basement. I have no idea what it’ll sound like to your downstairs neighbors, but it’s not really any louder than I imagine it would be to walk on a laminated plywood board (which is what I believe is the material of which the deck is constructed).
When I first joined a gym using the treadmill was my least favorite exercise. I found the treadmill was not as much fun as the elliptical or other machines that give you a more novel range of movement. After using any of the other machines for a while, though, I always returned to the treadmill as a way to warm up and cool off. It engages your entire body rather than isolating some part of you for a specific movement (like an exercise bike) since walking is considered a weight-bearing exercise – more muscles are engaged which results in a better workout. Elliptical machines are lower-impact than treadmills, though,and tend to take up more room length-wise than a treadmill. We could’ve gone either way.
Why A Treadmill Versus Some Other Piece of Exercise Equipment?
I don’t know. Anything that you have room for and that you’ll actually use will work for you. Anything that will collect dust because you won’t use it probably won’t. My wife and I found that the only two pieces of equipment we used consistently were the treadmills and elliptical machines, and the latter seemed less practical if we had to choose only one for home use.
When it came time to decide what machine to get, the treadmill was the one piece of equipment that both my wife and I would likely use more often. Of course you never know how much you’ll use something until you buy it…
Treadmill Buyer’s Guide
Before I begin to offer advice, keep in mind that I use my treadmill solely for walking. I’m not a runner (yet) so my needs may differ from yours. There are some general tips that I picked up while researching my purchase, though.
- Determine Your Needs: Are you a runner or, like me, primarily going to use the treadmill for walking? Runners or heavier walkers will need a beefier treadmill.
- Budget: How much do you have to spend? I found that in late–2011 (and this still holds true for 2012) that $2,500-$3,000 is the sweet spot for getting a quality treadmill that will last you many years (hopefully) without having to spring for all the bells & whistles. You can spend less, but know that a $1,000 treadmill that you get at a sporting goods emporium may not last long, and if it’s really cheaply made, could cause injuries.
- Where To Shop: Department stores and sporting goods chains all tend to sell lower-end treadmills. Some of them may work for you, but keep in mind that the clerk may have worked in the furniture department the prior week and may not be able to answer your questions. The better brands tend to be sold like cars – only in fitness equipment dealerships.
- Brand Names: Some of the better brands include Precor, True, Life Fitness, Landice, and Cybex. I’ve heard mixed reviews about mail-order and department store brands like NordicTrack, Bowflex, Smooth, Sole, Horizon, ProForm, and LiveStrong. There are dozens of other brands, too, some of which are owned by some of the other brands mentioned above.
- Stack The Deck: Most treadmill manufacturers differentiate their product lines not by changing the motor, deck, or anything else in the base of the machine throughout their model lines, but rather the models get more expensive as the electronics and display in the “head” get more advanced. We went with a fairly simple model since we didn’t care about a built-in touchscreen or LCD TV. If those things are important to you and you have the money, go nuts and spring for a fancier console computer. Just know where your money is going. Most threadmills include a book shelf where you can put a magazine, iPad, or eBook reader. Can you put a TV in the room with the treadmill? A stand-alone television will likely be a lot cheaper (and better quality) than a built-in display.
- Go Pro?: Commercial treadmills that are meant to stand up to a multitude of abuses are much more expensive than consumer models. The trick is to find a solidly built consumer model. If you can find a commercial model for sale at a discount just be aware that it has a lot of miles on it and may not last as long as you’d like.
- Treadmill Lifespan: This also greatly depends on the quality of the parts, how often you use it, etc., but consider that this is a big purchase that you don’t want to have to make again in a few years. Shoot for a model that will last you at least 7–10 years. Preventive mainetnance will extend the life of the better models.
- Know When To Fold ’Em: We bought a non-folding treadmill because the folding models tend to not be as sturdy or well-built. If you don’t need a super sturdy treadmill (e.g. you weigh l00 pounds and plan to only walk on it) and have limited room to keep a treadmill a folding model may work for you. Just know that you’re paying more for less. Convenience has a price.
- Inclination: Most decent treadmills offer an option to incline (ours goes to 15%). Some of the really fancy decks also do a decline to better simulate terrain. You’d be surprised how much a 3–5% grade makes a difference in your walk, and to avoid boredom you’ll definitely want the variety various inclines and speeds offer.
- Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Breaka My Stride: Are you tall? If so, you’ll want a deck that’s at least six inches longer than your stride length on either side. I’m 6′3″ My treadmill’s desk is 60″ long. Also important is the width of the deck. Generally wider is better, as you don’t want to accidentally step on the edge of the belt.
- Space: Do you have room for a treadmill? Make sure you measure not only the treadmill itself, but also a good 1–2 feet on either side of it (for your arms) and another foot or two behind it in case you trip and get flung into the wall or other furniture. Space in front of the treadmill need only be limited by how much you want to stare at a wall, although keep in mind that some measurements only include the length of the body of the deck and that the console may hang outward of the manufacturer’s measurements.
- Whiz-Bang: Sure, the feature that simulates the terrain of the south of France by changing the incline as you walk is nifty. It’s nice to have a small TV screen built into the top of the machine, too. Do you really need these things, though? Will you actually use them on a day-to-day basis? The hard part about trying out something like a treadmill in a store is that you won’t really know if you really like it or not until weeks or months into your routine (especially if this is your first treadmill).
- Try Before You Buy: You need to walk on a treadmill before you buy it, for as long as you can. While most gyms will stock larger commercial models often times the console for a manufacturer’s home series is similar (or in some cases, exactly the same). Try out models in various stores, but see if you can get a day-pass trial membership to a couple of local gyms so you can try a couple of different models for a more extended workout. I’ve also never heard of a treadmill salesman kicking someone out of the store because they walked on the display models too long.
- New Or Used: I’m of the opinion that you can’t go wrong with new gear. I’d rather go without for a while and save up for something new (which is what we did) than get something cheaper that may or may not have problems. Having said that, a lot of people buy treadmills as part of their New Year’s resolutions and then use it a few times before it gathers dust in their basements, so you may be able to find a nearly new deal on Craigslist. Consider, however, that treadmills are heavy and you’ll need to move it yourself if you buy it from an individual.
- Delivery: I’m going to say that delivery is always free when you’re buying a treadmill. I’m sure not every store offers free delivery, but I’ve found that enough do that you should shop at those places rather than pay a delivery fee. If they want to charge you extra for setup, walk away. The machines almost always come with the head removed and the delivery guys assembled ours and set it in place in less than five minutes. That’s part of the price of the machine.
- Hold Your Horses: You wouldn’t buy a car without knowing what kind of engine it had (would you?). You should know what you’re getting in the treadmill’s motor, which is its most important part. Raw (peak) horsepower isn’t as important as its “continuous duty horsepower.” Most manufacturers of better treadmills will brag about their continuous duty rating because that’s the amount of HP you can expect to get consistently under load (i.e. you walking on the belt) and not the motor’s peak without being stressed at all. Keep in mind that there’s no law or standard for rating treadmill motors, so it’s hard to research. One tip for determining the relative quality of the motor is to examine its…
- Warranty: Most treadmills will come with some kind of manufacturer’s warranty, and usually they’re split between parts, labor, and the motor. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, since crappy treadmills will come with poor warranty terms, and good models will usually have a good warranty, often a Lifetime Warranty, for important parts like the motor. That’s confidence. You can tell how confident a manufacturer is by how long they’ll warranty the machine. Of course, if something’s going to break it’s going to break in the first few months, or after many years. Make sure you know what you’re getting.
Lies Treadmill Salesmen Told Me
- “This is the same deck as their commercial machines.” Yeah, sure it is.
- “If you need service we’re just a phone call away. Our service to you continues long after you leave the store.” This location was a mattress store three months ago, and will likely be an aquarium supply store six months from now. Base your purchase on the manufacturer’s warranty, not on the service that the salesman claims comes with your purchase (unless they’re willing to give you a service agreement in writing, but even that may not be worth anything if they go out of business).
- “These machines are the best. That’s why we only sell this brand.” Translation: this manufacturer pays us the highest commission.
- “I own this one myself.” Sure you do. You also owned a different model I was interested in last month. How many treadmills do you have? This is just the salesman’s way of telling you that they have personal experience with the machine. Who cares how much they like it?
- “I have ten years experience as a personal trainer and recommend that my clients only walk on RunJogger machines.” The salesman’s employment history doesn’t make the machine you’re looking to invest in any better. They want to assure you that they’re an expert in all things fitness, but make sure they can answer your questions about the actual treadmill you’re looking to buy.
- “I don’t work on commission.” There’s nothing wrong with selling stuff on commission. I expect that the salesman is getting paid based on sales. The only reason anyone would tell you that they don’t get a commission is to seem more trustworthy. After all, why would anyone who stands to gain nothing from your purchase lie to you about which model to buy? It’s not a bad sign if your salesman doesn’t get paid on commission – a lot of larger retail stores don’t pay commissions. Be leery of anyone who makes it a point to tell you that as a sales tactic, though.
- “I can give you a special deal on this one.” Regardless of whether this particular model is discontinued, has issues, or what have you, the truth is that the price on the treadmill is really just a starting point. Fitness equipment salesmen can haggle just like car dealers, and you should expect to pay lower than the asking price. Don’t be stirred into making a rash purchase because a model is deeply-discounted or on sale. They’re always on sale. Now or next month is as good a time to buy as any, so pull the trigger on your own time, not because a salesman pressured you into it.
How To Research Treadmills Online (or not)
While there are innumerable websites which will sell you a treadmill you should under no circumstances buy a treadmill from an online store. You’d think the Internet would be the perfect place to do research for treadmills but most “review” sites are actually just thinly veiled ads for treadmill and fitness equipment stores, or affiliate marketers looking to send you on your way to a real store wherein you can buy a new treadmill (while they get a small cut of the sales price).
Consumer Reports may have treadmill reviews, but you can’t read them without being a paid subscriber. The only reasonably interesting site that gives annual awards for treadmills in various price ranges is TreadmillDoctor.com, which is also a merchant but they sell parts for treadmills and elliptical machines rather than the equipment itself, which makes them somewhat less partial.
My point is that a treadmill is something you’re going to have to walk on to find out if it’s a good fit for you. I can tell you how much I like my treadmill, but until you’ve tried it for yourself you just can’t tell.
My Treadmill: True Fitness PS300 Review
After researching as much as possible online and trying a few models in stores we decided on the True Fitness PS300. We paid about $2,500 for ours. It’s $200 more than the True PS100 but includes an orthopedic belt that felt a lot more cushiony. Also, from what I determined from online forums that the ortho belts tend to last longer. I’d recommend it especially if you currently weigh a lot as I’ve found it puts a lot less stress on my ankles than a standard belt. If you try it and don’t like it, though, the True PS100 is a fantastic machine as well (the only difference between the two is the belt).
Besides the orthopedic belt providing a nice cushion it’s grippier than standard belts as well. The deck is very long (60″) and reasonably wide (it’s 21″ which is more than wide enough although I liked some 22–24″ models better – but only for the generous width of the deck). This treadmill is a consumer model but our salesman told us that it uses the same motor as their commercial machines. I’m kidding. Of course it doesn’t, but that’s okay. It’s beefy enough at 3 horsepower.
It’s super-sturdy – the frame is made of heavy gauge steel. The head is made mostly of plastic, but it’s a good sturdy plastic, too. When grabbing the handrails there’s no shake or jitter. It really feels solid (not that you should be grabbing onto the handrails while you’re walking – that eliminates a lot of the workout!). The specs say that the maximum user weight is 350lbs, which is ample for most people but when I first started my Clean Livin’ routine I would have to have waited to use this machine. The PS300 itself weighs 308lbs, which means it stays in place while you walk on it. It also means it’s nigh impossible to move to clean under it, so be sure to use the free mat that the dealer threw in to sweeten the deal, especially if you’re not using yours in the basement and have to worry about making noise for people below you.
The warranty is above-average:
Frame – Lifetime;
Motor – 30 Years;
Parts – 7 Years;
Labor – 1 Year.
I don’t know why they don’t offer a lifetime warranty on the motor. I mean, 30 years is pretty good – I doubt we’ll have it that long – but why not go the extra mile and support it for longer than most people will own the machine.
The controls are very simple to use. When my mother-in-law came to visit she was able to just hop on and start using the machine with no prior training or having to read the manual. There are quick start buttons for setting various speed and incline increments, along with easy to reach up and down arrow buttons to increase or decrease speed and incline. The display also shows your walk’s duration, the number of calories burned based on your weight, METs, and of course distance. It has a safety clip that you’re supposed to clip onto your clothing so the machine stops if you slip. I tried it once and it seems to work. Since then the clip’s been sitting in the console’s cup holder.
It comes with a wireless heart rate monitor that I’ve never used. It also comes with a water bottle that fits the two built-in holders well, and a tool you can use to open the motor compartment for maintenance. I may take my dealer’s advice and have someone from their store come by once a year to do some preventive maintenance, if they’re still in business by the end of the year.
Regarding the heart rate monitor, the brochure says:
TRUE HRC Cruise Control allows you to “lock in” your targeted heart rate. Once your target is entered, one touch TRUE HRC Cruise Control will adjust speed and incline automatically throughout the duration of your workout to maintain your target heart rate.
So that sounds pretty cool. I’ll have to try it sometime.
I tend to just put it in manual mode and adjust the speed and incline myself as I go, but my wife loves the “Glute Buster” and “Calorie Burner” modes because it does a warm-up and cool-down period and adjusts the speed and incline at various intervals to change things up. I think having multiple program modes on a treadmill is like carrying a hand gun. It’s better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them.
I’ve used fancier treadmill computers and have never once missed and kind of programming or a full-color display. Of course, I bring my own entertainment.
There’s not much advice I can offer to make walking in place more fun. I find it better to watch something rather than read or listen to music. My iPad fits on the treadmill’s book shelf and I catch up on TV shows or movies I want to watch. It covers most of the display, but I tend to adjust speed and incline based on feel anyway, and I can always slide it to one side or another to see my incline or current speed.
Whatever you do while on the treadmill – reading, watching TV, listening to music, talking on the phone – I’ve found that anything that’s immersive is better at combating boredom than anything that makes you focus on your walk. For me, it’s watching videos on the iPad, reading a novel, and then maybe surfing the web.
When the weather’s nice I still prefer to walk around outside rather than walk indoors on the treadmill. There’s not a treadmill in the world that beats beautiful weather and fresh air. Then again, I can’t catch up on Parks & Rec while walking in an actual park for recreation.
Since buying the machine last November I’ve gone from using it a couple of times per week to using it every morning. I like to just hop on a bit at various times throughout the day whenever I’m home too. I’m definitely a convert despite initially finding it awkward and monotonous. Walking on a treadmill definitely takes some getting used to. You probably don’t realize how much you adjust your pace as you walk since the Earth isn’t moving at 3–4 mph beneath you. Of course, the Earth is moving much faster than all of the treadmills on it combined, but the ground doesn’t move relative to you. That’s probably not a relevant detail.
If you’ve owned and have regularly used a treadmill for longer than 30 years, please contact me. I have questions for you. ↩
This post was dictated and transcribed by my iPad while walking on the treadmill over the course of a week or so. Well, the first draft was, anyway. If you’re wondering where dictating an article lies on the boredom scale, it’s behind watching videos but ahead of reading. Having said that, writing an article and dictating one are two very different skills and I’m unlikely to do a lot of “writing” while walking on the treadmill. I also edited-out the mistranslations and “ums” later. It was an interesting experiment that would work better as a means of jotting down a quick note about an idea that I had while working out in the morning. I would not recommend trying to do any serious writing while walking on a treadmill. ↩