The newest FuelBand has Bluetooth 4.0 and a few new ideas, but it's not ahead of the competition in terms of software.
I'm 518 Fuel points ahead of men aged 30-39 at this point in the day, and 678 points ahead of yesterday at this time. But, I still have at least 900 more Fuel points to go to reach my goal.
Welcome to the world of NikeFuel, and the Nike+ FuelBand SE, the latest version of the company's wearable wireless fitness band.
The world of wearable, smart fitness trackers is getting increasingly crowded, and there are a lot of options on the market: the Fitbit, the Jawbone Up, and lots of other assorted pedometers. The FuelBand was one of the first mainstream fitness gadgets, and it's perhaps the best-known, and the best marketed; Nike's presence as a company is far larger than any of the others.
What it does, though, is similar to what other trackers do: it counts your steps and measures your motion, and sends that data to an iPhone app, or to your computer. The difference with Nike's system is the use of universal points system called NikeFuel that serves as a measurement of activity.
What's new from last year? SE stands for "special edition," and the difference mostly amounts to adding Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity for more continuous, energy-efficient syncing, and updating the software to offer more ways to track data and motivate you with video-game-like achievement badges.
But what the FuelBand still boils down to is this: it's a wristband that doubles as a cool watch, counts steps and your Fuel score, syncs with an app, can be worn in the shower, and has some fun social features that link you with friends who use NikeFuel apps. As a deeper coaching tool or life assistant, the FuelBand SE still leaves a lot off the plate.
Design: Best-feeling band around
Many pieces of wrist-worn wearable tech have issues of one sort or another: maybe the clasps are too loose, or the snap-on band not tight enough, or the whole device isn't water-resistant. The FuelBand SE is the best-feeling band I've tried, and the most useful, too.
It's the same idea as the original FuelBand: it's really a giant LED-lit, water-resistant band with a clasp that doubles as a USB stick. The whole band's a USB stick, which is the ingenious part: plug the end into a PC to sync or charge, or into a USB-jack-equipped wall outlet. An additional extended-length USB dongle comes in the box, in case you need extra room.
The FuelBand snaps on your wrist, and on mine it felt cozy, secure, and utterly comfortable. Just make sure you have the right size: it comes in two different sizes, along with an extra piece of band that can enlarge the size a bit if needed, and a tool you can use to pop it in.
A single button operates everything on the FuelBand SE: clicking cycles through Time, Hours Won (see below for what that means), and Fuel "earned" for the day. You can add Calories (measuring estimated daily calorie burn), Steps (a pedometer), and hourly Move reminders by changing settings via the FuelBand iOS app or Nike+ Connect Windows/Mac software and syncing.
The FuelBand also has a clever progress bar below the readout, made of a spectrum of lights ranging from red to green. As your day continues, it's a clear and effective gauge (to go along with the overall Fuel number) of how close you are, relatively, to your Fuel goal.
Press and hold the button, and you start an activity session timer. Hold longer, and the device cycles through battery-life indicator and Bluetooth on/off controls.
The big, bannerlike LED array feels like a mini billboard on your wrist, and glows futuristically up from the rubberized black band. The readout runs across the band, so you have to turn your wrist -- it's odd, but it works. The FuelBand's color schemes include electric orange, pink, and yellow underbellies (Total Crimson, Pink Foil and Volt), but from the top, everything's black except the Nike logo highlighted around the clasp. Additionally, a limited-edition Rose Gold version sells for a higher $169, with a metallic clasp.
Bluetooth 4.0: Automatic syncing...sometimes
All of the top-of-the-line wearable-tech products have begun adopting Smart Bluetooth, otherwise known as Bluetooth LE or Bluetooth 4.0. The new FuelBand SE has it, and it enables devices to connect and disconnect and sync automatically in the background, with less strain on the battery. Over the course of a week of solid use and many wireless syncs, I only needed one recharge. Charging via USB only took me a little over an hour.
Unfortunately, my FuelBand SE sometimes decoupled and wouldn't automatically sync again with an iPhone 5S, a problem commenters on the FuelBand iOS app seemed to corroborate. I had to log out and on from the Nike+ app, and even reformat the FuelBand once. My colleague Brian Bennett didn't have any problem syncing it with the iPhone 5C. Meanwhile, for me, the Jawbone Up24 never had a syncing problem over its Bluetooth 4.0 connection.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.