Fitness exhibitionism is nothing new. MTV yoked its arrival in 1983 when it rode a lusty Olivia Newton John video for Physical to a Grammy award. Hollywood's A-list followed in 1985's Perfect, with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis starring in one of the 100 most enjoyable bad movies ever made. Thirty years and several tons of unwanted national poundage later, we find social media conspiring with wearable fitness devices to create the conditions for data voyeurism. This desire to have a deeper view into one's own body — while simultaneously being seen — has set the stage for an unprecedented explosion of digital narcissism, ripe for corporate exploitation.
Sporting goods companies like Adidas and Nike were first to heed the call. The Nike+ ecosystem of devices, services, and apps, in particular, including the recently launched FuelBand we reviewed last month, is leading the way. Newcomers like Jawbone tried and failed to upset the incumbents with the bungled launch of the Up fitness band. That leaves Fitbit as one of the best threats to unseat the establishment with its well-received Fitbit Ultra wireless activity and sleep tracker I reviewed back in October. A position fortified by today's retail debut of the company's Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi scale.
As you'd expect, the Aria scale takes advantage of its Wi-Fi connection to automatically send your weight (in pounds, kilograms, or stones) to the fitbit.com tracking site each time you or another family member steps onto the device. But unlike most scales, Aria also measures and tracks your Body Mass Index (BMI) and even your body fat percentage — the latter achieved by coursing a small electrical current through your body. And like the Fitbit Ultra, the company motivates healthy behavior by rewarding owners with software badges when they reach weight goals or demonstrate healthy behavior. Personal health data can even be shared with friends or like-minded members of the Fitbit community. But can any scale, even one this advanced, really be worth $129.95 to anyone but the self-obsessed?
Hardware / design
Designed by the same company behind the Lytro Light Field Camera
The scale looks elegant enough to justify its price tag, thanks to the industrial design chops of San Francisco-based NewDealDesign, the same company behind the Fitbit Ultra and Lytro Light Field Camera. Aria is stylish without being brash and the choice of black or white should help it blend into any master bath decor. A quarter-inch-thick sheet of tempered glass appears, at times, to float atop a solid one-inch-thick base of beveled ABS plastic. It's also reassuringly heavy, weighing in at nearly 4.5 pounds. And despite its similarity to the Withings Wi-Fi Body scale first introduced in 2009, we're told that Aria is unique "from the ground up" and definitely not a rebranded white-label product.
The glass surface is pressed with a symmetrical squircle pattern undoubtedly inspired by the vintage paper adorning the walls of trendy Mission-area bars nearby Fitbit's San Francisco offices. But that retro-chic facade has purpose: the squircles hide four sets of ITO electrodes required to shoot a small — 180 micro amps, small — imperceptible current up one leg and down the other to measure body impedance, and thus, your body's fat versus lean mass composition. Naturally, conduction will only work if you're standing barefoot on the scale and requires dry feet to take a proper measurement (though we tested straight from the shower without any notable deviation). Don't worry, the signal is safe even for pregnant women, although Fitbit does warn that it's not suitable for anyone fitted with a pacemaker.
The squircles hide four sets of electrodes that shoot a small current up one leg and down the other
The top is slick, but not slippery, even when standing on it with damp feet (a non-adhesive sticker warns "slippery when wet" when removing the scale from its packaging). Fitbit recommends placing the scale on a hard, flat surface as it will lose accuracy on soft floorings like carpet.
The scale is buttonless, although it will respond to surface taps to change user profiles if it's not sure who is standing on the scale (more on that later).
Power is provided by four AA batteries already preinstalled in the compartment at the bottom of the scale -- removing a small plastic tab from the battery bay starts the flow of electrons required for setup. As such, you won't need to open the battery bay until you replace the batteries after about six months of usage according to Fitbit's estimates.
Aria connects to your home 802.11b/g Wi-Fi network only when needed, and supports WEP / WPA / WPA2 personal security. The IP is assigned over DHCP (static IP is not supported) allowing the scale to synchronize data with your personal fitbit.com account and the free iPhone and Android apps.
The Aria scale is suitable for a single person or an entire household of up to eight people
Removing the yellow paper tab from the battery compartment throws the scale into setup mode causing Aria's backlit LCD display to scroll a series of welcome and setup instructions, three and a half excruciating letters at a time. Thankfully, the actual setup is accomplished via PC or Mac software downloaded from the fitbit.com site, or via a mobile website for use by smartphones.
I setup my review unit from the mobile website using an iPhone. From there I had to sign in to my existing fitbit.com account, assign a name to the scale (you can have multiple in your home), enter my initials to display on Aria's LCD as well as my body type (regular or lean). I was then prompted to create a direct connection to the Aria in order to join it to my home Wi-Fi network. The onscreen instructions were clear and the scale was up and connected to my home network in just a few minutes.
The Aria scale is suitable for a single person or an entire household of up to eight people. While anyone can walk up to the Aria and weigh himself, a registered fitbit.com account is required to measure BMI and body fat percentages and to graph progress. The weight of unregistered users is sent anonymously to your fitbit.com account and registered under "guest" — however, unless you have dozens of people weighing themselves throughout the day it's pretty easy to identify who this guest is by the time stamp. Something that an overly sensitive house guest might take issue with.
After sending invitations via email from my fitbit.com account, each member of my household was required to create a private fitbit.com account. Then I could go into the device settings on my fitbit.com dashboard and retroactively assign all the anonymous "guest" weight data to the appropriate family member. The scale is suitable for children over 20 pounds. However, Fitbit says that body fat percentages might not be accurate for children under 10.
The process of inviting and linking household members is clumsy and requires that each household member has a unique email address — something your ten-year old may not have (mine did). Unfortunately, there's no way to add all the family members at once even though we're perfectly willing to share our weight data with one another. I can't fault Fitbit for erring on the side of privacy but it does seem to be an extreme position for most household setups.
In my family, consisting of two adults and three growing kids, Aria had no problem automatically identifying each person with 100 percent accuracy. Fitbit does offer an interactive user interface that could come in handy when the device is shared in a college dorm room or apartment, where residents are likely to have similar weights. In the case where any two household members are within about eight pounds of each other, Fitbit prods the user to tap his or her toe upon the glass to toggle through the possible names. Once the correct name is displayed the person just need to stand still to capture the data. Data is private for each user by default and is sent directly to fitbit.com — there's no way to pull up a person's history and display it on the scale's LCD.
Aria snaps to life with a fluctuating measurement of your weight just as soon as you step onto it. Five to seven seconds are required to lock the weight in (visualized with an arcing progress meter) and take a barefoot reading of your body fat percentage (you'll get a stern "?" if you're wearing socks, slippers, or shoes). You can then step off of the Aria as you would a typical standalone scale and watch it display your body fat percentage and nickname. It then repeats the information before making the Wi-Fi connection and sending your data into the cloud. The whole process takes about 30 seconds. You can now view your data on fitbit.com or your iPhone or Android phone just as soon you sync the apps. Although Fitbit doesn't provide an iPad app, the fitbit.com website is reasonably tablet friendly and features several swipeable panels. Unfortunately, some of the graphs can only be viewed with Adobe Flash.
While far from scientific, I did cross-reference the Aria's weight readings with a few other scales and its measurements were consistent. Regardless, the Fitbit regimen isn't focused on discrete data points but on the overall trend of your body composition. In that respect, the Aria easily trumps its more pedestrian peers.
In my testing, the Wi-Fi connection was successful about 75 percent of the time, although my review scale sits at the outermost reaches of my Wi-Fi access point (measuring just one reception bar on my phones). Not to worry, the data won't be lost — it's stored until the next successful connection can be established for synchronization.
The big letters and numbers displayed on Aria's backlit LCD are easily viewable in nearly all lighting situations, day or night. However, I did my own testing in a master bath fitted with a large skylight that made the Aria difficult to read on especially sunny days. Granted, few people are likely to have a similar setup or the desire to weigh themselves in the middle of the afternoon.
Generally speaking, graphs and charts available on the fitbit.com Dashboard provide a meaningful view into my body composition and fitness activity (when coupled with the Fitbit Ultra). The iOS and Android apps are limited to high-level views and on-the-go data entry for meals.
The fitbit.com website, however, is plagued by a lack of obviousness, especially when you dig deeper into the logs. For example, the default "week" graph that tracks your weight resets each Sunday, instead of progressively adjusting itself to show the last seven days of data. This can be unnerving when you check your body graph on Sunday morning to find your data points have disappeared and your progress has been reset to zero. I thought my weight data had been lost before realizing that Fitbit was reseting the weekly view to the week ahead (which begins on Sunday by default). The entry panel for logging sleep is especially confusing and looks like it was created in Excel. These little niggles exist throughout the site much as they did when I last reviewed it in October. The whole site, in fact, is due for an overhaul.
The whole process takes about 30 seconds
Tracking the minutia of your body composition becomes a sort of game with the Aria Wi-Fi scale, egged on by Fitbit's quirky badges, goals, and the ability to expose your data to friends and strangers alike on a variety of social media platforms. While the Aria scale can be used separately from the $99.95 Fitbit Ultra fitness and sleep tracker, combined they provide an unparalleled view into your overall fitness level that could motivate some to lead a more active and healthy lifestyle. It certainly works for me.
There's something oddly motivational about seeing my sleep patterns and food intake mapped against the caloric expenditures (captured by my Fitbit Ultra) and body composition (measured by the Aria). It motivates me to get off the couch and merrily climb stairs or walk to the market — activities I might otherwise avoid or moan about. While I don't share my data publicly, I still feel an insecure desire to impress those Fitbit graphs incessantly judging my body from behind their liquid crystal gaze.
Priced at $129.95, only the morbidly self-obsessed or those under direct doctor's order would consider Aria a bargain. It does cost $30 less than the nearly identical Withings Wi-Fi Body Scale first introduced in 2009, but more than twice as much as standalone scales offering similar body composition measurements. That's not to say it's not worth the price, it's just not a decision you should make without understanding how you'll incorporate the Fitbit ecosystem into your own life.