Activity trackers are the hottest new item in the fitness market

Exercise is good for you. But just how good, really? In the absence of a coach or personal trainer providing human feedback, active people are increasingly turning to devices that help monitor their performance. The latest in a long list of these gadgets is fitbands.

And there’s lots to choose from. Pedometers and heart rate monitors were among the first wave of personal devices and are still popular. With the opening up of GPS transmissions to the public, soon wrist-mounted combination sat-nav/heart rate monitors took hold. These “sport-watches” tended to be expensive, bulky and geeky, though. The rise of wellness programmes that focused on lifestyle as opposed to just workouts created a new need. What was needed was something uncomplicated that could still tell the exercise story.

Enter the fitband, which uses miniature accelerometers to detect movement.

Instead of measuring workouts only, the new breed of band is designed to work 24/7. In short, it’s a lifestyle tracker. So that not just exercise as we know it, but all physical activity, can be measured and analysed. And yes, that includes sleep.

For the fitband, that means it must be something you’d be happy to wear all day long. It must be discreet and light. And it must be easy to use. To try out the fitband experience, we took a look at the Fitbit Flex, Garmin Vivoflex and Oregon Scientific Ssmart Dynamo.

Fitbit Flex
I’ve had the Flex for a few months now, having got it as a gift. So, I am familiar with its method of operation. To look at, it’s nothing more than a band (it comes supplied with two sizes of band and is available in several colours). A closer look reveals that the Flex consists of a tiny capsule that slots into a recess in the band. The band is a bit fiddly to clip into position, but once closed it is secure. The capsule itself is removed for recharging.

A Bluetooth USB adaptor is supplied for connecting the device to your computer. Although small, the Flex can run for 5 days on a charge. It takes a couple of hours to recharge via a supplied adaptor (also fiddly to operate).

It is easy to use, though. As you progress through the day, a row of LEDs on the device lights up to show your progress towards your activity goal. It also has a useful vibration alert, which can be programmed as an alarm or simply to check on progress. Both the LED and vibration features were useful, I found. Should you do an actual workout such as a run, the Fitbit provides a fairly accurate estimate of distance based on steps.

In use, tapping the Fitbit twice brings up the LED display. Tapping it continuously for a few seconds puts it in or out of sleep mode, indicated by a fixed two-LED display.

Back home in front of the computer, with the Fitbit, if you’re not careful, you can become quite bogged down in the minutiae of activity tracking. Inputting your meals (there’s an online dataset of foods and their calorie values, for instance) can become quite time-consuming. The customisable dashboard is easy to use and good for setting goals. There is also a smartphone app if you’re away from a computer, with motivational messages displayed when you hit targets.

Garmin Vivofit
After its line of highly successful GPS sport-watches it was natural that Garmin would enter the fitband market as well. Mindful of the style value of these items, like some other makes the Garmin offers bands in more vivid colours. Default colour is black, and two bands of different sizes are supplied. The band’s waterproofing is excellent, so the Vivofit is happy to be used for swimming.

Unlike the other two on test here, though, the Vivofit has a display that can be cycled through at the push of a button. It displays data such as time, steps and calories burnt. Instead of just having a band on your wrist, you actually have a wristwatch. One drawback, though: the always-on display doesn’t have lighting.

A significant advantage for the Vivofit is that its ANT connectivity allows it to be used with a heart rate strap, with which it is bundled. That probably means it can be used with other non-Garmin ANT straps. Also unlike the other two, the Garmin has the great asset of not needing recharging. Its replaceable battery is said to be able to provide power for a year.

As with other fitbands, the Garmin has its own dedicated software for both PC and mobile device. The company’s expertise in the fitness field shows, too. The software is generally easy to use and intuitive. I did fi nd the supplied ANT interface stick to be incredibly small and liable to be mislaid easily.

The Vivofit is the first Garmin device to use the company’s new-look Connect online exercise-logging platform, which now has a mobile app counterpart. Usefully, Connect allows multiple devices to be added, so you can log workouts from, say, a Garmin Forerunner sport-watch.

Information screens include steps, goal, distance, calories burned (estimated from details such as weight and height), time, date and heart rate. The Vivofit “learns” your activity profile and is able to adapt your goals accordingly. In terms of analysing workout data, the Garmin is the clear winner. However, it does need more user involvement.

Oregon Scientific Ssmart Dynamo
The Oregon differs from the other two on test here in being the only one to be matched solely to a smartphone app. That app is available for either Android or iOS models. Charging is by means of a cradle-type adaptor that doesn’t always place the watch with its LED showing charge state clearly visible.

Of the three, the Dynamo shows the least information on the actual band. Its 4-colour display shows either red, blue, yellow or green depending on status (Bluetooth pairing, low or high activity, for instance). That makes discerning your performance from the band alone pretty confusing; you almost have to have a smartphone handy. Standard wristband colour is black, though alternatives are available. The band itself falls between the Fitbit and the Garmin in terms of discreetness, with a mild hump in the middle concealing the gadget’s “works”.

Operation is by means of a single small pushbutton. The clasp is easier to lock in position than the Fitbit’s and the band is said to be good for operation in water up to 10 metres, so swimming in the Dynamo is definitely an option. It can store up to 14 days’ worth of data.

Overall, the Dynamo is a competent product. However, it doesn’t offer anything overwhelmingly superior to or different from the other two reviewed here.