Buzz is building around the Fitbit Flex

Fitbit was one of the first to bring a consumer activity tracker + web site + mobile app ecosystem to the edge of the mass market, and they’ve won a lot of converts over the last couple years. But at the same time, there’s been an explosion of other trackers and platforms for capturing physical movement, encouraging more activity, and viewing and sharing the data collected. Can Fitbit stay on top?

Well, they’re certainly going to try.

This week Fitbit introduced yet another revision to their activity tracking lineup, a new design intended to recapture users that defected to the wristband-style Nike+ FuelBand or the Jawbone Up. And the tech press, in their annual CES frenzy, are trumpeting the announcement as the next big thing:

The details are simple, really. The Fitbit Flex will be $100 and launch sometime in the spring. You can pre-order right now.

For me, Fitbit is challenging my devotion to the Nike+ FuelBand by combining what I liked about the FitBit with what I like about the FuelBand. Mostly. So here’s my take on the pros and cons of old Fitbit, current FuelBand, and the announced Fitbit Flex…

Where the Fitbit One Beats the FuelBand

  • Because the design calls for you to wear the Fitbit near the center of your body mass (at or near the waist), it’s much more accurate when counting steps or overall body movement than wrist- or arm-mounted activity trackers.
  • Fitbit has several data integrations included with its cloud-based platform, so you can send your captured data lots of different places, including Microsoft HealthVault. This bodes well for the Fitbit’s future prospects as a provider-integrated EHR-syncing activity tracking platform. You know… someday.
  • The Fitbit web and smartphone app platform is more feature-complete than Nike’s, especially if you’re anal enough to enter all your foods, moods, water, and any exercises not picked up by the activity tracker. Nike has a great iOS app with Facebook integration for social health purposes, but then so does Fitbit.
  • All the Fitbit activity trackers are cheaper than the FuelBand. It’s $70 and $100 vs. $150. That’s a big difference.
  • The Fitbit One (but not the “Zip” edition) can track steps climbed using an altimeter function. The FuelBand can’t do that.
  • Like the new Flex (discussed below), the Fitbit One syncs wirelessly with low-power Bluetooth 4.0 anytime you’ve got the app running on your smartphone.

Where FuelBand Beats the Fitbit One

  • The Fitbit One is easily lost in pockets, off your belt, and can end up in the washing machine (and then the trash). The FuelBand, by comparison, just goes on your wrist — end of story. It’s snug and doesn’t have to come off much, so you’re not going to lose it easily. This advantage cannot be overstated. Lots of users have switched to the FuelBand because the data captured, while less accurate, is more complete and consistent because the FuelBand is just more likely to be worn.
  • The FuelBand’s integrated display is attractive, engaging, and informative. The Fitbit One’s display is okay and functional, but not all that engaging. For the good stuff you have to hop into the smartphone app.

And Now the Fitbit Flex: Where Does it Win?

  • The Fitbit Flex can be used for sleep monitoring, just like its non-wrist predecessors. The FuelBand skips this feature, though the Jawbone Up matches it.
  • If you can be woken up by a vibrating wrist, then the Flex can be your alarm clock. LIke the Jawbone Up, it will theoretically buzz at the right moment in your sleep cycle so you wake up refreshed. Reviewers seem to think it works. The FuelBand has no such feature.
  • The motion-sensing part of the Flex can be popped out and dropped in a pocket if you don’t want to wear the wristband.
  • The Nike FuelBand is sold in 3 wrist sizes and you have to figure out which one is right for you (I screwed up on my first choice). The Flex comes with 2 bands and has a highly-adjustable watch-style wristband.
  • You can swap out different Flex wristband colors (if you must) by buying additional bands.
  • Using Bluetooth 4.0 means the Fitbit Flex can maintain smartphone connectivity all day without killing either the wristband’s or phone’s batteries. The FuelBand runs on older Bluetooth modes, requiring manual syncing and more power. The Jawbone Up isn’t even wireless, instead plugging in to your headphone jack for syncing.

Potential Fitbit Flex Problems

  • The FuelBand has a smooth, rounded shape across its entire body, but the Fitbit Flex has a blocky, squared-off top that’s much more likely to catch on clothing. I’m also wondering whether the watchband styling will be annoying. I haven’t worn a classic watch in years.
  • Aside from the 5 LED dots, there’s no multi-function display, so it’s a step ahead of the Jawbone Up, which has no display at all, but several steps behind the FuelBand, which can also act as a watch. (Of course, with Bluetooth 4.0 live syncing, you can view your Fitbit stats on your smartphone anytime.)
  • The Flex lacks the altimeter of the Fitbit One, so no tracking steps climbed.
  • While wrist placement is convenient, it’s also far less accurate in measuring activity when compared against the Fitbit One or any torso-bound tracker.

Conclusions: Fitbit Flex Wins, But It’s a Fast-Moving Market

  • The Fitbit Flex is a winner overall, if it works as advertised. Remember that the Jawbone Up was a disaster at launch and took a year to be revised. Time will tell, but Fitbit has successfully built and launched all prior models.
  • The Flex effectively neutralizes the threat of the FuelBand and the Jawbone Up by offering equivalent physical functionality at a lower price.
  • The Fitbit platform is a major advantage you can’t see on the box, but it will matter most in the long run. Their platform is purpose-built and widely-integrated with other apps and web systems. The FuelBand is, let’s be honest, a side project for Nike. The Up is similarly a side project for Jawbone, the Bluetooth headset and portable speaker manufacturer. Fitbit is focused where the others aren’t.
  • For all the good stuff about Fitbit and the Flex, the truth is the quantified self sector is just starting to reach the mass market. Who knows who wins in the long run?

For now, I’ve pre-ordered the Fitbit Flex for myself. And I can report back here in the spring.