Editors' note, February 21, 2014: Fitbit has halted the sale of this product after a small number of consumers experienced skin irritation while wearing it. (Our review sample created no problem for CNET editors during our testing period). Those users can return the product for a full refund. We'll update this review once Fitbit provides more details on the product's future.
When the Fitbit Flex was released last May, it volleyed for dominance with the Nike FuelBand and Jawbone Up in the emerging category of bracelet-style wearable fitness trackers. Less than six months later, though, the Flex is already old hat. The $130 Fitbit Force takes the same basic bracelet design and adds a real miniature OLED screen -- instead of a cryptic series of notification lights -- so you can see bright, legible readouts of your physical activity. In addition to toggling through all of that data -- your daily steps, how well you sleep, how many calories you consume -- you also get the time, making the Force a credible smartwatch (or, at least, a smart enough watch.)
No, the Fitbit Force can't log your heart rate like the Withings Pulse or automatically log your sleep like the Basis Band, and its call notification feature wasn't active during our initial testing. But the winning combination of its comfortable and water-resistant wristband design, the bright and legible OLED display, and Fitbit's easy-to-use iOS and Android companion apps make the Fitbit Force the best fitness tracker to date. You just might want to wait to see what Nike has on track for October 15 before adding the Force to your shopping cart, however.
When I first laid eyes on the Force, for a moment I thought I thought I was dealing with an older product.That's because the Force sports the same wrist strap clasp and similar boxlike shape as the company's previous device, the Fitbit Flex.
Examining the Force closer, though, revealed many big differences between the two gizmos. First, the Force is larger than the Flex, which is especially noticeable when you place both gadgets side by side. That said, the Force isn't noticeably heavier than the Flex and is light enough that I often forgot it was on my wrist.
Additionally, while the Flex consists of a pebble-like section that slides into a soft silicone sleeve that also functions as a wrist strap, the new Force takes an entirely different approach. By contrast, the Force is one sealed unit that's also (like the Flex) water resistant.
The upside to the Force's new design is you don't have to worry about the sleeve collecting water and dirt over time, a problem I ran into with the Flex, especially if you decide to shower with it. Trust me, the Flex's strap can get pretty funky if you don't wash it often. The downside of the Force's non-modular form is you can't pop the device into different-colored bands to suit your tastes. As it stands, the Force ships in a choice of slate and black hues.
The most significant new physical feature that the Force flaunts, and the primary cause of the Force's increased footprint, is its enhanced display. While the Flex uses a simple array of LED lights to convey its status, the Force boasts a true alphanumeric OLED screen. As a result, the Force can display all the information Fitbit's other belt-clipped trackers offer. This includes telltales for steps, distance traveled, calories burned, and stairs climbed. Also very useful is the clock readout, which is an excellent addition on a wristband-style device like this. It effectively transforms the Force into a high-tech fitness watch, a boast the older Flex can't make.
To cycle through the Force's various screens, simply press the device's physical button, which sits on its left side. It's another attribute the Flex lacks and makes interacting with the Force a more pleasant and responsive experience. The Flex, on the other hand, requires that you tap its screen to fire up its LED lights, something that works most of the time but occasionally doesn't register. Of course you can enable this tapping function on the Force, too, if you'd like.
The underside of the Force houses a recessed well and metal contacts. Essentially it's a port for connecting the USB charging cable included in the box.
The new Fitbit Force flaunts all the powerful fitness-tracking features of its predecessors plus a few extra impressive capabilities. Just like the Fitbit Zip and Flex, the Force measures the steps you take using its built-in accelerometer. From there the product calculates how many calories it thinks you've burned based on your individual stats such as age, sex, weight, and height.
The Force also displays how much you've walked or run in distance traveled and, as with the Fitbit One, tells you how many stairs you've climbed -- another ability the Flex lacks. The Force keeps an eye on your most active minutes, too, which is a trendy feature working its way into more and more fitness products these days. According to Fitbit, this is an important stat to track, since the Centers for Disease Control recommends a regular dose of 150 active minutes a week.
In addition, I certainly appreciate how the Force can log the duration and quality of your sleep. The Flex and One can do this, and so can competing products such as the Jawbone Up and Withings Pulse. To activate, simply hold down the Force's button for a few moments, which kick-starts its timer. Press the key again when you rise from slumber, and the Force does its best to calculate your sleep stats. The Force functions as an alarm clock, too. A silent alarm will instruct the device to vibrate softly when you want it to.
A modern health tracker needs to have two features, aside from standard pedometer chops, to really stand out from the pack. These are wireless syncing with smartphones over Bluetooth, and support for both iOS and Android devices. Thankfully the Fitbit Force can tackle both tasks, though only partially.
Like the Flex, One, and Zip, the Force enjoys a full wireless link to iPhone 4S models on up, which run iOS 7. That means the Force will harness Bluetooth 4.0 to sync activity data in the background (without you having to command it) to your handset and then up to Fitbit servers living in the cloud. Additionally, the Fitbit app has the power to push software updates to the tracker automatically.
Fitbit also expects the Force to channel caller ID data from iPhones to its screen in the near future. Since this function wasn't active when I took the device for a spin, I didn't have the opportunity to give it a try. Another letdown is that the feature, called "smart call notifications," is planned only for iOS products.
Also unfortunate is that on the Android side of the house, the Fitbit application only enables wireless syncing with a select few Samsung products. These include the Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4, and Galaxy Note 2. Other Android gadgets, however, can download the Fitbit app from the Google Play store and use most of its other abilities. Bluetooth communication between the phone and the tracker is off limits, however.
A pedestrian pedometer it's not
The Force takes advantage of Fitbit's deep analytical tools and product ecosystem to paint a more complete picture of your health and fitness lifestyle. Specifically the mobile application, and companion Web site, provide a "Food Plan" section where you can log meals along with their associated calorie count. You can then plot this data against the calories you've powered through based on real-time telemetry the Force collects.
Another piece of the puzzle is Fitbit's Aria Wi-Fi scale, which senses your individual weight, BMI, and percentage body fat every time you step on it. Linked to your home network, the Aria then transmits this info to Fitbit's online database to populate your account with fresh stats.
The Fitbit system has a degree of gamification built into it as well. Users are rewarded with badges for step and stair-climbing achievements and the like. You can also friend other Fitbit users, taunt and cheer each other, and compete with them for activity dominance
My experience using the Fitbit Force has so far been a positive one. The device is light enough not to notice on my wrist, and its relative small size compared with other more conventional watch-style products makes it a cinch to wear around the clock.
One aspect I don't love about the Force is how much effort it takes to clasp its strap shut. Like the Flex before it, the Force uses two metal pegs that you must push through corresponding holes in its wristband. Similar to my troubles with the Flex, often I really had to jam the Force's pegs downward.
Sometimes I thought the strap was securely attached only to discover that Force was about to unhinge or had popped off altogether. With the Fitbit Force correctly strapped, though, it did stay firmly in place. To be fair, Fitbit explained that my Force test unit was preproduction, so hopefully the shipping models won't be so tricky to strap together.
On my daily travels around New York City streets, up and down subway stairs, and chasing my toddlers around, I found that the Force tracked my activities accurately enough. I didn't notice any odd behavior such as steps earned for wrist-heavy activities like drinking beers or washing dishes.
Lesser trackers have failed in these areas in the past, specifically the Nike FuelBand and more recent Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch. The Force wasn't phased, either, when I pushed shopping carts or strollers around, a hand-stable activity that can fool lesser pedometers.
The Fitbit Force's battery life is acceptably long as well. The company claims the Force's rechargeable battery provides a runtime of 7 to 10 days, the same as the Flex. That seems in line with what I've seen so far. After fully charging the gadget, I've been up and running with the Force for a full six days with the most recent battery status level reading at "medium."
I also had no trouble linking the Force to my Samsung Galaxy S4 wirelessly, and neither did CNET editor Scott Stein to his iPhone 5S test phone. In both cases we were able to sync data automatically and update the Force to new firmware via Bluetooth.
In a nutshell, the $130 Fitbit Force is the best all-around fitness tracker I've ever used. In addition to being light and comfortable to wear for extended periods, the Force's display delivers the activity stats found on Fitbit's earlier clip-on gadgets. Toss in the time and its soon-to-be-added call notification functionality, and the Force is enough of a "smartwatch" to be useful without suffering the feature-itis of the Samsung Galaxy Gear.
The only function the Force lacks, and one that you'll find in other devices such as the Withings Pulse and Basis Band, is a heart rate monitor. That said, I'd rather have the Force's more elegant and stylish design over the bulk or awkwardness of those competing products.