Activity Trackers

Polar Flow Graph - C. Knight / krider

Activity trackers now seem to have moved from something fitness geeks looked for to much more of a mainstream item. Loads of people have them or considering purchasing them. And the manufacturers are, of course, trying to cash in on this. There seems to have been a spate of announcements recently of upgraded and new devices. Extra features. Better battery life. Bluetooth syncing rather than needing to connect to computers. The list goes on!

I’d like to consider myself a bit of a veteran of such devices. Yes, I am a fitness geek! Well, I’m proudly a geek of many things 😉 I like quantifying things. It’s the scientist in me. I started out with the now unavailable, and these days slightly prehistoric (a clip to sync to the computer?!) Fitbit Ultra. Two of these later (thanks for the replacement Fitbit – great customer service), I then moved to the Fitbit Flex. I loved the principle of this device and did use it for a while. However, when it died, with no warning unless I’d connected it to my computer, all the data went. After this had happened two or three times I got a bit fed up!

This put me off such devices for a long while, though I liked the sleep tracking aspect as much as the movement one. As per my review of the device, I used a Jawbone UP24 for quite a while. This was definitely a step up. I loved the device and I loved the app on my iPhone. In fact, I still like the app and miss using it, though my current device and app are good.

I only moved on from the Jawbone as my needs were greater. I wanted to stop using phones and trackers and … for all my running, strength and kettlebell work, cycling, etc. so invested in a Polar V800. This is a full-fledged multisport watch. With more power on my wrist than my first computer. Probably. And it contains an activity tracker. At the same time, I purchased the activity tracker that Polar also sell (Polar Loop) for times when I wouldn’t be wearing the watch. They both work with the same app via Bluetooth (which is then synced to the cloud), combining the data from both devices which is a nice touch.

Polar Loop

As it turns out I’ve barely worn the tracker. The watch may look bulky, but it is incredibly light. But this post is not a review of the Polar V800. That comes later. Suffice to say, from this you can gather I am a fan 🙂

Polar V800

Polar do things differently to Jawbone and Fitbit. They give you an activity goal based on parameters that you set about height, weight, and current activity levels. This goal is not something that is editable. Or at least I’ve never found a way! Because both Polar devices are able to work with a heart rate monitor, activity this way is also tracked. This activity goal is not just steps. You can achieve it without hitting 10,000 steps which is the default goal on most devices.

The new range of devices are perhaps following on from Polar’s ideas. The latest Jawbone UP3, the Fitbit Surge, and the new entry to the market the Microsoft Band are capable of monitoring all sorts of things. (I have to say of all these I’d love to play with the UP3 given my soft spot for Jawbone products.)

Jawbone UP3

I think this will continue though as can already be seen in the ranges of some manufacturers, there are a range of options available to buy. Some people want simple motivation to move, whilst others are happy to be more self-quantifying. There is scope for several types of device in the marketplace.

Heart rate monitoring in becoming more common along with the basic steps and sleep. Some add in calorie burn though as with all this data it is important to understand that it needs to be considered relative to other days, weeks, and months, and not considered an absolute. These things operate on generic algorithms! GPS is useful and is appearing on more activity bands too. This allows devices to work better with other activities like cycling. The coaching aspects offered by some sports watches are also now crossing over into the new bands.

The Microsoft Band goes a step further and even has a UV monitor! It also has email and calendar alerts built-in. Putting it almost into the realms of a smart watch.


An important feature of activity trackers and sports watches is the accompanying apps. These need to work on multiple platforms, but also be well-designed products in their own right. They are part of the overall package. Having a poor app and an amazing product will no longer be enough. Users are quite happy now with apps and have a certain expectation level of usability, features, quality graphics, and so forth. The best I have used is the Jawbone UP app. I have now got used to the Polar one, but would love to improve it in a few areas. Fancy letting me have a go Polar? 😉

It will be an important aspect of their offerings that new entrants to the marketplace have good apps. It is also why I think adoption of HealthKit (Apple), Google Fit, and Microsoft HealthVault will be slower than the firms would perhaps like. Users don’t care about fragmentation. They want devices that work with whichever phone they have at the time. I think successful fitness apps will need to sync with several (or all) of the platforms, and perhaps only offer a subset of features that all support. Mostly for developer sanity 😉 As would be expected, the Google and Microsoft offerings are more open than Apple.

Another new aspect to consider in the realm of activity trackers is that of smart watches. Most of these smart watches are rather ironically, not all that smart (yet). They are improving at a rate of knots though, and soon there might a device I’d be happy to have 😉 I do think that there will be a merging of sports watches, smart watches, and activity trackers. Not all devices will have all features. The price (and therefore the demand) will preclude this.An example in the Polar range is the cut down partner to the V800, the newly released M400.

If I could have a device like the Polar V800 with the ability to add some small apps, and when my phone was nearby, receive certain alerts, then it would be my ideal device. Recently Garmin announced their Connect IQ platform which comes close. It offers custom watch faces, access to data fields from both the host device and connected sensors, and add new ones, custom widgets that can communicate with phones and the internet and summarise data, and apps that are interactive. This will debut on their top end triathlon focused watch, the Forerunner 920XT which is now available. Garmin plans to launch the platform in early 2015.

One of the main reasons for choosing the Polar was the underwater heart rate monitoring, nd the use of Bluetooth over Ant for connecting to accessories. The 920XT means I would seriously consider future Garmin devices if they addressed those points, and with the move to Bluetooth as well as Ant they are moving in that direction.

Conversely, I would jump on any Polar device that added the app infrastructure!

I am very keen to have a play with the Garmin apps side of things (given the day job is writing apps for Android and iOS), and will look to have a play over the winter. I think it’s an exciting time for all of these wearable devices with some great functionality being opened up.

What sort of activity trackers (or smart watches, sports watches, …) do you like? What sort if features are important to you? I’d love to hear what other people like, and apps that they favour. Always happy to find out about new cool gadgets 🙂


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