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Stay fit: Jawbone Up24 and Nike+ FuelBand SE review

Get your ass in gear — and keep it there

Photography by Chris Welch

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There was a time in my life when I recorded every piece of food I ate and every step I took. I kept a meal and exercise journal — an actual journal — before I had one on my computer. Once online tools like LoseIt! and MyFitnessPal became popular, I tried a slew of those. I’ve had too many pedometers to count. All of those things helped me monitor my food intake and exercise, showing me all the calories I consumed, all the miles I walked, and other metrics I never fully understood but knew were important. But I never stuck with any of them.

Gabriel Koepp, the program manager of research operations at Arizona State University’s Obesity Solutions center, tells me I’m not alone: 90 percent of people who try some kind of fitness trackers stick with it for three weeks to two months, he says, and then stop using it. “It’s cool to see at first,” Koepp says, “but then the information the device gives a user isn't valuable anymore and people lose interest.” That still leaves 10 percent, who he says will use one tracker to make lasting change in their lives. The brand of tracker is nearly irrelevant — for some people, all they need is a constant reminder of their progress, and that’s enough to keep them on track for years. This can work.

Now, companies are fighting to win over people like me — the 90 percent. The way to do that is to make an experience that is simple and understandable (no, those things are not synonymous) while making the same data more and more relevant. The Jawbone Up24 and the Nike+ Fuelband SE are both trying to do this — the Up24 wants to wow you with data you didn’t know you wanted, and the FuelBand SE makes movement a game. All I need is one I'll keep wearing.

Jawbone Up24: advanced metrics

It’s difficult to tell the Jawbone Up24 from its predecessor. The new band looks almost exactly like the old one, but now it only comes in black and a dusty orange persimmon color. The design is pretty comfortable; the only time I ever found it cumbersome was the first time I slept with it on, but it took me just one night to get used to it. It coils around your wrist and has the main power button on one end, and a removable cap on the other that hides the plug for charging via an included USB adaptor.

You only need to plug the Up24 in every 7 to 10 days when you need more power. Wireless syncing is the only technical difference between the Up24 and the previous model, but it makes all the difference. It means that you don’t have to fuss with the cap and USB adaptor every time you sync data, and it gives the band data to work with far more often. While the feature isn’t perfect — my iPhone 5 sometimes took a while to locate the band — it works well most of the time. After I put on the band for the first time, I forgot about it for days as it worked in the background of my life, which is exactly what Jawbone needed to do.

Currently the Jawbone app is only iOS compatible, but Jawbone tells me an Android version will be released in early 2014. It shows your sleep and activity scores on the home page, displayed as percentages of your set goal. Sleep tracking remains one of the Up24’s best features: it helped me to know how long I was in deep sleep versus light sleep, and that I woke up a few times during the night. I never remembered waking up, but having the Up24 tell me I did helped me understand why I was tired the next morning, and helped me decide how much earlier I should go to sleep the next night to catch up.

Jawbone gives you a lot of data and hopes something will stick

The Up24’s regular activity tracking gives you lots of data in hopes that at least one piece will trigger you to be more active. Personally, when I saw one day that my longest active time was 30 minutes and my longest idle time was 59 minutes, I wanted to walk around my office to bring up my active time. And at the end of the day, my activity numbers alone were enough to make me feel victorious (or defeated).

The only activities you have to input yourself are workouts. The list of exercises you can track is similar to any workout app, tracking cross training, weight lifting, cardio workouts, and Pilates. But during my elliptical workout, I was surprised that both the Up24 and the elliptical reported a similar number of calories burned. I was not expecting a tracker and an exercise machine to give me comparable numbers; exercise machines have been known to be notoriously inaccurate. Koepp told me that devices now have the ability to be 90 percent accurate when calculating caloric expenditure, so while those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, they can be a measurement of success.

But the biggest surprise of the Jawbone Up24 came in a very small package — on the home screen are little cards labeled with “today I will,” “try this,” “a closer look,” and “did you know.” They each give you bits of information and ideas to make your data work for you. “Today I Will” tries to get you to do set goals to, say, drink eight glasses of water a day, and “Did You Know” gives you tips from medical professionals, like how to make a breakfast that won’t make you feel sluggish by midmorning. These cards help the Up24 do something much better than similar devices: telling you what to do with your data.

In small ways, the Up24 is trying to be more than just a tracker

These are only a few of the push notifications you can choose to receive, which also include a summary of your workout, milestone notifications, and a daily “move reminder.” It turned my relationship with my health tracker into a partnership — the Up24 tracks my data and presents it to me with more information that could help me get healthier, and then I’m left to listen to what the device is saying and take action, which is much easier to do when the device is actually saying something. In this sense, Up24 is trying in a small way to be more than just a tracker. Most people will not have the initiative, or the time, to look up what the next step could be to make them healthier. While the Up24 isn’t advanced at this yet, it’s trying to make information like this effortlessly and immediately accessible to users.

Nike+ FuelBand SE: everything’s a game

Like the new Jawbone, the Nike+ FuelBand SE doesn’t look very different from its previous model, aside from the new neon green, pink, and red accent colors. (It comes in plain black as well, if you’re not into Nike’s flashier options.) Its rubbery matte finish looks like a Livestrong bracelet, and its 100-dot LED display can easily be read in full daylight and is even faster to scroll through than the previous model. Its snap closure can be a little tricky — it sometimes pinched my skin — but it does come in three sizes so you can get the best fit for your wrist.

The initial setup of the Nike+ Fuelband SE is much more laborious than the Up24. You have to make an account on Nike’s website, download the Nike+ Connect software to your computer, then plug the FuelBand into the computer to pair it with your account. From the desktop software, you can set goals, reminders, and all your personal information, and then pair your FuelBand with the mobile app. It’s a lot of work, and after the short and sweet setup of the Up24, it seemed like a lot of unnecessary work.

Fuel points remove the noise of too much data

The entire FuelBand experience has an athletic feel. The app’s interface is based solely on the Fuel point system, which quantifies the activities you perform rather than the energy you expend by measuring the oxygen uptake the body needs to complete an activity. Fuel has always been Nike’s way of setting its band apart from other trackers, and it does so in two ways: it removes the noise of calories, steps, and other metrics that overwhelm other trackers, and its purpose is to make you want to increase your Fuel points the next day. Nike wants to make your data so easy to understand that you’ll want to one-up yourself constantly, without having to think about how to do so. You have the option to see smaller bits of scientific data, but the point of Fuel is to simply be a bar you have to raise every day. It’s a gamification of activity, and for people who are always in that competitive mindset, earning more Fuel each day is motivation enough to keep going.

Nike also claims the FuelBand can recognize different activities by using its accelerometer to detect motion on three different axes. It says this allows the band to know when you’re playing basketball versus walking around the block, and will give you a more accurate number of Fuel points based on the activity. You can monitor chunks of active time with the new “sessions” feature: at the start of a session, you pick the activity you’re doing from the app’s list and then just do it. When you’re finished, you press the button on the band or manually end the session from inside the app. The activity choices, however, show how sports-focused the device is. The most generic choices are training and running, and the rest are sports like baseball, basketball, soccer, and snowboarding — if you’re not doing something on the list, you can’t make a session out of it. Sessions is supposed to allocate your Fuel points even more accurately since you tell it which activity you’re doing, however in my testing, whether or not I started a session to track my run didn’t make much difference — I gained basically the same amount of Fuel points both ways. Then I tried to report my run as a basketball session, but the Fuel points and the number of calories burned were the same. I was expecting it to adjust my points automatically when a different activity was reported for a session, but that didn’t happen.

The new app also has an “hours won” feature that will light up the band’s screen urging you to “go” once every hour; you’ll “win” every hour that you were active for five minutes. I thought this would be easy to achieve at first, but my regular office activities like getting up to go to the restroom and walking to see the video team one floor down were not enough to win hours. The most successful attempt I had was going out to buy lunch, and even then I had to take my time. Also, I missed some of the FuelBand’s hourly reminders when my wrist was turned just enough to put the screen out of my view. A vibration option would have been helpful to pair with the “Go Valentina!” light notifications — maybe then it would have annoyed me enough to get me out of my chair.

FuelBand needs a vibration alert as well as its display alert

You can also track your sleeping with a “sleep” session, but it’s not designed to help you get more shut-eye. A sleep session tells you when you fell asleep, when you woke up, and how many Fuel points you gained during the night. In fact, the more you move during sleep, the more Fuel points you gain — it’s essentially rewarding you for a restless night’s sleep. I didn’t even bother wearing it to bed most of the time.

I don’t think I appreciated the full experience of the FuelBand SE because I’m not a hardcore athlete — and the band doesn’t do enough to make me one. Still, athletes and sports enthusiasts will get a lot of use out of the Fuelband SE’s social features like trophies, friends, and groups that let you compete against others and share your progress in real time with teammates and other people.

A little fitness tracker, trying to be more

Both the Jawbone Up24 and the Nike+ FuelBand SE speak to me — quite literally — but neither of them do enough to make me want to shell out $149. The Up24 gave me bits of advice to make my data work for me, and the FuelBand SE patted me on the back when I gained more Fuel points. They both spoke, but I only really listened to one. The minimalist design and the bold yet simple UI of the Jawbone won me over, and its little info cards with nuggets of helpful information added not only to the overall experience, but to my life. Unfortunately, Nike Fuel is too abstract for me — but, if you prefer to treat fitness as a game, or just want to move more on a daily basis, Nike helps you do that a very simplified way.

Unfortunately, neither band gave me enough advice or added information to make tracking my data constantly worth it. The fitness trackers that will stand apart from the rest are the ones that can make your data more relevant over time. The best way of doing that has yet to be figured out, both Jawbone and Nike are trying to make activity data more timely over time by narrowing in on personality. Arizona State’s Gabriel Koepp told me that those who use one activity tracker religiously — the 10 percent — don’t experiment with other trackers because the one they have works best for them. What Jawbone and Nike are trying to do is convert as many people from the 90 percent to the 10 percent by targeting those who have personalities best fit for each device. Are you someone who responds better to fortune cookie-like cards of advice, or someone who prefers gaining more points than yesterday and showing off to your friends? If you’re either, the Up24 or the FuelBand SE could be your ticket to the 10 percent.

But as they stand right now, neither the Jawbone Up24 or the Nike FuelBand SE are comprehensive enough to help users form healthier, long-term habits, or long-term attachments to the devices themselves. The activity tracker that can think about what my health will look like one day, one month, or one year down the road, and can give me advice about it today, will be the one to earn a permanent spot on my wrist.

An athlete's bracelet with a simple system