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Fitbit Flex or Jawbone Up: Which is the better fitness companion for your wrist?

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As the summer goes on, so does the war for the ultimate fitness accessory and iPhone(s AAPL) companion. Both the Fibit Flex ($99.95) and the Jawbone Up ($129.99) want to help you win the battle of the bulge using your iPhone as a key weapon.

Apple has a strong interest in wearable computing, especially with how these devices fit in to the iDevice ecosystem, and both the Fitbit and Jawbone products are featured in many Apple Stores. Although Jawbone’s Up and Fitbit’s Flex are both wrist-based devices, they have some key differences that will interest body hackers. I’ve been using wearable fitness technology for over a year in my own training and evaluated how both of these gadgets work with Apple devices. Which one is best for you depends on your goals and objectives.

Fitbit Flex: It’s about the competition

I’ve been an active Fitbit user for years, migrating from the Ultra to the One and now to the Flex. What keeps me motivated is the installed base of Fitbit users also on the program. I’m constantly motivated to do more steps and keep up with the competition.

However, Fitbit users know one of the key frustrations with the device: it’s easy to forget you have it on and accidentally throw it in the wash or misplace it. Since the Flex is worn on your wrist, you are less likely to lose it. Additionally, it is water-resistant so you can wear it in the shower and do your normal activities without fear of water damage. To charge the Flex, you remove it from the wristband and place it in a USB charger.

This flexibility, pardon the pun, comes with a reduction in functionality, however. Gone from the Fitbit is a detailed display and stopwatch. While you can track your progress of steps throughout the day on the Flex with a series of five dots that indicates how close you are to the goal, you can’t know the exact number without the iPhone. Missing from the Flex is the altimeter (stair flight tracking) that both the previous Ultra and the current One track. The Flex will also track the length and quality of your sleep by detecting motion in the night. It will vibrate to wake you up.

Similar to the One, the device syncs using Bluetooth 4.0 with the iPhone 4S and above allowing users to check their progress throughout the day or in real time (I try to kick it up a notch while on the treadmill). The quick and easy sync almost makes up for the lack of display, something I suspect most users will only be slightly annoyed by in the Flex.

The Flex includes the same food diary and weight-tracker app the other Fitbit products have to keep you accountable during the day. The Fitbit data can be edited and appended via the Fitbit website so if you can’t track while away from the computer, you can add the info later. Third-party APIs offer additional features such as a more detailed food diary or an incentive program via Walgreens.

Jawbone Up: It’s about you

The Jawbone Up, after a rocky start, is a solid and effective fitness tracker. However, in spite of some unique strengths, the Up has a few notable downsides when compared with the Flex

One key difference between the Flex and the UP  is the Up does not sync via Bluetooth thereby giving it twice the battery life of the Flex (10 days in contrast to the Flex’s five days) and works with any iOS device running iOS 5.1 or greater. Syncing is instead done via the headphone jack and not in real time: you must remove the device in order to sync. Syncing takes just a few seconds and you can’t take any calls while syncing because the headphone jack is in use.

The band is water-resistant and can be worn all day. However, the Up electronics take up the entire band and thus can be damaged easier. In contrast, the Flex’s electronics are only a small portion of the band. My first Up failed due to possible over-flexing of the band because I tried wearing it on my ankle while working out.

Similar to the Flex, the Up tracks steps (but not stairs) as well as sleep with a vibrating alarm, but the Up adds an “optimal” wake-up window, analyzing your motion and waking you during the lighter portions of your sleep cycle rather than jarring you awake in the middle of deep sleep. Personally, I didn’t notice much of a difference here, but it’s a nice touch. The sleep function includes the ability to take a “power nap” and be woken at the optimal time as well.

While the Jawbone Up has a team function in which you can compete with others, I couldn’t find any friends using the device to test this function; I have several dozen using the Fitbit tracker. The Up will analyze your data and give you motivational messages via the iOS app. It’s called “Insights,” and the feature gives you suggestions based on the data it receives such as getting more sleep and compares your sleep and activities. The device will remind you to keep moving throughout the day via an optional “idle” alert that vibrates your Up if you sit for too long. You can even tell it your mood for the day and it will factor that into the analysis. The Up app is your motivator and coach throughout your day.

Credit: Thinkstock

The food diary is much more extensive in the Up and includes a larger database of food as well as the ability to add entries via a picture or scanning a barcode. By including so much data, the app keeps you very accountable as to what you eat. And similar to the Fitbit, the Up includes an API that allows a variety of third-party apps to extend the functionality and data analysis of the Up.

Unlike the Fitbit, however, the data on the Up is for native mobile apps only. It can be read or modified on an iPhone, iPad or Android but not the web unless you use third-party apps via the API. This can make tracking a bit tricky if you don’t have your iPhone handy.

What are the key similarities and differences?

Both the Flex and the Up sometimes have trouble detecting motions, in particular when on a bicycle or cardio machines such as an elliptical. I had to move my arms constantly or put them in my pocket to get them to register.

Because you can remove the Flex’s electronics, that also means you can change the color of the band after purchase. The Flex wristband is adjustable, while the Up offers only small, medium and large sizes with no swapping out of colors. Both are comfortable, but I had trouble with the clasp on the Flex getting in the way while typing, though it had a flatter profile overall than the Up.

Other than these differences the devices work very similar and it’s a tough decision.

Which is best for you: Flex or Up?

If you are motivated by competition with friends, the Flex is a good choice. The app or the website lets you know how you are doing compared to your friends. Personally, I got very motivated by these comparisons — if I saw a friend was close to reaching one of my goals (steps, miles, etc.), I might park the car further away or take the dog for a longer walk. The social element for some is a key aspect of these devices so finding others that have these devices is an important consideration.

If you are more self-motivated, the Up may be a better choice because of the more detailed food diary and trend analysis of your sleep and steps, which can be very empowering. The insights and idle alarms are designed to motivate you and replace the motivation caused by competition. The Up is also compatible with older devices such as the iPhone 4 or 3GS because it uses the headphone port, unlike the Flex which needs Bluetooth 4.0 to interface directly with your phone.

Whichever device you choose you’ll still need to do the exercise so go out and enjoy the summer and use your iPhone (or Android device) to improve your fitness. What features, if any of these, Apple might include in the iWatch or other wearable tech remains to be seen.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

27 Responses to “Fitbit Flex or Jawbone Up: Which is the better fitness companion for your wrist?”

  1. It’s too much connecting for this devices to be useful. You have to use the runkeeper etc. to get any results? Without connecting to any application, what features do you get? It’s not flexible if you have to connect to applications and your computer. A step in the right direction however not useful in my case.

  2. I’ve had three UP bands in seven months (actually five since it takes a whole month to get a replacement through the UP warranty process). No matter the abilities, they can’t be used if the band isn’t working…

    I’m buying a fitbit flex next.

  3. I am like Tom. I have received one UP replacement band from warranty support and am now requesting my second. Both the original and the replacement band quit taking a charge and froze completely. I love the functionality and the form factor of UP and have been a hearty recommended for the band. However, given that I purchased my original band in mid-May of this year and less than 4 months later am already having to request my second replacement, I can no longer recommend the UP. I have no experience with the Flex so I cannot comment on that model, but I encourage you to avoid the UP until they resolve the functionality issues.

  4. I could not be more frustrated with my UP experience. I received it at Christmas 2012 and was a big fan and advocate for it. Unfortunately, about three months in, it stopped switching from awake to sleep and then stopped working all together. I then needed to send it back and get a replacement. Then my end cap flew off and through multiple back and forth with customer service it took over a month to get a replacement cap. Then this weekend, my Up stopped working again. I tried all the soft resets/hard resets and nothing worked. I am completely done with it, but they won’t refund me!!! They are making me go through the warranty replacement again, but my color is back ordered. You really can’t make it up. It’s been 8 months and way too many issues, in my opinion I just don’t think the product is ready for prime time. I just want to be done with this and move on.

  5. Shashi Mathews

    So i have been wanting to buying one of the wrist bands. I had the Nike Fuel Band in mind. But, as i researched I discovered these two and then came across this article. And I’m glad that I did.

    Well written article. But I’m still confused as to which one to buy. Also, India doesn’t seem to figure on the list of countries where these are sold. Nevertheless, I shall get one. :)

    One doubt, do these devices work as well as they are supposed to with the iPad or are there functionality issues with iPad over the iphone etc. I think the Fuel band does have compatibility issues, or at least the Nike+ sensors did.

    Also, would there be a conflict if i were to wear two of the devices together (or with the nike fuel band) i mean would there be technical conflicts.

    I want the Fuel band, also coz it displays time (I have a metal allergy, sadly)

    Or do i wait for one of these devices to come with an upgraded version.

  6. I have been wanting to buy one of these devices. Actually, I had the nike fuel band in mind. But, then these two devices too cropped up in my mind. I use an ipad and a blackberry. Obviously, the blackberry doesn’t have any of the apps for these devices. But, the ipad does. A question, will either of these devices work with the iPad, just as fine as with the iPhone/or should i get a iPod touch.I wanted the nike fuel band also cause it displays the time. I have a metal allergy, cannot wear watches. But having used the Nike+ sensor in my shoes, i have a feeling the Nike fuel band may not just work with the iPad.

    Anyways, can you tell me, if i will have conflict issues wearing two of these bands (or one + the nike fuel band) as in will they have issues in connectivity etc.

    Thanks a ton!

  7. ashfaq munshi

    so, what happens when apple introduces a “watch” that has a 3-axis accelerometer, GPS, a pulse monitor, and an api to get to that data? i would venture to say that all these guys will be in trouble. apple could easily become the platform play for quantified self. add in the possibility that they allow wearable devices to communicate to the iphone or “watch” via low power bluetooth and now you have the makings of a true platform story.

    on a personal note i have been testing these devices to determine accuracy etc for the past week or so and i must say that without correlating to heart rate you really can fool the devices. just sit there and shake your hand vigorously. the device thinks that you are really working. so, for those who are competitive it is really pretty easy to catch up to and beat your friends. what good is that?

    on the other hand if you look at sites like strava that integrate various measurements and track location etc you truly get a competitive boost. everything is quantified. it is real data and real self measurement. not feel good stuff.

    • You bring up a good point that Apple could produce a competitive device but even comparing these two products the feature set is very different so Apple will have a hard time being all things to all people. With the installed base of these products, I don’t know how many users will switch.

      The accuracy can easily be hacked on these. It’s a trust issue not a technical issue

  8. As an original adopter of UP and Flex I have to completely disagree with this article in the pros vs cons in the areas of finding friends and the app itself.
    First finding friends and people that can motivate you is much easier in UP. While Flex scans only your contacts UP will do contacts, Facebook and Twitter contacts. While I couldn’t find a single friend with FitBit I have near 300 Teammates with UP. Even in the event scanning your contacts has zero results it’s easy to build a team in UP. You can literally search a first name such as John and get a list of UP users where you can then add them as a friend and from their add his friends and then their friends. If you want that motivation from UP the more you put in the better results you’ll get in my experience and this just doesn’t work as nearly as well with FitBit, sorry.
    Next the app itself first plugins. If you want to add 3rd party apps such as withings, runkeeper or MyFitnessPal you need to go to the FitBit web site in order to do so. In UP its done completey thru the app, easy. Next I find the UP app much more intuitive it has more info and easier to use then FitBit. Another added fun bonus is the inclusion of being able to use IFTTT.
    While FitBit has some good things like the wireless sync and being much more waterproof it’s highly annoying putting it into sleep mode.
    As an experienced user of both devices UP is the clear choice.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Since both the apps are free and can scan for friends, maybe those that consider this an important feature should check which friends are on UP and which are on Fitbit.

      For the 3rd party apps, while you can enable them initially on the iPhone via UP, you’ll often still need to login to the 3rd party website which can be a hassle on the mobile device especially since login credentials aren’t passed through. For example, if you do RunKeeper or Lose it! (the ones I tested) I was simply redirected. With Fitbit, I was also redirected but since I was on my desktop names/passwords were saved. I could also research the third party apps via the Fitbit website but couldn’t do that via the UP apps.