Nike+ FuelBand SE review: A better-built fitness band, but not much smarter

While wireless syncing seemed a bit buggy, the FuelBand always kept its tracking going, and plugging in and syncing with a PC via USB is always a fallback option, too. The FuelBand holds days of data on its own without needing a connection, but only shows the current day's progress.

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The world of Fuel: More about the number than the band
To Nike's credit, the Nike+ universe and Fuel points work across a variety of devices and apps, some of them free: the FuelBand and FuelBand SE, the Nike+ GPS SportWatch , Nike+ running apps, iPods with Nike+ baked in, the iPhone 5S Nike Move app, which uses the M7 motion co-processor to track steps, and even an Xbox 360 Nike+ Kinect Training game.

That Fuel number and the Nike+ social universe, which you can log into via Facebook, are a glue that's meant to be more than just a community for fitness-gadget wearers. Each of those devices has its own sets of features, and some don't sync automatically.

So, while you don't need a FuelBand to track NikeFuel, the band is billed as Nike's continuous-activity-tracking flagship product.

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Motivational tool: Earning achievement badges in the game of life
Like the Fitbit Force, the Jawbone Up24, and the Basis Band, the new FuelBand SE is designed to push people toward moving more throughout the day. Nike encourages FuelBand users to buy into its Fuel activity point system, which the company says is even more addictive than ever. That system is often hard to understand: what a "Fuel number" means is something you have to learn over time based on your activity.

Two looks at the clean but perhaps overly simplified app interface. Screenshots by Scott Stein/CNET

Nike makes suggestions for starting points based on average people of your age and gender, but I found myself tweaking my daily goal upward once I understood that, for me, 3,000 Fuel points roughly matches up to how much my daily 10,000 steps will earn me.

Nike says it's the friendly competition among your peers, contacts, and friends that will push you toward your Fuel point goal that much faster. This type of social competition and friendly gamified pressure is not unique -- Fitbit and Jawbone have it, too -- but Nike's is clearly more oriented toward a more boiled-down, gamelike, active style. Using Fuel instead of steps as the metric can be confusing, but at least it takes into account a more complex equation for activity.

That's more complex, and yet, not complex enough: Fuel seems to take into account your rate of movement as well as steps, but since it's recorded via a wristband, it doesn't do a great job during activities like cycling where your wrists move less. And because the FuelBand's not waterproof, you still can't go swimming.

Badges and virtual awards will play a big role in the latest FuelBand system, but these achievements sometimes feel about as random as those in an Xbox game. Hitting your goal three days in a row, or earning a certain number of Fuel points per minute for 30 minutes five times in a week, makes a lot of sense. A badge for earning a bunch of Fuel points at 3 a.m., maybe not so much. But, that's what bragging rights are for, and again, it's nice that these achievements focus on activity intensity as opposed to just taking steps.

That's the FuelBand SE's best function: helping you cross over from mere step-taking to engaging in more active exercise.

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No buzz: Or, where's my cattle prod?
How about an extra poke of motivation? The FuelBand SE tries to add it: the FuelBand companion app has a graph displaying your activity and motion within 24 hours, and even tells you how you're doing compared with your previous progress and the calculated average of people your age ("You're 35 Fuel points ahead of Men 30-39 at this time today.") These insights aren't searchable in a big database: they're just served up randomly as you swipe the bottom of the app.

Nike's new software now focuses on hourly movement, too: it suggests you move at least 5 minutes per hour for a total of 7 hours a day to "win" the hour. It shows up as one of the four readouts on the wristband: "Hours Won: 2" for instance. The FuelBand SE can be set up to remind you to move, too. But alas, there's no vibration: all it does is flash its lights and say something like, "Go, Scott, go." The Jawbone Up24 actually buzzes your wrist, which is far more effective. I found I usually ended up missing the FuelBand's attempts to get my attention.

Social competition and activity-tagging (left, right). Screenshots by Scott Stein/CNET

Sessions: Activity journaling, not intelligent sport-sensing
Another somewhat confusing new feature involves recording "sessions," or timed periods when you're doing a particular activity. You press the FuelBand SE's one button down, then press again to start the session, and do the same to end it. While a session's going, both the FuelBand and the app show a timer and your "FPM," or Fuel per Minute, which is your rate of activity. The app glows red, yellow, or green based on whether you're in the ideal active target zone according to Nike.

These sessions can be tagged with your activity, such as walking, snowboarding, tennis, basketball, cross-training, even sleeping. But it doesn't matter what you tag: the Fuel points are recorded exactly the same way. All tagging does is keep a record of what you're spending time doing, for yourself or for others who are peeking in socially. You can lie: I tagged my walk around the office as playing basketball. It doesn't matter, because to Fuel, it's all the same. Unfortunately, the FuelBand isn't smart enough yet to parse a particular activity and determine relative energy burned. CNET Español editor Vanessa Hand Orellana was testing a FuelBand and sent me a message ("Good for you!") when she saw on her app that I was playing basketball and snowboarding. I didn't want to break the news.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion: Comfy, social, but needs more
The FuelBand SE comes closer to being a smarter continuous activity-tracking must-have than its predecessor, but the software's still not as good as the feel and look of the band itself. I still want a vibration alert, smarter coaching, true sleep-tracking -- which this band doesn't have -- and a deeper focus on lifestyle and activity. And, if Nike's tracking all this demographic data, I want an app that digs more deeply into those stats for me.

I'm ready to learn about getting even more active. The Nike+ FuelBand SE got me to the gym, but it didn't do a good enough job coaching me up once I got there. But if I had to wear one band just for its comfort alone, the FuelBand SE would be it.

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    Nike+ FuelBand SE (medium/large)

    Part Number: HE382VC/A
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