My life with the Nike FuelBand activity tracker

Looking to track your activity? The Nike FuelBand makes it easy to set and monitor a daily goal. Not so easy is keeping it updated on things it might miss.

Nike FuelBand Nike

As covered in my  introduction , I've been living with four different activity trackers as part of an ongoing test. It's time for a close-up of how one of them works: the Nike FuelBand. The tracker has managed to be both my favorite and least favorite of the devices.

The FuelBand is a simple, lightweight device (about 1 oz.) that you wear around your wrist. I found it fairly comfortable, quickly forgetting I had it on, even when typing.

The band costs $150 and is available in three slightly adjustable sizes. Data can be synced via a desktop app (for PC and Mac) or via iOS devices; there is no Android app yet. The band charges quickly by plugging directly into a USB port. No cable or special adapter is required, which is nice. 

Activity on easy display

The Nike FuelBand is the only one of the four devices I'm using that has a display I can consult right on my wrist. The Jawbone Up and BodyMedia Fit both lack displays, and to see the display on My Fitbit One, I have to unclip it from my waist. With the Nike Fuelband, I simply push a button and immediately I can see one of four things:

  • Time
  • Steps
  • Calories
  • Fuel

The NikeFuel Band will count your steps, as will the other trackers. But, more importantly, it calculates how much "NikeFuel" you've generated on a particular day.

NikeFuel, rather than steps or calories

What's NikeFuel? Think of it as Nike's attempt to fairly measure activity levels in a way that counting steps or calories can't measure. Counting steps to measure activity gets derailed when people are doing non-step activities, like stand-up paddleboarding. As for counting calories, a large man will burn more calories than a small woman -- even if they are doing the same level of activity -- by virtue of the fact that the man is larger and thus expending more calories. NikeFuel strives to measure the activity levels of both these individuals fairly when compared to one another. As Nike's site explains:

Unlike calorie counts, which vary based on someone's gender and body type, NikeFuel is a normalized score that awards all participants equal scoring for the same activity regardless of their physical makeup.

How might you compare your activity level to someone else? That's where the Nike FuelBand app comes in, allowing you to connect with other FuelBand users who have Facebook, Twitter, or Path accounts. (If you use the Web site rather than the app, only connecting to Facebook users is an option).

Comparing NikeFuel socially

Connect to NikeFuel and any friends you have on one of these services who also have connected their FuelBands will appear in the "Friends" area. You'll see their Fuel levels, and they'll see yours:

Friends displayed in Nike FuelBand app (pictures and names changed, but general appearance is the same)

There's no pick-and-choose option. If you're concerned about a particular friend seeing your activity, don't connect. Otherwise, you'll have to unfriend them to keep your activity private.

The idea behind seeing what your friends are doing is supposed to be a motivating factor. For some, if they have close friends actively using Nike FuelBands, this might work. But for me, I preferred the much more social aspect that the Jawbone Up band provides, where you see more of what people are doing (if they share) and can comment on it. I'll be covering more about the Jawbone Up in a future column.

NikeFuel as personally motivating

Where NikeFuel really worked for me was as a personal motivation tool. At any point during the day, I can push the button on the band to see where I am in relation to my goal:

Nike FuelBand showing "Fuel" earned. Colored dots at bottom also show progress to daily goal, going from red to yellow to green as you get closer.

After using the Nike FuelBand for a few days, it was clear that I was hitting a Fuel level of 2,200 on a regular basis. So, I started stepping it up, first to 2,300 and then to 2,400. Getting to that 2,400 level each day became a real effort, one that required me to ensure I was doing extra activity to reach it.

And boy, did I find myself working for it. In the past after a hard day of work, I might have decided to skip going out for some inline skating or paddleboarding -- activities I often try to do at the end of the day. With the FuelBand showing my daily progress -- or lack of progress -- I found renewed energy to get out each evening.

That pressure built as I met my goal each day. My "streak" began to grow, and I didn't want to break it.

The screen above is one of the many different ways the app congratulates you and reinforces you on your activity. The little character is called "Fuelie," and it dances around when you gain an award or milestone. It's kind of fun when it happens. The app has an area that also consolidates all your achievements.

None of my other devices motivated me this well, which is why the Nike FuelBand is my favorite. But it's also my least favorite because, more than the others, it can fail to reward me for some of the exercises I do.

What Nike FuelBand misses

There are a number of exercises the Nike FuelBand won't capture or doesn't capture well. Nike itself even talks about some of the activities that it's not suited for, such as weightlifting or yoga.

Both the Fitbit and Jawbone Up have similar issues. The difference is that you can manually enter exercises with both of those, so the missed activity still gets added to your overall tracking. The Nike FuelBand has no such option. That's a huge oversight.

For example, one night I was just short of my NikeFuel goal for the day. I did 20 pushups to try and reach it, but earned nothing. My wrist doesn't move doing pushups, so no Fuel accumulated. Then I brushed my teeth, which generated 19 Fuel points. Crazy.

In another example, I don't generate a lot of "steps" to measure when I'm inline skating -- nor does my wrist move much because I tend to skate with my wrists resting on the small of my back. Because my hips move, however, my Fitbit on my waist ended up measuring more calories burned than my Nike FuelBand.

Of course, as mentioned, with stand-up paddleboard, the Fitbit has issues that the Nike FuelBand doesn't. I don't step, so the Fitbit has little to measure. The Nike FuelBand, in contrast, can measure that my arm is moving from the paddling because it's on my wrist. But with the Fitbit, I can make up for its deficiencies with manual logging. With the FuelBand, you're stuck.

Quick look: estimating calories

A related issue is how well the Nike FuelBand tracks the activities it's supposed to track. Even though it's not focused on calories, the Fuel level is based off of them -- plus you might just want to know. So, does it estimate calories correctly?

My best guess at this is to compare the FuelBand to the BodyMedia Fit, the latter of which uses skin sensors to estimate how active I am. As with the Fitbit and Jawbone Up, the Nike FuelBand was always registering lower than the BodyMedia Fit. Depending on the activity, results varied on whether it beat Fitbit and Jawbone Up.

I'll revisit this more in the conclusion to my series on activity bands, but here's a quick comparison on two activities to date. First, stand-up paddleboard:

The lines show calories burned on four different occasions that I went paddleboarding. The time varied, which is why sometimes more calories were burned. The important thing is the gap between the lines. If they all measured the activity the same, there would be little gap. That's not the case.

The BM line shows calories burned as estimated by the BodyMedia Fit. It always registers more than the other bands, and, as I said previously, it is probably the closest reading to what I actually burned. The Nike FuelBand consistently registered about half of what the BodyMedia device did. The Fitbit and Jawbone Up registered much less.

Now consider inline skating:

The chart shows three occasions when I went inline skating, each for different lengths of time. Again, the BodyMedia registered the most. But this time, it was the Fitbit that seemed to more accurately track calories burned in this activity over the Nike FuelBand and the Jawbone Up.

Somewhat related, it's disappointing that there's no way to zoom in and see the amount of calories burned during a set period of time. Consider a recent daily chart:

On this day, I went inline skating and paddleboarding and for a bike ride. That's what those three spikes represent. But I can't select a time period to see what calories were estimated to be burned during these periods, as you can with the BodyMedia. Nor is there any timer you can set -- which is possible with Jawbone Up -- that calculates estimates for a particular activity.

Good motivation tool, pity not more refined

Again, I'll revisit how accurate each device seems to track activity in the conclusion to  my series . But as I said in the introduction, I'm not focused on whether a band perfectly tracks all my calories burned throughout the day. To me, the real goal of all of these is whether they help you know if you're keeping activity relative to previous days -- and encouraging you to be active, if you're not.

The Nike FuelBand does that well, providing better immediate feedback than the other devices, thanks to its display. It's a real pleasure to see it light up with "Goal" when you've made it.

It's a shame you can't manually add activities, which would correct the biggest flaw with the FuelBand, in my opinion. Other issues are that the app has no food-tracking option, which my other three trackers do provide. Those trackers also provide sleep tracking, which I find to be more of a novelty than anything else. However, for those who want it, Nike not having it would be a drawback.

If most of your activity is walking or running and if you like some of the other Nike+ products , such as how the FuelBand can work with an iPod Nano integration, then this might be a more compelling purchase.

As for my other bands, stay tuned. I'll post my experiences with each of them over the coming weeks, and each will be posted to the  home page for this series , making it easy to watch for them.

Also be sure to see CNET's formal review of the product plus the video review, below:

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