Everybody talks about self-driving cars and flying drones. But 2014’s biggest tech story may be much less dramatic: fitness wristbands. About 17 million of us will buy them this year. It really is something new up your sleeve.
These bands — the Jawbone UP, the various Fitbits, and so on — really aren’t so much about technology as psychology. They monitor your activity and display your fitness progress on your smartphone. They move fitness from your brain’s back burner to a front burner. You get one, and then you make a habit of parking a little farther away. Or taking the stairs. Or you walk a few blocks instead of driving. And you feel better about yourself.
Most of these bands also track your sleep, which is amazing, since that third of your life is probably a big mystery box. You don’t have any idea how many times you wake briefly each night, or how much time you spend in deep sleep vs. light sleep.
All the bands so far have one drawback or another. The UP band has a sharp endcap that catches on clothing and scratches huggers. The Fitbit Force was recalled for causing skin rashes. The Nike Fuelband team was just pretty much disbanded.
The Garmin Vivofit’s headline feature is so important, brilliant, and useful that it nearly offsets all of its failings: The battery lasts for a year.
Not seven days, like the UP or the Fitbit. Not three days, like the Samsung. A whole year.
That’s important. A fitness tracker is no good if you don’t use it. And having to remove your band and hunt for its USB cable and charge it is a good way to lose your enthusiasm.
The Vivofit is also waterproof. You can swim with it, shower with it. This, too, is important — again, because you can wear it all the time.
The other great Garmin goodie is the clasp mechanism. The Vivofit is a rubber strap (choice of colors) that overlaps itself and holds tight with pegs and holes. They snap together securely and easily. (Fitbit has never quite mastered the clasp.)
The Vivofit has a screen, which is terrific — press a button to view steps taken, miles walked, calories burned, the time, the date, and so on.
The screen offers a simple motivational feature: a bright red bar that grows longer when you’ve been sitting still. Getting up and walking around for just a couple of minutes resets it to zero; in the meantime, it’s an incredible reminder of just what a slug you’ve become.
The Garmin works with wireless heart-rate monitors, too, of the sort that you strap around your chest while you work out. And unlike other fitness bands, it adjusts your steps-taken goal. If you keep exceeding it, the band sets the goal a little higher. If you never make it, the goal resets lower, so you don’t get discouraged. It’s really good.
Now, to get that astonishing battery life, Garmin made a few compromises. First, the screen doesn’t light up. It’s something like the E Ink of the Kindle ebook readers: You can see it only when there’s light in the room.
Outdoors, the screen looks fantastic. The one time it’s a liability is when you’re going to bed. To indicate that you’re going to sleep (all bands make you do this), you have to hold down the button until the screen says SLEEP. But if you’ve already shut off the light, or if you’re coming to bed after your partner is asleep — well, you can see the problem. Actually, you can’t see it. That’s the problem.
The band doesn’t vibrate, either. Its rivals can give you a little buzz to wake you at a certain time, or to celebrate when you’ve reached your goal. That, too, is a power-saving step, and it’s a huge bummer. I’d rather have six-month battery life and a vibration feature.
Like all good fitness bands, the Garmin transmits the latest data to your phone wirelessly, via low-power Bluetooth. The UP and Fitbit bands, however, send this data automatically when you open the corresponding app on your phone. Not the Garmin; you have to hold down the band’s button until the screen says SYNC. That, too, is meant to save battery. One-year life, remember?
I wish the Vivofit’s phone app were better. It’s homely and sparse. Right there on the app’s home screen, you should be able to see the graphs of both your activity and your sleep. Instead, you have to tap Details to view your night’s sleep — just silly. You also have to tap Details if you want to see any other day’s records (like yesterday’s).
One reason fitness bands work so well is that you can also opt to see the sleep and activity records of your friends and family, if they own the same brand. You know — fitness through humiliation. The Vivofit offers something like this, too, but of course it’s a small player at this point, and you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who has the same band.
The Vivofit also comes with a tiny receiver that plugs into your computer by USB so that you can upload your fitness data even if you don’t have a smartphone. That’s smart.
Samsung Gear Fit
It seems clear that if anyone is going to build a successful smartwatch, it’ll have to include health features. I thought for sure that Samsung’s amazing-looking Gear Fit watch ($200) would be The One.
I mean, look at this thing! Gorgeous. Colorful. Curved to fit your wrist. Waterproof.
And it’s a touchscreen. Incredibly responsive. You swipe to view the different icons for the watch’s functions. Once you’ve paired your Gear Fit to your smartphone, those functions include the usual step counter and sleep tracker, a Find My Phone app, a stopwatch, a timer, and a remote control for your phone’s music playback.
And, as a smartwatch, the Gear Fit also shows you when your phone is receiving a call, email, text message, or Facebook/Twitter update.
The Gear Fit even has a heart-rate monitor built into the underside. How’s that for health tracking?
Once you start using the Gear Fit, though, you realize that it’s classic Samsung: brilliant, cutting-edge, world-beating hardware — dragged down by weak software and a feeling that nobody was in the design driver’s seat.
For starters, this is the only fitness band that requires a certain brand of phone: certain Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets. No other Android phones, no iPhones (and, of course, no Windows phones). That, clearly, is someone’s idea of a marketing move, but it’s self-defeating.
This is also the only fitness band that isn’t always tracking your activity. I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but it’s true: Each time you begin walking, you have to wake up the watch with a button-press, scroll to the Pedometer app and tap it, and then tap Start. What?
That’s insane. Nobody’s going to bother with all that. You should get step credit all the time. You shouldn’t have to fill out a Form 1040 every time you get up from your desk.
Other buttons on the Gear Fit tell it that you’re about to start running, riding your bike, or hiking. Each activity lets you set up time, distance, or calorie goals; in the running mode, the watch tells you to go faster or slower, based on your heart rate. That’s kind of cool.
The biking mode uses your phone’s GPS to know how far you’ve biked, so it doesn’t work for stationary bikes.
The screen is stunning and colorful — indoors. In the sun, it’s a slab of shiny black. There’s a High Brightness mode, but it’s still no match for sunshine — and, anyway, it turns itself off after five minutes.
Since the screen is shaped like a stick of gum, you might wonder: Does the text appear horizontally or vertically?
That’s up to you. The vertical orientation lets you hold your arm comfortably. It works great for big, simple text like your step count. Text messages and email subject lines, however, appear with only one or two words on a line, which looks silly.
If you opt for horizontal orientation instead, you have to twist your arm like a contortionist to read it.
The phone apps are also typical Samsung: confusing. You use one app for changing the watch’s settings and a second app, called S Health, for looking at your uploaded health information.
S Health, furthermore, doesn’t show your sleep data until you download a separate sub-app. Even then, you have to open up three different sub-apps to see your health data: one each for steps, sleep, and heart rate. There’s no single dashboard.
And now, a public-service message:
I had an awful first night wearing the Gear Fit. It kept buzzing me awake with every email, message, and social-media update. That’s before I noticed the “Do not disturb” option. It’s hidden in the Sleep app and is available only when you’ve turned on “I’m sleeping” mode.
The watch’s screen, which is very bright in the dark, also woke me a couple of times. That’s because it’s designed to pop on when you move your wrist up to your face, saving you the trouble of pressing the Wake button when you want to look at the screen.
You’ll want to turn that option off, though — both because of the nighttime thing, and because even when you’re awake and upright, it works only sometimes.
Note, too, that the watch alerts you for every single email or none at all. There’s no way to choose a list of important people whose messages you care about.
Samsung offers other smartwatches, by the way, like the Gear 2 and the Gear Neo. They offer many of the same functions. And they let you install new apps, which the Gear Fit does not. They are, however, big, heavy, full-blown watches.
Every time I review a recent Samsung product, I wind up smacking my forehead. The convoluted software, the half-baked features that don’t really work, the featuritis…. You don’t need a professional critic to spot these weaknesses. You could do it. Your kid could do it. All Samsung has to do is hire (and trust) one former designer from Apple or the new Microsoft, and boom: No more dumb, murky designs.
In the meantime, the Garmin and the Samsung represent a fine snapshot of this moment in fitness-tech time. They’re breakthroughs, in battery life and screen design, respectively, but they’re still works in progress. Fitness bands are improving year by year — but at this point, they’re not so much MacBook Airs as Apple II’s.
You can email David Pogue here.