How much would you pay to get healthy? I'm not sure I know the answer. I pay a lot for doctor's appointments, and gym memberships aren't cheap. Fitness bands seem relatively affordable after factoring all that in.
Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company, is asking that you pony up a fair amount for its HealthBox: a new $400 package of fitness band, heart-rate chest strap and smart scale that'll be available later this month, starting in the US. The UK price is £349. Australian details are yet to be announced, but $400 converts to around AU$575. Most good fitness trackers cost $150, max. Heart-rate chest straps, maybe $50. And smart scales can be had for $150 or less. So, this isn't exactly a bundle deal.
Still, Under Armour and HTC, which has collaborated on the HealthBox, are hoping you'll see the benefits of integrated design. The heart-rate chest strap can work with the wrist-worn UA Band to offer more accurate heart readings during exercise, for instance.
I've been using the HealthBox, off and on, for a few weeks. Sometimes more off than on (I'll explain why in a moment). And, so far...I'm not sure I see why you'd want to buy in on everything. I certainly wouldn't. But HealthBox proves that connected fitness is about more than just a band. You just don't need everything to come from one manufacturer.
Parts of HealthBox will be sold on their own later on: the band, the heart strap and the scale. But for now they're bundled in one set. A package like this is hard to rate -- I'd rather revisit each part separately and rate those against the alternatives. In short: no, I don't think you need to buy a $400 Under Armour fitness box set, not even if everything in your closet is made by Under Armour.
Which brings me to: the UA Band.
Do we need another fitness band?
The UA Band is an evolution of what HTC and Under Armour promised last year with the HTC Grip, minus built-in GPS. It's a sort of Nike FuelBand in its design and feel, but it's also a lot like other fitness bands I've seen. It's compact, feels reasonably comfortable, and it can be worn in the shower, something you can't do with all bands. And it's one size fits all: two band sizes come in the box and can be fit to any wrist.
The soft, rubberized black exterior masks the LED touch display when it's off, and the inner red textured interior does a decent job avoiding making my wrist sweaty. But the band feels too fiddly for my tastes.
A top button needs to be pressed to turn the screen on, and from there you'll need to swipe and tap to see activity, heart rate or start an exercise. The band records different exercise sessions, from a selection of run, bike, weight-lifting, walking, yoga, "class," "sports," golf, basketball, baseball or "general workout." Lots of swiping and tapping going on. And there's no automatic wrist wake-up when you lift it to check time or stats, like most smartwatches or the Fitbit Charge HR have. I'd even just like to tap the screen to see stats.
The horizontal display's hard to read unless you wear the UA Band on the inside of your wrist. The included charger clips on the back magnetically and charges up the band quickly, but it detaches too easily and it's hard to get a good fit. The band popped off my wrist, too, more than a few times. I lost it in some grass while walking my kid to school. This is a pre-production model, HTC has told me. But all it takes is a few fall-off-the-wrist moments to make me not want to wear a particular fitness band again. The UA Band has hit that moment several times already.
That's not the only issue I have with it: the touch-and-tap interface is a lot of hassle, and it's not easy to start and stop activities or see what you're up to. Other bands such as the Fitbit Charge HR handle everything much more simply. The UA Band has a ton of features in its tiny form -- automatic sleep tracking, heart rate, alarm clock settings -- but it often feels like a little too much.
You can get notifications, for instance, but having messages pop up sideways on the small LED screen isn't very useful. It's nice for incoming calls and texts, but it's no smartwatch.
The music remote, buried in a submenu, is hard to access and awkward to control. Far more useful are simple in-line remote buttons on a pair of headphones.
The UA Band holds somewhere between four and five days on a charge, based on my use. It recharges in under an hour, but the magnetic charge dongle sometimes didn't latch on properly.
If it had an easier way to start exercises and to check stats, I might like it more. But I wouldn't go out of my way to get one, especially not at Under Armour's standalone price of $180 (£149 or about AU$260). There are too many alternatives that are already good.
The UA Heart Rate, the included Bluetooth heart-rate strap, is added for extra accuracy during workouts. This is par for the course with fitness tech: most fitness bands don't have accurate on-wrist heart rate readings when working out. They're better for resting heart-rate measurements. You can buy similar straps from Polar and others that can pair to your phone and some fitness bands and watches (the Apple Watch lets you do this). It's thoughtful of Under Armour to include the accessory, but at the price of this entire HealthBox kit you're paying for it. Casual exercisers don't need a heart-rate strap...but serious runners will.
UA Scale: Connected weight
I've used a Withings Smart Body Analyzer for the last year, and it does a really good job of weighing, syncing wirelessly and keeping me aware of weight trends over time. That's what having a connected scale is best for: you can go back in time on your phone and see what you weighed, when.
The UA Scale is a sharply designed alternative that performs similarly. It estimates body fat via conductive paint on top of its glass, and can recognize up to eight users individually, syncing results over Wi-Fi. Withings' scale does the same, but can measure on-the-spot heart rate and shows local weather. Its crisp design and black glass look great, and the LED readout is big and bright. It measured me about a pound heavier on average compared to the Withings scale. Once I set it up, syncing was easy. But the sub-menus on the scale are a little confusing (you have to use your foot to tap the display).
One app to connect it all
Under Armour's newly revamped Record app is the hub that syncs with HealthBox. Record, which launched last year, now works with MyFitnessPal and MapMyRun (both acquired by Under Armour), and the redesigned app for the iPhone and Android adds quadrants that track weight, nutrition, everyday activity and gym-level exercise. Under Armour's app focuses on four pillars: daily activity, sleep, sports and nutrition. Each quadrant fills up when certain goals are met. In the middle, your weight goals are stored with the tap of a finger.
Record syncs with Apple's HealthKit and Google Fit, and an astonishing number of other fitness apps and hardware ecosystems. Products from competitors such as Withings, Fitbit, Apple Watch, Google Fit, TomTom, Jawbone, Misfit, Polar and more can all link up to UA Record to share data or connect together. It's an admirable attempt to knit the fitness world together. But it also means, paradoxically, you don't need HealthBox to enjoy using UA Record.
A bit too much gear
So, why are you buying Under Armour's health gear? I'd argue that if you're really interested in getting healthier, you could start with buying a fitness band (Fitbit's Charge HR is a great one) and maybe a smart scale. Use an app like UA Record, or one of many others. You can just get one or two pieces of Under Armour's fitness gear. You don't need it all at once.
This isn't the last of Under Armour's Record-equipped gear, either: connected running shoes are coming this winter, too. The SpeedForm Gemini 2 Record Equipped shoes are available on February 29 for $150 (international prices are unavailable, but that's £100 or AU$210). They have their own step and stride-tracking chip and battery embedded in the shoe, which wakes up and goes to sleep automatically. It can't be removed, but the battery's meant to last the shoe's running life (about 400 miles or so). To wake up the shoes, you wiggle them.
Under Armour's also releasing its own heart rate-sending headphones made in collaboration with JBL, also coming this winter -- you can read my colleague David Carnoy's hands-on impressions here.
So, yeah, I'd hold off...or start more conservatively.
I'm a little concerned that we're entering a world where there's so much connected tech all over our bodies that managing it all becomes more complicated than most people are willing to put up with. But Under Armour's smartest move might be acknowledging that a good fitness app needs to play nicely with other platforms. For that alone, I'm planning on making UA Record a continuing part of my fitness and weight-loss efforts.
I'm not so sure about HealthBox, though.