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How the iPhone 5s measures up as a fitness tracker

For the past month, I've been conducting an experiment to see how the iPhone 5s with its M7 motion coprocessor functions as a fitness tracker. I've been in the enviable position of being able to compare the 5s to two of the latest-generation hardware fitness trackers -- a Jawbone Up24 and a Fitbit Force.

For a month, I used the iPhone 5s along with these fitness trackers when I was exercising, going about my daily routine and sleeping. As a secondary test, I've also removed all the fitness trackers from my wrist to see how the iPhone would perform alone as my sole fitness tracker.

Walking, Running and Other Exercises

I have to admit that going into the experiment I expected the iPhone 5s to be sub-par when it came to motion tracking. How could this phone, which is designed to do so many things, be able to compete with a device dedicated to tracking your movement? I'm happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised at how accurately the iPhone tracked my motion.

Whether I was walking, running or hiking, the iPhone 5s in an arm band or in my pocket was on par with the Jawbone Up24 and the Fitbit Force. Step counts and calculated mileage on the iPhone 5s were surprisingly close to the fitness trackers. You can see how well the iPhone 5s performed in the tables below. These values are the averages taken from a month of logged exercise sessions. On average, I walk four to five days a week at a treadmill desk and run three to four days a week on a treadmill.

When assessing these devices, I have to admit that I'm not a mileage junkie that needs my fitness tracker to be accurate down to a tenth of a mile. I was not upset if my trackers measured 2.8 miles when I actually ran 3.0 miles. I prefer ballpark figures so I can get a general overview of my activity level, I don't need my mileage to be exact. Across the board, all two trackers and the iPhone 5s were great for these ballpark figures, not so great it you wanted accurate measurements. If you want reliable and accurate measurements, especially when you are running outside, you should use a GPS solution like Runkeeper or manually enter in your activities into your fitness app of choice.

Daily Routine

Whether it's doing yard work, sweeping the floors or getting the laundry in the basement, you'd be surprised at how much activity you perform during your daily routine. Because the fitness trackers are always strapped to your wrist, they do an excellent job of capturing the motion that contributes to your activity level, but is not dedicated exercise. It's in this area that the iPhone 5s is lacking.

Even though it will track this "around the house" motion, you have to remember to strap on your iPhone all the time. Though I remember to place my iPhone in an arm band when I run, I don't always remember to drop it in my pocket when I go downstairs to grab a load of laundry from the dryer. The same applies to housework or yard work -- when I am mopping the floors or raking the leaves, my iPhone is often at my desk sitting idly (and thinking that I am idle, too) while I work. Because I wasn't wearing my iPhone 24/7, my daily step counts on the 5s were significantly less than those recorded by the Jawbone or the Fitbit. These values are the average daily miles and step counts from a month of wearing a Fitbit Force and a Jawbone UP on my wrists 24/7 and using my iPhone 5s for exercise session and as usual when I was not running or walking.

If you want to capture all the activity you do throughout the day, you either have to cough up the cash for a fitness tracker or find a way to attach your iPhone to your waist or your arm for most of your waking hours.

Sleep Tracking

One thing fitness trackers add to the mix is sleep monitoring. These little devices on your wrist track your movement while you sleep and give you an overview of the quality of your sleep. You can achieve the same level of tracking on the iPhone 5s using an app like MotionX 24/7. MotionX tracks your movement and records your snoring so you can listen to sleep sounds and possibly pick up on the signs of sleep apnea. Though the Jawbone and Fitbit data was easier to interpret, I preferred the MotionX for its recording feature and its sensitivity, which pick up the slightest disturbances to your sleep. I don't talk or snore in my sleep, but my two-year-old sneaks into our bed every night. MotionX picks up his arrival, allowing me some insight into his sleep patterns as well.

The biggest drawback to using the iPhone 5s for sleep is that you have to use a separate app. MotionX does track your walking, but it's not nearly as polished as an app like Runkeeper. Unlike the Fitbit app or the Up app that serves as a repository for everything fitness-related, you may find yourself using multiple apps to accomplish the same thing on the iPhone 5s. [Many users swear by the $1.99 Sleep Cycle alarm clock app. –Ed.]

Using the iPhone 5s alone

Though the iPhone 5s holds its own as a fitness tracker from a step counting point of view, I find that it misses the mark in the motivation department. When you have a fitness tracker slapped on your wrist, you are constantly reminded of your need to move. Just a glance at the Fitbit Force, and I am tapping on the button to check my step count for the day. If I see that I am below my goal, then I will take the time to hop on the treadmill for a quick run.

This experience does not carry over well to the iPhone 5s. When I look at my iPhone, I don't think "What's my step count?," I think "Gotta check my email." Even with excellent apps like Moves and Nike Move+, I still find that the fitness tracking gets lost among all the other things that I do on my phone. I respond to a few emails, check my calendar, send out a tweet, read a few posts on Facebook and then stick my phone back in my pocket. Step count, what's that?

In the two weeks that I've used only my iPhone 5s as a tracker, I've noticed that my activity level has gone down and my overall interest in tracking my steps is waning. Though the iPhone can keep pace with the Up24 and Force, I'm going back to my Fitbit as I prefer the "no effort" tracking offered by a device that always stays on your wrist. I can't wait to put on the Fitbit Force and get back on the exercising bandwagon.

Conclusion

If you are like me and need some extra motivation or want to track all your activity, then grab a fitness tracker like the Fitbit Force (which we reviewed) or the UP24, or the many other entries in this up and coming category of wearable devices. You won't be disappointed by their all-in-one approach to tracking your activity, sleep and food.

If you are disciplined enough to keep your iPhone with you or are already accustomed to tracking your exercise using your iPhone, then the iPhone 5s with its M7 motion coprocessor is a wonderful replacement for a fitness tracker. You stand to lose some of the non-exercise movement like housework, but when exercising, step counts and mileage are as accurate as a dedicated fitness tracker.

Using the iPhone 5s is a no-brainer if you already use an app like Runkeeper. The latest version of Runkeeper allows you to track your activities via GPS and will pull in the M7 data when you are walking. Walk briskly enough while shopping in the mall and you will get some extra mileage in the app. The combination of GPS when you need it and the M7 when you don't is wonderful. It's also easy on the battery. Through all my testing of the M7, I never noticed any difference in battery consumption on the 5s.



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For the past month, I've been conducting an experiment to see how the iPhone 5s with its M7 motion coprocessor functions as a fitness...