Review: Fitbit Flex Wearable Fitness Tracker

Written by Alex Zaharov-Reutt      15/08/2014 | 17:24 | Category name i.e.TV & DISPLAY

Testing Fitbit's wrist-band wearable fitness tracker over the past couple of weeks has been an interesting experiment that sees me wanting to continue the tracking and reaching the daily 10,000 steps goal - but I wish it also told the time.

Review: Fitbit Flex Wearable Fitness Tracker

After Fitbit recently announced its app had come to Windows Phone 8.1 devices with Bluetooth 4.0 LE, its PR company offered me a Fitbit Flex for a couple of weeks to review. 

I decided to take them up on the offer, and have been wearing my first wearable device in years after giving up on my beloved Casio calculator watches that simply hadn't advanced enough in 20 years for my liking - plus my smartphone showed me the time. 


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So, what has the Fitbit Flex been like? 

Well, it has been a very interesting way to track the movements I make every day, whether awake or asleep, syncing wirelessly using the low-energy Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity to my iPhone 5s, and dive through the data that activity has generated.  

When the little notifications pop up on my phone that I'm x-number of steps away from the pre-programmed 10,000 step target, which can be programmed to any number you like, I have found myself wanting to get to that magic number, taking an extra walk to get myself up and over the target when notified I'm not that far away from my goal. 

The unit itself has a black removable tracker device that sits inside a coloured band. The one I received is orange, but from memory the official colour designation is "tangerine", not that I can see the colour name listed anywhere on the box. 

That removable tracker sits snugly in the interchangeable band, with a large and smaller band included in the box, with the entire set-up being nicely water resistant - wearing in the shower is encouraged on the packaging. 

When the tracker is removed, it can be placed into a special USB charging cable with a holder the tracker sits in. This is so you can charge the device as required, which needs to be done approximately once a week. 


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The box also has a wireless USB dongle so your PC or Mac can receive information from the Fitbit Flex, and while I've definitely sync'd the info and looked at it on my Mac's screen, I normally look at the stats on my iPhone. 

Syncing isn't continuous when the app isn't open, but that's on purpose, as the syncing is meant to be a low power thing that won't drain your iPhone or Fitbit tracker. 

When I open the Fitbit app on the iPhone, it takes a few moments for the device to sync and transfer its data. 

However, if I do keep the app open and go for a walk, you can see your steps being updated in real time. The novelty obviously wears off as you're not going to do your entire walk staring at a counter on the screen, well, unless you're ensconced in Facebook or something, but it shows you that it really is working. 

When in the app, I can see how many steps I've taken, the distance I've travelled, the calories it estimates I've burned and the periods where I was actively moving around - presenting the info in a series of different graphs and bar charts. 

Naturally, you can see your historical activity over various time periods as well, be it a day, a week, a month, 3 months or 1 year, so you can really data mine yourself as if you were your very own self-spy, rather than Google or Facebook doing that to you. 


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The record of my movements earlier today.

The app also lets you change your "main goal" from steps to distance, calories burned or active minutes, so you can certainly mix your fitness activities up a bit if you want to focus on achieving other goals. 

The main interface tracks all of those areas anyway, so even if you want to up your active minutes first and foremost, for example, you'll still see how many calories you've burned or steps you've taken. 

You can also choose which wrist you're wearing the Fitbit on - whether on your dominant hand, or non-dominant hand. 

Non-dominant is the pre-selected option, but if you do choose to wear it on your dominant wrist, and tell Fitbit you've done so, it will know to measure the dominant wrist movement differently so you're not over inflating your true active movements, which would defeat the purpose of actively tracking fitness activity. 

Night time is also tracked when you tap quickly on the Fitbit's band to put it into the night tracking mode. This tracks the number of hours slept, the times woken up and the sleep quality you've had (i.e. whether you were restless or soundly asleep and in between).

This ensures you can wear the Fitbit 24 hours a day, taking it off every now and then for a quick wash/wipe down, although showering with it on does help to keep it clean. 

You can also set up a silent vibrating alarm, whether to wake you up, or to discretely remind you to do things during the day - it seems you can create as many alarms as you want. 

Unlike the fantastic Sleep Cycle app for iOS, Fitbit's night tracking doesn't appear to yet offer a way to wake you during the times you're sleeping lightly, rather than in a deep sleep period. 

That's just software, though, so hopefully Fitbit adds that to a future version of its software, or lets the Fitbit sync with Sleep Cycle app through whatever APIs developers need to make that happen. 

Another feature of the Fitbit Flex is your ability to get social with friends who are also using one of Fitbit's various devices. 


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Here, you can share stats and compete with friends, adding a nice little competitive element to getting fit, and you can "earn badges" to stay motivated, as well as manually adding info about the meals you've eaten and the workouts you're doing so you can track calories in and out and track your weight. 

You can even manually log the amount of water you're drinking on a daily basis, adding to its fitness and wellbeing efforts to help you voluntarily take more of the right actions to truly get fitter.  

Fitbit does have its separately purchasable Aria Wi-Fi scales to help you even more easily track your weight, but even without scales you can manually track your weight if you want. 

Now onto the tracker itself, and it's little light system which gives you information. If you double tap the band, you see the five lights lighting up and moving across the screen to the left and right, a bit like a Cylon's visor or the moving like from Kitt, the Knight Rider's car. 

After that, the display lights up from one to five depending on the number of steps you've already taken that day. As I double tap right now, I get all five lights glowing, with the last one flashing indicating I'm still on the last run of steps to get to that 10,000 goal. 

I've just opened up the Fitbit app on my iPhone, and it's telling me that I've taken 8,918 steps so far today, with an earlier notification that I had approx 1600 steps to go for the day. 

Once you get to the 10,000 step goal, the Fitbit vibrates excitedly and puts on a kind of fireworks display with the five lights in a bit of electronic celebration, which is nice to see and a pleasing little motivator. 

Rapidly tapping the face of the band is something you do at night to activate sleep mode, and when you wake up, rapidly tapping the band is how you restore the band back to its daytime mode. 

That's really it as far as the lights go, they do a simple job of indicating where you're up to in the day or the mode you're in, and that's that - the rest of the meaty info is in the app itself. 

It's at this point that I wished the Fitbit could tell me the time, as your muscle memory of knowing you have a band on makes you think you're wearing a watch, and I have glanced at my wrist a few times only to remember that it's a Fitbit Flex I'm wearing and not a time telling device. 

Clearly, a digital display would have added extra bulk and battery usage to the Flex, and as it is a dedicated fitness device designed to be as close to the $100 mark as possible, it's understandable why there is no clock option. 

However I do wish the Flex could at least maybe somehow cleverly blink a time sequence, although you'd then have to learn the sequence just to tell the time, something most people would probably not bother with as it no longer becomes a "glanceable" instant way to tell the time. 

Given the fact I really do need to get fit, the Fitbit Flex has been a great little device to motivate me to move more, which of course is the entire point of this particular style of wearable technology. 

It has worked seamlessly with my iPhone 5s, and works out of the box with the iPhone 4S, 5 and 5C, as well as the iPad Air, iPad Mini, iPad 3 and iPad 4. 

It also works with selected devices from Samsung, Motorola, LG, HTC, Sony, Google, Pantech and Huawei, with the full list of compatible devices here

The RRP is $129.95, but I've seen it a little cheaper at $126 in stores, with the final question being whether I'd lay down my hard-earned cash to buy one. 

Would I?

Yes, I would, and once this review unit goes back over the next few days, I'm going to do just that, as I'll definitely miss the info my movements are generating and the added electronic motivation to go out for a walk to get to and beyond that initial 10,000 step goal. 

I know there are other devices from Fitbit itself, or competitors like the Up from Jawbone, Garmin and all manner of others out there, but I only need one fitness tracker, like the way this one works, haven't suffered any "rashes" as I keep the unit clean and... it is working as intended, both on my phone and slowly, on my body!

I'd like to boost the steps to 15,000 and then 20,000, as it would make a real difference to the amount of activity my chair and desk-bound life normally delivers, and that can only be a good thing for my health and fitness. 

As for any future Fitbit Flex 2 to come, I'd love to see a way to tell the time included, having an even more powerful battery that would last two weeks or even a month between charges would be a nice-to-have feature. 

We also see other fitness bands out there able to measure heart rate, while we've all heard the rumours that Apple's iTime/iWatch will be filled with sensors to analyse sweat to check blood sugar levels and all manner of other things that will probably make all of today's fitness wearables seem primitive. 

However, even if Apple do that, its devices are likely to cost a lot more than the current generation of fitness trackers - which actually work as intended if you wear them and act upon the information they deliver. 

So if you're looking for a way to move more and get fitter, as well get a little competitive with your Fitbit owning friends if doing that floats your boat, the Fitbit Flex is a nifty way to track yourself and give yourself extra motivation to reach goals that may well have been oblivious to you before. 

The wearables market is only going to continue evolving with ever cleverer technologies and devices, but right now in 2014, the Fitbit Flex gets a thumbs up from me! 


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Pros & Cons

Pros:

Affordable, works as advertised, keeps you informed and a good motivator to reach certain goals, easy to wear, nearly week-long battery life, easy to clean, easy to charge, easy to sync, tracks day and night, can be worn 24x7, is water resistant. 

Cons:

Doesn't tell the time while making your brain think you're wearing a watch, is less than $100 in the US but costs $129.95 in Australia, will likely look more primitive if Apple's iTime/iWatch arrives, needs a smartphone with Bluetooth 4.0 LE and even then it has to be one of the supported models (with some Android users reporting issues until their devices became officially supported).