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Tech Note: Fitbit Ultra

After reading a short review by Clayton Morris about the Fitbit Ultra, I was reminded of tweets long ago by Sean Bonner about the original Fitbit and how he was going to use it and tweet his progress.

Sadly, Sean lost his Fitbit the first day he had it and I was never able to get that Twitter-based review but I’ve been intrigued by the product ever since. The idea of a small, personal tracker to record movement and exercise seemed like an interesting concept.

Personal Data Collection

I’ve always loved the idea of personal data collection. Sites like Daytum have seemed like interesting concepts and some interesting work has been done with them. Steven Wolfram recently published his personal analytics which made for a great read.

The idea is that, by tracking data about your life, you can see trends appear that weren’t apparent at a day-to-day level. Sometimes you’re too close to what’s going on and a 50-foot few is what is needed to gain some perspective. This is especially useful for things like movement and tracking studies, sleep studies and ambient/passive activity.

Fitness has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. I did some heavy training (in an actual gym) at one point, went on a period of weight loss (experimenting with the Hacker’s diet) as an exercise in self-discipline. At one point, I had created a Daytum account with the aim of tracking various statistics mainly for the ability to visualize them in various ways using Daytum’s excellent tools.

The issue for me has always been one of remembering to do the tracking. I’ll forget to start a timer, or neglect entering some metric and it ends up devaluing the entire process because of inaccuracy. What I needed was a passive tracking device that was with me wherever I went, when I slept, etc.

That’s where the Fitbit came in.

What is the Fitbit Ultra?

The Fitbit Ultra is a passive activity tracking device. You clip it to your belt, or put it in your pocket, or attach it to a wristband (included) during sleep. It tracks all movement and elevation changes while it is active. Given the 3-5 day battery life and the fact that it is so small and light, you don’t mind having it with you always which makes it is very easy to track everything movement-related that goes on during your day.

The device is about 2” long. It is equipped with an ultra-low power 2.4 GHz ANT radio transceiver which communicates to the supplied base station whenever you’re within 15’ of it. I noticed with some frequency there are times the device doesn’t seem to take notice of the sync antenna when you pass by. Usually all it takes is a press of the Fitbit button to force a sync. If worse comes to worse, you push it into its sync cradle for about 5 seconds to force synchronization and check your battery life.

The Fitbit is very light as well. It seemed comparable to a full pack of matches. I never notice it in my pocket, where it stays pretty much all day.

Logging

In addition to the Fitbit itself, there is an iPhone application that allows you to view basic statistics but, more importantly, log information about things that the Fitbit can’t capture like Diet, Activities, Water Intake, and Weight.

I used the iPhone app frequently throughout the day, but it is a very pared back version of the information available on the website. Having that information with you at all times in a native app would be very helpful so I find the omissions inexplicable to a certain degree.

The mobile version of their site suffers from the same issue – it provides access to a narrow slice of your data and the variables you are able to enter or view are limited. You can always switch to the full site on your mobile device but, as the site uses Flash to do some of its charting and active data elements, you’re hobbled in that way as well.

The things that you do have access to work very well. Logging the things you eat and drink is simple. There’s a vast database of items available to choose from (in various amounts) which scale appropriately when you enter them in terms of calories, etc. You can also enter food items and store them in a custom area and use them again and again.

Overall, the process of logging data is made seamless enough that I did it often, which is always my Achilles’ heel with stuff like this. For instance, I knew I didn’t really drink a healthy amount of water during the day but I never had any idea how much I actually drank. Since entering the amount of water I drink in the Fitbit iPhone application was a matter of tapping twice, I not only got a better idea of how little water I actually drink but I started drinking more, which is a good thing.

One of the neat features of the Premium Fitbit Membership is that you can add custom trackers. Similar to the Daytum website and app, you can create a tracker entry for anything you can think of: number of sit-ups, number of hot dogs you’ve eaten, number of times you’ve hummed the latest song by Torche, etc.

Sadly, these trackers aren’t located where they’d be best utilized – on your mobile device. Ideally all of your custom trackers would sync to your phone and you could increment them wherever you happen to be. Remembering to do so when you get back to your computer adds friction and that usually results in bad (or missing) data.

Data Visualization and Reporting

No data collection device would be very effective if you couldn’t make use of the data. To that end, Fitbit has a fairly well-designed ecosystem.

The web site is the main hub of the Fitbit universe for reporting. By default, your Dashboard page gives you the details of your exercise and movement for the day. It stays up-to-the-minute, as long as your Fitbit is properly synced.

I use the website regularly to log my food and to check my statistics out of curiousity. It is well organized but, because it uses Flash for its dynamic charting, its usefulness is somewhat limited. I have Flash disabled on most of my machines and browsers and, obviously, my iOS devices can’t access this data. Hopefully, they’ll be changing that to something a bit more universal in the future.

The Premium Fitbit membership is where the real reporting comes into play. Fitbit offers a Premium program which gives you access to full, weekly reports. The reports are robust chunks of visualized data which provide a great way to see how you compare to peers in your age range, weight class or gender. Being “active” Flash charts, you can select different criteria and the results will change in real time. You can store these filter settings for later use as well, which saves time.

The Food/Diet report is extensive and provides great insight into what actually goes into your body on a daily basis. It breaks down your food down by protein, fat, and carb intake and presents your accumulated groupings along with the recommended percentage targets for a more healthier lifestyle.

The Sleep report is one of my primary focuses of attention because I have had terrible sleep habits for years. There’s plenty of proof, both obvious and scientifically “proven” that less sleep means more stress, a less rested body and generally worse overall health.

The reports in this section give you numbers like the amount of sleep you get each night, minus the amount of time you spend awake (but in bed). It provides data on the total count of sleep interruptions you have each night which is something I always suspected was happening but am too tired at the time to fully recognize. The reports also give you a way to visual patterns of sleep/wakefulness over longer periods of time – something I’ve always wanted to know.

Summary

There is a lot to cover about the Fitbit and I certainly didn’t cover all of it, but hopefully this is a good introduction to the device and its satellite systems.

Being a data geek, I subscribe to the fact that knowledge is power and this device definitely provides knowledge I wasn’t able to access previously. The fact that the data capture is essentially ambient and frictionless makes it that much more accurate and useful. The goal of buying the device to get a better understanding of my overall health and activity level (rather than the perceived levels, which are notoriously inaccurate) has so far been achieved and I’m very happy with the results so far.

I’m not a “fitness guy” and being a slavish calorie or carb counter is something I will never do. That said, I do want to have some control over my health and, rather than apply some blanket diet or exercise regimen, I’ve chosen to take matters into my own hands by relying on hard data to find out where I’m doing things right and where I’m doing things wrong.

There’s also the “game” aspect of the device because you can set up goals for yourself and keep pushing yourself to do better each day. If you climbed 10 flights of stairs yesterday, can you do 12 today? The Fitbit shows you what happens when you do (if you have the Trainer Premium add-on, that is). Keep pushing past your “steps taken” or “activity level” records. Walk up the stairs rather than ride the elevator, park your car farther away in the parking lot, go on walks at lunch, etc. It pushes you in ways that don’t seem like a lot at the micro level but, by seeing the macro level effects through Fitbit’s data, you can see how those little things add up.

The Fitbit fits into my day-to-day activity seamlessly. It gets out of the way, but at the same time, gives me answers to some of the questions I’ve been wondering about for years. If you’re into gadgets and have always been curious about how to take the first steps to improve your overall health, it might be time to buy a Fitbit and take a look.