Should fitness gadget makers fear the iPhone 5S?

The M7 chip built into the iPhone 5S adds some sophisticated fitness tracking features to Apple's newest flagship phone. Will it hurt the burgeoning wave of fitness gadgets the same way cameraphones have gutted the point-and-shoot camera market?

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Brian Bennett
8 min read
iPhone 5S
Will the iPhone 5S replace all other fitness trackers? Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Smartphones -- and the iPhone in particular -- are the Swiss Army knives of tech. With each new version, they absorb more and more functionality from "dedicated" devices -- everything from point-and-shoot cameras, camcorders, portable gaming systems, dedicated GPS devices, e-book readers, and PDAs, just to name a few. And now, with the introduction of the iPhone 5S, another product category may well be on the chopping block: health trackers.

What's sobering for makers of products like the Fitbit Flex or Jawbone Up is a tiny chip in the new iPhone called the M7 "motion coprocessor.". (That's separate and distinct from the iPhone 5S' main CPU, the 64-bit A7 chip.) The M7 is designed to track your movement and automatically figure out whether you're sitting on the couch, running a serious foot race, or simply taking a Sunday morning stroll. Add some compatible software -- Apple has tapped longtime fitness partner Nike to create an M7-compatible version of its Nike Plus Move app -- and the M7-equipped iPhone 5S appears to be well-equipped to replace wrist-style exercise gadgets altogether.

Hands-on with Apple's high-end iPhone 5S (pictures)

See all photos

For health tech companies, that's the nightmare scenario. But can the 5S really supplant a dedicated health tracker, or will the comfort and convenience of a wearable device trump even the omnipresent smartphone? We looked at how the 5S would stack up, feature by feature -- and the results weren't as cut-and-dried as you might think.

Steps and activity

The most critical task of any fitness tracker is to record the steps you take. Even the cheapest budget pedometer can do this, and practically all modern smartphones ship with accelerometers, the basic sensor necessary to track steps.

Indeed a wide range of applications on both iOS and Android already harness today's handset hardware to log workouts. These include software from third party developers such as MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper just to name a few. Many apps tap into your phone's GPS sensor as well to more accurately assess exercise performance in terms of speed, distance, and the route you traveled.

So what makes the iPhone 5S's M7 chip special? For one, Apple claims the M7 will enable the iPhone 5S to constantly keep tabs on your activity by chatting with its various sensors. Data from the iPhone 5's built-in accelerometer, digital compass, and gyroscope, says Apple, will help the M7 paint a more detailed picture of your physical activity.

Even more important, the M7 motion coprocessor can do all this behind the scenes without leaning on the iPhone 5S's new A7 CPU. Hopefully that will result in less drain on processing and battery resources.

It's unclear, though, whether the M7 is a superior solution compared with dedicated fitness tracking devices currently for sale. After all, companies like Fitbit, Jawbone, and Nike have spent a great deal of time honing their products and services.

For example Fitbit's most advanced gadget (and one of our favorites), the Fitbit Flex, uses what the company calls a MEMS 3-axis accelerometer to track your movements. With it the Flex, according to Fitbit, can accurately determine the movements you make tailored to your personal stats and profile. The company isn't divulging any details beyond this though since it regards how the MEMS solution functions as a heavily guarded secret, its special sauce if you will.

The Fitbit Flex uses advanced motion tracking tech, too. Sarah Tew/CNET

Still, for counting steps, we're thinking a phone in your pocket will be probably be a "good enough" replacement for a dedicated accessory.

Pedometer advantage: iPhone 5S

Sleep quality

Besides tracking movements over time, many of today's mobile health devices also strive to quantify the length and quality of your sleep. The Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up, and Withings Pulse are no exceptions. As a matter of fact, the Basis Band from Basis Science records sleep data automatically without you needing to take the extra step of tapping the device (like the Flex) or pressing a button (as with the Up).

The Jawbone Up records sleep, but you have to press its button first. Sarah Tew/CNET

Tracking sleep, however, wasn't one of the skills Apple touted when it talked up the M7 coprocessor at its special fall press event. That doesn't necessarily mean an app couldn't be written that allows the iPhone 5S to function in this way. Of course you would have to strap the phone to your person before climbing into bed, something I don't see many people doing. I feel smaller wrist-style products are better suited to this purpose.

Sleep monitor advantage: Dedicated wearable health tracker

Heart rate

Accelerometers aren't the only sensors personal fitness devices can pack. A few products such as the Withings Pulse and Basis Band are equipped with heart rate monitors. Essentially these sensors hit the first few layers of your skin with intermittent pulses of light. An optical scanner then extrapolates blood flow and consequently your heart rate based on what it sees.

The Withings Pulse is one of a few devices that uses an optical heart rate sensor. Sarah Tew/CNET

As you might imagine, this approach requires direct skin contact with the sensor to function. Since the iPhone 5S and its M7 component lack any sort of similar hardware, don't expect your shiny new 5S to keep an eye on your ticker all by itself.

One of the Basis Band's stand out features is heart rate monitoring. Sarah Tew/CNET

Heart rate monitor advantage: Dedicated wearable health tracker

Counting calories

It's certainly good to be aware of how much, or how little, you move throughout the day. Not only does this data provide a baseline level of physical activity and intensity of your exercise sessions, fitness trackers can then calculate how many calories your burn for your effort.

Of course unless you run for miles daily, all that sweating probably won't offset a diet heavy in cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Trust me, it's hard truth I still can't quite except. To that end fitness devices such as the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone Up provide calorie counting as a staple component of their companion mobile apps.

Fitbit's solution is the more robust of the two, though. Just enter foods (and serving sizes) from the company's online database, or create your own entries, and the app provides a running calorie total.

Log your meals quickly with the Fitbit app. Brian Bennett/CNET

While the iPhone 5S's internal hardware doesn't specifically tackle this task directly, though I admit it would be a neat trick, the Apple App Store offers a vast array of software billed to handle similar duties.

Calorie counter advantage: iPhone 5S (or any smartphone)

Comfort and practicality

The million dollar question, though, is whether using your phone for an exercise tool makes sense at all. Let's face it, no matter how thin or light they are, smartphones are large devices. If recent history is any indicator, think Samsung Galaxy Note 3, they're due to get even bigger with screens swelling to well over 5 inches.

Even the relatively compact iPhone 5S, with its 4-inch display, isn't all that appealing to wear during intense workouts. I know many people have gotten used to strapping their iPhone to their arm for runs and can't get pumped without their favorite playlist close at hand. For some of the more fanatic athletes among us though, using all that gear (including armband, phone, and headphones) is inconceivable. That's why a super-portable wrist-style gizmo like the Flex and Up is right up their alley -- light, durable, and (in many cases) sweat-resistant.

Comfort advantage (during workouts): Dedicated wearable health tracker

If you can't beat Apple, join 'em

So, even with some strong advantages, the iPhone 5S doesn't automatically trump the Fitbits, Withings, and Jawbones of the world. At least not across the board. But for the basics -- pedometer and calorie counting -- it certainly looks to be "good enough." And the device you own and always carry with you certainly has a leg up over "better" dedicated devices -- just ask Nintendo, Canon, and Nikon.

But the current top dogs in the health tracking space may find that letting Apple handle the hardware and just concentrating on compatible apps is a better way to go, anyway.

Apple took pains to point out that it envisions a ground swell of developers designing apps to harness the iPhone 5S' M7 motion tracking hardware. When touting the M7's potential on stage at the iPhone 5S press conference, Phil Schiller, Apple senior vice president of marketing, went so far as to say, "With new software and applications you're going to get a whole new level of health and fitness solutions never before possible on a mobile phone."

Indeed, my conversations with a few of the major fitness app developers confirmed strong interest in Apple's latest creation. Jason Jacobs, CEO of the popular fitness software RunKeeper was very keen on the M7's possibilities. Jacobs told me that, "We think that it's a very exciting opportunity indeed. With this move by Apple, more people can track what they do more easily over time."

Jacobs went on to explain that now his company's app tied into the M7 chip, a person's iPhone could theoretically know when they were taking a bike ride downtown as opposed to a run at the gym. Even better, their phone would also automatically log the stats for each workout as they happen, without the user manually starting or stopping the app and the current activity.

When I asked if Jacobs thought that these new "passive tracking" abilities in future iPhones would do away with the need for physical devices such as the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone Up, he stated that while he hopes people will rely on RunKeeper for most of their fitness tracking needs there will certainly be the need for "special use cases and high-end devices like waterproof watches for swimming and such." To my ears that comment certainly had an ominous ring to it. To quell any impression that the iPhone 5S, and enhanced its apps, won't crush wearable fitness products out of existence, Jacobs made sure to point out that he strongly believes in open compatibility across all platforms. He said, "We play well with everybody, and that includes devices like the Fitbit Flex and the Jawbone Up."

To that point Withings CEO Cedric Hutchings, though his company is firmly committed to building fitness hardware, had lots of kind words regarding the M7.

We can't wait to get our hands on the iPhone 5S and begin working with the M7 API. We're positive this will enable us to integrate more data into our Health Mate Application and continue to give our customers a feature rich experience to continue their fitness goals -- Cedric Hutchings, Withings CEO

iPhone 5S paves the way for iWatch

To be clear, the iPhone 5S won't be the first smartphone to include onboard health tracking; its archrival, the Galaxy S4, has a built-in S Health app, which counts steps and interfaces with compatible accessories. And yes, Samsung and others will beat Apple to the smartwatch finish line, too.

But an Apple iWatch has now gone from "possibility" to "probability," in my mind. The very existence of the M7 chip telegraphs it for all to see. The hardware is already there, and I expect a compatible app ecosystem to flower in no time. Once that's all up and running on the iPhone, it would be a cinch to shrink it down -- M7, apps, and all -- into a wrist-based device.

Hold on to your hats -- and your fitness trackers. It's going to be an interesting 2014.