Flex, UP, FuelBand: Functions

Let’s take a look at what these products actually do. As stated earlier, these are “activity monitors” and they rely on a combination of an accelerometer and algorithms to recognize and interpret natural human motion. Doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds – without any “learning” these devices are expected to reliably tell the difference between a friendly wave and a stride, a coughing fit from a few quick steps, and when tracking sleep, the difference as your body oscillates between deep sleep and regular, lighter sleep.

All three products count steps, yet they also claim to count calories, and/or distance. These additional metrics are estimated using simple math – when you initially setup these devices you’re asked for basic information like height, weight, age, gender, etc. For example, to derive calories burned, the steps detected are factored in with standardized values for say, a 40 year old man who’s six feet tall and 190 pounds. For distance, “your” standardized values are factored in with steps detected. Let’s say our 40 year old’s average step length is 30 inches long. He then takes ten steps, and his trusty activity monitor tells him he traveled 25 feet. This figure is an estimate – we’re all different, even all 40 year old men who’re six feet tall and 190 pounds. Only the Jawbone UP allows users to calibrate the device and personalize these estimates. The result is greater accuracy, but it’s still an estimate (we won’t be getting into measuring the precision of these products – that would take an intense reverse-engineering process and probably violate a lot of intellectual property along the way).

The criteria for the Functions category are below. In several instances, none of the devices perform the function – that’s because these devices are evolving rapidly, there’s overlap with other, relevant product categories (blood pressure monitors, heart rate monitors, glucometers, etc.), and it’s difficult to know the “right” feature set at this point in time. The criteria themselves will evolve over time, to keep pace with the products and the market’s evolution.

FUNCTIONS CriteriaFitbit FlexJawbone UPNike+ FuelBand
Recovery Time000
Idle alert010

There aren’t too many surprises here – all get credit for tracking steps and calories, but the Flex and the UP also track sleep patterns. As discussed, the combination of accelerometers and algorithms are suited to detecting human motion – and your motions change when you’re asleep. Both products have to be placed in “sleep” mode (that means you’re sleeping, not the device), which probably alters how your movements are interpreted in some fundamental way.

The Flex is somewhat maddening to use. It uses four small LED’s to communicate, and user inputs come in the form of taps. Two taps will display your goal progress, tapping for one to two seconds puts it into sleep mode, and the way the LED’s blink (as in, how many are blinking, which ones are blinking, are any blinking at all) is supposed to communicate progress and status.

The Up communicates in a similarly opaque manner, although the convenience of an actual button helps. Likewise, since only two different hieroglyphs light up, it’s easier to remember what they mean. Still, neither of these products is as clear or intuitive as the FuelBand, which uses actual words like “CALS”, “STEPS”, and “TIME”. Oddly, just the fact that the FuelBand can also serve as a wristwatch raises its day-to-day utility significantly – although it only gets one point for this function.

Aside from tracking sleep patterns, the Flex and the UP also provide an alarm function. Both claim to be able to wake the wearer at the “ideal” time. For example, if you want to wake up at 7AM you can program either device to wake you up during a defined “window” of time. Then, based on some algorithmic thought process, the device will vibrate and wake you up at the “optimal” moment during this window. In a limited trial, the Flex and the UP seemed to go off at the specified must-wake time and the idea of a “window” seemed superfluous.

Lastly, the UP can be programmed to provide an alert if you’ve been idle for a specified period. This period can be set from minutes to hours and for some, it might be a very helpful reminder to get up and move.

Next up: Personalization.


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