There are so many wearable activity trackers on the market at the moment touting their step-counting ability and increasingly small form factor that even as a tech journalist specialising in wearable activity trackers, I can barely keep up.
To make matters even more confusing for consumers, many of the brands that have long been at the forefront of the wearable tech space, like Fitbit and Jawbone, are adding more and more products to their popular ecosystems. Which begs the question: what the hell do I buy?
Whenever anyone asks me that question I’m quick to point out that you need to want to wear a wearable. Sounds pretty obvious, right? But the truth is there’s no point poring over specs or fondling high-end designs if you hate the sight of it on your wrist minutes later or have no clue how you’ll remember to wear it when you can barely remember your own postcode on a good day. So that’s the most important point. Buy something you want to wear. Screw what all the big tech publications say. Screw what I say. Shop around. And take your time.
To help you out, we decided to hold The Hunger Games of wearable tech. The Battle Royale of activity trackers. To find the Maximus Decimus Meridius left (just about) standing at the end of the day. Enough violent metaphors for you for one feature? Tough luck.
Only by pitting one wearable against another can we really start to understand which we like and which we don’t. Which is accurate and which is serving up batshit crazy data. Which looks decent on your arm and which actually looks slim and subtle. Which will make you want to go for a run and which will make you want to grab a doughnut out of sheer spite. It’s sometimes really hard to tell all of this stuff from one review. No matter how in-depth or hands-on it may be.
So let’s get started… Gladiators, ready!
Well, it was over before it even began for Fitbit and Jawbone’s newest product offerings – unfortunately Fitbit couldn’t get a device to us in time and Jawbone couldn’t spare us an Up2 or Up3. So we compromised with an Up24 and left Fitbit out this time around.
One of the newest contenders in the trial, the Withings Activité Pop looks like the most traditional watch of the line-up. It’s got a large face that both tells the time and tells you how far away you are from hitting your daily goal.
Misfit Flash is available from Amazon for £35.
This pedometer-style tracker is small and rectangular and can be popped into a wristband or a belt clip to keep tabs on your steps, sleep and calories throughout the day. If it looks familiar, that’s because it’s very similar to Fitbit’s One tracker in form and function.
iFit Active is available from Amazon for £77.32.
When it comes to sensors, the Pulsense is the most advanced of the bunch because, you guessed it, it can sense your pulse for 24/7 heart rate monitoring. But why? We hear you ask. Well, it helps with training and running, so you can set different heart rate zones, and also makes sure the tracker is serving up the most accurate data when it comes to calorie burning, sleep and even mood feedback.
Epson Pulsense PS-500 is available from Amazon for £89.
Granted, it’s the oldest tracker in Jawbone’s newly-updated product line-up. But it’s still the one I see on normal people most often (as in, not social media/tech people). It looks like a subtle, bendy bracelet and has an app often considered to be one of the best in the business.
Fitbug Orb is available from Amazon for £36.99.
Each of the wearables has its own USP – for instance, the Epson Pulsense attempts to your read your mood with the help of its heart rate sensor and the Withings Activité Pop has just received a very cool swim tracking update. But for the purpose of this trial, we focused on the key areas: Step Tracking, Sleep Tracking, Run Tracking, How it Looks & Feels and finally the App.
Many of us want a wearable that’s way more than a souped-up pedometer, but that doesn’t mean step tracking is any less important. On days when we can’t or don’t want to exercise, it’s good to know your tracker is still passively keeping tabs on your steps so you can squeeze more in later or up your game the next day.
I set all six trackers going at the same time and below you’ll see how each tracked my day.
So there you have it. Withings seems a little higher than the rest and Jawbone a little lower. So to get a winner I decided to time how long it took the remaining three to process the information about steps – so I could keep tabs throughout the day, compare steps with previous days and get some meaningful data whenever I fancied it from the app.
So I’m judging based on steps accuracy AND syncing with my phone now. iFit required me to delete the app to get the information (more on this later), so that was out of the picture immediately. Both Epson and Fitbug synced eventually, but took their time. So we have a winner.
Winner: Misfit Flash (for both step accuracy and step syncing)
This was probably the most disappointing test. Neither the Fitbug Orb nor the iFit Tracker tracked my sleep. I told the iFit to detect sleep in the app and nothing. I told the Fitbug Orb to track my sleep by tapping the button 3 times and nothing. It’s worth pointing out here that this could be an error on my part, but if it’s not easy to do when you’re about to go to sleep, that’s not a good sign – and automatic sleep tracking should really be a no-brainer.
So here’s the sleep data from the four remaining contenders.
As you can see, the Epson Pulsense managed to keep tabs on the amount of deep sleep I got, but didn’t think I clocked up any light sleep. To be fair to Epson, I was told that sometimes it can take a few days for the monitor to get used to your heart rate. But that was after the trial day and I assumed it would have got used to my heart rate after wearing it all day.
So there’s Epson out of the ring. Of the remaining three, the results were pretty similar. With Misfit and Jawbone getting my sleeping time down to 9 hours 34 minutes and 9 hours 24 minutes. Jawbone was a little under with 8 hours and 51 minutes.
I knew I definitely got up twice during the night, so Withings and Jawbone are looking good here over Misfit – they both picked up that awake time. They also provide a little bit more data too, like how long it takes me to nod off. I’m going with Withings given the overall timing for the night appears to be more accurate from what Misfit picked up too.
Winner: Withings Activité Pop.
I took all six trackers out on a run (yes, I looked awesome and not at all stupid) to see how they fared out in the wild (in Victoria Park). I decided to use the Nike+ Running app as a bit of a control. Granted it’s not the most accurate way of tracking a run, but I always find it to be reliable.
I ran for 15 minutes, which worked out at spot on 2.5km, and tried to get in a mix of very slow jogging and a bit of sprinting right at the end to see what, if anything, could tell the difference.
And at the first hurdle I lost the Epson Pulsense, which was a real shame given its heart rate monitoring credentials. It vibrated a few times as I started running so I assumed it was tracking my heart rate, but then it didn’t track anything or pick up on any activity inside the app. Again, this could be due to the fact it need to “get used” to my pulse – but not a great experience for anyone new to wearables.
Here’s how everything else picked up on my running after I stopped.
The Fitbug and iFit allow you to track your runs after they’ve happened. But then what they do is just transfer the data into your overall steps and activity data. In the Fitbug app it’s classed as aerobic steps, in iFit it just works into the overall stats and gives you a better indication of calories burned.
So let’s take a look at the three remaining trackers. Well, Withings fell quite short. I ran much slower at certain points throughout the fifteen minutes, but definitely not at the start. So I was surprised it didn’t catch that. The Jawbone had to prompt me into telling it that what I just did was a run (you can use the stopwatch feature for even more accuracy), so the winner is (just) the Misfit Flash, for automatically picking up the run, looking pretty accurate in comparison to the Nike+ Running results and for syncing the data within seconds of me opening the app.
Winner: Misfit Flash
How it Looks & Feels
Here’s the bit where it all comes down to personal opinion. As a vague rule, I like simple, sporty-looking stuff. So for me the Misfit Flash is the best, because it’s subtle and looks just as good with my gym gear as it does dressed up on the weekends hiding quietly on my wrist. Comfort-wise it’s fine. But it’s worth pointing out that a few people (Editor Holly included) have noticed that both the Shine and the Flash can pop out of their wristbands unexpectedly. I’ve not experienced this, but it’s worth a mention.
If you like wearing watches, then the Withings Activité Pop could make a great replacement to even the fanciest of timepieces. It looks pretty high-end, I managed to bash the screen quite badly a few times and there isn’t even the faintest sign of a scratch, and I really fell in love with the nice blue/teal shade. It’s also the comfiest of the lot. I checked and it’s made of “a kind of smooth silicone,” which I’m going to translate as the most damn comfy plastic out there. I literally forgot I was wearing it a few times and I hate jewellery and usually rip stuff off after 15 minutes, so that’s a big testament to how it feels.
The Jawbone Up24 is often considered a beauty of the wearable world. But while the bendy form factor is unusual, I just don’t feel like it’s built with human wrists in mind. For starters, it’s kinda rectangular and I don’t know about you, but my wrist isn’t. You do get used to it after a while, but it’s still a little awkward and I contemplated not even wearing it for the sleep test because I’m that precious about feeling uncomfortable during the night. [Ed: I threw my Up24 across the room several times in the night before giving up on it entirely.]
The Epson Pulsense is, let’s face it, big and rather ugly. It looks like something the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew would wear to track their steps. Mind you, it does have to be bigger than the rest because of its heart rate sensing tech.
There’s not much to say about the Fitbug. It’s a small, black orb. It should be as subtle as the Misfit Flash, but sticks out a bit too awkwardly on my wrist, so I opted to wear it on a belt clip most of the time.
Same story with the iFit. This poor fella ain’t winning a beauty contest anytime soon. It looks like an old school pedometer. But I like the fact you can move it between your wrist and a belt clip if you like.
Winner: Withings Activité Pop & Misfit Flash tied depending on your style.
The iFit logged each step throughout the day instantly on its little screen, but when comparing via the app the experience was dire. It just never synced up. I had to delete the app and re-download it about eight times. That was the only way to get it to sync up.
Once you’re in there the experience is a little like a more basic version of the Misfit app, with a wheel to show your progress. But to be honest the last thing I wanted to do was explore the app after re-downloading it a handful of times and jamming my fingers into the buttons in a desperate attempt to make the device SYNC THE HELL UP. Again, this could be just something to do with me, my phone or the tracker I had. But I doubt I’m alone.
Epson PULSENSE View
My experience with the Epson app was similar: I had to re-download the app a few times to see the data and kept getting an error message telling me my login was no longer valid. But I did get a few automatic syncs throughout the day, so it’s definitely a lot better than the iFit.
You can scroll through all kinds of data here, like Mind, Sleep and Exercise.
It really makes the most of its heart-sensing tech too, allowing you to define heart rate targets so you’re alerted via a vibration at the right time.
The Misfit app initially drove me a bit loopy with its rather arbitrary “points” system, but once you’ve customised your goals and toyed with the settings a bit, it’s actually really useful.
For me there’s something about the fact you get the progress wheel at the top and your “story” underneath that just really pleases my brain. It combines two popular features of these kinds of apps into one.
I often wish I could delve a little deeper into the data, but as far as basic activity tracking apps go, it’s one of my all time favourites.
Withings Health Mate
The Withings app is another winner in my book. I’m sometimes mildly irritated by the fact some of the stuff from the day isn’t aligned properly, but I’m willing to put that down to some deep-seated childhood perfectionism thing.
You can go a little further into your sleep and activity charts for the day than you can with Misfit in order to see exact times and intensities of what’s going on, which I bloody love.
The Fitbug app is my favourite for super minimal data. It’s got a layout that’ll be really familiar for anyone who’s a fan of the Fitbit product range, which displays your most important data in five simple blocks on your screen.
If you’re really keen to increase the number of your steps, this is fine. For more you’ll be a bit disappointed.
The Jawbone app, called UP, is similar in style to the Withings app. You scroll down the screen to see your activities over the day, except it doesn’t have any annoying alignment issues.
In the app you can take advantage of Jawbone’s new Smart Coach insight engine, which gives you advice about how to basically be more awesome. At times this was genuinely encouraging, at other times pointless and a bit annoying. But I applaud the brand for actually trying to make the data more meaningful rather than just serving up results and saying HERE YA GO, LAZY, like most others.
It’s also really intuitive and gives you so much control over how the device works, with sleep mode, stopwatch and smart alarm features all accessible from a slide-in window.
And the winner is…
Well, that’s a difficult one. As I said above, it’s all really down to personal preference. Those more serious about fitness might not even look at a device without a heart rate monitor and will likely opt for something more high-end, like the Moov.
Have you got some cash to spare and like things to look nice? Then for simple tracking, some fitness and sleep monitoring I’d say the Withings Activité Pop is a great option, with an app that’s easy to use and a tracker that looks and feels really really good. It also appeals to me because I swim, anything that isn’t waterproof is likely to be taken off at the side of the pool and never put back on again, because: lazy.
On a budget? It’s got to be the Misfit Flash, which has long been one of my favourite trackers. To me it’s the no-frills option I need to help me track what I get up to throughout the day. The app is easy to use, it automatically knows what I’m doing and the data it serves up is just as accurate (if not more, from the trials above) as the more expensive devices. It’s also waterproof, so great for water babies and those who like to swim. If you find it a bit naff-looking, its pricier sibling the Shine is a lot prettier and offers all the same good points.
I’m pretty sure one of the newer Jawbone products might have given the Pop a run for its money, but based on comfort alone it knocks the Jawbone Up24 right out of the water. Sorry fancy, bendy little guy!
For the price, the Fitbug Orb is a cheap and cheerful tracker that actually has a nicer app than some of the top ones. It’s just minimal. The look. The feel. The price. The app. But for some people, especially people who aren’t into tech, this is probably a plus point.
I felt like the Epson Pulsense maybe didn’t get enough of a chance here. I’m willing to admit it might have needed longer to get used to my pulse and could be good for those who want way more data than the standard Misfit and Jawbone audience.
And the iFit just seems a little further behind the rest in terms of design. I feel like it would be a great option if one of my older relatives wanted a tracker to just tell them easily with its screen how many steps they’ve taken. But for me it was the weakest of the bunch.
Congratulations to Withings and Misfit – and may the odds be ever in your favour.