My week with the Fitbit wireless pedometer

CNET Editor Josh Lowensohn spends a week with a new high-tech pedometer called the Fitbit that tracks fitness benchmarks, then sends them to the cloud.

The Fitbit clips onto pockets, belts, and bras. CNET

For the past week I've been inseparable from a small bit of black plastic hooked onto my left pocket. It's not a cell phone, or a security card for work. Instead, it's the Fitbit, a high-tech pedometer with a neat trick--it tracks your daily and nightly activities, then sends that information to the cloud wirelessly.

The $99 device was first unveiled at last year's TechCrunch50 show in San Francisco, but the company only began shipping out its first pre-orders last week. I've spent the past seven days using it to track my daily activity levels, as well as my sleeping and eating habits.

Unsurprisingly, it hasn't moved me to make a dramatic shift in the way I live my life, but it has given me a benchmark of how active or inactive I am on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. In other words, you can be a non-gym rat and still get a multitude of uses out of this, but it will always be more beneficial for highly active people.


The hardware

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The Fitbit itself is a clip, and almost symmetrical except for a button on one of the sides. This is the only button on the entire device that controls what you see on its small, but very readable OLED display. Each time you click it, it cycles through how many steps you've taken, how far you've gone in miles, how many calories you've burned, as well as your current activity level which is displayed as a flower; the taller it is, the more active you've been.

Compared with some other pedometers from companies like Omron, Sportline, and Apex Fitness, many of which feature onboard clocks, stopwatches, and "trip" meters, this may seem a bit anemic. But there's more than meets the eye. The device tracks things like duration of activity, and what time of day you're doing it--two things that can be seen back on Fitbit's site once it syncs up.

The Fitbit can be stashed in your pocket, on your belt, or anything else you can clip it on. (Fitbit's product manual mentions something about bras--I didn't get to try that out.) It then uses a three-dimensional motion sensor--like what's inside of Nintendo's Wii remote--to track your movements.

Besides tracking steps, caloric burn, and distance, the Fitbit can be used to monitor sleep duration and habits. This requires users sliding the Fitbit into the included cloth wrist wrap, then holding the Fibit's one button for a few seconds before going to bed, and then again when they wake up.

I found this an easy habit to pick up and build into my normal routine, though worth noting is that the included strap's velcro is basically glued on, and can be accidentally removed quite easily. I also had one night of sleep where the device came out of the strap, forcing me to fish it out of the bed the next morning.

Once you've held the button for a few seconds to start the sleep cycle, the device then waits for you to stop moving to begin its count. It also keeps track of any movements during the night, like if you sleepwalk, start waving your arms around, or get up to go to the bathroom. This information is tracked on Fitbit's site, including how "efficient" your sleep was, which is a percentage of how much time you spent sleeping versus how long it took you to go to bed and how many times you became "active."


Software and Webware

While the Fitbit can be used as a pedometer in the traditional sense, installing software on your computer lets you sync it up with Fitbit's site. To do this you have to make use of a special base station which comes with the Fitbit, and is the only way to both charge it, and check its battery level (which is rated at 10 days between charges).

Both the Fitbit and the base station use a technology called Ant to transfer data. It's a wireless networking protocol that's similar to Bluetooth, but with ultra-low power draw. Every 15 minutes the unit does a quick check to see if you're nearby its wireless antenna dongle (which has a 15-foot range). If you are, and your computer is on and hooked up to the Internet, it sends the updated data to Fitbit's site. You can also force it to start syncing the information immediately by plugging it into the base station.

Beyond steps taken, calories burned, and sleeping habits, Fitbit's site also lets users track nutrition. You can log everything you've eaten for the day, which can be counted against your calories burned. It's not an exact science, but Fitbit's database is pretty extensive and will auto-complete product names, then calculate things like calories, carbs, fat, and other nutritional information based on your general serving size.

I'll be honest here--I didn't log every meal, but Fitbit's system makes it quite easy to do so, especially if you eat the same few things on a regular basis. These items can be saved in your food favorites, as well as groups of dishes which can be saved as entire meals. If you're on a controlled diet with recurring meals at recurring portions this makes logging a quick affair. It also tracks your "most logged" food items, so you can see if you need to cut down on certain items.

Fitbit tracks your activity during the day, and can show you highpoints of when you were burning the most calories or taking the most steps. CNET

Along with your own daily progress, the site offers goals for users to meet. It comes with a stock goal of 10,000 steps a day, which can be raised or lowered manually. You can set how many miles you want to be walking, how much you want to weigh (a number you have to figure out with a scale and input manually), and how many calories you want to consume and/or burn. You're also able to set weekly goals of total steps and miles which are accrued from each day's activities over a seven-day span.

These numbers are great for personal goal tracking, but relatively useless for group fitness. In the next few months that's changing though. Fitbit co-founder James Park, a former CNET employee who also co-founded Windup Labs (the makers of HeyPix! which was folded into Webshots) with fellow Fitbit co-founder Eric Friedman, told me that the site would soon allow users to band together in groups. There they'll be able to combine efforts toward fitness goals as well as compete against each other.

The company is also planning to roll out a public API for developers to build third-party tools that will let users access their data and use it in specialized applications. This means something like a GPS-enabled iPhone app could tap into your step count, then match that up to where you were, giving users an extra layer of information on top of that data.


The competition

The Bodybugg has on-board sensors that can detect things like sweat, heat, and exertion. Apex Fitness Inc.

In many ways the Fitbit is not as advanced as some of the latest pedometers on the market. Despite having built-in wireless connectivity, a very slick exterior with an OLED screen, and killer battery life, competitors like Apex Fitness' Bodybugg are packing a little more tech under the hood.

The Bodybugg can track steps taken, along with sweat, skin temperature, and electric conductivity to calculate exertion. It too has a wireless dongle which can be used to transmit information without having to plug it in, as well as an optional wristwatch that mirrors data from the device onto a LCD display. The Bodybugg is also at retail, being sold at 24 Fitness locations, as well as featured on television on "The Biggest Loser."

But these extra features come at a cost. The Bodybugg sensor costs $199, which is twice the price of the Fitbit. And to use things like the wrist-mounted display and wireless dongle users have to plunk down another $99 and $50 respectively.

On top of the cost of all that hardware, users still need to pay to use Bodybugg's site, which can also be used without the device. This service, which costs either $9.95 a month or $79.95 a year, is included free for six months when you purchase a Bodybugg. But after that you have to pay up to visualize daily activity data, as well as log food.

The new version of Apple's iPod Nano features a pedometer that's less featured than the Fitbit, but can be augmented with the Nike Plus kit. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Besides the Bodybugg, the Fitbit also faces serious competition from Apple, which included a pedometer in the latest version of its iPod Nano. This device, which costs $50 more than the Fitbit in its lowest configuration ($149) also packs an FM radio, an MP3 player, and can both playback and record video and voice memos.

Although to be fair, the iPod Nano's pedometer and built-in software is nowhere near as comprehensive out of the box. It cannot calculate things like distance walked, or activity levels--just steps taken, calories burned, and how long you've been walking. However it can put up a much better fight with the addition of the Nike Plus add-on kit, which costs an extra $29, along with a pair of Nike Plus-enabled shoes. (Note: You can also hack your existing running shoes to work with the dongle.) Purchasing this add-on gives users things like accurate stride to calculate distances, pace, in-workout feedback, and detailed information about which songs the users were listening to during certain parts of the workout.

This information gets beamed to the cloud the next time the iPod gets synced--a set of data that will eventually be able to be sucked into users' Fitbit profiles, Park told me, although he couldn't say when. Park's goal is to get as many third party fitness tools integrated into the Fitbit site as possible, giving users a way to accurately track all the activities they're doing where the Fitbit is unable to record, such as bicycling, rowing, swimming, etc.


Buying advice

So at $99 is this worth it? That recommendation depends largely on your lifestyle. Again, it didn't drastically change the way I looked at my own fitness, but I can see how it could for someone trying to lose weight, and get a little motivation. Less sexy, low-tech pedometers can be had for much less, but getting one that keeps track of all that data and makes it available from any computer with an Internet connection is a really nice feature, and well worth the extra cash.

The Fitbit is currently available only online. The company is announcing retail partners next month, and hopes to have the product on store shelves by the end of the year.

The good:
• Sleek design that does not look like a blood glucose monitor (although it was mistaken for a pager once while we were wearing it)
• Great battery life. We only needed to charge it once during the whole week
• Good, free online tools to track activity, set goals, and log activities done while not wearing the device
• Clear, bright OLED display
• No need for special mounting devices like straps or holsters due to clip shape design

The bad:
• Only comes with one base station, which needs to be hooked up to a computer with software installed and an Internet connection
• Build quality and security of nighttime wrist strap is below average
• No way to check battery level without docking it
• No clock, stopwatch, or trip pedometer features
• Can currently only be used by one user


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About the author

Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.

 

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