Fitness bands are tech’s latest fashion moment.
Riding a wave that started with Nike’s SportBand in 2008 (and even its yellow ‘Livestrong’ bracelets), they’re now on the wrists of everyone from catwalk queens to pavement plodders.
But while they make a nice badge that says 'rotund but trying', are they actually useful? The three main players – the Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up and Nike FuelBand – all track your daily movements using accelerometers and send this info to smartphone apps. They're also all quite different.
While the Up and Flex (soon to be joined by display-equipped Fitbit Force in January 2014) have a broader ‘lifetracking’ aim that covers sleep and diet, the second-gen FuelBand SE refines its predecessor’s focus on activity tracking and social bragging.
As you’d expect from Nike, it’s aiming to be a fitness band for the lycra-inclined.
Toned rather than bulked
The SE makes only minor hardware tweaks to the original FuelBand. There are now four colours (yellow, pink, orange and black), though these are only the shade of the band’s accents – on the wrist, all are effectively black. With three sizes and the ability to adjust the fit further with the bundled 'link', getting it comfortable takes a few minutes.
There are two other physical changes. The FuelBand SE has better water-resistance, which means it’s fine with a daily shower (though, sadly, not swimming). And connectivity is now via low-energy Bluetooth 4.0, which helps boost battery life to the upper end of Nike’s four-day estimate. With average use, you’ll need to recharge twice a week – about average for today’s fitness bands.
A smoother engine
The SE's biggest changes come with its FuelBand app. This is iOS-only, and Nike says there are currently no plans to bring it to Android – a bit of a downer considering the Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex are both Android-friendly.
Before tackling the app’s changes, it's worth recapping how the FuelBand works. Inside the band is a three-axis accelerometer. When you (or, more specifically, your wrist) move about, it logs the movement and converts it into Nike's cross-sport scoring system called 'NikeFuel'. Set yourself a daily NikeFuel target, and one press of the band’s button will tell you your score on its impressive LED display.
Previously, the FuelBand could only gather your points and provide a daily total – not great if you wanted to see how you or your friends faired on yesterday's run.
So now the band and app have a new feature called 'Sessions'. Hold down the band's button, then press again, and it'll start a segment of exercise that you can later label and compare to previous workouts in the same category.
Missing the target
This is an improvement and marks the FuelBand out as the sportiest of the fitness bands. But there is a problem. Because NikeFuel relies solely on the bands' accelerometer, it has a big bias towards activities that involve arm movement.
Some examples. A shower gave us 106 points and a brisk walk to the shops 448 points. But at the gym, a ten-minute rowing session produced only 150 points and a ten-minute cycle just 12 points.
Nike has improved the algorithms that decide how many points each activity earns, but the estimates are, inevitably, quite rough. For more accurate step counts you really need a foot pod (such as the Nike+ sensor, which crazily isn't FuelBand-compatible) and measuring intensity ideally requires GPS or a heart-rate monitor.
The loneliness of the FuelBand runner
Of course, the FuelBand SE is aimed at beginners rather than marathon trainers. And it isn't necessarily any less accurate than its rivals. But a discreet, versatile alternative to a GPS watch it isn’t. There’s also something a bit odd about a supposed multisport accessory being incompatible with cycling, swimming and most gym equipment.
This wouldn't be such an issue if Nike allowed other apps to compensate for the FuelBand’s weaknesses. But unlike the Jawbone and Fitbit worlds, which let you import data from apps such as Strava and MyFitnessPal, planet FuelBand is completely closed. We prefer our fitness engines to run on more than just Nike gas.
This closedness does bring one small benefit, though – a smoother, simpler social experience. If you have FuelBand friends, you can now sort them into ‘Groups‘ and scroll through their activities in the app as if it were a sporty Twitter feed. The relatively level playing field of NikeFuel points gives this feature a glanceable simplicity.
We draw the line, though, at taking photos on our runs, stamping them with a Nike swoosh and sharing them on social networks – unless you like feeling like a human billboard for sports brands.
Tetris for exercise
Aside from its social features, the FuelBand SE’s other big strength is motivating you with rewards. If you’ve turned on ‘move reminders’, a new feature called ‘win the hour‘ urges you to stay active for five consecutive minutes every, um, hour.
It might sound annoying, but virtual trophies like this are surprisingly good at compelling you to, say, walk rather than hop on a bus. Nike has also cleverly designed the app so that some trophies need to be ‘unlocked’.
This means the FuelBand is capable of giving its owners a shot of what game designers call ‘fiero‘, or that feeling you get when a Tetris line vanishes. That, for beginner athletes, provides potentially waist-reducing addictiveness.
The FuelBand SE isn’t enough of an evolution to keep Nike at the top of the fitness band tree. If you’re already motivated to exercise, you don’t need it. And if you aren’t, there are other bands such as the £80 Fitbit Flex that offer extra features (such as sleep-tracking and third party app support), for £50 less.
That said, its strong social features mean it’s worth considering if you already have friends using the NikeFuel system. And the clever rewards are a good short-term fitness motivator.