2016-08-17

Some Thoughts On Fitness Trackers

In general, there are two kinds of people who are attracted to fitness trackers: technology enthusiasts and fitness enthusiasts. While there is plenty of overlap between the two groups, each group’s needs are relatively independent of the other’s.

To wit, technology enthusiasts are primarily attracted to fitness trackers because many of them are smart watches. These people will generally overrate things like messaging, calling, calendars, apps, etc. while simultaneously underrating core fitness features like GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring, sleep monitoring, etc. Tech enthusiasts will also interpret connected apps differently than fitness enthusiasts. The techies want slick apps with quick Bluetooth connectivity and excellent social media functions. Fitness enthusiasts care less about these things than they do their ability to extract meaningful fitness statistics for their training. They may be able to live without some of the standard smart watch features because that isn’t their primary motivation in getting a fitness tracker. They want a workout aid and a health aid, not a personal assistant.

For fitness enthusiasts, matters get even more complicated. Avid runners and hikers absolutely require GPS connectivity to make the most out of their fitness bands, while gym rats and the like need not care so much about that. And while virtually every modern fitness tracker now has GPS functionality, not all of it is created equally; nor, for that matter, is heart rate monitoring created equally. The fitness watch offerings thus range from casual toys with passable directional monitoring, such as Jawbone Up3 trackers, to serious training aids, such as Garmin’s top of the line Fenix 3 and Forerunner 735XT watches.

Aside from the lower end trackers, they now virtually all come with limited texting and phone connectivity features. As aforementioned, this is not really a primary motivator among fitness enthusiasts, anyway. If all one needs is heart rate monitoring, some basic GPS functionality, and a good set of smart watch features, then one ought to consider buying a smart watch outright and forgetting about fitness-oriented products. Meanwhile, for fitness-oriented products, a consumer ought to be willing to relax some of the smart watch constraints, or else pay for a $500+ top-of-the-line product.

Once we’ve accepted the smart-watch-oriented limitations of fitness watches, however, we are now capable of assessing which fitness features are worth considering in earnest.

GPS accuracy is certainly an issue. On that front, the Samsung Gear Fit 2 reportedly has issues, although it’s not clear whether the issues pertain to user expectations or a truly limited functionality. Garmin, of course, is the industry leader in GPS technology, and their products reflect that fact.

Accuracy of the heart rate monitor is also an issue. This, too, is heavily influenced by user error. The same product may perform well or poorly, depending on how the user chooses to wear the product. That said, there are proprietary differences in each fitness band’s heart rate monitoring, and some do appear to be more accurate than others. Consumers generally laud FitBit’s HR monitoring technology while being more critical of Samsung’s. Many bands get varying reviews because the activities people engage in vary greatly. 30 minutes of Zumba will probably read much differently than 30 minutes of weight training. But despite all that, one has to wonder to what extent accuracy is crucial here. These are not medical grade devices, and the most accurate way to measure heart rate at home and while exercising is via a chest strap, not an optical sensor.

Speaking of which, chest straps still feature prominently in sports-oriented fitness tracking. All of Garmin’s flagship products, for example, require a chest strap to make use of deeper analytical features such as cadence, ground contact time, and vertical oscillation. Even those Garmin products that include a built-in optical sensor have the capability to connect to a chest strap to access those deeper features, and probably also to gain better HR accuracy during workouts. It’s worth considering, then, that any band that does not make use of a chest strap probably isn’t intended for much more beyond casual use. Athletes and people who wish to train like them are probably better served by something like a Garmin.

That said, these deeper analytical features are probably useless for everyone else. I can’t think of a single person (other than myself) who has ever seriously analyzed the vertical oscillation in their running stride in an effort to become a more competitive athlete. For that matter, serious athletes have been running sub-13-minute 5Ks since before the advent of the fitness tracker, so there is a serious question as to how effective any of this data is for becoming a better athlete. In the end, these data and features are mostly valuable as sources of entertainment as opposed to serious training aids. Consumers ought to keep that in mind as they choose between a $500 Forerunner 735XT and a $250 Vivoactive HR, for example.

Thus, the real question seems to be: What data are you willing to pay for in a fitness tracker? VO2 max is a great data point to have – but is it worth upgrading from a Gear Fit 2 to a Microsoft Band 2? Ground contact time is a really interesting thing to look at, but is it worth wearing a chest strap for? If you can meet most of your heart rate, sleep tracking, and step counting needs with a $65 Jawbone tracker, is it worth it to pay twice as much for incremental levels of accuracy?

At the end of the day, each fitness watch product is missing something important. Some are too expensive relative to the value of their offering; others are inaccurate; others aren’t durable; others don’t integrate well with other apps and technologies. Which product is the right one to buy? That can’t be answered by anyone but the buying, however, my advice is to keep in mind that the principle selling point of fitness trackers is not in their accuracy or their ability to improve your training, but in the fact that they are entertaining. My advice is to buy the most entertaining and durable product in your price range.