Once more, I delve into the world of wearable computing and fitness gadgets with the highly flexible Fitbit Flex tracker. Can it turn this quivering mess of journalistic jelly into an Adonis?
Fitbit Flex: On the plus side
Those who know me well would be aware that I’m not — to put a fine point on it — exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger. If I’m Arnold anything, it’s more Arnold Horshack than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And with that reference, more than half the reading audience is absolutely befuddled. But I’m digressing.
When I reviewed the Jawbone Up a couple of months ago (my, how time flies), it was from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t a gym junkie, but was interested in fitness technology generally. One comment that came back from multiple sources is that I should compare and contrast with other offerings, so here we are, with the Fitbit Flex, another step-and-sleep tracking bracelet, albeit of a considerably different design to the Jawbone Up.
For a start, the Jawbone Up is essentially just three parts; a charging cable, a 3.5mm plug cap, and the Up bracelet itself. Whereas the Fitbit Flex gives you four things to play with (or alternatively lose); the bracelet, a wireless sync plug for PC, a USB charging plug and the flex tracker itself. The tracker is a tiny little bean-shaped affair that reminds me every time I look at it just how small consumer electronics can get.
It slips into the rubber bracelet that is… well, it’s just a rubber bracelet. My review sample bracelet was black, but it does come in other colours, but with the same basic plain styling. There’s a small window at the top of the bracelet that allows you to get status updates from the Flex tracker itself, with dots representing 20 per cent of each day’s total. Get five dots, and you’ve hit your step total, and you can check this at any time by simply tapping at the small display screen. Tapping for a longer period puts it into sleep mode. That gives it utility that the Up doesn’t have right there, because if you want to check anything beyond whether you’re in sleep or waking mode on the Up, you’ve got to sync it.
Not that this is an issue with the Flex either, as it supports fully wireless synchronisation to Android, iOS or PC/Mac. That’s both more flexible and featured than the Up, which only works on iOS/Android, and it works quite seamlessly in my experience.
I put the Up and the Flex head to head over a few days to check each against the other in terms of measuring my steps. They differed (which didn’t surprise me that much given they weigh and fit slightly differently on my wrist), with the Flex generally measuring 5-10 per cent more steps than the Up. I’ve got to call that one down the middle in advantage terms, partly because if I could count my actual steps in my head I wouldn’t need a high tech bracelet to tell me how to do it, and partly because a one-off step count doesn’t tell you much anyway. It’s about data patterns and trends, and, as long as one step counter isn’t giving you thousands of “free” steps, you’re still encouraged to up your totals in a healthy way in any case.
Fitbit’s data approach is quite proactive as well, with stats being served to you from the app and also via email, so you’re aware of where you’re doing well, and where you’re slacking.
Fitbit Flex: On the minus side
It’s been interesting testing the Flex directly against the Up, because while there’s a host of things that the Flex can do that are simply beyond the Up — wireless syncing being the most obvious — there’s also features that the Up offers that are absent in the Flex. There’s no facility for still motion alarms, which means that for desk jockeys like myself, it won’t remind me to get up and walk every once in a while.
Then there’s the issue of the band itself. I’m not massively fussed on the style (or lack thereof) with the Flex; while I’d happily say that the Up is a better looking band, either looks rather strange on your wrist in the first place.
What the Flex isn’t, however, is particularly comfortable to either snap into place or have sitting on your wrist. I’ve caught skin and arm hairs in it repeatedly, and been irritated by having to try to snap it on quickly when I’ve been en route somewhere. Yes, I know I’m meant to wear these things on a more or less permanent basis, but I still feel weird trying to shower with them on, and I’d worry about frying them (or myself) washing dishes with them on. So off they go, but when it’s time to reattach them, it’s significantly harder to do so with the Fitbit Flex.
I noted that I wasn’t that fussed about step count differences between the Flex and the Up, but in the case of sleep tracking, I was more concerned. Simply put, the Up is much better at tracking when I’m actually asleep than the Flex is. The Flex failed to notice a night when I woke several times — at one point with a grown cat jumping onto my stomach — so while it managed to track my sleeping hours because I tapped it into and out of sleep mode manually, it didn’t do a spectacularly good job of sorting out how well I actually slept.
Fitbit Flex: Pricing
Like the Jawbone Up, the Fitbit Flex will cost you a fair few dollars to wrap around your wrist; Fitbit’s RRP for the Flex with a single rubber bracelet is $119.95, with a pack of three replacement rubber bands costing you $39.95.
Fitbit Flex: Alex’s verdict
I’m torn between the Fitbit Flex and the Up, because there are features on both that I’d want if I was laying my money down. The wireless syncing and PC/Mac compatibility of the Flex is a definite plus, as are the activity lights that act as a simple spur to get me to walk more. But I miss the vibration alerts on the Up, and it’s undeniably more comfortable to wear and pull on and off than the Flex’s fiddly rubber bands.