Under Armour is a hugely successful brand that was built on deviation from the norm: its founder famously made the company’s first microfiber, moisture-wicking shirt in his basement, shirking the sweat-soaked cotton that he and his fellow athletes were wearing at the time.
Which is why it’s surprising that the company’s new HealthBox is filled with digitally connected fitness goodies that have all in some way been done before. The HealthBox starts shipping on January 22nd for $400, and includes an activity-tracking wristband, a chest-based heart rate strap, and a scale that wirelessly sends your weight data to an Under Armour app. All of these products have been made in collaboration with smartphone maker HTC, which shelved its earlier plans for a UA-branded wearable and seemingly has decided to put all of its wearable efforts into this basket (box).
If you don’t want to buy the whole HealthBox, you can buy the stuff separately. But I’m not convinced they’re worth the $400, or even as individual purchases. I experienced a fair amount of accuracy and connectivity issues with the devices. They feel like products unfinished, an attempt at bundling a bunch of products together to make them special.
The valuable part of Under Armour’s new stuff, for me, hasn’t been the hardware in the HealthBox. It’s the stuff that exists outside of the box, like sneakers (the most wearable of wearables?). Under Armour is putting out a new pair of connected sneakers, the Speedform Gemini 2, which sounds vaguely like a rocket ship, but are actually comfortable sneakers. And the company now has a whole suite of health and fitness mobile apps for iOS and Android — MapMyRun, MyFitnessPal, Endomondo, and UA Record — that offer comprehensive fitness tracking and food logging features. If you buy the HealthBox, you'll get a year-long premium subscription to some of these apps. The idea is that, eventually, they’ll all share data between one another.
So, if you use MapMyRun and wear the connected sneakers during a run, then that data will eventually show up in the main UA Record app as your activity for the day, and it will also show up as calories burned in the MyFitnessPal food logging app, and so on. There are definitely still some kinks to be worked out in the data-sharing between these apps, but I’ll keep using some of them even if I don’t keep using UA and HTC’s hardware.
Let’s start with the HealthBox hardware. First, there’s the activity-tracking wristband, the UA Band. This sells as part of the $400 HealthBox, or by itself for a steep $180. (You can get a Fitbit Charge HR for $150.) Design wise, it calls to mind the Nike+ FuelBand, with a couple more features. It’s a smooth, curved, black wristband with a snap-in railroad strap and a single physical button. Its underside is lined with dimpled red plastic, though you don’t see this when you’re wearing it.
The top of the UA Band is touch-sensitive, which is how you swipe through the time, your daily activity levels, sleep, heart rate, and various fitness functions. This includes running, cycling, weight lifting, and walking, among other exercises. You can customize these fitness-specific icons in the UA Record app, which is where the band syncs its data to.
I wore the UA Band on and off during the last two weeks of December, and consistently over the past two weeks. I’ll tell you the good stuff first. It is comfortable. The top portion of it is unbending, but the strap is flexible. Remember how the Nike FuelBand would sometimes grab a chunk of your wrist flesh in its clasp? Yeah, this doesn’t do that. It vibrates on your wrist when you've reached 85 percent and 95 percent (so close!) of your daily activity goal. The wristband auto tracks sleep, so you don’t have to remember to put it into any kind of sleep mode.
The heart rate sensors track resting heart rate, not active heart rate
It charges fast — super fast, in less than 30 minutes — and it can last for more than five days on a single charge. It has optical heart rate sensors, though they’re meant to record your resting heart rate, not your active heart rate. Generally speaking, the UA Band edges just past basic functionality for a wrist-based activity tracker.
I give Under Armour and HTC some credit for not claiming to track heart rate accurately from the wrist during workouts. HealthBox comes with a chest-based heart rate strap instead ($80 when sold separately). Once you wirelessly pair the heart rate strap with the UA Record app, you can then see your heart rate in that app and on the UA Band during fitness sessions, assuming all three products are connecting and functioning properly.
But there’s also the not-so-minor issue of accuracy with the UA Band. Unlike the HTC Grip, which never made it to market, the UA Band doesn’t have GPS, and relies only an accelerometer to estimate distances traveled. There were days when my iPhone’s motion sensor counted more than 10,000 steps, and yet the UA Band would record somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 steps. Outdoor runs were also logged inaccurately. My regular 3-mile routes around the neighborhood would be measured as 3.5 miles on the Band. A 2.5-mile run was logged as 2.91 miles. Under Armour says it plans to rollout a firmware update to the Band within the next 90 days that will include better calibration, but why it’s not shipping with this is anyone’s guess.
Distances were inaccurate
I also experienced some connectivity issues between the UA Band and the UA Record app, even when the Band was charged and seemingly connected in my iPhone’s menu of Bluetooth-connected devices. This also happened with the new UA heart rate monitor and Under Armour’s UA Record and MapMyRun apps: if I navigated to another app, like a music app, I would return whichever Under Armour app I was using to find that the heart rate monitor needed to be reconnected. This may have been related to the fact that not all of the Under Armour apps are fully compatible with the new hardware products until later this week, but it was still a little frustrating.
The new $180 UA-HTC Scale is fun, though I also experienced some issues with the initial product. Like other connected scales, it will measure your weight and body fat and wirelessly send it to an app, in this case the UA Record app. I like to say that these kinds of scales mean you can never escape your weight, ever; but in reality, if your goal is to religiously record your weight, it’s convenient to have a scale do all the weight logging for you. The UA scale also "knows" you, based on your weight, and will address you using LED lights ("Hi Lauren") when you step on it. Then it tells you how many more pounds you have to lose.
Except, oh dear, like the Band, the first scale Under Armour supplied struggled with consistency. My initial weigh-in was almost always high. I know what you’re thinking: someone had a little too much food during the holiday season and can’t admit it. But I cross-referenced my weight with another scale, and the UA Scale was, in fact, higher. Minutes later, I would step back on the UA Scale, and it would show a lower weight, anywhere from three to six pounds less. Under Armour has since shipped me another scale, and thankfully, this one seems much more consistent.
So those are the items in HealthBox. You can see why the items outside of the HealthBox might be more compelling. I really like Under Armour’s Speedform Gemini 2 sneakers, which have sensors built into the right shoe and will store up to five runs. Then they wirelessly sync your run data to the MapMyRun app, and were, in my experience, more accurate at tracking distances than the UA Band was. So if you’d rather go running without any kind of wristband, or even your phone, you can still track your run.
The sneakers are also comfortable, with solid support, just the right amount of cushioning, and breathable fabric. These will ship in late February for $150. They’re definitely not cheap, but a normal pair of Speedform Gemini training sneakers will run you around $130.
And as I mentioned before, Under Armour’s apps offer comprehensive health and fitness tracking, especially UA Record, which shows a large circle on the main page of the app broken into four quadrants: your daily activity levels, fitness sessions, sleep data, and calorie consumption. (The circular UA Scale actually mimics this design.) UA Record also displays your resting heart rate, charts your activity levels overtime, and lets you rate how you're feeling on any given day, so that it can eventually chart patterns between all of your health data and show you new insights.
Under Armour still wins if it gets you into its ecosystem of products
But here’s the thing: technically, you don’t really need the UA-HTC hardware to use these apps (although the UA heart rate strap will only work with UA apps). I use MyFitnessPal almost every day and have it directly connected to another app that tracks my exercise, and it's a fine system. You can log runs with just the MapMyRun or Endomondo apps. You can track workouts directly from the UA Record app, without needing the UA Band (and you can pair another brand of heart rate strap with UA Record if you want). And in a few days, UA Record will work with Apple’s HealthKit, which means it will push at least some data to other health apps too. A Google Fit integration is also in the works.
I have to imagine that’s Under Armour’s end goal, simply getting users into its growing ecosystem of products and apparel. So, even if Under Armour’s collaborations around hardware feel like works in progress — which they absolutely do, to the point where I wouldn't recommend the HealthBox until I saw it all working properly — if Under Armour can get you to use its apps and buy its connected clothing, then in some ways it's still ahead in the connected fitness race.
Photography by Vjeran Pavic