In the year we've waited anxiously for Jawbone to re-release its fitness tracker, the company has been hard at work trying to perfect every last detail. While Up was certainly a trailblazer when it first debuted and is still a perfectly respectable health monitor now, it's a year late to the game, and the health tracking market has gotten a lot more crowded since.
Within that year, Jawbone had gone through 200 hardware designs, 16,000 man hours, 46 weeks of user trials, 2.9 million hours of real-world user testing, 13 billion steps and more to improve upon the flaws that had rendered some units useless the last time around. Here's our review.
The original problems
The downfall of Up's first rendition was twofold. First, since Up takes the form of a bracelet, meant to be worn on the body 24/7, it was exposed to much more stress than expected. The outer band, failing to bond to the internal structure, couldn't prevent minuscule amounts of water entering through weak points; this was further accelerated with detergents and soaps, which expedited oxidation within.
Second, the designers didn't expect how much people would fiddle, bending the flexible, soft band so much so that they were fracturing internal electrical components. Combined, these factors essentially rendered the first-gen Up an unexpected beta program, somewhat embarrassing given that the original Up was Jawbone's fastest-selling product at that point.
Long story short: a new material that allows for better pliancy of the circuit board and plenty of exposure to harsh conditions in testing. The Up endured a Jawbone-made stress test called Big Shower 2000, which — with extreme water temperatures, UV and bending — helped create a more durable monitor to withstand hot showers and more-than-occasional fiddling. "It's still a computer inside," warns Travis Bogard, Jawebone's vice president of product management and strategy. "You obviously have to take some precautions in how to care for it. But people shouldn't have to think about it."
How it works
Loaded inside this wristband are sensors, which have remained unchanged from version 1.0, to track your movement — steps, distance, calories, activity intensity, active time — and sleep quality (also measured by motion). Up also includes a smart alarm that will vibrate and wake you gently within a window of time at the best point in your sleep cycle, a power nap feature that will wake you after an optimal nap duration (usually between 25 and 45 minutes) and an idle alert that will vibrate periodically to remind you if you've been sedentary for too long.
Complementing the hardware is the software, a beautifully designed mobile app that lets you set goals, log even more information about your health and wellness, and analyze all that information to provide insights into you. Of course, though the app adds robustness to Up, taking advantage of it is less seamless — the opposite of a "passive and friction-free" experience as Bogard says Up professes to do. The additional data the app monitors include mood; food intake in a visually strong, Pinterest-like meal diary backed by a nutritional database; and non-step-based workouts that the hardware wouldn't otherwise log, such as yoga.
The app also puts heavy emphasis on the social side. You can add friends to your team, who can view and comment on your stats, food choices and mood. For those who are wary of sharing too much, there are different levels of privacy by category, so you can share your steps and workout, but keep other data to yourself. In the age of oversharing, these privacy features are much appreciated.
Jawbone intends for the Up to be almost jewelry-like, something you'd choose to wear because it's attractive. I'm not quite sure it achieves that despite the Yves Behar design superstar name behind the hardware. It does, however, sport a lower profile than the likes of the Nike Fuelband and Larklife wearable monitors — two examples of direct competitors who have popped up in this space while Up has been on sabbatical. Since Jawbone's wristband features a flexible design where the ends aren't connected, I've also noticed that it has a tendency to get caught in long sleeves.
I mentioned in the beginning that Jawbone had wanted to get perfect every last detail, but it seemed to have focused so much on improving upon the old version's shortcomings that it failed to innovate, losing the edge it had when it first launched last November.
Take for example the syncing process. One end of the Up has a removable cap covering a plug that inserts into your smartphone's audio jack. (With a proprietary USB cable, this plug can also draw power to charge up the device for up to 10 days.) Though I have to admit this integration is a rather clever setup, there are two foibles.
First, the cap is prone to getting lost — just think of all your flash drives that no longer have their protective tops. Second, though the design allows for convenient syncing considering the lack of wireless data transfer, I have to wonder why there isn't wireless data transfer. After all, this is coming from Jawbone, a Bluetooth accessories company, whose bread and butter are Bluetooth headsets and portable Bluetooth speakers. It seems completely counterintuitive given that Fitbit's new trackers, for instance, can sync automatically with newer iOS devices using Bluetooth 4.0 without the need to launch an app, let alone connect the tracker to another piece of hardware. Though Larklife has yet to ship, it also purports to sync automatically; the Fuelband isn't as seamless but again also uses Bluetooth for wireless syncing.
Another weakness the Up has is that the hardware can't give you any immediate feedback since there is no screen, as the Fuelband features. Unless you physically connect the Up to your phone (and it's recommended that you do this twice a day — talk about friction), you don't have any indication on your day's progress. In essence, the lack of an LED screen means the hardware's pretty useless without the app. If you go on a long hike without your phone, you can't gauge how far and for how long you've traveled.
Lastly, one of my biggest gripes about the Up is this closed ecosystem. Admittedly this is less likely an issue for everyday users, but as someone who tracks her sleep and weight with separate devices and is often testing multiple activity trackers, I want my data to flow seamlessly from one health dashboard to the other.
Jawbone tries so hard to be a one-stop shop for all your wellness data that it fails to see that health-conscious consumers are likely to purchase and use other gadgets as well. Most health trackers I've tried thus far have allowed some degree of data importing and exporting. The Withings app can chart my Zeo sleep score alongside my weight, so I can see what effect one might have on the other. Fitbit also aims to provide a comprehensive health dashboard, so its stats aren't exported; but at the very least, it will import my Withings weight data even though it has launched a direct competitor with its Aria scale.
Data yearns to be liberated, for its potential to be unlocked, to help draw patterns and provide insight. Instead, I'm trapped in a closed ecosystem that so far only allows me to download my data as a .csv file, which falls short of many of the leading health trackers' Web dashboards (speaking of which, Jawbone only has an app, no Web component, which is frustrating for non-mobile-first users, such as yours truly). For now, I've been given a lofty statement that "this isn't something that UP users can do yet, but it's something that [Jawbone is] looking at for the future."
I highly admire Jawbone for the strides it has made with Up and for a fantastic company ethic that places the consumer first — all the customers who purchased an Up last year were given a refund, even those whose devices hadn't malfunctioned. There's no denying that Up is an excellent low-profile wearable health tracker that collects a wealth of data and provides great insights into your health. I've been so fond as to recommend it in a holiday gift guide for USA TODAY. But given the time that has elapsed since its introduction a year ago, my criticisms stem from a desire to see more than patches for vulnerabilities — especially given its $130 price tag, $30 more than the previous version. It's fine as is, but I see the potential for Up to be much more.
All images Alice Truong for DVICE