Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
Fitbit Force wireless activity tracker
Effective motivation in a streamlined wearable fitness device
- Bright, useful OLED screen
- Elegant and comfortable
- Makes you want to walk
- Short timeout on screen
- Sleep tracking may not reflect reality
- Not cheap
The Force is the best Fitbit yet thanks to a bright OLED screen, simpler battery charging and an altimeter for measuring stairs. It’s certain to get you up and moving.
American startup, Fitbit, has been steadily releasing wearable fitness devices designed to appeal to non-athletes. Its latest wristband, the Fitbit Force, improves upon a solid concept established in last year’s Flex model by adding an easy-to-read screen, altimeter and simpler charging.
The major enhancement from the previous version is the addition of an OLED screen that displays text and numbers, replacing the line of five LED lights from the Flex wristband. This bright, blue-on-black screen is easy to read in most lighting conditions. While the Flex only showed progress towards a goal, it’s great to additionally see your exact step count on-the-fly, right there on the Force’s screen.
You can press a single button on the side of the screen to quickly flick between the clock and the available statistics: steps, distance, calories burnt, levels climbed, and minutes doing more active stepping like jogging. The stats can be reordered or hidden according to your preference.
However, don’t plan on watching your steps tick up for long periods of time while you’re walking. One annoyance with the Force is that the timeout on the screen is only about five seconds, forcing you to press the button to bring it back to life. While we understand this saves battery, we wonder why Fitbit could not have used dimming to achieve the same end.
Those of you seeking more detailed information about your walk while on-the-go can open the Fitbit smartphone app, which has a clean and intuitive interface capable of syncing in real-time using Bluetooth LE (low energy).
As of this writing, the app supports Apple iOS devices and 17 recent Android phones and tablets. The Force’s OLED screen may provide enough on-the-go information for many of you, but it’s still worth checking if your mobile is compatible with the Force before making a purchase.
If you don’t have a compatible phone or tablet, you can still sync stats to the Fitbit Web site using an included USB dongle for the PC. Like the app, the Web site is colourful and well laid out, providing quick access to a variety of interesting statistics about your level of activity.
Understated and comfortable
The Force maintains the understated good looks of the Flex, with a simple rubberized wrist band that looks more like a Livestrong band than a watch. Available at launch in black and a blue-gray hue called slate, this is a minimalist and conservative design that blends into just about any wardrobe.
Importantly, the Force band feels good to wear. It’s light, and the fit can be adjusted at any time using a series of seven notches on the band. The band is also available in two lengths to fit differently sized wrists.
It was difficult to put on the first few times. However, this seemed to get easier with time — either the wristband needs a few days working in or we just got used to how to do it.
The Fitbit Force is splash proof, so there’s no need to be afraid of washing your hands. However, we didn’t risk swimming with it, and Fitbit advises not to submerge the Force more than one metre. Since Fitbit measures steps, those of you who are swimmers are likely better off buying a waterproof GPS-based watch.
The lithium-ion polymer battery on the Force lasted us about a week, which is excellent for a device you’re supposed to put on and forget about. The Force is significantly easier to charge than the Flex, which requires you to remove the pedometer from the wristband and rest it in a USB cradle. With the Force, you simply plug a USB cord into a port on the back of the watch.
While the clock makes the Force a potential watch replacement, it’s a bit of a drag to have to press the button just to see the time. It also lacks many of the phone-like features of other smart watches, though Fitbit has revealed plans to add an incoming call notification for iPhones that vibrates the wristband and displays the caller’s name on the screen.
The path to 10,000 steps
Of course, if knowing the hour or who is calling are your priorities, you probably shouldn’t be in the market for a Fitbit. Its primary function is counting the number of steps you take and this is something it does very well.
Besides counting your steps, the Force will estimate the distance you’ve gone in a given day based on the step count and an estimated stride length (adjustable through the Fitbit website). This is unlikely to be as accurate as a GPS-based device, but it’s a fun stat to track.
The Force’s measure of calories burnt count is just an estimate. It counts up throughout the day even if you don't make any steps at all, but adjusts it upward based on the other measurements and any activities logged on the website. The stat may become a more useful figure if you also log how much food you’re eating, since you can set weight loss goals on the Fitbit website.
An altimeter included in the Force — absent from the Flex — measures how many levels you have climbed by comparing the air pressure at different heights. This ticks up every time the device detects an increase in altitude of 10 feet while you are stepping — so while steep inclines count, rides in the lift do not. We thought at first that the device was overestimating, but on more careful inspection realised how many big hills there are in Sydney.
An area where the Fitbit does seem overgenerous, however, is its count of very active minutes. A brisk walk appears to be enough to get this number moving. We didn’t find it to be a very useful statistic.
We thought a missed opportunity is the lack of a basic stopwatch function. This seems like a natural and easy-to-implement function for a device that encourages jogging.
Like other Fitbit monitors, the Force will track your sleep. It does this by measuring your movements in the night, graphing moments it thinks you are restless or have woken up. It’s kind of cool to see, but ultimately didn’t seem very useful. Fitbit gave us flying colours on sleep efficiency nearly every night, even on mornings when waking up felt like being hit by a truck.
Speaking of rude awakenings, the Force includes a silent, vibration-based alarm clock. While a nice idea in concept, it’s a bit of a hassle to turn on or off since it can only be set up through the app or Fitbit Web site.
Since the Force still only logs step-based activities, those of you who do certain activities like biking or swimming may find it doesn’t represent your day very well unless you go into the Web site and manually enter these activities.
Also, if you are serious about losing weight, you will probably see greater results by regularly logging your weight and the food you eat on the Fitbit Web site (something made harder for Australians since an included database lists mainly American brands). These are things that one must keep on top of to experience the best results.
But while there may be some room for improvement, the core functions of the Force work flawlessly and provide excellent motivation to be more active.
Read more: TomTom Runner Cardio GPS watch
So obviously there’s a lot of tech involved, but will the Fitbit Force actually get you in shape?
To some extent, you get what you put into it. While you’re likely to walk more just by wearing it, you’ll get even more out of the device if you pay attention to your stats and set ambitious goals.
For the non-athlete, however, the Force is definitely a great motivator for staying active. Seeing how far you are from reaching a goal makes you want to take a walk and you may feel guilty when you’re sitting still. That strangely pleasurable buzzing when you reach your daily goal feels pretty damn good.
The Fitbit Force costs $129.99 in the US. Pricing and availability for Australia has not yet been announced.
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