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Android connected fitness trackers - Fitbit or Jawbone Up?



Regular readers will know i've been a Fitbit user for a long time now... just lately i've been putting the Jawbone Up through it's paces too.

Fitbit

The Fitbit is really the grand daddy of fitness trackers now. It's been through a number of different iterations, with the latest range comprising the budget Fitbit Zip, the higher end Fitbit One and the Fitbit Flex wristband (which, like the other models, is actually a little Fitbit module inside an adjustable silicon band).

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All three of the devices share a core feature set - they sync via a computer using a provided Bluetooth 4 dongle (replacing ANT sync on the previous models) and their core function is to count steps. Bluetooth sync to some phones is supported too, but more on that in a minute. The Fitbit One has additional sensors to enable counting of floors and sleep tracking and the Flex can do sleep tracking too, but this comes at the expense of battery life - the Zip uses a replaceable CR2032 cell for battery life of around 6 months whereas the One and Flex need to be charged every 7-10 days.

Only the Zip and the One have displays on allowing you to check on your step count, the Flex instead has a series of LED lights which indicate how far you have progressed towards your goal.

Synchronisation of the Fitbit is an incredibly painless affair. You install the Fitbit software on your PC / Mac, plug in the Bluetooth dongle and it does it's thing in the background. When you come in range of your computer (and it's on of course), your device seamlessly syncs up to the Fitbit cloud. A really neat feature too is that any Fitbit can sync via any computer... we have 3 Fitbits in our house and they can all sync via any of our computers.

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If you have an iPhone, Galaxy S3, Note 2 or S4, you can also sync via the Fitbit app on your phone. Unfortunately this limited device support is the fault of the core Android OS itself, which doesn't have a proper Bluetooth LE API yet (this will change in Android 4.3 after which we'd expect to see much wider support).

As mentioned previously the core functionality of the Fitbit is to count steps, but this data is used together with your height and weight (entered at first setup) to compute calories burned, which is also displayed on the device (with the exception of the display-less Flex of course). You can also check the number of flights of stairs climbed (on the One), distance travelled and the current time. As a standalone little gadget it's pretty cool, but the real value of the product comes with the connected features.

When you view your Fitbit data on the website, you can of course view all the steps / calories / floors / distance data in a larger interface, but you can also log foods consumed and any other activities you've taken part in (cycling etc.) to ensure the site gives a complete representation of your day. An optional (paid) premium account gives you what is effectively an online 'personal trainer' at a cost of £40 a year but to be fair, I don't really think it's worth the spend personally and I suspect only a tiny fraction of Fitbit users sign up.


Where Fitbit really makes a difference is that it gamifies exercise. First and foremost it gives you a daily target for steps - 10,000 by default - and you really feel compelled to hit that target. You'll find yourself walking where you might normally drive, taking longer routes than you normally would and taking the stairs where you'd normally hop in the lift. As a behavioural change it lasts too, you don't return to old habits after a few days. It gets particularly interesting when friends and family have Fitbits too, as by adding them as friends on the Fitbit site you can view a 'league table' and see who has gained the most steps in the last 7 days. Of course, you want to be top. :)

The sleep tracking side of Fitbit on the One (using a cloth wristband) and Flex consists of pressing a button when you go to bed and pressing it again when you wake up. The device will monitor how long you are in bed and using the sensor on the device, try and determine how long you take to get to sleep, the quality of your sleep / number of times you wake based on your movement. A silent (vibrating) alarm function is also included, which is quite a neat way to wake up in the morning without disturbing your partner. This is purely a time based alarm, it doesn't use any sleep cycle tracking.


When you buy into the Fitbit ecosystem, a real plus point is that your data is not locked away. Fitbit provides a very open two way API - many companies have interfaced with this to enhance the experience. You can have your Endomondo exercise pulled straight in, you can have your battery status monitored and get a message in your Android Pushover app telling you when it's low... it's all very smart.

Fitbit is mature, fully featured and works exactly as intended. The main criticism I see levelled at it is that it's 'just an expensive pedometer' and while that's fundamentally what it is, you do get a lot besides... and as the icing on the cake, the customer support really is second to none.

So the Jawbone up has a lot to live up to... how does it compare?

Jawbone Up

Although the Jawbone Up is, like the Fitbit, a fitness tracker whose primary function is to count steps... the reality is that they are also quite different.

While the Fitbit is designed to be a subtle tool hidden away doing it's thing (perhaps with the exception of the Flex, but even that is subtly styled), the Up is more like a piece of jewellery. Available in a number of eye catching colours (as well as black), the water resistant Up is designed to be noticed. Which is fine... if you're happy with that. I have the bright blue model and it's certainly quite 'out there'. It's available in 3 predefined sizes - small / medium / large - rather than being adjustable.


While the Fitbit devices all have a display of some description, the Up does not. It has a LED indication of whether you are in day or night mode, but that's it. To find out anything about your progress, you have to sync the device. One of the best things about a Fitbit is it's effortless wireless sync. On the Up - despite Jawbone being known as 'the Bluetooth company' - sync is performed by physically plugging the band into your Android or iOS phone, via the headphone jack. A cover clips off one end of the band (be careful you don't lose it) revealing a 3.5mm headphone plug. It's not a particularly painful process, but wireless sync does seem like a strange omission. One benefit is improved device compatibility - any Android phone with a headphone socket is supported, including my beloved HTC One. ;)

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The best way to view your Fitbit data is on the website... for the Up there is no website experience, everything is managed from your phone. Food tracking is available as is activity tracking and 'teams' (for competing with your friends).

While Jawbone does have an API, it's relatively closed at the moment. There is support for some third party apps and there is some nice IFTTT integration, but the API isn't available to everyone (yet).

Like the Fitbit the Up has a battery life of around 7-10 days and uses a proprietary USB charger. Both devices charge quickly though, so when you know you're going to be sitting still for a little while, it's not too much of an inconvenience to plug it in.

The sleep features on the Up are actually a little better than you'll find on the Fitbit. I've found the actual data about my sleep more accurate and the silent alarm feature provided is more intelligent - it utilises sleep cycle tracking to wake you within a set window rather than at a specific pre-defined time, aiming to leave you more refreshed than if you happen to be woken during a period of deep sleep. A 'power nap' function lets you get some sleep during the day and have the band wake you after the optimum nap time.


A configurable 'idle alert' function lets you set the band to vibrate if you stay still for a specified amount of time... if I haven't moved in an hour (sitting at the computer or whatever) I set my band to vibrate and I go for a wander. Quite cool, I get extra steps then too. :)

Can you really count steps accurately on a wrist?

One of the biggest questions I had when the Up arrived and i'd been using the Fitbit was... is it really possible to count steps accurately on a wrist? As it turns out... yes, I'd say it is. Wearing the Fitbit and the Up at the same time the two devices were always around the same step count, which to be honest, I really didn't expect. When you're choosing which one to buy, I wouldn't consider that as a factor.

Which one should I buy?

Ah, the big question. The answer is... it depends. Look at the subtle differences between the features and decide which one works best with how you're likely to use it. For example, if you don't want a wristband, the Fitbit is a no-brainer. If you don't use a PC much and want to sync via your phone (and you don't use a Samsung!), then the Jawbone is a must have.

The most powerful factor though is - what device do you friends use? If you have friends with one of the devices, buy that one so you can compete against them. Sadly (for now), competing is very siloed to a specific service, so bear that in mind. One thing to consider is that if you are blazing a trail hoping friends and family will join in, the cost of entry is cheaper with a Fitbit by virtue of the lower priced Zip device.

How much? Where to buy

The Jawbone Up has a £99.99 RRP, the Fitbit Zip / One and Flex devices are priced at £54.94 / £79.99 / £89.99 respectively. Note that the Fitbit Flex is currently in high demand and short supply (it is a new product).

Head on over to Amazon to purchase the Jawbone Up, or MobileFun to buy the Fitbit range.

About the author

PaulOBrien's Photo
Paul O'Brien founded MoDaCo in 2002 as a site focused on Windows Smartphones and has grown it since then by concentrating on providing a friendly community for both experienced and beginner mobile enthusiasts.

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2 Comments

I've had a fitbit for about 18 months (well two actually - I lost one Ultra and Fitbit replaced it FOC - hows that for customer service..) and they're great. My two comments would be if you are interested in the sleep tracking go for one of the wrist bands, remembering to get the sleeve when you are in bed is a bother. Also I paid for Premium for a year - not sure what use it was at all. I'm going to replace my Ultra with a Flex when I loose it or it breaks
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The FitBit might have great customer service, but only in a few selected countries. I can't even download the Android app from the play store, despite the fact that I was able to buy the FitBit One from Amazon UK, so they've became a "no go" for me. If they don't want their products to be sold throughout the European Union, I assume they could ask Amazon to ship it only in the UK, Germany, France and whatever.
Also, I have to rant a bit about the sleep feature: it's nice that it can wake you up in the morning, but it's annoying that you can't disable the wake up from the device, or at least have the option to disable the wake up if you didn't start the sleep tracking (in the morning, it will start vibrating in your pocket or God knows where, even if you don't wear it and didn't start the sleep tracking).
Another thing, it would be very nice to implement a kind of "learning" feature, e.g. teach the Fitbit what's your walking/running/whatever pattern (in terms of movement) and filter the other patterns (driving a car, blah blah). Maybe not on the device, I assume it's limited in terms of memory and processing power, but at least when you upload your data to the website.
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