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Hands-on with the Fitbit Force activity tracker

When it comes to the "connected self" activity tracker market, Fitbit has been around for what seems to be an eternity -- two years. In 2011, the company unveiled its first tracker, the Fitbit Ultra, and they've been innovating with new and more sophisticated activity trackers ever since. The latest design evolution is the Fitbit Force (US$129.95), a sleek wristband that captures activity and sleep information.

The Device

While the original Ultra was a tiny clip-on monitor with an OLED display, the Force is a wristband model. That wristband is made of a durable silicone material, and it is so light that the Force is really unobtrusive. Unlike a wristwatch, you can't really feel the Force on your wrist so you'll want to wear it all the time. While it's water-resistant, Fitbit recommends taking it off when you take a shower or go swimming.

Like the original Ultra, there's just one button on the Force. With a push it displays the current time in your choice of formats, the number of steps you've taken so far today (along with a thermometer-like line showing your progress to your daily goal), the distance you've walked, how many calories have been burned, how many flights of stairs you've climbed, and the active time you've spent during the day. There's also an indicator for alarms, which I'll talk about later.

Back in the old days with the Fitbit Ultra, I was constantly frustrated with the syncing method to move data from the device to the cloud. That old model had a tiny dock that you had to clip the Ultra onto for charging; that dock connected to your computer via USB, and any time you were near the dock the Ultra and dock synced. In reality, it didn't work that well a lot of the time.

What's great is that the Fitbit Force really doesn't need that computer connection anymore, as it's perfectly happy connecting directly to your iPhone or iPad over Bluetooth LE. You can set up the device through your computer; all of the setup instructions are found on the Fitbit website and you download software that's appropriate to your device. The Mac app for the Force is also used for the Fitbit Flex, One and Zip devices. So you do need to plug in a small, easily lost USB dongle during setup, but it can be removed from your computer or hub as soon as you're done.

Before doing anything, you'll need to charge up the Force. I was unhappy to find that Fitbit chose to use a proprietary charging cable, although I'm sure that there were some design constraints that led to this. Use of a standard -- like the ubiquitous micro-USB cable -- would have been nice. It also turns out that this proprietary plug can be plugged in upside-down, which I found out after unsuccessfully trying to charge the Force for four hours before turning the plug over...

On the plus side, battery life seems to be stellar with the Fitbit Force. After wearing the device for eight days, it still has more than half a charge so it appears that one might be able to go for two weeks without charging.

Design-wise, I like the understated look of the Force. It's a slender black (or slate) strap, not emblazoned with bright LEDs, and all in all quite futuristic-looking. The band straps onto your wrist securely with two small studs that go into holes on the strap, and it's easy to put on and take off.

One feature of the Force that I love is the built-in vibration alert. With other activity trackers it's quite common to have to actually look at the screen to indicate that you're starting an activity or going to sleep. Not so with the Force -- you just push and hold the button until you feel the device vibrate, and you know it's ready to go. The same vibration feature works when stopping the timer as well. As if that's not cool enough, the Force vibrates when you reach your step goal for the day, and you can also use it with the app as a silent alarm.

Fitbit notes that with an upcoming firmware update, you'll also be able to get call notifications from an iOS 7 iPhone 4S and higher smartphone. That should be very useful, providing a physical alert if your phone is nearby and you have the ringer shut off.

The App

The Fitbit team has obviously been quite busy behind the scenes, as the app has been updated to not only provide an iOS 7 flat design, but provide control and monitoring of the features of the Force and other monitors. The app is quite colorful, starting the day with all indicators in a teal color, but then changing the colors to yellow, red or green depending on how close you are to reaching a specific goal.

Steps are tracked and converted into miles or kilometers walked. There's an indicator for how many flights of stairs you've clmbed, and a calculation of how many calories you've burned based on your base metabolism and activity. If you're tracking your weight either manually or automatically, your current weight, percent body fat, and pounds to go to reach your weight goal are displayed in the app.

Sleep is tracked, and an indication of how many times you awoke or were restless is visible. Should you want to use the Fitbit app to track the number of calories you consume, you can enter each item you eat or drink into the app and get a calculation of just how many calories are still available to you. There's even a way to track the amount of water you drink each day.

Fitbit is quite into the social sharing of your goals and steps, so there's a tab in the app that shows you how many steps your friends have taken during the past seven days and just where you stand in the ranking. I'm still trying to figure out how Scott McNulty manages to rack up about three times the number of steps that I do...

The account screen in the app allows you to set up a new Fitbit device, set fitness goals, find out when the device last synced (it usually syncs every time you open the app), set those silent alarms I love so much, and set up social network sharing.

One other thing: if you happen to be sitting at a computer, you can log into the Fitbit website and get the same information or change settings. As with the app, the website uses the teal color scheme and levels change color as you near or surpass a goal.

Conclusion

In the increasingly crowded activity tracker market, Fitbit has not only created a range of devices of various prices (US$60 to $130) and capabilities, but has kept pace with the competition by developing the Force. Through its sleek design, Bluetooth LE integration with iOS devices, and well-established ecosystem of data-sharing partners, this is a Force to be reckoned with.

Pros

  • Setup is straightforward and fast
  • Firmware update will soon allow incoming call notifications from an iPhone on the device
  • Nice design, very comfortable to wear all the time
  • Water resistant
  • App is iOS 7-friendly and very usable, as well as providing detailed statistics on every aspect of your fitness
  • Built-in vibration alert enables eyes-free setting of sleep or activity modes, provides notification of goal achievement
  • Long battery life

Cons

  • Proprietary charger cable

Who is it for?

  • Anyone who is interested in keeping track of achieving fitness goals but is tired of clip-on monitors

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