In today’s world, nothing escapes the fact that we are moving in a direction where quantifying and recording stuff obsessively is sort of the norm. We use Foursquare to check into places, we annoyingly take photos of our meals with Instagram, and we share our thoughts on Twitter. So would it be much of a surprise if we also like to track the number of steps they take, or how much we sleep?
The Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP are two very popular products in the wearable activity tracker category. These are devices which you wear on your wrist, and they’ll record how active you were, among other things. Fitbit is no stranger to activity trackers — they make lovely products like the Fitbit One which we reviewed a couple of months ago; so they know what they’re doing. Jawbone, on the other hand, are pretty green in this area — sure, they make wonderful Bluetooth devices like Jambox, but activity trackers is a whole different ballgame.
So the question is: which one should you buy? Today, we’ll put the Fitbit Flex and the Jawbone UP against each other, and decide whether it’s the newcomer or veteran who takes home the gold.
We’ll also be offering both devices, so enjoy the review then remember to join the contest.
Introducing the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP
As I mentioned earlier, these devices are essentially activity trackers which you can wear on your wrist, as opposed to classical activity trackers that clip onto clothing e.g. jeans, pants, etc. The idea is to never take them off — so you wear them in the shower, and even in bed. In addition to measuring the number of steps you take, both devices are also able to record your sleep — the quality as well as duration. Finally, and this is just an added extra — they are also silent alarms, waking you up through gentle vibrations (if you wear them to sleep, of course). Both devices must be synced with a compatible smartphone in order to retrieve the collected data. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry, I’ll elaborate as we progress through the review.
The Jawbone UP retails for $129.95 and comes 3 sizes: small, medium and large. It’s also available in 8 attractive colours. Selecting the right size isn’t easy — the UP either fits you or it doesn’t. If your wrist is between two sizes, like mine is, Jawbone recommends going with the larger of the two, and you’ll have to live with a slightly oversized UP band for the foreseeable future. Mind you, the coloured bands aren’t interchangeable, so once you pick a colour, you’re stuck with it.
The $99 Fitbit Flex is more accommodating. While the Flex is available in only two colour options (black or slate), it is shipped with the tracker and two adjustable and interchangeable bands (a small and a large). Additionally, Fitbit offers a $30 accessories pack which expands your band collection by three more colours: Teal, Tangerine and Navy.
Surprise, surprise. These aren’t the only two wearable activity trackers on the market. Of course, there’s the infamous Nike+ Fuelband ($149). However, it’s activity-centric — in other words, the Fuelband is designed to focus on how active you are, and how many calories you burn. Moreover, its chunky design doesn’t quite bode well with the ladies.
Then there’s the $200 Basis B1, which looks more like a really retro watch. The only thing the Basis B1 has going for it is an integrated heart rate monitor. Sadly, Basis doesn’t provide a mobile platform to sync with, so you won’t know what to do with the collected data until you get home and connect it to your PC. Also, you wouldn’t want to be seen as though you’re wearing two watches, would you? No, that’d look weird.
Coming from a manufacturer obsessed with design, the Jawbone UP is quite fashionable. It’s also very minimal. The TPU rubber wristband houses the clever gadgetry which records your activity, as well as two hidden LEDs to indicate the mode that the UP is in. As you can tell by now, the Jawbone UP doesn’t have a screen so it’s unable to display your progress until you sync it with a compatible mobile device. Putting it on your wrist the first few times can be tricky but you’ll notice that the UP is rather sturdy and won’t break quite that easily.
The band is roughly the same thickness (7mm) throughout its entire length, and I’d say that it’s bordering on bulky, especially for ladies with slimmer wrists. On one end, you’ll notice a small button — pressing it triggers the mode indicator. A long-press activates or deactivates sleep mode.
On the other, removing the Jawbone-labeled cap reveals a 3.5 mm jack which is used to charge and sync the Jawbone UP. The UP is also water-resistant, so you can wear it in the shower but you shouldn’t take it swimming.
As you can tell, the design of the Flex is slightly more basic. Unlike the Jawbone UP, perhaps the Flex was made to blend in rather than stand out. The Fitbit Flex is actually made up of two components: the tracker and the silicone rubber wristband with a small transparent window. Even though Flex comes with small and large bands, both bands are adjustable; allowing you to further fine-tune the Flex to fit comfortably on your wrist.
The tracker slots into a compartment on the thicker side of the band, and remains there until it needs to be charged. Other than that, the silicone band is pretty unremarkable.
The Flex doesn’t have any physical buttons, so to compensate, it recognises two series of taps which either invoke the progress meter or sleep mode. The tracker has 5 LEDs built-in, seen through the band’s transparent window, and they light up in very exciting K.I.T.T-style flashes. Each flashing LED represents 20% of the daily activity goal (which is configurable). So say, the goal is set at 10,000 steps, one flashing LED would mean that you’re still within 20% of that goal i.e. less than 2,000 steps.
See it in action:
The Fitbit Flex is also water-resistant — up to 10 meters. Unlike the Jawbone UP, the Flex can be worn while swimming.
Setting up and connectivity
Setting up the Jawbone UP is rather easy. Start by downloading the free mobile app for iOS or Android and plug the UP’s 3.5 mm jack into the phone. The app will guide you through the setup process, then a tutorial on how invoke sleep mode, nap mode, and the stopwatch.
Here’s the thing: the Jawbone UP isn’t fitted with Bluetooth despite the fact that it was designed and manufactured by a reputable company specialising in Bluetooth technology. In order to sync, the UP needs to be physically connected to a smartphone via the 3.5 mm jack. This may be a turnoff for some — I should know, I’m one of them. Not only does the UP lack a progress display, having to physically sync it every day can be inconvenient and demotivating.
Next, Jawbone doesn’t offer an online dashboard to view your data, so the mobile app is all you get. On the bright side, the mobile app is nothing short of fantastic — I’ll tell you why in a minute.
As for the Fitbit Flex, getting started is slightly more difficult, and requires access to a PC in order to download the desktop client. However, after getting through that boring bit, the Flex is able to pair with a compatible iOS or Android smartphone via Bluetooth. Not only that, as long as they’re both in range, the Flex will occasionally sync in the background, and provide you with real-time progress when the mobile app is open. Personally, that was one of the things I was looking forward to most about the Fitbit Flex; after having to endure with 2 months of retrospective reporting from the Jawbone UP, being able to view my progress in real-time was a breath of fresh air.
Wearing the Fitbit Flex vs. Jawbone UP
In order to prepare for this review, I’ve been wearing the Jawbone UP for the past 2 months, and I’m glad to say that I hardly ever notice it now. Although at the start, it did get in the way slightly. For a person who’s not used to wearing decorative bracelets, having the Jawbone UP on my wrist felt awkward, especially when typing, and required some adjustments. Due to its thick-ish size, I also had difficulty putting shirts on and pulling jumpers over the UP; or taking clothes off with the UP in the way, for that matter.
Jawbone recommends wearing the UP on your non-dominant hand for more accurate tracking and that’s a fair point since vigorous dominant hand gestures does affect the UP’s accelerometer and exaggerates the numbers it reports. I’ve tested the UP on both my dominant and non-dominant hands — and the numbers from the dominant hand were often inflated, reporting more than two times the number of steps I took. However, you’ll find that it isn’t always possible to wear both the Jawbone UP and a watch on the same non-dominant wrist.
In comparison, the Flex’s band is simpler: it’s wider and slightly less tall where the tracker is housed (compared to the Jawbone UP), but shifts to a much lower profile as it goes around the wrist — very much akin to wearing a watch. So it’s less likely to get in the way of putting on clothes, typing on a keyboard, or using a mouse. It also fits better since Fitbit provides two bands (small and large) to choose from, and both bands are adjustable via a clasp mechanism.
Between the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP, the Flex is a hair lighter and has a lower profile overall, making it easier to navigate through daily life without being much of a bother — so it wins my vote plainly on comfort. It’s also more comfortable to wear in bed, if you’re curious to know. The UP is fitted with a battery which lasts for 10 days, and takes only a couple of hours to recharge. The Flex doesn’t do as well, with only a 5-day battery life but it does sync wirelessly so that explains the disparity.
However, the Fitbit Flex does have one fatal design flaw.
The fatal flaw
Well, depending on how you look at it, it might not be fatal but it is quite annoying. While the Jawbone UP is one solid construction, the Fitbit Flex consists of the silicone rubber wristband, and a tracker which slips into it. The design would allow water to seep into the compartment while showering or even during hand-washing, and it never dries out as long as the tracker remains tucked in. As a result, you’ll notice water droplets through the transparent window.
This becomes more evident when the tracker is removed for charging — the tracker itself isn’t affected with the water but the humidity built up in the compartment over days encourages bacterial growth.
Tracking and reporting
In terms of activity tracking, both devices are equally accurate. The Jawbone UP is powered by motion recognition technology supplied by MotionX and is slightly more ambitious than the MEMS 3-axis accelerometer used in the Fitbit Flex. It’s not easy to tell what constitutes a “step” in the eyes of the Jawbone UP purely due to the fact that it isn’t able to report in real-time. However, with the Flex, it’s quite easy because it syncs with the mobile app continuously via Bluetooth. I was surprised to learn that the Fitbit Flex is able to recognise my steps even if my wrist isn’t swinging. For example, if I’m carrying something in my non-dominant hands while walking, it would still register my paces. Pretty impressive. I did try walking backwards — that did not register.
The data from both devices need to be offloaded to a mobile app in order to be interpreted and presented.
Having to compensate for the lack of an online dashboard, Jawbone UP’s mobile app is beautifully designed and very insightful. It analyses and then lays out the data in a way that’s easily digestible: daily progress, number of steps taken and distance travelled, active duration, idle duration, and calories burnt. Since the UP also tracks your sleep pattern, and if you remember to enable sleep mode before going to bed, you’ll be rewarded with some really interesting reports on your nocturnal activity: the duration of light vs. deep sleep, the number of times you were awaken, and how long it took you to fall asleep. Personally, I’m a very poor sleeper — and with the reports from the Jawbone UP and Fitbit Flex, I now realise that I’m awaken from sleep between 4-14 times a night. It helps to obtain quantifiable data about my sleep quality because I’d be able to try different techniques to improve my slumber and determine what works.
Using the UP’s mobile app is very satisfying since it provides minute-by-minute activity/sleep graphs, so I’m able to easily visualise what time of the day I’m most active. The downside: all of this lovely data is retrospective. The UP needs to be manually plugged into a smartphone in order to sync, and isn’t able to display your daily progress on the band. So you won’t know if you’ve hit your daily goal until you sync it. Despite that, the Jawbone app is still fantastic to use because there’s so much you can learn from it. It manages to display your data in the most relevant forms. Take Trends, for example — the app basically plots your entire life as a bar graph: how you’ve slept, how active you’ve been. And it motivates you as well, by encouraging you to beat your achievements from the week before.
On the other hand, the Fitbit Flex syncs via Bluetooth with a compatible smartphone and reports your progress in real-time, without having to remove it from your wrist, which is great! Unfortunately, Fitbit’s mobile app is quite drab — at least the iOS version is. Sure, it’ll display the number of steps taken, distance travelled and calories burnt; but for minute-by-minute activity reports, you’ll need to head to the online dashboard. And that’s where the Fitbit mobile app falls short. Aside from the most basic numbers, it doesn’t offer anything else — no analysis, no interpretation; just raw numbers.
One of the many things that you’ll have to train yourself to do while wearing an activity tracker is to enable sleep mode at night. Otherwise, neither the Fitbit Flex nor the Jawbone UP will record your sleep quality. Sure, you’d be able to manually input the number of hours you snoozed, but it’s not the same. One of the advantages of the UP is that it automatically comes out of sleep mode whenever it senses activity for a prolonged period of time. Unfortunately, the Flex doesn’t — if you forget to disable sleep mode, it won’t track your steps throughout the day.
Both the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP have something called a silent alarm which vibrates instead of beep, so your partner isn’t awaken if you decide to go for a jog at six in the morning. Even though they’re both “silent”, the Jawbone UP vibrates as long pulses and is moderately vigorous, not to mention quite audible as well. The silent alarm on the Flex, on the other hand, vibrates as four short bursts then one long pulse followed by three short bursts; and is comparatively more subtle than the UP but equally as effective. However, the Jawbone UP does claim that their alarms are “smarter” in the sense that it recognises when you’re in a light sleep cycle then fires the alarm within a 10-minute window of the set time. Apparently, you’ll wake up fresher by using a smart alarm but I have yet to experience this “fresh feeling” they’re referring to. The Flex simply vibrates when it’s time to wake up.
Although I’m not a big fan of the following feature on the Jawbone UP, I feel that it’s my responsibility to inform you about it. The UP has a neat ability to detect idleness, and after a certain period of time, the band will vibrate to remind you to take a walk. While this is an awesome feature for folks with sedentary lifestyles and need a little reminder to stay active; I work at a standing desk, which means I’m on my feet, and not sitting on my behind all day. And I’m mostly typing away at my desk but the UP doesn’t recognise all of that, and the constant buzzing to remind me to walk around can hinder my productivity quite a bit. But I’ll admit that the Jawbone UP’s idle alert can be a useful feature to some, plus it’s something that the Fitbit Flex does not offer.
Finally, between the two devices, only the Jawbone UP supports IFTTT integration. IFTTT (IF This Then That) is an online service which automatically performs certain actions based on preset triggers. For example, it can automatically create new Tumbler posts from saved Pocket favourites or notify you by SMS whenever you have new emails. Using IFTTT, you’d be able to automatically email your spouse a warning if you had less than 7 hours of sleep, or automatically turn on the coffee machine if you had less than 5 hours. I’m slightly disappointed that Fitbit hasn’t announced IFTTT support, even though most of their devices like the Aria smart scales (and now the Fitbit Flex) are able to go online on their own. I reckon they’re doing their consumers a huge disservice by neglecting to integrate with IFTTT.
Fitbit Flex vs. Jawbone UP: which should you buy?
The Jawbone UP is trendy and its mobile app is outstanding, but its fixed-sized wristband and lack of real-time synchronisation leave a lot to be desired. The Fitbit Flex is utilitarian in both form and function, but its mobile app for iOS is abysmal and Fitbit’s decision to neglect users of IFTTT integration is beyond my comprehension. Ideally, I’m after the complete package: a great-looking yet adjustable wristband, a functional mobile app, wireless syncing capabilities, and IFTTT integration.
Before choosing, you really need to figure out your needs. Do you require real-time tracking? If you do, then the Fitbit Flex is for you. If you’re looking for activity tracker that doesn’t require much attention, then go with the Jawbone UP. Personally, I’m undecided. Both devices are flawed in some way, but brilliant in others. And even after writing this 3,000-word review, I can’t figure out which one I would buy.
Update: After about six continuous weeks of wearing the Fitbit Flex, the silicone rubber wristband started to fall apart. There’s now a large tear just below the translucent window on the inner surface of the band. Couple the low build quality of the band with the grossness I mentioned earlier, I cannot recommend the Flex. The Jawbone UP also stopped working, and needed to be replaced. Both devices are significantly flawed. Wait for the Withings Pulse Activity Tracker.
How do I win the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP?
We have a new giveaway procedure in place, which will hopefully make participating much easier. You may enter using your Facebook credentials (which will require you to sign into Facebook) or by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning!
This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, June 7th. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email.