Activity trackers have gained lots of attention, judging by all the companies jumping in with new products. It’s one of those gadgets that you didn’t know you needed until it appeared. They retail for about $100 to $170, and you wear them on your wrist, clipped to your waist or slipped into your pocket. They monitor your motion and then display that information using an app on your phone or your computer. Some can even chart your sleep levels or read your pulse. But are they really worth the cost or are they just a glorified $20 pedometer?
I’ve been trying out several over the past few months, and while they come in a range of sizes and shapes, they’re more alike than different. They all contain a tiny motion sensor and most use low-power Bluetooth to sync to your phone.
Most have rechargeable batteries that last from a few days to a week and can be worn while showering. While their apps vary in design and how they present your activities, I found them to be less important than getting real-time feedback from the device itself. Others may differ and prefer to focus on the graphs that chart performance over time. But none of the advice that’s generated from the measurements is very useful. That’s because the FDA restricts the dispensing of anything that resembles medical advice.
They all track walking and running. However, none does a good job of measuring biking, exercising, or swimming, and none of them is all that accurate. When I wore three at the same time to measure walking distances, they showed differences of 30 percent and calorie differences of 300 percent.
Nike was one of the first with a tracker, with its Nike+ FuelBand, a rubber-coated wristband that’s notable for its excellent scrolling LED display and color LED meter. I wore it for about eight months and liked it a lot. I had to exchange the product after four months when several of its LEDs failed.
Two of its features stand out. First, the large informative display, visible under all lighting conditions, gives me an update of how far I’ve walked and how many calories I’ve burned at the push of a button. It also displays Nike Fuel points, an arbitrary measure of activity, which I found to have little use.
The second feature is its use as a digital watch that works great in the dark. To charge it you just plug one of its ends into a USB computer port. It comes in various sizes and in black, translucent and clear. It costs $150.
The Jawbone UP ($129) is also a wristband that works much like the Nike and is a little more stylish. But it has several flaws that make it less useful. It has no display to see your real-time progress and no Bluetooth; you need to sync it to your phone by plugging it into the phone’s earphone jack.
But its biggest drawback is its unreliability. Many report having to replace their UP three or four times because of design defects that continue to reoccur. This is after the unit was recalled last year, re-engineered and reintroduced. I would avoid the UP; gadgets are supposed to bring a benefit, not create aggravation.
It comes with several accessories that let you wear it on your wrist or clipped to your clothing. It has a novel display made up of 12 tiny white LEDs arranged like a clock that displays progress reaching your daily goal, as well as the time.
Syncing is done through Bluetooth, but because of its metal housing, it needs to be placed very close to the phone. The Shine uses a replaceable watch battery that lasts about six months. I wore this on my wrist on my recent vacation in Italy where I did lots of walking, and it worked well.
The Pulse is a postage stamp-sized block with a soft rubber coating. It has an excellent high-resolution display, although it’s hard to read in bright sunlight. The Pulse displays the most information of any of the products, including distance traveled in steps and miles, elevation, calories burned and time. You can look at previous days with a swipe.
It can also take your pulse through your fingertip, and has a sleep mode used with a Velcro wristband. The device can be attached to a belt clip or carried in your pocket, and its rechargeable battery lasted more than a week.
Fitbit also makes activity trackers similar to the Pulse, but I was unable to try one for an extended time. From my brief evaluation of its latest product, the Flex ($100, fitbit.com), it falls well below the Pulse because it has no display.
Of all the devices, I like the Pulse the best, with the Shine a close second. I am able to accurately check my progress using the Pulse throughout the day, particularly useful when I recently did a five-mile hike in the Marin Headlands. It allowed me to respond to my family that asked, “Are we almost there?” At $99 it offers the most capabilities at one of the lowest prices.
I would recommend either the Shine or Pulse, depending on whether you want something discreet or for your wrist.
Keep in mind that many of these devices are very small and easily lost. So before spending up to $150, consider other options. A pedometer, such as the Omron HJ-112 Pocket Pedometer costs just $22. While it has no on-line charting of your progress, it provides very accurate distance measurements and has a clear, always-on display.
There are also apps available for your phone that track your walking and running using the phone’s accelerometer. They need no syncing nor do you need to worry about another battery to charge. Some track progress and even display a map of where you’ve walked. But they can also run down your battery quickly because they require the GPS to be on.
One new app that I haven’t tried, MapMyWalk for both Android and iPhones, claims to keep battery consumption low. I haven’t tried it because it will work only if you give it permission to access your address book. That’s a subject for another column.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to email@example.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.