fitbitIt started at that stage in a relationship where the exhilaration and newness wears off. After eight months, I could no longer ignore worrisome behaviors. They’d become patterns.

I finally had to confront my Fitbit about its deceptions.

When I was first given my petite Fitbit Zip Wireless Activity Tracker last September, I didn’t just like it. I like-liked it. I’d recently come out of a seven-month relationship with the attractive MyFitnessPal website and smartphone app, an unusually strict disciplinarian (insisting I track all foods and exercise), yet our separation filled me with a wonderful sense of loss. Twenty-five pounds worth.

A stable relationship
Stable relationship wanted

The Fitbit was not supposed to be a rebound relationship, but instead would acknowledge the maturity of my situation and the need for long-term stability. I even professed my like-like after 90 days in a GeekWire column, calling the Zip one of my three favorite tech things of the year.

But Fitbit, those nagging doubts in that post have persisted and grown.

1. You’re into power. When that first battery died after three months instead of the promised four-to-six months, I thought it was an anomaly. That was in early December. I replaced the battery again in February. Then in May.

The official Fitbit Community site showed I was not alone. Since January, there have been dozens of posts in the help forum appropriately titled, “The batteries for my Zip are dying after only two months. Why???” A recent email exchange with Fitbit support to report the issue confirmed that loose Zip contact springs, which hold the battery securely, were not the problem (on some Zips they get jarred out of place). The final, polite support response? “We’ve passed it along to our engineering team.”

Fitbit Zip food
Fitbit Zip food

It’s not just your ravenous appetite for batteries. Often, I’ll receive a low battery warning by email, and minutes later its status changes to medium and then high strength. The false warnings occur multiple times. But when the battery finally dies, it does so without any real warning, taking all its unsynced data with it.

True battery life is 2-3 months, half of the “your Zip battery should last 4-6 months under normal use” statement. At $4-7 per CR2025 battery, you’re an expensive and high-maintenance $60 device.

2. Your accuracy is doubtful. I try not to listen to what others say, but I can’t help notice you may be untrustworthy at times. When I walk with friends who are seeing others like you, allowing for differences in stride and pace, the number of steps registered might vary greatly. Your “Very Active Mins” count for sustained cardio activity often shortchanges me – only yesterday, an intense 35-minute gym workout registered a mere 22 minutes.

The New York Times is paying attention, flatly reporting that “many of these devices are simply inaccurate” based on a writer’s evaluations from The Wirecutter, a technology testing website. Fitness wristbands may be the worst offenders. (At least you’re more like a typical pedometer, better dressed.)

Yet because I can watch you appear to register each and every step I take, I fall prey to the human misconception that just because everything seems to be measured, the measurement is precise.

3. You’re getting a little too popular. I see the covetous looks others give you when I take you out. They want you for their own. Market research firm Canalys confirms it: More than 17 million “wearable bands,” including fitness trackers, are expected to be sold this year. Canalys expects “2014 will be the year that wearables become a key consumer technology.” Plus, consider estimates that 69% of Americans track their weight, diet or exercise, and the market for digital fitness devices is expected to double this year from $330 million last year.

Misled
A misstep, and misled

All of this is almost enough to make me wonder if you’re on the verge of turning into a control freak. Taking my money in exchange for potentially shaky data to which I feel I now have to pay attention, because I’m hooked on it and have paid for it.

But I won’t let that happen. I admit I was angry in March when I tweeted, “If you use data to MAKE decisions for you, you’re doing it wrong. Data should INFORM human decision making.” You – and your MyFitnessPal predecessor – are both, at best, approximations in the service of motivation. Being with you makes me more mindful that keeping my exercise up, calorie intake down and weight stable is a priority that I myself set. Even if you do lie about battery life and make estimates seem like absolutes.

So I’ll keep you around (though I’m sorely tempted by that cute, rechargeable Fitbit One). I’ll give it another try. But let me make one thing clear about the questionable reliability in this relationship.

This time, it’s not me. It’s you.

Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is an independent industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. As a former health and science reporter, he refuses to let any device have the last word on his health and fitness.

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Comments

  • dub_g

    I LOVE my Fitbit One. I realize it might not always be the most accurate device in the world, but it motivates me to get up and exercise. In my book that is a great thing. I enjoyed the article though.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I’m also definitely sticking with my Fitbit. I think what annoys the most is the Zip’s battery life being nowhere near what’s claimed by Fitbit, which is why that rechargeable Fitbit One looks so tempting.

      • dub_g

        My 13 year old daughter wanted a Fitbit. I was afraid of getting her a $100 Fitbit One so we compromised on a Fitbit Zip. She has had it about a month and a half but doesn’t sync it near as often as I sync my One. Hopefully that will extend her battery a little bit.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          FWIW, I never force a sync with my Fitbit, but let it do it automatically with its Bluetooth 4.0 dongle on my laptop. I don’t sync it with my Android smartphone.

  • graham_williams

    Sounds like it is you. A few things:

    Are you really working for those 35 minutes, or just for 22? I’m going to go with “you’re not working as hard as you think you are, and your FitBit is calling you on your bullshit.”

    “You’re getting too popular?” – Honestly? What sort of hipster crap is this? If a product works, it works, you’re not some special snowflake that deserves a unique fitness monitoring device. If you really want to feel unique, go back to doing it by hand.

    Battery life… well, I’m never one to buy something that takes batteries without having a rechargeable option. Given the quantity of Fitbit (and other fitness trackers) that DO have rechargeable options, I’m not sure why you’d pick the less environmentally friendly choice. Even so, buying button batteries in bulk (say that ten times fast) is an option, at around $5 a pop. Considering your battery lasted you 3 months, that’s four changes a year. $20… maybe you should have sprung for the more expensive rechargeable version to begin with?

    These aren’t really lies your Fitbit is telling you… but great choice for a click bait article anyway!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Fitbit Zip was a gift (thus, “given,” early on), so no choice in purchase. Fitbit Zip records nearly identical workouts on the same elliptical cross trainer (35 minutes, level 10) as 35 minutes, but does have consistency issues. Hipster? My God, thank you. I feel younger already. I knew that Fitbit was helping, despite its deceptions. I’ll keep it.

      • graham_williams

        Sounds like we’ve identified the problem. The Zip is a step tracker, and on the elliptical you’re gliding – pretty much any fitness tracker attached to your clothing will have difficulty determining the effort put in on a device like that. You’ll see even less “tracking” with something like free weights – there’s just no way for the device to determine how you’re burning calories when you’re engaged in motions like this.

        Three suggestions:

        Mount the zip on a wrist band if you’re on an elliptical, it’ll register your range of motion better and give you a more accurate calorie count.

        Register your work directly through the FitBit site or through MyFitnessPal (you can and should link them)

        Try a fitness tracker that’s more adept at judging calorie burn, like a Polar Loop with the accompanying H7 Bluetooth heart rate monitor – that’s getting into some serious stuff there, but if you’re going to be exercising in a not-running and not-walking fashion it’s going to be more about how your heart is doing while you’re going.

        Seriously though, the popular thing is totally hipster. You’re gonna need to work on a beard, though.

        Happy trails, Frank. Get out there and kick some ass.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          Actually, we’ve merely written around the problems (though I appreciate the suggestions on alternatives). The problem is that Fitbit Zip’s actual battery life is half of what’s claimed, that questionable accuracy of fitness trackers is well-documented (even with regular step walking), and the popularity of many fitness trackers may be unearned based on realistic (or unrealistic) buyer expectations, and that’s why they’re “too popular.”

          And, of course, that I’m not a hipster. But I will work on the beard, and perhaps I can at least change the last. Thanks.

          • graham_williams

            I think the popularity of fitness trackers is based on the fact that the food industry has put in a concerted effort to get people addicted to salt, sugar, and fat over the the last 30 years and they’re tired of being fat. Suggesting that accuracy in step counting or battery life is a reason for their popularity is simplifying the issue.

            I will, again, also question that they’re “too popular” – what does that even mean? Do you think that folks are buying Fitbits or Fuel Bands or what not because they’re fashion accessories? Honestly, that’s a bit ludicrous; they’re buying them because they look in the mirror and either want to keep the trim shape they’re in, to reduce the large shape they’ve become, or to avoid the abrupt death to heart disease that someone in their family has just succumbed to (simplification, but I’d say most fitness tracker consumer fall into the overarching categories of get healthy, get fit, stay fit).

            North America and large portions of Europe have a fat problem. If people are strapping on a Fitbit or other device because it’s the first step they can take, good for them. If Fitbit is actually off by half on their battery estimates they’d do well to adjust that, but that in and of itself would be a better article for you to write – sourcing the data and breaking the story. Right now what you have is a sample size of one and anecdotes from the forums, which both you and I know isn’t an accurate representation of the distribution of this product.

            Fitbit has already performed one recall based on a safety issue (the Force / skin irritation issue that I’m sure you’re aware of) and should be held accountable if their battery claims are off. That said: I’m curious to know how long your Zip sat on a shelf before it was put into use. Was the battery substandard, or were there a shipment of batteries that were substandard? Will your second battery last two months, or will it go for four? That would demonstrate whether or not it’s a device issue or a supplied battery issue.

            I’m unconvinced that there’s a device issue here based on the conclusions you’ve drawn, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

            If you do get cracking on the beard don’t forget to moisturize it daily. It avoids a great deal of the itch and makes it soft and supple. Tips to live by!

          • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

            I’m on my fourth battery in eight months, and I always check to make sure the freshness date is years into the future and the battery is purchased from a reliable source (e.g., Staples, not a no-name Amazon Marketplace seller). And it’s not just me.

            I need to be clear that a columnist’s role is to analyze and comment. Not just report. Just because others may not agree with my experiences doesn’t mean they aren’t my experiences.

            Yet we do agree on one thing: people are generally too fat, and there’s a whole processed food industry that makes a lot of money helping them get there. The Fitbit is not a panacea, but it is a useful tool, if one understands its limits. And I’ll leave it at that.

  • jcarl

    I’m not sure where you’re buying batteries, but I quickly found a 20-pack of Sony 2025 batteries for $8.55 with Prime shipping on Amazon. That’s only $0.43 each! They might not be as good as Energizer, but even if they last half as long they’re a bargain.

    http://www.amazon.com/Sony-Lithium-CR2032-Batteries-Blisters/dp/B004AT21R2/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1401041490&sr=8-10&keywords=cr-2025+3v

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Beware. A number of buyers of Amazon-fulfilled Marketplace batteries report they are near the end of the their shelf-life dates, or may be counterfeit. There’s no way to know until they’re received. Also, the Zip uses CR2025 batteries, not CR2032 as linked.

  • doctor van nostrand

    I lost 50 pounds in 9 months wearing my fitbit. Counted every calorie in vs out. I was extremely disciplined. It’s not perfect, but worked for me. Don’t forget, just because you wear the thing doesn’t mean you get a pass in doing the work.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I agree; discipline is key. And the Fitbit, even with its flaws, helps “gamify” the experience and act as a constant reminder. In my case, the MyFitnessPal’s calorie database helped me take off the weight; the Fitbit helps me keep it off.

  • http://about.me/lancepeterman Lance Peterman

    My fitbit force has accuracy issues, but in the other direction. I’m at 17.5k steps today and I bet even a generous measure of that would only reach 70%. I wish that number were closer to 90% accurate.

  • Evonne Benedict

    My friend, get the One. The wireless syncing alone makes it worth it. And after all, what’s more important than your health?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Evonne, I’m pleased to report that my Zip also syncs wirelessly. But the One, with its rechargeable feature, is … well, to paraphrase Babylon Five or the Matrix …perhaps the One for me.

  • nakalogic

    I love my fitbit and I love the leader board. The gamification keeps me motivated and also gets me to motivate others. I have the band and haven’t had any problems with the battery.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      The battery issues seem specific to the Zip, which has a replaceable battery.

  • Jolie

    I am so annoyed mine died all together I had it for 14 months. After I replaced my battery 3 times after only using it for 3 months I contacted customer service. They apologized that the battery didn’t last as long as I expected and went on to explain to me how to buy batteries. My batteries would have a full life if I put them in something else like my heart rate monitor. But if I put them in my zip and it would say they were dead. I was buying name brand batteries from Microcenter, CVS, and Target. I was checking the shelf life. Now I have an endless supply of batteries and no Fitbit.
    Before it completely died I did all the things they said that would make the battery life last longer than a 3-4 weeks. I made sure I updated my firmware and turned off automatic sync.
    What is really upsetting is I started reporting this issue while it was under warranty and they ignored it and now that is out of warranty they won’t do anything about it
    .

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