“Fitbit, Apple Watch, or Jawbone. What should I get?”
This question, a real one my mom asked me a couple weeks ago, nearly made me launch into an hour-long conversation about wearables. I haven’t felt that way about a tech question since the iPhone first came out. In two short sentences, she expressed both the conventional wisdom about wearables and everything that’s complicated about it. Everybody expects smartwatches to take over the functions of stand-alone fitness trackers because we’ve seen this story before. Smartphones ate up MP3 players, point-and-shoot cameras, and Gameboys. If the Apple Watch is going to do the same kind of thing, we may as well get on board now.
Well, wait a minute. Actually, maybe wait a year or two.
I think stand-alone fitness trackers have a few good years left in them before smartwatches render them obsolete. I feel that way mainly because I’ve been using the Jawbone Up2 fitness tracker for about a week now. Before that, I’d been using Jawbone Up24 since Christmas — and the Up2 is basically a smaller, better version of it. Although there are a few things I don’t love about the Up2, on the whole there are benefits to it that aren’t easily dismissed, especially compared to a smartwatch.
The Up2 is small — Jawbone says it’s 45 percent smaller than last year’s Up24, and I believe it. But more than raw size is the design: it has a more comfortable, more flexible strap and a better-looking module for the electronics. Like the Up24 before it, the Up2 was designed by Yves Behar to have an attractive aluminum casing. I like the crosshatch pattern, and I like that the three indicator lights are hidden underneath it, only lighting up when you need them. The design does a nice job of being attractive enough when you look at it, but nondescript enough that you don’t have to.
The only real bad part is the clasp. It’s easy to adjust when you need to. But the thing you do more often is, you know, clasp it, and I find it’s fiddly and kind of annoying. I guess the best thing I can say is that it encourages me to leave the little thing on my wrist.
The whole point of the Up2 is to quietly track your basic physical activity, a job it tackles without hassling you. It tracks steps, sure, but the real magic of the Up2 (and with any Jawbone fitness device) is the Up software on your phone. It’s great. It automatically figures out whether you’ve been sleeping or exercising and alerts you when you want it to so you can enter the relevant info on your workouts. You can program smart alarms that set the Up2 to vibrate when you’re coming out of a deep sleep. You can program in little "get up and move around" alerts. You can enter your meals in too, if you really want to track those.
It’s a good thing the software on the phone is so good, because interacting with the Up2 itself is kind of pointless. You don’t need to, for one, since the software usually guesses whether you’re exercising or walking or sleeping on its own. For two, interacting with the Up2 requires you to use an unintuitive double-tap-and-hold-your-finger-down gesture to switch from active to sleeping modes. Like the clasp, it’s fussy, and after a day or two I stopped bothering with it.
The best part about the hardware? The battery life. I’ve had it on for a week and haven’t charged it a single time. I’ve got about two more days left, according to the app. Among smartwatches, only the Pebble comes close to that, and it can’t do the kind of advanced fitness tracking the Up2 can. Unlike most smartwatches, you don’t have to think about charging it every night, and you can leave it on for sleep tracking.
Unfortunately, the Up2 isn’t totally waterproof, just water-resistant. It’s fine for sweat or rain or the shower, of course, but to be honest I’m really shocked that Jawbone couldn’t make this more useful for swimmers. There’s no heart rate monitor, so there’s no good hardware reason beyond cost not to waterproof this thing. The charging contacts also theoretically shouldn’t preclude waterproofing. They’re external now, but you have to align it the right way for the magnets to catch. It’s a better system than the Up24’s plug, though, since there’s no more stupid charging cap to lose.
But cost might be the most important part of the Up2: it starts at $99.99. That’s much cheaper than almost any smartwatch you can buy right now. It means you can get the benefits of a fitness tracker without committing yourself to a big investment or, honestly, learning how to use a whole new gadget. Truth be told, a hundred bucks seems high for the Up2. You’re paying for the quality, the design, and access to the software, and you’ll need to think about whether it all adds up to being worth it. For me, it does. But if you’re looking to spend less, getting a discounted Up24 might not be a terrible option.
I’m a smartwatch guy — but then again I was a smartphone guy long before the iPhone was first announced. We all watched smartphones change the world, and a lot of people are hoping smartwatches can do it again. I’m not so sure, but luckily you don’t have to commit to a smartwatch just to get the benefits of a fitness tracker. Instead, you can spend much less and wait to see whether this watch thing is really ready for you (or vice versa).
Hi mom! Here’s your answer: If you want basic activity and sleep tracking, get the Jawbone Up2.