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Fitbit Flex

posted Aug 21, 2013, 7:33 PM by Christopher Ellison   [ updated Aug 30, 2013, 1:20 PM ]
For the past couple of years, I've been making an effort to lose some weight and up my activity level.  Knowing that I'm a task- and data-driven type of person, I decided to start logging food, activity, and other such things to motivate myself.  I started out with Google Health, a basic pedometer, and a scale.  When Google Health was shuttered, I moved data into some shared spreadsheets and built up my own little histories and trends.  After a while of managing that on my own, though, I decided I needed to cave and just look at online services that would take some of the work out of my hands.

It just so happened that I started looking at trackers around the time the various wristband-style trackers were announced.  I'd had problems with the belt-clip pedometers catching on the arms of my office chair and eventually breaking the clip, so I was looking forward to getting rid of my belt-wart and replacing it with something a little lower-profile.  I looked at the Nike+ Fuelband, the Jawbone UP, and the Fitbit Flex, and eventually I settled on the Flex.  I've had one since they came out in May; 3 months in, I've drawn some conclusions on how well it's worked for me.

The Cons

First, I wanted to look at the downsides of the Flex.

I'll admit, my first few issues stemmed purely from user error.  One night, for example, I strapped the wristband on one notch too tight and slept on it funny, leaving a nice welt on the back of my wrist where the tracker dug in all night.  That was easily solved by me slapping myself on the forehead and loosening the damn thing a notch.  I also have to be a little careful about how I sleep so that I don't pin my wrist under myself all night, but that hasn't been a big issue.

Another unexpected downside to the Flex was the lack of an altimeter.  I didn't notice this until my wife traded up to a Fitbit One from her previous Zip and started rubbing her "stories climbed" badges in my face, though.  I work in a four-story building and take the stairs a few times a day, so I'd love to have an assisted accounting of how many flights of stairs I've walked in a day.  Still, though, I probably wouldn't miss this feature if I didn't know about it on the One.

I have had some bigger issues with the Flex, though.  Very soon after I got it, the fifth LED on the display stopped lighting reliably.  I wrote this off as no big deal because I so rarely used the display - it's not a very informative presentation of data, so I prefer to just hit Fitbit.com after I've synced.  Not having that LED is not a big issue, but it did annoy me.  I should note that I probably could have pushed for warranty replacement (since this happened during the first month), but I didn't care enough to do so at the time; I haven't submitted any customer service requests at Fitbit.com for this issue, figuring I may wait until closer to the end of the 1-year limited warranty period now if I choose to do so (since I'm out of the original 30-day grace period anyway).

More recently -- just a week ago, in fact -- I had issues where the Flex stopped taking a charge.  I had to hard-reset and apply a firmware patch before it would recharge and hold power for more than an hour or two at a time.  Since this seems to have been fixed by the firmware update, it is again not a big issue, but it's left me a little gunshy about the battery life of the Flex.  It was a little startling to say the least to go from a solid 7 days of battery life to no more than 2 hours overnight.

Finally, today the wristband started to come apart a bit.  The wristband itself is a big rubber strap with a small plastic piece where the LEDs of the tracker shine through.  I noticed this morning that the rubber is beginning to pull away from the plastic on the underside of the wristband.  I'm trying a little home repair on this; if it comes down to it, I can always buy a replacement wristband, but I think it should probably hold up for longer than 3 months.  In fairness, though, I've only taken the Flex off to recharge it; other than that, I've worn it constantly for 3 months now.

The Pros

It's hardly been all bad news for my Flex, though.  Despite the problems I've had (and am continuing to have), I actually really like it.

First off, it's a lot more out of the way than the other non-wristband trackers I've tried, and that's a relatively big win for me.  I'm not what I would call extraordinarily coordinated, and with some of the bigger trackers, I worried I'd destroy the thing by catching it on a chair arm or something and flipping it across the room.  The wristbands are a better fit for me, less likely to get thrown around or bumped into things inadvertently.

I'm also not a serious athlete, I'm just trying to get into a bit better shape.  The price was a little higher than I'd like to pay, but for a wirelessly-syncable tracker, it's not outrageous.  I lament the lack of screen and altimeter, but honestly, I don't need them.  I just need to know that I'm wearing a tattletale that's telling me to get up and move around every so often.  Having the silent alarms helps; I've set a couple during the day so that they wake me out of my coding daze and remind me to get out of my chair at work.  That alone has been a big help in getting my step count up.

Speaking of step count, let's compare what the Fitbit and Jawbone present (steps) vs. the deliberately-obfuscated Nike "Fuel Score."  I suppose if I were a more serious athlete or were more competitive with people the Fuel score might be an OK metric, but I didn't and don't like it.  I prefer my devices to be a bit more honest and obvious.  These trackers are glorified pedometers; they count steps.  I like that the Fitbit (and most trackers, for that matter) doesn't try to mask that by giving you some kind of proprietary score.  Having data displayed as steps reminds me what I'm really tracking and tells me exactly what I need to do to affect that number.  Besides, I can always compete with other people based on their steps vs. mine if I really want to be that competitive.

Activity-wise, I'm fairly simple.  I'm mainly trying to just maintain a reasonable level of physical fitness, not run a marathon or anything like that.  I also like the water, so having a fully-waterproof tracker is another nice plus for me. 

The final piece of the puzzle that made me decide on the Flex was the software and how the tracker interfaces with it.  Generally, I like the Fitbit software (though I'd like to see a few small tweaks to the Android app).  Since I'm on an older Android phone, I'm syncing purely via the PC dongle supplied with the Fitbit.  It'd be nice to be able to sync to my phone over Bluetooth, but it's not really necessary for me.  For my purposes, then, the fact that the tracker syncs automatically when I hit the door after work is a big bonus for me - I'd prefer not to have to plug it in to sync data.

Conclusion

When it comes right down to it, I generally like the Flex, and I'm mostly happy I bought it.  I'm disappointed in some of the quality issues I've had with the LED and the band, but I also sort of suspected something would happen with a first-generation product like this.  On the plus side, it's succeeded in making me move around more, and it tracks the data I "need" it to track.  The Fitbit software is decent, though I'd like to see some improvements in the area of food logging, particularly from the Android app.  All in all, though, I think the Flex is worth what I paid for it, and I hope the next generation will address some of the shortcomings of this one.  Hopefully this one will last long enough to get me there.

Update

Very shortly after I posted this, a second LED (the first one) went out on my Flex.  Since I now have two lights out (#1 and #5), I submitted a customer service ticket on fitbit.com.  I'll post updates with how that goes.

Update #2

I heard back from Fitbit customer service a couple of days after the ticket was submitted.  They are shipping a replacement Flex, which I should receive within the next week or two.  If I run into any issues with the replacement, I'll post updates.
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