A bend in the road for Fitbit, and a year’s experience therewith

I’ve been meaning to write about my experiences with the Fitbit trackers for a while now, having just passed 12 months of using a series of three of their devices. With some new news coming out this week, this might be a particularly good time to share my thoughts.

Voluntary Recall On Fitbit Force Trackers

James Park, CEO and Co-founder of Fitbit, posted a note Yesterday on the Fitbit website (updating a note from last month) declaring a voluntary recall and end of sale on the Force tracker. Force is gone from Amazon already, and if you wanted one but didn’t get it yet, you may not be in luck.

For those of you who’ve bought the Force (a feat in and of itself) and found your skin irritated by the tracker, this is an opportunity to get a full refund directly from Fitbit and either go back to an earlier product from Fitbit, or move to a different product.

Their return page does not require that you prove or even claim injury, so if you were disappointed with the condensation issue, the clasp, or the announcement of a competing product the week after you bought the Force, you can still get a refund and move on with your life.

This move by Park and the Fitbit organization is an unexpectedly responsive action by the company. We’ve all seen companies hem and haw and blame the customer for holding the product wrong (iPhone 4 bumper anyone?), and while Fitbit did investigate the problem before ceasing sale, they’ve offered admirable support during the process.

I have not experienced the symptoms above (other than some annoyance with the clasp), so I will be keeping mine. If you don’t have the symptoms, it’s the best tracker yet, but I’ll be curious to see how long the recall/refund goes, and what’s next on the road map for Fitbit.

Let’s start with One, shall we?

In February 2013, I bought the Fitbit One tracker. This is a bean-shaped tracker that fits into a clip holder that you can clip onto a belt or pocket, a bra if you’re the sort who wears those, or probably a shirt or other clothing item.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Fitbit, it’s a fitness tracker that communicates with select phones, tablets, and computers via Bluetooth 4.0 Low-Energy (BLE). A year ago, Android support was minimal, so you had to use the USB dongle on a personal computer, or a fairly current iPhone/iPod Touch (5th Gen, I believe). There is no direct cable sync like the original, and the charger is separate from the sync dongle.

Fitbit One holds a charge for about 7 days or 70,000 steps in my experience, more or less depending on how often you wake up the display, or use the silent alarm (with its vibration mode). It is available in different colors but most people won’t notice this so much.

Fitbit PanelThe Fitbit One tracks the usual stuff (steps, active minutes, estimated calories burned, miles walked), as well as flights of stairs ascended (walking downstairs doesn’t count), and the feature that sold me on One vs Zip: sleep.

Fitbit SleepBy placing your Zip in a wrist wrap strap, and setting it into “sleep” mode, it monitors your movement and steps (if you get up and move around during the night), and rates your sleep efficiency and duration.

The Fitbit app and website offer dashboards to show your progress. You can automatically share your daily/weekly results on social media, or with “friends” in the dashboard, or both, or neither.

The One was pretty cool, although I worried that I would lose it… three or four times the One itself came out of the belt clip, usually when getting into or out of the car. And finally, on a shuttle bus at Cisco Live in Orlando, it completely left my person. I struggled on with the Samsung S-Health tracker on my phone until I got home, and then I went hunting for another device. 

Flex your fitness tracker

The Fitbit Flex is a small device that snaps flexibly into a wristband. It uses the same connections (Bluetooth Low Energy with supported devices), and charges via USB albeit with a new charger. The device comes with a small wristband and a large one, and my wrist is just about at the overlap between the sizes. I wore the large, but that doesn’t impact anything about the device itself. Replacement bands in several colors were promised, and finally became available earlier this year.

Flex removes tracking of flights of stairs, and replaces the digital display with five LED lights that can indicate mode changes (sleep, alarm, reaching your goal) as well as 10% increments toward your primary goal. For example, if your goal is 10,000 steps (the default), up to 1000 steps will show the first LED indicator blinking. From 1000 to 2000 will show the first LED solid, and so forth.

Flex also removes the need to change the mounting to track your sleep. Just tap the wristband a few times quickly and it goes into sleep tracking mode; do the same to take it out of sleep mode. It took a while to get the timing down on this, as opposed to holding down the button for sleep mode on One, but I didn’t have to carry an extra piece to track my sleep on the road.

Like the One, Flex has about a 7 day/70k step battery life.

The Justifiable Use of Force

Fitbit Force was announced in the fall of 2013. It only became readily available in the last month or two; in early November I had to call around and eventually drive over half an hour to find one of two within that range in Silicon Valley. But it was worth it.

Force brought back the clock display, with a button on the side to scroll through the various goals. It also restored tracking of flights of stairs, and while wider and heavier than the Flex, it is still light enough to occasionally forget you’re wearing it.

Force is “permanently” installed in a wristband. This forces you to make some decisions upon purchase, specifically the color (slate blue or black) and the size (small or large, as with the Flex band). It doubles the battery life to 14 days, and brings yet another unique USB charging adapter.

Alas, as of yesterday, the Force is no longer for sale. You might find one at a local Best Buy or other retailer if they haven’t been pulled/returned yet, but Amazon and Fitbit have removed them from their websites.

So what are Fitbits good for?

I won’t tell you that buying or wearing a Fitbit will make you healthier or lighter or more attractive to members of the appropriate sex. Buying one through the links above (i.e. a Fitbit One or a Fitbit Flex) might (okay, probably not), but I use the Fitbit trackers to encourage me to walk more and take the stairs instead of an elevator. The competition with some friends with trackers helps a bit as well, although it doesn’t help enough to get me to stay over 10k as often as I’d like.

It also gives me a sense of relative activity. For example, today I worked from home, ate at home instead of going out, and forgot to go check the mail. As a result, my dashboard dials are all disappointedly green  (845 steps, really?) and I know I have to get out more tomorrow. A day at Disneyland (graphed above) definitely shows a different picture, and explains why my feet were sore.

I forgot to mention earlier, but there is also a scale, Aria, that links via the same Bluetooth methods and lets you track your weight (gain or loss) in the same system as your step tracking. It’s $130, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy it yet, but I’m still tempted.

So where do we go from here?

The exact number of steps I walked isn’t as important to me–if it’s 10,300 vs 10,195 that is almost as important as which foot I started walking on this morning. But knowing how close I am to average/goal walk levels, and hopefully being inspired to keep up with my friends and my goals, makes a much bigger difference.

Could I do the same with Samsung’s S-Health app? Sure. But I have to have the phone in my pocket or on my person for it to work. They never came out with the S-Band in the US at least, so the only available sensor is in the phone.

There’s also a Moves app that tracks your travels, and I find it nice to see how long I spent driving vs riding or walking, but again, it’s based on the phone being on my person. If I walk down to the far end of the building and leave my phone on the charger, Fitbit catches that. Moves and S-Health don’t.

There are other devices as well, and you may find Jawbone or Withings or any number of other devices that will fit your needs. But I’d seriously consider Fitbit.

As the news on Force shows, they are responsive to their customers. They have been very generous in replacing failed or lost devices in the past (which is why I have a Fitbit One sitting here again). Keep your receipts, kids.

And they have been innovating regularly over the past few years. I expect that even with the Force withdrawal, they will have something similar in scope and even better in some way, by the end of the year if not sooner.

All things considered, I’ve been happy with my Fitbit experience over the last 12.5 months. I wish they’d standardize their charging connections, and get accessories (bands, clasps, etc) out to retail faster, but I’ve worked with companies whose growing pains were far worse. 

What has your experience been? Feel free to chime in below with your experience with these or other trackers.

Disclaimer: I’ve purchased three Fitbit trackers at retail with my own money. The lost Fitbit One was replaced by Fitbit at no expense to me, just by my filing a ticket and asking if something could be done. I may have gotten a discount on the first one at Verizon with my corporate plan (I don’t remember), but I’ve received no consideration from Fitbit or any reseller at any time.


7 thoughts on “A bend in the road for Fitbit, and a year’s experience therewith

  1. I’ve seen quite a few people already wearing the Force. I already bought the Jawbone UP in the summer last year when that was the only good one being an integrated wristband. I just knew having a loose device would definitely make me lose it.

    I also had a good customer service story I shared here: http://hansdeleenheer.com/jawbone-goes-the-extra-mile/
    I didn’t even need a receipt or so. They knew I broke the device myself and just send me a new one from California.

    The next device I am looking at right now is the Mio Alpha, a sports watch with integrated heart rate monitor. For the same reason as why I chose wristband tracker of a loose device I would chose this type of heart rate tracker over a chest-wrap.


    • Thanks for the feedback, Hans.

      I was either asked for the receipt, or I offered it with the initial ticket, not sure which… but getting a lost device replaced was cool for me. I think when I bought the first Fitbit it was the only one with any Android integration, so even though I didn’t have a Galaxy S3 at the time, there was hope one way or another.


  2. I’ve owned the FitBit Ultra, for around two years now. The Ultra is its own clip, battery on one side, screen on the other, so no clip is needed to attach it (although they supply an extra large clip for those thick belts). Since I picked it up, my circle of friends seems to be climbing on board constantly also. I have around 25 people on my leaderboard. I do use the daily stats as a meter of if I am being active enough. But I think the leaderboard is where I get most of my motivation from. It is a fun challenge to compete with friends every week, to see who can stay on top.

    The Ultra doesn’t have Bluetooth, it uses a proprietary wireless connection, requiring a base station to sync and charge. I have a base at home on a Mac Mini, and one at work. Just being within range of the base, it syncs, so I am almost always up to date without any action needed on my part, and saves my phone battery life. For my average activity (~40K steps a week), I can go 10-15 days easily between charges (placing it on the base for an hour).

    Since buying the Ultra for myself, I got one as a gift for my girlfriend, and just as of late, a pair for my parents as well. If anything, now my mom can see I am still alive without the nagging emails to check in 😉

    Also note, that the iPhone 5s can act as a fitbit also with just the app running. Similar limitations as with the Samsung setup. I haven’t tried this yet, as I just keep the Ultra on my belt clip.


    • Thanks for the Ultra info, Derek. I can see the offboard charging/syncing being useful, although I doubt that BLE uses a lot more energy (not sure). Probably hurts my battery life enough to have three mobile devices and the usb dongle all set to auto-sync, although I think I turned it off on the iDevices that I keep forgetting to charge. 🙂

      For the 5s app function, that’s intriguing… is it specific to the 5s or can you report to Fitbit with a 5/5c or iPod Touch?


      • “In an attempt to gain more users, Fitbit released an update to its iOS app introducing a new feature called MobileTrack for iPhone 5S owners. The feature takes advantage of the M7 coprocessor in the iPhone 5S, which can count your steps and track your activity.”


  3. I just did a post myself on the recall and brief experience with the device over here http://imagadgetguy.com/2014/02/25/fitbit-update/.

    While only having it just shy of 2 months I really enjoyed this device. I had the Nike Fuelband the year prior and never really got into the proprietary points system that Nike had. Not to mention it was uncomfortable.

    I think knowledge is power and while you are right that it’s not going to help you lose weight, it is going to help you make smarter decisions as trying to stay at 10k steps a day instead of 5k. Those small changes will add up through the months and will help you stay more fit I would say. I know through the video on the Force they show the person taking the stairs over the escalator and I do the same thing every day when coming out of the ground where the LRT (Subway) is in Edmonton.

    It’s sad the device is being recalled but as I mentioned on my post I have huge respect for a company that is willing to do this and in the end that will prove fruitful for them I’m sure.

    Great post!


    • Thanks Shaun.

      I am undecided on the recall for myself–definitely respect their decision, but unless something better comes along I’m happy with my Force.

      Only problems I’ve had with it have been when I wear it too tightly or too loosely, which is more just comfort with the clasp (which isn’t as good as Flex, but has to hold a larger device.


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