Quantifying Self by Counting Steps: Jawbone UP vs. Fitbit Flex

Quantifying Self by Counting Steps: Jawbone UP vs. Fitbit Flex

Up until the 1980's we basically all lived in an analog world. Record players, cassette decks, cars, telephones, cameras -- these were all analog. The only digital interaction most of us had was with clunky big-box computers that started appearing in some homes.

Then, by the late 1990's, many of us had started to dip our toes into the digital world, with CDs, digital cameras, cellphones, GPS units, laptops and of course, the early Internet.

But even today, we still lead largely analog lives, and the digital universe is an interloper within it. I call our generation the "digital tweener" period. And especially if you're 30 or older, the idea of the world moving to become more deeply digital isn't an especially comfortable feeling. Not only that, but it can be hard to imagine why we would want it to be more digital. Well, here are just a few examples of some of the data that's generally not being captured in your life today, but could be -- and at some point likely will be:

  • What food you eat; where you eat it, and what its caloric and nutritional content is
  • Where you've been & when you were there, where you are, and where you're planning on going
  • Your body's condition, including things like: How blocked your arteries are. How healthy your organs are. What your vital statistics are. How much you weigh. What your body fat percentage is.
  • A record of who you talked to, what you and they said, and where you and they were when you said it
  • A record of who you interacted non-verbally, what the interaction was, and where you and they were when it happened
  • A record of everything you observe around you

You might think that with smartphones, some of this is being captured, and you'd be right. Conversations made over digital mediums are sometimes captured (and by our government, may always be captured; who knows). But in-person human interactions generally aren't. With the phone's GPS, records of where you've been -- and where you're located currently-- are becoming available. But what's being captured today is just a drop in the bucket compared to what isn't, and even what is being captured is clunky, with different data stores for each, often without the ability to talk to each other. Or to put it another way: There is still room for incalculable amounts of innovation to happen as we continue our inevitable shift into a fully-realized digital world. Even we as analog humans are starting to physically become partially digital; something that science fiction has long theorized would happen. And just like the recent reports of overreaching by the NSA, the security, societal, political and cultural issues surrounding this shift are monumental in scope and will take generations to play out.

A small but intriguing part of this movement that you can play around with today is the concept of "quantified self". To quantify one's self means:

"...to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical)" - Wikipedia

New peripherals are starting to quantify some of the data that was previously not captured in our lives.

I've had the opportunity to test two such devices: The Jawbone UP band and the FitBit Flex. They both strive to do the same thing: Calculate the number of steps we take and the quality of our sleep, but they go about it in entirely different ways. I've been wearing both simultaneously for the past 4 weeks, 24x7. So, which one's better?

To answer that, let me use a camera analogy from my journey to learn to take insanely great pics: Photographers like to say that "The best camera is the one you have with you," meaning a point & shoot camera is better than a DSLR if it's the one you have with you when you need to capture a shot because you left your heavy DSLR at home. The Jawbone UP vs. FitBit is a lot like that -- the Jawbone UP is a much simpler device in almost every respect, and it's not as powerful. But it's the one that I'd personally choose to wear day in and day out because it's the one more likely to actually capture my steps & sleep, if for no other reason than that the battery last 10 days, instead of the FitBit's five. The caveat, though, is that the UP band is known to have terrible reliability issues. It's likely to stop functioning in less than 6 months due what seem to be design, engineering or production defects. Mine stopped working after 3 months, and my friend's died in the same week. Thankfully, Jawbone quickly sent me a replacement, but due to this issue I'd say that the decision really comes down to personal preference at this point. And I've found that because the Flex syncs with my iPhone via Bluetooth, it's more likely to motivate me to take more steps in a day, because I can see in realtime how short I am of my goal. (Jawbone's come out with the UP24 band that offers this real-time updating as well, although I haven't tested it.)

Jawbone UP vs. FitBit Flex: Main Differences

Putting It on: The Jawbone UP is a stylish bracelet band. The FitBit Flex, on the other hand, is a little chicklet device that fits into an also-stylish bracelet holder band. The simplicity theme for the UP is immediately apparent out of the box -- just getting the Flex into its band was confusing and required me to look at the instructions. Winner: UP.

Syncing It: The UP only syncs with a smartphone -- not with a computer, and it syncs via the audio jack of the phone. The Flex, in contrast, can sync directly with a smartphone via bluetooth, and via a USB dongle with a computer. This would seem to be an advantage, but it's not quite that clear cut, mainly because enabling the bluetooth phone sync lowers the Flex's already shorter battery life even further. And syncing via the USB dongle means there's another small piece of electronics that you have to make sure you don't lose. However, the realtime updates enabled by bluetooth syncing on the Flex do motivate me to take more steps in a day. Winner: Tie.

Battery Life: The reality is that the battery life is too short for either device. For the quantified self movement to really get some mass adoption, I'd guess that battery life needs to be measured in months or years instead of days. But having said that, the Jawbone UP lasts 10 days while the FitBit Flex only lasts five. Winner: UP.

Measuring Sleep: Again, both the UP and Flex fall short in this category. Both devices required me to perform an action on the device to enter sleep mode. On the UP I had to press its button until a small "moon" appeared, and on the Flex I had to tap the device rapidly for two seconds. The reality is that many nights, I'd forget to put the devices into sleep mode. The UP band recently introduced a new feature that allows it to automatically exit sleep mode when it detects a certain amount of movement, but the Flex still requires me to perform another action in the morning to take it out of sleep mode. Since I can get away with performing one less action on the UP, the Winner: UP.

Accuracy: Since I only have two sources, I can't say which is accurate or not, which is concerning because the two bands recorded quite different data over the same time periods, as shown below. Winner: Unknown; call it a Tie

App Experience: The UP's app is generally more sophisticated than Fitbit's in terms of presentation of data (like "light" vs. "deep" sleep shown above), but the Fitbit does include a calorie and H20 counter (although I found linking to MyFitnessPal to be a much better way to keep a food diary, and it syncs with the Fitbit or the UP bands). Winner: UP

Reliability: This is where the UP fails completely: Again, using the photographer's mantra, if the UP is left at home because it won't turn on, then it's useless. Winner: Flex

Summary: Although the UP wins in most categories above, due to its reliability issues, I can't recommend it. I'll hope that Jawbone will continue to replace my band as it becomes defective, and will work on improving the reliability of the bands. I initially didn't like the Fitbit Flex as much as the UP due to its shorter battery life, but I've found that the realtime bluetooth step sync is impacting my behavior more than the UP band, getting me to walk more to pick up a few extra steps. Over time that advantage may eclipse the battery life issue. I'll post a followup here with further thoughts after I've used the bands a bit more.

Anyone else have an opinion?