Startup company Fitbit took the personal fitness world by storm with its original Fitbit Tracker in fall of 2009. It broke new ground with its good looks, low price, and engaging Web-based analytical tools. Now the successor device, the $99.95 Fitbit Ultra, has the same ultralight and compact size, but adds an altimeter to track how many stairs you climb. It all works well, even if the company faces growing competition from heavyweights such as the Nike FuelBand and Motorola's MotoActv. Read on to see if the Fitbit Ultra has what it takes to kick you off the couch.
Measuring 2.1 inches tall by 0.8 inch wide and 0.6 inch thick, the Fitbit Ultra is extremely tiny compared with the phones that I usually review. It's about the size of a small Bluetooth headset and at 0.4 of an ounce, it's also very light. The Nike FuelBand, on the other hand, uses a wrist band design that's bulkier and heavier (0.95 ounce at its lightest). Shaped like a clip, the Ultra slides neatly into an included belt holster. Put together, the Ultra and the holster are so small that I forgot that I was wearing them when they were on my belt.
Don't be fooled by the Ultra's rubberized surface, however, since the device is not waterproof. Of course, that's a big drawback for anyone who sweats profusely or triathlon trainers who can't log a long swim. A slim 2.5x1-inch OLED screen runs along the front of the device. This strip-shaped display is miniscule, but it provides plenty of pertinent information. For instance, pressing the button on the Ultra's face cycles through the number of steps you've walked, your equivalent distance traveled, the calories you've burned, and the number of stairs you've climbed. Those familiar with the first Fitbit will find the same Flower icon that grows or shrinks according to your current physical activity. The Ultra also has a digital clock.
In addition to the original blue color, the Ultra now comes in a new plum hue. The second piece of the Ultra puzzle is a small base station that connects to PCs and Macs via a USB cable. It also serves as a receptacle to charge the Ultra's internal battery, plus it syncs the pedometer data wirelessly to a computer within a 15-foot radius.
Just like its predecessor, the new Fitbit Ultra essentially is a sophisticated pedometer made to record your daily activity. Keep in mind, though, that it's better suited for the average person who wants to up his overall activity level than for dedicated athletes aiming for improved performance. After measuring your steps and distance traveled, the device then calculates the number of calories spent while factoring in your age, weight, and height. You provide these personal details when creating an online account during the setup process.
Yet, that data is just the tip of the iceberg since the Ultra's real value lies behind the scenes online. At the Fitbit.com site, the company provides a wide range of analytical tools based on the information the Fitbit Ultra has collected. The main Dashboard shows the number of calories burned and steps taken in the last 30 days, current totals for the day, along with an overall activity score created against being completely sedentary. What's new to the Ultra is an altimeter that also logs building floors climbed, also shown on the Dashboard.
A capability that it inherited from the previous Fitbit is tracking the length and quality of your sleep. It's a feature that sets the Ultra apart from other fitness gadgets, especially given that, in my view, sleep is a crucial activity that affects all facets of life. To activate sleep tracking, just slip the Fitbit into a pouch on the included cloth wrist band, which straps around your arm with Velcro. Pressing the button for 2 seconds starts and stops sleep mode.
In contrast, some of the Fitbit Ultra's other features seem gimmicky. For example, "Chatter" displays cheerful text greetings on the screen when you pick up the device. Examples include mundane questions like, "Ready?" to statements with more personality like "I like U" and "You rock." Yet, it's handy how you can program the Ultra to display your name on screen. It makes telling your Fitbit apart from, say, your spouse's much easier. That's something that the first Fitbit lacked.
If weight loss is your goal, a Food Log lets you input meals by type and amount. You can choose from a large database including many items from popular restaurants menus and supermarket shelves. Each entry has accompanying calorie counts, and you can add your custom dishes, as well. You're able to then see how many calories you consume compared with calories burned. What's more, brave souls can log their actual weight and plot it over time. Other more-abstract services live in the cloud, such as a journal to record your mood along with forums for help and extra encouragement. A level of social media integration is present, but not pervasive. You're able but not forced to link up with other Fitbit account holders or share updates via Twitter and Facebook.
I personally appreciate that Fitbit now offers a free Android app to match its iPhone application. The software displays much of what's offered on the company's Web site, including activity level, calorie count, and your food plan stats. If you set them up online, you also can log favorite workouts on your phone, like swimming or biking, that the Fitbit Ultra can't track. Unlike the Nike FuelBand (Bluetooth) and Motorola MotoActv, however, the Fitbit Ultra doesn't sync data in real time via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
I had much the same experience using the Fitbit Ultra as I did with the original Fitbit device. Despite the addition of an altimeter to supplement its accelerometer, its accuracy was inconsistent and overall tended to overestimate the steps I took. At times, taking one stride made the readout jump up by 10 or 12 steps, while other moments the Fitbit Ultra ticked along perfectly in sync with my movements.
According to the Ultra, I burn between 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day, of which about 1,200 were spent through physical activity. Fitbit's premium service costs $49.99 a year and provides much deeper analysis tools. Through Premium I learned that I'm currently classified as lightly active, or even dare I say sedentary depending on the day, and sit in the 65th percentile of men in my age group and body stats. Grudgingly, I admit that this sounds about right, but I have had my moments. One Saturday I took a ridiculously long 3.5-mile hike across NYC city streets, which helped me to achieve a total step count of 1,957, a personal high.
Another big benefit of the Premium service is its Trainer function, which uses daily activity goals set by you while pushing for greater activity based on individual data. At the moment, my personal quota is 10,000 steps each day, a bar I'm lucky to hit a few times a week. Other motivation incentives include badges for steps, distance, and stairs climbed. But since they merely state bland facts like numbers and units of measurement, they don't feel very inspirational.
The Fitbit Ultra was right on the money when assessing my sleep time, and it accurately reported a particularly rough night I endured. It truthfully logged my ability to drop into a deep slumber quickly, in 6 minutes to be precise, giving me a sleep efficiency of 92 percent. Sadly, though, the device also confirmed my Actual sleep time of just 3 hours and 51 minutes by calculating the 12 times I gained consciousness briefly along with the late bedtime and early rise. It's a crying shame that infants don't respect Daylight Saving Time.
Powered by a lithium ion polymer battery, Fitbit claims that the Ultra will last at least three days without needing a recharge, and can run for up to five to seven days maximum. These ratings are in line with my experience, and I typically had to dock the unit once a week.
The $99.95 Fitbit Ultra offers the same great features and engaging backend analytical tools that the original model did. Admittedly, though, it's not as fancy as higher-priced devices like the $149 Nike FuelBand and Motorola MotoActv that can sync wirelessly directly to iPhones and Android smartphones. The Fitbit Ultra's badge-based incentives aren't extremely engaging, either, and a lot of the more powerful data-sifting tools reside in the Premium service. That said, for its price, it's a fun, well designed fitness gadget that's easy to wear and use.