My life with the Fitbit One activity tracker

If counting steps is your thing, the Fitbit One has you covered. It will also track your sleep and help you log calories and other exercise, but for these non-step activities, Fitbit One can be lacking.

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
Danny Sullivan
9 min read
Fitbit One Fitbit

Continuing my series of life with four different activity trackers, it's time to talk about the Fitbit One.

In what will likely disappoint several of my Fitbit-loving friends, it's my least favorite of the tracking devices I'm using because I do so many "non-step" activities. But the Fitbit does have a lot to offer, and I have high hopes for the forthcoming Fitbit Flex wristband.

For now...my life with the One.

Fitbit currently sells two trackers. The basic Fitbit Zip ($60) tracks steps taken, calories burned, and distance traveled. The Fitbit One that I've been using ($100) adds tracking of stairs climbed, hours of sleep, and sleep quality. A wristband version, the Fitbit Flex, will be out in the coming weeks. I'll be looking at that in the near future.

The Fitbit One is a thumb-sized device that weighs about one-third of an ounce. You wear it clipped to your belt or bra or tucked in a pocket. It charges quickly using a special USB adapter, and the battery lasts up to a week. I rarely worried that it was running out of power.

It can sync to your PC or Mac wirelessly using a special USB dongle that comes with the device. Mobile sync is offered via Bluetooth for later generation iPhone and iPad devices via Bluetooth. For Android devices, the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2 are the only ones supported for now.

Focus on steps
I know several people who've used Fitbit and greatly enjoy a rivalry in outdoing each other for steps taken, plus they're clearly motivated by the device to be active by taking more steps. That underscores what a step-centric device this is, unlike the Nike FuelBand that revolves around a "NikeFuel" activity score, or the calories-oriented Jawbone Up and BodyMedia Fit devices

Consider the Activity overview from the Fitbit Dashboard. This is the online view; the version for mobile is similar:

Fitbit activity dashboard

The activity list leads-off with steps taken, followed by floors climbed and distance traveled, all stats largely revolving around walking or running. But as I covered before, a non-step activity like paddleboarding pretty much doesn't register at all.

This is something that the forthcoming Fitbit Flex will hopefully help correct for. As for the One, you can manually log activities, which I'll get back to. But even if you do this, you won't see that reflected in your "Active Score" goal, which tracks how active you've been -- unless you log into the Fitbit Web site. The active score appears there, not in the mobile app nor on the device itself. The latter two are what you're more likely to use regularly for guidance on how active you've been

Getting motivated
That's what all these devices are largely about: motivating you to be active. Like the Nike FuelBand, a big plus is that the Fitbit One has a display that allows you to get feedback from the device itself about your activity:

Fitbit One display Fitbit

As you can see from the image above, the Fitbit One has six different readouts that show (from left-to-right, first row then second):

  • Steps taken
  • Distance traveled
  • Calories burned
  • Stairs climbed
  • Recent activity "flower"
  • Current time

Unlike the Nike band, you won't be shown your progress toward any goals you have have set for these areas. If you're trying to hit 10,000 steps per day, you'll have to keep that in mind. The same is true for a calorie goal you may have set. As noted, there's no ability to see what your Active Score might be, though the "flower" gives you a kind of cryptic guide to whether you've been active recently or not.

Also unlike the Nike band, the readout isn't easily accessible. As the Fitbit is typically worn on the waist, you have to lean your neck over to see the display or alternatively unclip it for a check. In short, you've got a display, but it's not one that's readily viewable.

This might sound like nitpicking, and perhaps it is. After all, the Fitbit at least has a display, unlike the the Jawbone and BodyMedia devices. But as I wrote about the Nike band, I found having an at-a-glance view to hitting a particular goal was incredibly motivating. Indeed, that may be why with the forthcoming Fitbit Flex, it dumps the display in favor of five lights that show your progress toward a set goal.

How the Fitbit tracks
Does the Fitbit track activity well? For recording steps, it seems to be fine. In my wrap-up piece to this series, I might do a "counts steps" comparison to explore this in more depth. But given these devices are all "activity" trackers, I've been more focused on how well they record activity overall. In that, the Fitbit is a mixed bag.

As mentioned, paddleboarding didn't register. But for inline skating, the Fitbit surprised me in measuring that activity better than either my Nike or Jawbone bands. With that exercise, while I wasn't stepping, hip movement was still calculated as "steps" that were tracked and turned into calories burned.

Distance is drawn from the steps you take; stairs climbed are based on an altimeter in the device. But that can lead to some funny readings. Last week, I went on a 15-mile bike ride. I got back and discovered I'd "climbed" 40 floors, according to my Fitbit. I hadn't. But I had ridden from sea level up onto some coastal bluffs and back down. The elevation change was translated into floors climbed.

Calories burned
Calories burned, especially "active" calories beyond those you burn beyond just being alive, really resonate with me as one of the best ways to know my activity level. The BodyMedia Fit arm band continues to impress me by seeming to capture everything I do. The Nike FuelBand tries to just show my activity calories, though there's no way to compensate for activities it doesn't record correctly. The Fitbit One, like the Jawbone Up, occupies a middle ground allowing you to manually enter things that are missed.

By default, the Fitbit estimates how many calories you're burning per day even if you're not active, based on your assumed metabolic rate. Then, as you're actually registered by the device being active, it translates that activity into more calories burned.

Logging 30 minutes of basketball playing manually would add 274 calories to your Fitbit total.

What about the stuff you miss? That's where manual logging comes in. For example, if you played basketball, you can search for that activity, where it may be listed with an estimated number of calories it burns per a set period. You can do this online or through the Fitbit app, as shown to the right.

If there's not a listed activity, you can add a custom one. For example, I have one defined for paddleboarding, with how many calories I estimate are burned in 30 minutes. After entering that activity for a given day, for a given period, my estimated calories burned for that day increases, as does my Active Score and the time Fitbit assumes I've been active.

That's great. What's not so great is that you have to figure out on your own how many calories an activity burns, if not listed, or whether to trust what's given for those in the database. More important, you have to remember when you started that activity and for how long. That's because whatever you log manually will override whatever Fitbit has recorded.

The good news is that the Fitbit One, like the Jawbone, has a timer that will help you record when an activity starts and stops. Initially, I thought this was only for use with the sleep logging feature, but it can also be used for activity tracking, which will appear either in your activity or sleep log:

An activity might hit your sleep log if you're not that active during it, especially if it goes on for a long time, I found. If this happens, it's easy to transfer it to your activity log. But disappointingly, timed activities cannot be linked to anything in the activity database. That's a pain, requiring you to effectively double-log things.

In the screenshot above, you can see that the Fitbit captured the time I spent paddleboarding, because I started the timer went I went out and turned it off when I returned. But while I can name that timed activity "paddleboarding," that won't cause the estimated calories to change. Fitbit still thinks I only burned 113 calories after this 1 hour and 30 minute activity.

Instead, to more accurately record calories, I have to enter a new activity, choose "Paddleboarding" from the activity database (where I've added it with an estimated burn of 120 calories for 30 minutes), then enter the start time as reported by by timer along with the total time. By doing this, I get a total burn of 360 calories.

It's workable, but it could be much more elegant. With the Jawbone Up, as my future write-up will explain, any timed activity can much more easily be transformed to a defined one with a more accurate calorie burn.

Calories consumed
A big plus to the Fitbit is the ability to track what you eat. You can log your food intake, and there's a decent database of products. The database isn't perfect, but I've yet to find one that is. You'll see food listed in different ways, the same foods with different calories and so on. If you're serious about food logging, expect to spend some time researching which foods apply best to what you've eaten or creating custom foods to enter.

Yes, this can be a pain, just as much as I remember doing it two years ago using Daily Burn Tracker. But I've focused on using it as a general guide to what I've eaten, not a perfect record. I've also found it an incredibly useful way to lose weight. Once I realize just how much I'm snacking and how many calories are in what I eat, I start making more careful choices.

The Fitbit tries to ease the pain by allowing you to quickly get to foods you consume most often. You can also group common foods you eat together into a "meal," which makes logging even easier. As you add food, you see a running total of all calories consumed for a given day:

Overall, I found the food logging tool pretty good. FYI, both the Jawbone and BodyMedia devices provide food tracking. The Jawbone perhaps has a slight edge through the ability to barcode scan some foods to add them to its database plus has a nice overall interface. But any of these do well.

Fitbit also has a wireless scale, the Aria, which I have. That makes the Fitbit alone among these devices I'm using able to automatically combine both my activity and weight into a common dashboard. I found that very useful.

Indeed, when I bought the Aria, I thought it was an unnecessary luxury. Why not just write my weight down each day? But in the past, I'd forget to do this. With the Aria, it's painless. I step on, and in a few seconds, my weight goes right to my account for future reference. About the only glitch was when it once confused me with my wife, sending her weight to my account (and giving me a huge loss for that day!) That's not happened again, however.

Sleep tracking
Sleep tracking is more a novelty to me, but if you want it, the Fitbit One will tell you this type of thing:

Fitbit sleep tracking

Both the Jawbone and BodyMedia devices also do sleep tracking. As I said, I find it more a novelty, I've not spent much time trying to analyze which seems to do a better job. They all generally record about the same. The Fitbit seems to record times I wake up during the night more accurately than the Jawbone, but it also seems to report I'm waking up more than I remember. Maybe I don't remember!

The downside to sleep tracking with the Fitbit is that you have to use a special wristband to hold the tracker that I didn't find particularly comfortable. This is something that will be much improved with the Fitbit Flex.

Waiting for the Fitbit Flex
Overall, the Fitbit One isn't great match for me, given my "non-stepper" habits and how I feel bands do a better job with that. The Fitbit Flex may very well change all that. I feel like it potentially will log more of what I do, plus give me a better sense of my progress toward goals. Being water resistant will be an added plus.

For those who can't wait for the Flex, who are big steppers, or who don't mind perhaps having to do more manual logging of activities, the Fitbit One may work well. Plus, anyone who has a Fitbit wireless scale or is considering one may find this device helps close the loop better than others.

Also be sure to see CNET's formal review of the Fitbit One.

Postscript: See my follow-up piece, My life with the Fitbit Flex activity tracker