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Fitbit Ultra: An unobtrusive fitness tracker

I'm a lazy blogger.

For most of the day, my exercise consists of clicking and typing, then heading down the stairs for another cup of coffee. Over the years I've blogged about my various attempts and methods of tracking exercise and calorie intake with iOS apps, but I find that I get frustrated with how much work is involved just in tracking what I'm doing. The Fitbit Ultra (US$99.95, announced and available today) might be the unobtrusive fitness buddy I've been looking for.

Using my iPhone for tracking fitness walks, I have to remember to start up the app (RunKeeper), pause if I stop for a rest or to chat with someone, stop it when I get home and then type in a tag for the exercise. Since these types of apps use location services, they tends to suck down my battery quickly, which is the reason I've had a Mophie Juick Pack Air installed on the iPhone for the last ten months. Finally, the iPhone and associated fitness apps don't track the work I'm doing around the house. I tend to go up and down the stairs in our house a lot, which is a surprisingly good workout, yet those iPhone apps don't take that into account.

The Fitbit Ultra is a tiny device about the size of a flash drive, weighing just .4 ounces and shaped like a small clip. There's a reason for that shape, since you can just clip the Fitbit Ultra onto clothing and let it track your movements throughout the day. The device has just one button, and uses a bright OLED display that is invisible when it's not in use. I found that the best way for me to use the Fitbit Ultra is to just drop it in my front pocket.

That's what I love about the Fitbit Ultra -- I don't constantly have to be futzing around with it. I also don't have to do anything to get the data from the Fitbit to the Fitbit website (more about that in a moment) except be within about 25 feet of my computer. It checks to see if the combo charging stand / syncing transmitter is nearby about every 15 minutes, and when it is, the device sends changes to the Fitbit site via a plugin that is installed on your Mac.

So, what does it track? To quote the old Police song, "Every step you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you." The Fitbit Ultra uses a MEMS 3D motion sensor to track every step, and unlike the earlier version of the device, it also has an innovative altimeter feature to determine when you've gone up or down a flight of stairs. The motion sensor also senses when you're not moving around, and is used as a sleep tracker as well.

The bright blue display is enabled by either picking up the device when it's sitting on a surface or by pushing the button. Picking up the Fitbit Ultra displays a short motivational message ("LOVE YA," "GO," "LETS GO") and optionally your name as well. Pressing the button repeatedly shows the number of steps taken so far in the day, how far you've walked in miles, the number of calories burned, the number of flights of stairs climbed, a flower that "grows" as you get closer to your daily goal, and the current time. You can also use the Fitbit to time workouts, runs, or your nightly sleep with a built-in stopwatch.

Of course, the tracked data is worthless without being analyzed and stored. That's where Fitbit.com comes in. The website, which works perfectly with Safari on both Mac and iOS devices, displays a dashboard full of information. At any time, I can see exactly how many steps I've taken (with a goal of 10,000 per day), how many floors I've climbed stairs to, how many miles I've walked, the calories burned, and an "active score."

If I choose to, I can enter in calories consumed, set a weight goal, or calibrate my stride to get a more accurate reading of distance walked. Right now, this is all accomplished through the Fitbit.com website, but the company expects to release an iPhone app this month for those users who want to enter or view information on the go. For me, I'll probably just use the regular website when I can to enter the caloric information -- the reason I like the Fitbit, after all, is that it's unobtrusive and I don't have to physically enter information on a small device or start and stop an app.

Some of the data that can be displayed on the Fitbit dashboard page can come from other sources or be sent out to your favorite exercise tracking or social networking service. At the present time, the Fitbit site will accept weight and fat mass from the Withings Connected Scale. It would be nice if the site could also bring in blood pressure readings from the Withings Blood Pressure Monitor, as that would supply one more piece of important health monitoring information to the dashboard.

The docking station that is used to charge the Fitbit Ultra's battery and receive the updates wirelessly is plugged into a USB port. The battery lasts from 5 to 7 days, and the device charges quickly -- in about an hour -- when it needs to be topped off.

I plan to write an update to this post when the iPhone app becomes available later in the month, and in late December I expect to write a follow-up on how successful the Fitbit was in helping to make me aware of my lack of exercise and motivate me to step it up a bit.

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