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New Fitbit knows how high you are

The addition of an altimeter function lets fitness monitoring device keep track of stairs and hills climbed.

Fitbit advice: Walk more, write less. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The Fitbit electronic pedometer is for people taking baby steps into a fitness.

Since launching the company at a 2008 TechCrunch event, founder James Park says, he has discovered that while Nike and Garmin sell their fitness monitoring products to health and activity nuts, the Fitbit has ended up winning market share with the broad middle of the population, so to speak. "We don't have a very athletic user base," Park says.

The new $99 Fitbit Ultra, launching today, is much the same as the previous product, with one key hardware difference: it has a pressure altimeter, so it can determine when you're climbing stairs (or, in my town, hills).

This is a key metric to track for those trying to improve fitness by walking around, and Park hopes that the Fitbit Ultra will encourage people to climb the equivalent of 10 flights of stairs a day as they're racking up their standard 10,000 steps. The device also measures sleep quality.

Fitbit clip-on sensor Fitbit

The Fitbit, even with the new altimeter, is a relatively blind sensor in an era of increasingly perceptive devices like the Basis (which measures items like body heat and pulse) and especially smartphones, which can measure actual position, not just jiggling.

But Park says there will always be a market for a clip-based device like his. People don't wear their phones all the time, and especially not when they sleep. (The Fitbit comes with a wristband so it can measure your movements overnight.) Also, Park says, measuring altitude indoors is difficult with GPS sensors; and Wi-Fi geolocation doesn't yield altitude.

"We see our devices and phones working together," he says, and indeed the Fitbit can feed data to a workout-based smartphone app like RunKeeper.

Park says the company has been cashflow positive at points, but Fitbit is spending down its $12.5 million in funding to develop new products, so it isn't at the moment. Still, the business works, he says, because despite the high costs of building a hardware company, "it's easier to convince people to pay for hardware than software."