Special Kind of Dork – The Researcher and His Quest for a New Fitness Tracker

By night, I’m a superhero fighting off the zombie apocalypse (or maybe just running while listening to Zombies, Run! By day, I’m an academic. I’m a young academic, but I’m an academic nonetheless.

Now you might think that being an academic has affected how I approach running and such. I’d counter I was always going to do these things. I became an academic because it fit my traits. Sort of like how they say they recruit people into the Marines. Basically, they find people who fit the Marine ideology; they don’t change people to adopt that ideology.

As I go about my fitness journey, I have a compulsion for being meticulous. I track my runs. I try to track my calories. The Super Awesome Year of Me is marked every single day on the same calendar (today’s a fail, by the way; storms kept me inside too much).

Called it early. Cold. I'm lazy. I'm gonna do yoga later. Probably. #superawesomeyearofme

A post shared by Quisto Settle (@applications_of_randomness) on

I make decisions this way for a reason: It’s the only way I know how to be successful. I can’t wing it. I have no sense of some things. I don’t know how long/far I’ve been running. I don’t know how many calories I ate. I can’t even reasonably estimate how active I am on a regular day. I gained 15 pounds in 6 weeks once because I wasn’t tracking and I wasn’t stepping on the scale.

This is also how I try to make my purchasing decisions. Mostly.

I’ve been terrible about this when buying shoes. I let the clerk lead too much. I’m hoping to voice my opinion better and maybe be a bit happier with my buys.

But when I’m giving time and am buying something on my own that’s pricey, I can can research like a boss.

And this is where I get to the sad part of this post: I’m leaving the creepy Fitbit cult.

Sometimes you have to recognize that you’re in a dysfunctional relationship. As much as I’ve loved having a Fitbit (and I’ve been a culter for 2 years now, before most of you, thank you very much), I’m on my 3rd already. That’s not cool. This is something I’d expect to last 2-3 years. In the meantime, I’ve had one that lasted almost a year before the backing started coming apart and finally gave me a sort of burn (ironically, this one lasted the longest and it’s the only one that was actually recalled). The second one lasted a bit more than 3 months before the button popped off.

The third one now has the covering coming apart from the actual tracking part. I realize that Fitbit would probably replace this one like they replaced the second, but I’m tired of the things breaking on normal use for me.

I’m branching out.

Now this is where you’re going to have to hang with me for a while. I want to give you the full idea of how much time and thought has gone into today’s decision. I may get certified for allowing you to explore my thought process with me.

It’s been three to four years now that I first started looking into getting a fitness tracker. The first one was a Nike Fuel Band because I’m a Nike sycophant, even after one pair of shoes almost broke my foot (I swear, they were like perfection before that pair, officer). I knew it used random Fuel Points instead of actual measurables, but I wanted it. I didn’t man up on buying it though because it just seemed a bit pricey (this is funny when you realize I’m buying my Fitbit’s replacement instead of having Fitbit replace it for free). At the time, cash was too tight for toys.

But two years ago, my parents were getting me a Christmas present and knew I wanted a fitness tracker. They’d looked at the Fuel Band, but the Fitbit Force was less expensive and did more (things I knew just from researching the Nike product, but I was a sycophant, and it’s hard to leave when you’ve been brainwashed by a brand). While it wasn’t EXACTLY what I wanted, I knew it would do the trick.

And it was magical.

Every now and then, I might look up fitness tracker articles just to see what all was out there, but it was the recall that did the trick.

For those of you not in the know, the Fitbit Force was recalled for causing rashes/burns on some users. I was not a happy camper. I assumed they were doing something they weren’t supposed to (I distinctly remember a product review where the guy said “they say you shouldn’t shower with it, but I did and nothing went wrong.” This mentality might be ok for a 3-day review, but not for long-term use). They recalled every last one and were going to reimburse the cost. Ok. That’s fine. I could get another, I guess.

This is where I start researching.

At the time, there weren’t many legitimate competitors. The main alternatives were a Fitbit Flex, which would have been fine, but it didn’t have a display. I liked the Force because it doubled as a watch. The only non-Fitbit that seemed viable at the time was the Jawbone Up, which is just a band also.

In other words, I was going to have to sacrifice what I wanted after the recall.

I sent in for the mailing materials to send it back. It arrived, and I kindly left ignored it. I’d decided that since I’d had no problems, I would just keep my Fitbit. And that worked most of the year.

And then it burned me.

So I started looking for a replacement. By then the Charge was out (which looked suspiciously like the Force).

#ihaterunning but I love my #fitbit especially when I buy a new one

A post shared by Quisto Settle (@applications_of_randomness) on

It was a safe bet. This one was less likely to cause irritation. And they’d supposedly made improvements. The main competitor was the Charge HR because heart rate monitoring seemed like a good thing to have. I did also check around for alternatives, but none were rated as high as the Charge (in addition to the Jawbone series, Microsoft, Garmin, and some others had brought in competition).

This was nice, mostly. I liked the snaps and button better on the old one. And then the button broke.

By now I was pretty annoyed. I was actively looking for replacements. I was tired of replacing my fitness trackers.

I resumed research. This time considering the Fitbit Surge. I also I had run across the Withings Activité and the Misfit series.

But free won out.

I sent my info into Fitbit, and they were great. I may be annoyed with the products not holding up, but their customer service has been fantastic when I’ve interacted with them.

So I was onto No. 3. And it was fine. Until it wasn’t.

A few months ago, the band start slowly peeling away from the actual tracker component. And when I say slowly, I mean slowly. I’m wearing my Fitbit as we speak (well, I type and you read). It works just fine. No irritation. No real problems. Except it’s peeling its skin.

And I started researching again. I thought about ditching trackers altogether. I thought about going the running watch route. The thing with running watches is they’re SUPER expensive if you want something nice. And I wanted a heart rate monitor, which the watches are slowly adopting (enough folks still use chest straps, so the running watches haven’t had to adopt HR wrist-based technology as quickly as fitness trackers that are used by casual users; really, imagine someone in an office just hanging out with a chest strap heart rate monitor). I just haven’t been able to land on a running watch that suits me just right. And I’m also a grown up and can’t wear a running watch all the time at my job.

I still sit in this argument, honestly, and I might buy a running watch anyway. It will make more sense when you see what I bought.

But I like tracking. I think. This next round may be my last if it doesn’t go well.

So once I got down to wanting to track the last week or two, I started poring over reviews. I looked at any viable competitor. I looked at all variations.

Let’s walk through this obnoxious process.

First, I had to decide if I wanted a heart rate monitor. I did. Ok, how bad did I want one? Did I want one badly enough that I would wear a fitness tracker uncomfortably all the time? I like to wear my watches (and subsequently my trackers) loose. I had to land on no.

That made things a little easier (except when I kept trying to change my mind).

Ok, now we have to look at individual brands.

Let’s start with Fitbit.

We can go safe and pick up the Charge again. But that just doesn’t feel right. We could go with the Charge HR (I really did try to keep changing my mind), but I don’t want the band so tight, and I’m looking for a change. Maybe the Surge? But that seems way to suped-up for my needs (and is also a giant monstrosity for regular use). Or maybe the Blaze? Wait, what? What’s that. That’s the new Fitbit that’s a step down from the Surge and a step up from the Charge. But it won’t be out ’til March. I don’t sit still well, so thanks but no thanks.

Next brand: Jawbone.

Our friends at Jawbone have really owned their niche. They make minimalist bands, and that’s it. The bands can do a lot, but you can’t see what they do. They’re just bracelets with enough technology to take over the world. The problem is, I really want a watch display. The Up2 was actually the winner for one reviewing mag. But it could be a best buy all it once. I don’t want a bracelet. I want a watch.

Next up is the Misfit line.

These guys are fun. They went inexpensive and still manage to do some things the bigger brands can’t (like going underwater). They even have a sort-of watch display (12 lights that show your progress and can show time too). But it’s not a real display. That said, it’s less expensive, it’s reviewed well, and it might work. Let’s put that in the back pocket for our first contender.

And now the first wildcard: the Apple Watch.

This one was tricky. I almost vomited when I saw how much these can cost if you go higher end. We’re going beyond our normal measurements when we consider this. It does more. And it costs more. But was it what I needed? I actually kept coming back to this one.  The price entry point wasn’t the worst if I stayed on the low end, but there was one thing I couldn’t take: 18-hour battery life. Nope. Nope. Nope.

The Activité series was next.

Isn’t it pretty? It’s also pretty expensive. The Activité comes in at $450 (more than the Apple Watch in some cases). But it’s playing a different game. It looks classy. But $450 is $450. I can’t justify that for a regular activity tracker. Luckily, there’s a lower-end version called the Pop at $150. I ignored the Steel because I wasn’t interested in paying an awful sum, so I didn’t even see its cost. But when I looked up the Pop, they mentioned the Steel as a better alternative for only slightly more, so I went and looked back at the Steel. It’s $170. The Activité is playing a different game. It looks like a watch hiding a fitness tracker. I liked that. The price is still a bit much, especially without HR technology, but it’s otherwise pretty well reviewed. We have a second contender.

Lastly, we have the Pebble series.

I’d never heard of Pebble before running across a random review. But I was intrigued. It’s a smart watch that was originally crowd-funded. It has a much better battery life, but I couldn’t help but think of late ’80s and early ’90s calculator watches. There’s a hipster part of me that wishes this would have been my final choice because they’re the little guy fight Apple, etc.  in the smart watch battlefield. Unfortunately, I didn’t want a smart watch. I don’t want to check email on my watch. I don’t want to take calls or listen to music. I want to know what I’ve done, but I want to be left alone. And I can’t do it with this guy. And that’s ok. Maybe it’s someone else’s cup of tea and these little guys will stick around.

So where did I actually land? The Activité Steel. It’s classy enough to wear with a suit, and reviews say it will do what I need.

My biggest regret is losing my Fitbit data. That’s two years of trends that will be gone. That’s a real bummer for a information geek like me. The other competitors were never strong contenders. The Misfit was only an option if I wanted to be cheap, and the Pebble just wasn’t what I wanted.

Wow. That’s a long post. I have no idea how to close this out now. I wasn’t intending on doing this review when I started 2,000 words ago. Oh well. Hopefully you learned something. Or you’ll never read a post from me again.

-Q

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