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My life with the Jawbone Up activity tracker

If social makes things better, the Jawbone Up might be the tracker for you. It's easy for friends with the device to motivate you. But for "non-step" activities, you may need to do manual logging.

The Jawbone Up

Next in my series on living with four different activity trackers, the Jawbone Up.

It gains high-marks from me for having an attractive design, a great app, and fun social integration. But it surprised me in not tracking one of my "non-step" activities as well as I expected.

The Up sells for $130, comes in eight colors and is worn around your wrist. It's available in three sizes and weighs just under 1 oz. I've never found it uncomfortable or heavy to have on. It's also water-resistant, like the Nike FuelBand, so there's no need to remove it, if you take a shower.

If you do want to remove it, the Up's claspless design makes that easy. But occasionally, when taking off a shirt or jacket, this design meant the Up got pulled off my wrist unexpectedly. Once, it caught on something in my car and popped-off, without me knowing. I had a brief panic when I later realized this. But generally, I found it secure.

The device is rated to hold a charge for 10 days, and I certainly found it seemed to last for ages before demanding I plug it in. The downside is that it charges via a special adapter that uses a USB port, similar to the Fitbit. Lose the adapter, and you can't recharge.

Unusually for the devices I'm testing, the Up has no wireless upload capability. To get your data off the device, you have to plug it in to your Apple or Android mobile device. You plug it in to your headphone jack, which seems weird. But it works. Every time. My other devices have all had varying degrees of Bluetooth not working consistently to let them sync. None of that has been a problem with the Up.

Check the supported device list carefully. Unlike my other devices, there is no Web-based interface. All your interaction with data from your device happens through your phone or tablet, though the Jawbone Up app.

A pretty app
Like the other devices, the Up does track steps you take. But, to me, it's not as "step-centric" as the Fitbit and more oriented around your activity level. Don't get me wrong. Step-counting is far more the focus than "NikeFuel" as with Nike or calories as with the BodyMedia Fit. But Up does encourage you to get a more broader look at your fitness, including sleep and food.

Up app overview screen Screenshot by Danny Sullivan/CNET

If you've used the sleep-tracking feature and logged your food intake, those appear along either side of your activity bar. Tapping into the activity bar itself gives you more details on your activity for that particular day, all within an attractive display.

Steps are there, front-and-center, with the percentage based on the step goal that you entered. But your estimated calories burned and what was burned when you were "active" beyond normal is shown, as well as your active time. My favorite is the "longest idle time" being shown alongside an couch icon. Related feature: you can set the Up band to vibrate if you've been idle too long during a specified time, as a nudge to perhaps take a quick walk.

Up activity overview Screenshot by Danny Sullivan/CNET

Nonstep activities? Be prepared to log
Where the Up disappointed me was that it failed to track my paddleboarding well. I expected this from something like my Fitbit. If you don't step, there's no motion for the Fitbit to translate into activity. But the Up, worn on my wrist, is constantly in motion as I paddleboard. The Nike band picked this motion up as activity, but as far as the Up was concerned, I might as well have been doing nothing.

I shared some initial comparisons on how the various devices track activity in my opening look at the Nike FuelBand, and I'll return to this in more depth in conclusion to my series. But even Jawbone said that non-step activities simply might not get tracked well by the Up because the band is oriented around step motions.

This may get better. Jawbone just acquired BodyMedia, which has long experience in tracking activity. The BodyMedia Fit that I'm using seems far more accurate than any of my other trackers. That's largely because in addition to motion, it's also measuring the temperature of my body in various ways, something the other trackers don't do. The Up probably won't get heat sensors, but hopefully some of the motion-sensing experience BodyMedia has will help improve the Up.

As for now, the simple solution is to manually enter an activity and adjust your calorie burn. This is impossible with the Nike FuelBand, a major flaw. With the Fitbit, you can do it, but it's not linked the Fitbit's timer. With the Up, using the timer makes this a snap.

You activate the timer using a button on one end of the band. After you've timed an event, it shows up on your activity screen with a stopwatch icon. Tap that, and you get a summary of just that period of time, which you can then edit:

The screenshots above show how I timed an activity for 56 minutes (it was paddleboarding), which the Up assumed was a total calorie burn of 94. When I changed that activity to "cardio" and selected the "Moderate" intensity, the calorie burn increased to 397. That also added to my overall calorie burn for the day.

Why did I use "cardio" rather than "paddleboarding"? That's not an activity choice. And unfortunately, you can't add your own custom activities, which would be helpful. But if you know the typical calorie burn for an unlisted activity, then you can select another one that approximates it.

Food logging

Like the Fitbit and the BodyMedia devices, you can track your food consumption with the Up's associated app. As I wrote about with the Fitbit, the database isn't perfect, and logging food with any app seems to be a chore. But again like the Fitbit (and the BodyMedia), the Up keeps track of your most recent foods, automatically adding them to your "My Library" collection. When you go to log a meal, your most recent foods then appear:
As you can see above, you can log several food items at once, to make them part of a single meal. My favorite feature is how you can adjust portions. How would you like to log cheese you've eaten, by slice or cubic inch? You can do either, or more, and you adjust the amount by sliding up and down on the virtual "portion" with your finger:

Unlike the Fitbit, there's no way to group several food items into a common meal. So my daily salad? I have to log each ingredient separately, each day. Nor can you create a custom food item to your library. However, you can select an existing food item from the database and modify it. That will go into your library. You can also scan barcodes on packaged food, and if that's in the database, it's an easy way to add to your food log.

Until recently, you couldn't track your weight in within Up, as you can do with Fitbit and BodyMedia. Now there's a solution. Buy a Withings wireless scale. Up announced support this week that weight logged by the scale will automatically be imported into your Up account.

No scale? The sadly, you're out of luck. You can't log it manually. But having used Fitbit's Aria wireless scale, the concept is much more useful than I thought. If you're serious about logging your body metrics, consider one.

Sleep tracking
Like the Fitbit and BodyMedia, the Up provides sleep tracking. Here, it bests the others, at least in comfort. The Fitbit One has a clunky wristband you need to use (this will improve with the Fitbit Flex). The BodyMedia Fit already has a wider armband to keep the device on your body. The Up is just a bracelet you hardly notice. Put it into sleep mode, and off you go. Wake up, and there's your data.

Screenshot by Danny Sullivan/CNET

As I said in my earlier write-up on the Fitbit, I find sleep tracking more a novelty than a great use, but that's me. Still, it is interesting to see how much I've slept (or not), especially the time it takes to fall asleep.

Socially motivating
I continue to place the greatest value in all these devices on how much they motivate me to be active. With the Up, you can rely on friends for support to a greater degree than any of the others.

Both the Nike and Fitbit devices let you become friends with other device users and share basic stats. But the Up provides a running feed of activity of what your friends are doing. It all flows automatically from their trackers: what they've eaten, what mood they've posted, what exercise they've done, how much sleep they've gotten.

Screenshot by Danny Sullivan/CNET

Think of it as like a Twitter for activity. People only see types of activities you choose to share. If you do share, then those on your "team" can comment on your activity, and you can see what they are saying about others.

Seeing people in my group being active has motivated me to some degree to want to be active. If you had a group of people all dedicated and using Up, say co-workers all trying to get into shape, I could see it being especially valuable.

If only it had a display!
Still, what has remained most motivating to me is the goal readout on my Nike FuelBand. I don't need to go into an app to see my progress toward it. I don't even have to connect socially for motivation. I just push a button and know if I'm getting there or need to do more.

I wish the Up had a similar type of readout, or even progress lights similar to the forthcoming Fitbit Flex. But that's me. For others, social motivation might work better.

Overall, the Up provides a solid platform for tracking your activity in various ways. It's not perfect, but the ability to log activities that don't register so well helps make up for that. The beautiful app makes consuming your activity data a pleasure.

Finally, I chose the word "platform" above deliberately. Similar to the range of third-party apps that Fitbit can talk with, or that BodyMedia can interact with, Jawbone just announced third-party apps that the Up will talk with, along with plans for an open system (an API) for anyone to develop ways to talk to the device.

Nike has somewhat similar plans in the works, and it's all part of how these devices are changing to be the basis -- the platform -- of our physical activity and health that may flow into all types of applications, in the future.

Also be sure to see CNET's formal review of the Jawbone Up.