Last week I turned my geek mode up to max and attempted to count the number of fitness trackers that have existed since the first Nike Fuelband. I think I got to 72 before I gave up. Jawbone, Basis, Withings, Misfit, Fitbit, Garmin, Polar, Apple, Move, Mio, Microsoft , virtually every tech and some non-tech brands have rolled out a lifestyle wristband and told us they'll change our lives.
But have they really come very far since that first effort from Nike? Not far enough in my book. Some still lack accuracy, others aren't very comfortable. There are plenty that still have frustratingly short battery lives, others have poor screens and dozens come with next to useless partner apps. I don't think we've seen the complete fitness tracker yet.
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But what does that look like? Everyone will have their own particular preferences, of course, but I've got my own wishlist of the features that'd make me less likely to consign my tracker to the drawer after three months. Here's what I want my ultimate fitness tracker to do.
Track sleep automatically with accuracy
First up, I don't want to have to tell my tracker that I'm going to sleep. That's crazy. When I'm tucked up in bed about to drift off, the last thing I want to do is bust my brain out of its shutdown mode in order to tap a button on my wristband. I don't want to have to tell it I'm going to bed either.
I just want it to know. I also need it to recognise that sometimes I snooze in the day. If at any point during the night I get up to go to the loo, it should be smart enough to know. This seems simple enough but very few, if any, current trackers get this right.
Nailed it: The Misfit Shine already tracks your sleep when you nod off.
Let me teach it my moves
If it means I get more accurate stats in the long term, I'll happily spend a few hours teaching my fitness tracker the different between a step, an arm movement, a squat, or my elbow vigorously going up and down during my banjo lessons. I'll happily help it learn the difference between a walk and a light jog.
Accurate stats are everything when it comes to making a fitness tracker genuinely useful as a tool for improving well being. If you can't trust the numbers what's the point?
Nailed it: The Apple Watch learns your cadence when you run with your iPhone so it can more accurately estimate runs when you leave your handset at home.
Let me set my own micro targets
The problem with a lot of fitness trackers is that the goals you are able to set yourself are fairly limited. Things like steps per day are too simplistic and rapidly become passe. To make things more meaningful and more fun, I want to be able to set micro goals like taking a minimum of steps per hour, a target time on my feet between 9-1 pm on weekdays, or a certain amount of movement before 9am on the weekends.
The more I can customise my goals to motivate me to work on my weaknesses, the more impact the tracker is going to have on my well being.
Nailed it: Jawbone's app is about as close as it gets with the Smart Coach, but still not personal enough.
Challenge me with random goals
In addition to micro goals, I'd love my tracker to keep me on my toes, with the capability to throw me an interesting challenge at random. These daily tests should of course be based on recent behaviour, and tailored to me.
For example, once the tracker spots something I could improve on it should alert me and challenge me to make a change.
Nailed it: The RunKeeper app nudges you to get outside and run – though this isn't dependent on your personal goals.
Be comfortable enough to wear 24-7
Far too many of fitness trackers don't feel good enough on the wrist to make you want to wear them all the time, particularly during the night. The moment it's off your wrist it means two things.
First, it's no longer tracking. Second, you've increased your chances of leaving it behind. Both of these have the tendency to slowly chip away at the idea that you actually need a tracker at all.
Nailed it: The Jawbone UP2's lightweight design is easy to forget about as is the Apple Watch's natural form-factor.
Put me in competition
Lots of the partner apps now have a social, motivational element. You can join challenges, chart your performance against friends and internet strangers in mini league tables but you've still got to fire up your phone for this and there's something that's not quite instant enough to spur me on to do better.
Imagine if you could see the current stats of a few selected friends right there on your wrist, or your band buzz to alert you when your mate Jennifer had just clocked a 1,500 steps in an hour. It'd up the competitive spirit.
Nailed it: Fitbit gets social better than other ecosystems, and the badges you can earn are a decent motivator.
Challenge other users in real time
Taking that idea of social motivation one step further, another alternative would be to incorporate a feature like the Apple Watch's ability to send your heart beat to another Watch owner, but adapt this to enable you to send real time challenges to friends and family and other tracker owners.
It'd go something like this: "Dave just challenged you to do 1,000 steps in the next hour. Accept?"
Nailed it: Jawbone's app lets you challenge friends to step duels.
Also be a sports watch
The aim of a fitness tracker should be to help you improve your fitness and well being. It's a motivating tool that ought to spur you on to bigger and better things. But there's a big problem with the current crop of bands. Once you've go from occasional walker to someone who wants to run, cycle, swim and do other sports, their tracking abilities tend to come up short.
With the Garmin Forerunner 225 and Polar M400 we're starting to see sports watches track general activity but we're yet to see a fitness band that meaningfully delivers for those getting semi-serious about other sports. My ideal fitness tracker would be able to cope with tracking a few key sports in good detail. Like running, cycling, swimming and that catch all 'cross training' by which we really mean gym workouts, cross fit sessions and the like.
Nailed it: With GPS built-in, the new Microsoft Band blends fitness tracking with running, cycling and sports. The Fitbit Surge is also one of the better examples – even if its form-factor is that of a running watch.
Know what activity I'm doing and record it
The Basis Peak attempted this complicated trick of automatically sporting when you moved from a walk to a run but sadly failed. The main problem was that when you stopped at a crossing during a run, the Peak would stop tracking your running session and start recording a walking one, until you go moving again.
At this point it'd start tracking a whole new running session. Repeat this just a few times during a 10km run and the end result is a load of disconnected data that isn't useful in any way. But the principle is a good one. I don't want to have to tell my tracker I'm starting my run, or that I've jumped on a bike. I actually want it to tell me.
Nailed it: The Samsung Gear S2 claims to auto-detect exercise.
Lasts at least three days
This one's the deal breaker. Most of what we al desire from our fitness technology is limited by the power of our batteries. The more sensors and features we add in, and the more we use those, the bigger the drain on our already strained batteries.
While some devices like the Garmin Vivofit get round this with a standard long life watch battery that powers a paired-back simple screen, it still limits what the device can do.
Nailed it: The Fitbit Charge HR lasts around five days even with continuous heart rate monitoring.
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