Putting Nike's FuelBand (and me) through the paces

An early impression of Nike's activity-monitoring wristband, where I unexpectedly jump rope, drum on buckets, and do a few surprisingly intense basketball drills--all to test out the device.

Nike's FuelBand activity monitor. Nike

I have to hand it to Nike for its unique take on the growing fad of fitness-tracking devices.

The FuelBand is Nike's stab at this segment, which others including the Jawbone Up and Motorola Mobility's MotoActv have already tread. But with production of the Up halted for a battery issue , and Motorola's product still a little-known niche device, there's a big opening in the market.

Unlike some of the other devices, the primary crux of the FuelBand is its Nike Fuel reading, a metric that Nike put together on its own that matches a person's movement through the wristband's accelerometer against data collected on how rapidly oxygen is consumed. As with other fitness monitors that rely on an accelerometer, the readings vary greatly depending on how much you move your arm. Cycling and certain kinds of weight lifting, for instance, wouldn't register much as simply sitting on your couch and waving your hands.

But chances are, if you're spending $149 on a FuelBand, you're going to want to pay attention to the Nike Fuel readout.

Following a press conference that Nike held yesterday to unveil the device , the company took the media on a little field trip to test out the FuelBand in a variety of activities. The following are my early impressions after a day with the device.

My initial thought when I put on the device was how rigid it was. It's also a little bulky--at least bulkier than the Jawbone Up, but less intrusive than a MotoActv held on by a wristband. There was actually little give on the device, and I was concerned that it would start to chaff or knock against my bone. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the device seemingly fades away when you're in the middle of your activity, quietly working in the background.

After slapping it on and syncing it to the provided iPod Touch via Bluetooth, I was on my way. Coming right out of the box, my Nike Fuel score was a measly 37. That would change soon.

First up on the activity list, double-dutch jump rope. Roger Cheng/CNET

The Nike representatives were coy about the afternoon "experience segment" as the media piled into a small shuttle bus. The first stop: a "very Brooklyn" abandoned warehouse retrofitted into a gallery space, where members of the National Double Dutch League first demonstrated the art of skipping between two ropes, and then dragging journalists and Nike representatives into the action.

After a timid first step, I was skipping rope and getting in touch with my inner child. I also learned I wasn't particularly good at either holding or skipping rope. After a few turns skipping and holding the rope, I checked my wristband, but barely made any progress with my FuelBand.

Reporters and Nike representatives alike got in on the fun. Roger Cheng/CNET

Next up: bucket drumming. Members of the band the Drumadics got us banging on old buckets with drumsticks, slowly forming a cohesive, if not all too great sounding, collective of drummers.

I learned a few things while drumming: it's actually a pretty intense workout if you keep at it, and I have no rhythm at all. It's the same reason I stink at the drums in Rock Band.

After the two activities, I clocked in at a reasonable 575, still a bit short of the 750 goal Nike had set for all of the FuelBands.

Bucket drummers from the band Drumadics led reporters in a round of rhythmic beating. Roger Cheng/CNET

Turns out those activities were just the appetizers to the main course: a stop at the Masaryk Basketball Court in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

One out-of-shape CNET reporter attempting a shot. Nike

Nike arranged to have everyone outfitted with basketball gear (all Nike branded, of course) and on the court. A number of basketball vets and professional players ran us through a beginner's version of one of their camps, getting us moving through running, layup, and shooting drills.

I don't consider myself a terrible basketball player, but not a particularly good one either. Having not played ball for a while, it also felt good to be on the court--particularly one that Nike has clearly put some money into renovating. One thing I certainly am is out of shape. The drills admittedly left me pretty winded, although the fear of embarrassing myself was a pretty strong motivator.

After the drills, I noticed my total jumped to above 1,800. Likewise, most of the reporters had scores that rocketed up after the intense session. For comparison's sake, a total normal day's activity should be around 2,500 points, with an active day at 4,000, and a high-energy day at 5,500. By syncing it to the iPod Touch through a complimentary FuelBand app, I was able to get my activity in graph form and set a new daily goals.

In total, the group of reporters scored nearly 22,000 Nike Fuel points.

At this point, you're probably tired of me referring to Nike Fuel, which is where the dilemma for the FuelBand lies.

The decision to move to their own standard of measuring activity was a bold one, and comes with some decent advantages. Athletes from different sports can compare their activities on an apples to apples basis. It promotes activity of any kind, something the government and health organizations have been shouting as us to do more of. For the gamer in me, the app gives you a score that you psychologically want to keep beating (there are even achievements packed into the app when you clear different benchmarks--I got an ice-themed one for doubling my daily goal--as well as a little mascot named Fuelie that cheers you on). Nike was smart to use this system as a minor dangling carrot to keep users motivated.

But the Nike Fuel system is by nature too exclusive. If you don't own a Nike product, you won't know or care about Nike Fuel. The company is hoping to push Nike Fuel into the social media realm, allowing you to share scores online or check in via apps like FourSquare. Again, even if you were comfortable sharing a score, would you? It's unclear since few people would really appreciate it. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't.

Yes, the FuelBand also displays steps and calories, but that's almost an afterthought next to Nike Fuel. Nike seems pretty confident in this new metric, and a representative said all of its other Nike+ devices will eventually provide Fuel readouts as well.

When it launches next month, it'll only work with iOS devices initially, with Android coming in a few months. While I'm certain they will be smoothed out, I found I had trouble synching my wristband to the provided iPod Touch a few times, requiring me to restart to band. The app launches in the iTunes store on February 22, the same day the FuelBand is available in the U.S.

Nike's device also only really focuses on activity, whereas the Jawbone Up looked at a person's holistic schedule, including features that help monitor sleep and eating patterns. The Up even vibrates gently to wake you up or to provider reminders. The Up, however, doesn't have a display, and of course has its battery issues, and can't sync to other devices through Bluetooth. Nike says the FuelBand should last four days on a full charge.

Like the Up, the FuelBand goes for simplicity, with only one button to switch between the time, Nike Fuel, calories, and step readout. Unfortunately, that means no stopwatch or ability to track your different laps. Nike says the FuelBand is designed to work with other Nike+ devices, although I'm not sure if athletes want to pack that much gear during their activities.

Motorola's MotoActv comes with a music player and GPS capabilities, but is at least $100 pricier.

While it's impossible to get a complete assessment of such a device in one afternoon, I have to admire the ambition and thought that was put into the FuelBand. It feels like a quality product, and could potentially be a worthy competitor to what's out in the market right now--as long as you're willing to buy into Nike's Fuel concept.

A Nike representative unveils the total Fuel count for journalists in the group. Roger Cheng/CNET

 

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