My life with the Fitbit Flex activity tracker

The popular Fitbit activity tracker is now available to be worn around the wrist. That, along with new goal indicator, proves to be an impressive combination.

Fitbit Flex Fitbit

My series on living with four different activity trackers returns to the Fitbit because there's a new Fitbit in town, the Fitbit Flex . The new wristband version of the Fitbit corrects some of the deficiencies I found with the Fitbit One , such as tracking my standup paddleboarding better and making me feel more motivated to hit my daily activity goal.

The Flex sells for $100, just like its clip-on sibling, the One. It weighs about half-an-ounce, and never felt heavy or uncomfortable around my wrist. But getting the clasp to close takes a little practice. Like Brian Bennett in CNET's formal review of the Fitbit Flex , I even found myself hurting my wrist at first closing the Flex.

Here's a tip: close the clasp by turning the Flex to the side of your wrist and pressing against your wrist bone, rather than into the wrist itself. Fitbit is also apparently improving the clasp in versions going out to consumers, versus the pre-production devices that went out to reviewers

Underside of Flex band on left showing opening for tracker, in the middle and USB charger on right.

The Flex holds a charge for about five days and recharges quickly, though getting the small tracker out of the wristband that contains it is a bit fiddly, as is putting it into the custom charger that plugs into a USB outlet. In contrast, my Jawbone Up uses a propriety USB adapter to charge, but that's much easier to use. The Nike FuelBand remains awesome in not needing anything custom at all. The clasp on the FuelBand, when opened, plugs into a USB outlet to charge.

With practice, this all becomes easier. It's also easily offset by the advantages the wristband format brings, a water-resistant design like the Up and the Nike FuelBand have, the ability to track non-step activities better and perhaps best of all, direct motivation through progress lights on the device

Hitting your goal?
As I wrote about the Nike FuelBand , being able to easily see my progress toward a particular daily activity goal has been incredibly motivating. I don't feel lost in all the data my device collects. I don't have to open up an app on my phone or computer to check. It's right on my wrist, how active I've been -- or not.

Progress lights on Fitbit Flex Fitbit

The Flex now provides the same direct motivation, through five small lights to show your progress. Tap twice gently on the display, and the lights come on. If you've not been active, you'll only see one or two lights. Three lights, and you're on the hump. Four, you're almost there. Five, you've made it to your goal.

The Flex also vibrates as an alert when this happens, which has caught me off-guard but in a pleasant way, almost like the band is congratulating me.

I do wish the display were a bit bigger, and I was disappointed to find I managed to scuff part of it quickly. Technically, I scuffed the cover on the wristband over the display on the actual tracker inside the band. But despite this, the lights easily shine through.

By default, the device will show your progress toward a step-based goal, but this can be changed, if you know where to look. Two Fitbit Flex settings you'll want to change covers this more, about how you can track progress toward distance, calories burned or "very active minutes" of activity.

Initially, I was excited over the idea of using the very active minutes option. But how the Flex measures that doesn't seem to capture well when I really am very active. For example, on Friday, I spent 30 minutes of cross-training in the middle of the day, followed by 30 minutes of inline skating at the end of the day. Despite all that, the Flex only registered 1 minute of "very active" activity. One minute.

That's not to say the Flex isn't registering activity. It is, and better than I found the One did. But "very active" activity seems to have a high bar to meet. So instead, after a few days of using the Flex (I've had it for about three weeks now), I got a sense of how many steps seemed to correspond to what I considered to be the type of healthy daily activity I wanted to hit. I raised my goal to that step level, and this seems to be working well.

Better tracking
With the Fitbit One, I was disappointed that being clipped on my waist, it simply didn't register some non-step activities like paddleboarding. I'm happy to report the Flex solves this. Whereas the One might register 70 to 100 calories burned per hour of paddlboarding, the Flex has been coming in around 160 to 200 per hour, after several tests. That's about half-to-double what the Up has tracked, though it's behind the Nike FuelBand (235 to 310 per hour) and what I consider the most accurate of my devices, the BodyMedia Fit (around 400 to 500 per hour).

For inline skating, from a single test, the Flex tracked as well as the One did and only just a tad behind what the BodyMedia registers, which I found pretty impressive. Neither the FuelBand nor Up tracked as well. For cross-training, again from a single test, the Flex along with the Nike was just slightly behind the BodyMedia, with the Up further behind.

In my conclusion to this series, I'll be looking in more depth on how all these stack up, as I continue to gather more data. But as I said in the start , to me these devices are less about how perfectly they track your overall calorie burn and more about how they give you a consistent benchmark to your activity. Even if one registers an activity only 80 percent as well as another, that still works to give you a relative sense if you've been more or less active than normal.

Of course, the real issue is if they only register an activity 10 percent as well as another device. At that point, it's as if you're not doing the activity at all. The good news as is that you can manually log activities with the Flex in the same way that I wrote before about the Fitbit One . The bad news is doing this isn't as nice as with the Jawbone One . Also, you can't put the Flex into timer mode to track an activity, as you can with the One. Whenever I tried this, after a few minutes of activity, the timer would stop. With the Flex, the timer seems only designed for sleep tracking.

Yes, sleep tracking. Like the One, the Flex can do this, as can all of my devices other than the Nike FuelBand. You tap several times on the display to go into sleep mode, which will be indicated by a vibrate notification and two different lights that come on apart from each other. When you wake, you tap again several times to turn it off.

Missing from the Flex versus the One is the altimeter, which means you'll no longer know how many flights of stairs you've gone up or down. For me, it was no great loss, but others might miss it.

The new dashboard
When I started with the Flex, I was also given access to the new Fitbit Dashboard that's being beta tested. It's very attractive, allowing you to move Windows 8-like tiles for activity into whatever position you want:

New Fitbit dashboard

If you want the new dashboard but don't have it, hang in there. Fitbit is rolling it out to groups of people randomly, as it continues to test it.

I won't drill deeply into the dashboard because aside from the look it still allows you to do the things I already covered with the Fitbit One , including food logging. The same is true for the mobile apps for iOS and select Android devices.

A big improvement
Overall, the Fitbit Flex was a huge improvement not only from the Fitbit One but also pulls it ahead of the Nike and Jawbone Up bands for me, in terms of giving direct motivation and a combination of better tracking and logging features. Of course, the BodyMedia seems far more accurate of any of these. The BodyMedia will be the next installment in this series, with the conclusion a recap of how the devices fared against each other and what might be best for certain goals.

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