I while ago I wrote about the Automagic that is Apple Health tracking you steps; while I’m still a fan of this automagic and have been trying to hit my 10,000 steps per day tracking through Health, it’s not perfect. I decided to run a little self-experimentation by wearing 2 activity trackers, a Garmin Vivofit and a Fit Bit Charge HR, for a week and compare them against Apple Health.
First, why aren’t I feeling the love with Apple Health anymore?
I loved how it just started working and tracking, no set up. But:
- Like Winnie the Pooh, Yogi Bear and Humphry B. Bear I’m not a fan of pants (but I am of pic-i-nic baskets). I’m usually in dresses or skirts which means there’s nowhere to keep my phone. To track steps accurately I have to pick up my phone every time I move from my desk (to the bin, to the printer, to the loo) and either carry it or stuff it down my bra. Not particularly practical nor comfortable.
- I don’t know how accurate it is when carried in handbag / hand / bra as it seems to be unable to count how many flights of stair I take – stubbornly displaying 0 no matter how many I actually take.
- Poor UX. If I forget to look at how many steps I took yesterday, and I’ve already walked today there is no way for me to click on a day and see how many steps I did then. I can only look at a poorly labeled graph and estimate how many steps that may have been.
The Experience of Setting Up
The experience of setting up the iPhone Health app required no intervention from the users end. The Fit Bit and Garmin both required set up and a Bluetooth dongle is required for each to talk with the computer; they cannot use the built in Bluetooth for some reason and there is a proprietary dongle for each device.
The Fit Bit
The Fit Bit was completely dead when I opened the box and had to be put on charge to start set up. After getting a small amount of charge the set up was relatively simple and easy to use. You have to enter a code to pair the device and enter information about yourself like date of birth, weight, height and gender. After 5-10 minutes updating the firmware the device was ready to go, but still needed more charge. The interface was clean and easy to use, and social connect made it fast to create an account. The only negative was that the birthdate is in American format making the rest of the world have to think to fill out this field correctly. I downloaded the Fit Bit app and had no issues getting the device to talk to the app; it recognized it immediately after signing in with my account and turning on the iPhone Bluetooth.
The Garmin does not require charge; it has a battery that will last about a year and then it needs to be replaced. The interface was less slick than the Fit Bit screen and it took a bit longer to set up an account, as there was no social connect. Again the birthdate was required in American format and the data display on the device is in American format. I downloaded the app and had many issues trying to get the iPhone to talk to the Garmin. You have to hold down a button on the Garmin until it brings up sync and after the phone recognizes it, it shows a code. This process was not working and after 15 minutes I gave up. Trying again in the morning it worked for some reason first go, although I was not doing anything differently.
The Experience of Use
At first I was wearing the Fit Bit on my right hand, as it has a setting for non-dominant wrist, and the Garmin on my left. The Fit Bit was physically painful. Despite not having it too tight, I had enough space to fit 2 fingers under the band, the bit that reads your heartbeat was digging in to my wrist painfully. The hard component that is the device, not the band, is about as wide as my wrist meaning it was not too comfortable. These devices really are not made for women / small wrists. After moving the Fit Bit to be on the left wrist it was much more comfortable. Neither device seemed to accurately capture my sleep, nights I woke up lots it only displayed a few minutes awake, so I won't be using that feature as I do not trust it's reliability.
The Fit Bit
The Fit Bit tracks and displays the time, steps, distance, stairs, heartbeat and calories burnt. You have to push the button on the side of the Fit Bit or double tap the device to turn on the LCD display and cycle through the metrics. Added bonuses are that you can set a silent alarm which wakes you up through gentle vibrations on your wrist, pair the device with your phone to buzz and display incoming calls and it automatically tracks your sleep. You can only view the sleep through the app. When I took the Fit Bit off charge is displayed “I LIKE U” and you get badges that you have reached for example 10,000 steps met, a marathon walked (42km) etc. These are emailed to you, and you also receive an email when you need to charge the device. The Fit Bit also buzzes when you reach your goal, e.g. 10,000 steps and is really about gamifiy the experience and rewarding good behaviour.
The Garmin displays the time, date (in American format unfortunately), steps, distance, stairs and calories burnt. The Garmin display is always on and is a display like an old calculator. Having the display always on is useful as I could assess my steps easily at a glance. To track sleep is manual, you have to tell the device you are going to sleep and when you wake up and I often forgot to do that. The display also shows a red line when you have been inactive for too long. It’s not entirely clear when the red line displays, or how much I have to walk to get rid of the red bar. One day at work I ran up and down 4 flights of stairs to go to the bathroom just to get rid of the damn red line, but it still sat there judging me. It’s not practical to run 4 flights of stairs at work, and if I have back to back meetings the red line does not help as there’s nothing I can do about it. The Garmin really takes a punishment approach to inactivity, although it seems there are badges when you log on to the Garmin Connect website, but I was not in the habbit of doing this - I'd rather have it pushed to me to notice it. A funny thing noticed is that the analog font of the Garmin means sometimes it will display "words" like an old calculate e.g. 8008 = BOOB. This could be an interesting challenge to try and hit steps that spell words, but I'm sure loses its charm quickly.
I much prefer the Fit Bit to the Garmin due to the extra features, it's automatic nature of syncing and tracking sleep and it’s carrot over stick approach, that works better for me. I would like to see the steps without having to interact with the device, and not have to charge the device but those are the compromises for the extra features. The Fit Bit syncs automatically when in range to do so, while the Garmin needs to be pushed to sync. The Fit Bit is all about convenience while the Garmin needs user interaction to do just about everything.
In terms of the steps counted, they were never exactly in sync. Here’s the weekly comparison by device. Obviously I don’t know which is most accurate as I wasn’t counting my steps manually. At first the Garmin often showed less steps, but on the days I was wearing it on the same wrist as the Fit Bit, but in front, it tracked more steps. Once I changed the position on my wrist (i.e. Fit Bit in front) it began to track lower again so I think this is to do with the arc of the arm swing. Since I had other devices to track my steps, I found myself carrying my phone with me less and less.
Only steps are shown in the comparison as my Apple Health records zero flights claimed for some unknown reason and you cannot view previous days Flights taken on the Garmin Connect website.
Another interesting tidbit I found from the data was looking at my heart rate over the day I was trying to buy a house at an auction.
After trialling both devices for the week I'm going to wear the Fit Bit only. I do wish the design were slicker, that the battery lasted longer and that it displayed the steps more obviously, but it is overall the winner. I find the continual Bluetooth sync to my phone was draining the battery much faster, so I'll have to see if I can minimise this impact, while still getting the phone call notifications.