Healthy Tech: Pedometers that go the extra mile

Articles about losing weight often cite walking more as a great (and ridiculously easy) way to lose weight. Skip the subway and walk the twenty blocks to work, they say. (And I do.)

But most new pedometers these days do more than just count your steps with a built-in accelerometer; some reward you in virtual and real-world ways for each step you take. In addition, all of them allow you to track the data over time and see if you see spot habits or trends. Some of them have so many additional features besides counting steps, that it doesn't even sound right to call them a pedometer — they definitely, and pardon the pun, go the extra mile.

For this review, I wore the Striiv, the Fitbit Ultra and the iPod Nano. The first two on my belt just to the side of my pocket; the latter on my non-dominant left arm in a watch band. Keep reading to find out how they stack up.




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Striiv

Striiv is easily the largest of the three devices we reviewed. It can go on your key chain, on your belt or in your pocket — I chose to wear it on my belt as it seems a little big to fix to my key chain. One thing I really liked is that the Striiv can tell the difference between a walk and a run, or even when you're climbing stairs, thanks to some fancy tech under the hood.

You'll see the giant color touchscreen right away and there are only two physical buttons — a back button and a home button. The majority of your actions are accomplished through the touchscreen. It has a fairly intuitive UI and the touchscreen is pretty responsive, except scrolling up and down can be a little troublesome (luckily it isn't needed often).

The biggest difference between Striiv and the other pedometers in this review (and in general) is that its focus is on making walking seem more like a game. For instance, there is an steps-based game called MyLand, where the more steps you record, the more this virtual island fills up with animated wildlife and plants. Striiv says "more games will be added over time" that are all powered solely by your physical activity. This was a cute way to showcase how important steps are, but after only a few minutes, I quickly lost interest in the game and never went back to it. If I'm going to game on the go, I'd rather do it on my iPhone. (Now that would be cool if the two synced up.)

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In addition, you can earn rewards and bonuses by completing challenges based on real-world distances — like walking the equivalent of walking the Golden Gate Bridge. You can earn trophies based on challenges you accept (aside from the standard ones) and even see how close you are to achieving certain difficult ones. This was one of my favorite things in Striiv and I'm hoping they'll add more of these virtual challenges over time.

One other interesting thing to note: Striiv donates to charities based on your steps. For instance, they partnered with GlobalGiving to "donate clean water to children in South America, a polio vaccine to a child in India or to conserve a parking spot size area of Tanzania's rainforest for one year." You can even choose the charity you want your steps to go to, and again, this is something the company has said it plans to grow.

You don't have to plug the Striiv in to your computer; all the data is kept internally on the data, though you can plug it in via USB to back-up that data as well as download software updates. (My software was updated once while writing this review.) Being able to see your all-time data on the go is pretty amazing, however. The other reason you need to plug-in your device for your steps that you are donated to charity are uploaded to the servers.

Battery life is surprisingly good, though that's because I didn't play the MyLand game that often. I could go more than five days without charging.

There is no app for your smartphone that pairs with Striiv and the device is the only place where you can look up your data — I assume this is just for now.

The extremely large screen makes the device very large and difficult to hide, enough that this device isn't one I would choose to wear. But Striiv's dedication to turning every step into something meaningful — whether it's virtual fun for you or something worthwhile in the real world for a charity — is not only clever, but it's a game changer. If you're looking for something to really make your steps count, that does just more than, well, count them, check out Striiv.

Striiv is currently available for $99.




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Fitbit Ultra

Fitbit is the smallest pedometer in this review, making it the easiest one to hide when you're wearing it. I would often get seen with my Striiv peeking out from under my shirt, but it was rare when someone would notice the belt-clipped Fitbit Ultra that seemed almost camouflaged next to my dark jeans. It only has one physical button and has a very small display to show blueish text. You can wear it on your belt (with or without the big belt holder, which is how I choose to wear it), and Fitbit even recommends women wear it clipped to the middle of their bras. It's that unobtrusive.

The Fitbit Ultra is the next version of the Fitbit pedometer — one that I've been using personally since May. Both units track your steps, miles traveled and calories burned. There's even a graphic of a flower that is taller when you're doing a lot of activity like running or walking a lot. Even though the units look exactly the same — unless you choose to get one of the Fitbit Ultras in a light blue and plum design -there are a handful of new features:

  • A stair counter
  • A stopwatch
  • Cumulative stat display
  • Personalized greeting on the display

The new features aren't enough to make me want to upgrade, but for new customers, they're great.

Fitbit offers a number of fitness achievement badges that you can earn — some of which are also counted on Foursquare if you link your two accounts. Fitbit, more than any other pedometer, also works seamlessly with a number of other online nutrition and fitness apps like RunKeeper.

The Fitbit, in one of its best features, syncs wirelessly with its docking station when it's plugged into your USB ports. It checks fairly frequently and you'll be amazed at how often it's updated online. You can plug the Fitbit Ultra directly into the dock to force a sync (as well as to charge the battery).

The one downside — and it's a minor one since this is the only device I reviewed that wirelessly syncs data — is the Fitbit Ultra can only hold about eight days worth of data. If you're at your computer every day, it's fine; if you're traveling on vacation (as I did last summer), you could lose a few days, depending on how long you're gone.

You can review your Fitbit data on their iPhone app or via their online dashboard. You can only view that days stats on your device. You can also customize which displays you want to see on your device online — I disabled the clock for instance.

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The one feature this device does that its competitors don't do is the ability to track your sleep. Hold the button on the unit to turn it on; hold it to turn it off. Slip it into the included wrist strap and slip it on your non-dominant hand to track how long it took you to fall asleep, how many times you woke up, how long you slept for, etc. I already have a device (WakeMate) at home that does this for me that I find more comfortable to wear (I reviewed it here) so I didn't use this feature often; but if you don't have an existing sleep tracking device, this might make you buy the Fitbit over another competitor.

You can also track your food intake. Online or through the iPhone app, you can log what you've eaten and track whether or not you've burned enough calories to eat that cheeseburger.

Finally, you can friend others who are using Fitbits and compete with each other. You can connect your Facebook account to find them — I found only three, but more have been signing on every few months.

The battery is also fairly good. You can make it almost a week without a charge.

Even if I didn't own the original model, the Fitbit Ultra is the unit I would recommend most. It's easy to hide, very simple to use and if you care about tracking your sleep, it's got that built in. More importantly, the data syncs with so many popular apps like Runkeeper, that it doesn't feel like it exists within its own ecosystem. A must own if you're looking to track your steps, runs and stairs and share that data seamlessly through other applications.

The Fitbit Ultra is available for $99.95.




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iPod Nano

The iPod Nano isn't designed to be a pedometer. But it can be, especially when you wear it on a watch strap (I own the iWatchz). I'm fairly certain you know what an iPod can do, so I won't go into those particulars. You navigate by swiping left or right, and the pedometer functions can be found in the Nike+ app which comes pre-installed.

The previous version of the iPod Nano required a separate device that you clipped onto your shoe to work with Nike+, but with the new version, there's a built-in accelerometer this time. It's fairly intuitive — like most Apple-endorsed apps — and you can choose between walking or running. You can track calories, a daily goal, etc. To sync your data you need to plug it into your computer; iTunes will then upload it to your Nike+ account.

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I wear the iPod Nano every day as my watch, even though I originally bought it to take running. The pedometer is a great-add on if it was the only device I own. However, you will have to charge the battery fairly often. Without using the pedometer, and only using it as a watch, my iPod Nano will go for almost a week. With the pedometer on for one entire day, I exhausted almost half the battery, even though the screen was off; Striiv and Fitbit definitely have longer batteries. But if you're unwilling to own separate devices like a Striiv/Fitbit and the iPod Nano, and it's important for no one to notice you wearing one, your best bet is probably the iPod Nano.

An 8 GB iPod Nano goes for $129; the 16 GB is $149.




Final Thoughts

One question to ask: which device counts the most accurately? I walk about seven to eight miles a day on average (I'm a walker and refuse the subway in NYC). So it can be very hard for me to tell you. Each unit appeared to count accurately when I watched step for step, but I would only do that 10 to 15 steps at a time.

One day, I did wear all three devices and decided to compare their findings:

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Click to expand.

As you can see, they were all in disagreement over how many steps I took. I watched the counters periodically throughout the day and the distances never shifted much, so it was an overall measurement disagreement. What was most surprising was how many calories the Fitbit thought I was burning.

What this says to me is don't buy a device like these to accurately track your steps — you'll never be able to do it. Instead, buy one, wear it for a week and get a sense for your average numbers. Then, make it your goal to add to that number, whatever it is.

As stated above, overall I recommend the Fitbit Ultra. It's the easiest to hide, it seems to count steps and stairs fairly accurately, and syncing it with your computer couldn't be easier. But if you feel like you want your steps to count for something, the Striiv is also a good choice, especially if the charity donations line up nicely with what you're passionate about. And the iPod Nano is a good choice if you're still undecided about pedometers in general and just want to see if step-counting is for you.

That said, these devices are meant to make you want to walk more, not actually count the number of steps you are taking. And they sure do — whatever pedometer I was wearing during the review, I would check multiple times a day. Not to see if it was working, but to see how far I had actually walked. Knowing that I broke 10,000 steps by 4 P.M. gave me a rush. At the same time, some days that wouldn't happen until 8 P.M. at night, and that would guilt me into walking a few extra blocks out of my way on the walk home. (Not guilty enough, however, to stop me from grabbing a cheeseburger while doing so.)




About Our Guest Blogger

Alan Danzis is a lifelong technology enthusiast, which is something he inherited from his father. He's an early adopter: he had the first generation Sony TiVo and had to buy a special device just to plug the analog DVR into his digital phone line in college, further showcasing his nerdiness. His fast typing skills can be attributed to playing Sierra games as a kid and he currently lives in Hoboken, N.J., where he usually plugs too many things into one outlet. Keep up with him on Twitter @adanzis.

For this review: Striiv and Fitbit Ultra provided review units that were returned at the conclusion of this article. The author already owned an iPod Nano and iWatchz.

Full Disclosure: Alan Danzis works at Ketchum Public Relations, which is his day job. His opinions here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of Ketchum, nor the clients Ketchum works with. His DVICE writing is wholly unrelated.

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