I’d like to talk about New Year’s resolutions for a minute.
(Yes, I’m aware that it’s not even Christmas. But if the world’s stores are allowed to put up Christmas decorations right after Halloween, then I’m allowed to jump the gun on New Year’s.)
As a gadget hound, there’s not much I can offer you if your resolution will be to spend more time with the children or stop smoking. But if you’re trying to get in shape, I’ve got some good news for you.
Two new tiny wearable motion sensors are on the loose, backed by Web sites that graph the collected data on daily activity for your motivational pleasure. There’s the Fitbit ($100) and its rival from Philips, the DirectLife ($80). In both cases, the idea is to make you aware of your daily activity and to challenge you to step it up. But despite that similarity of goal, the two gadgets are wildly different in approach.
The Fitbit is one wicked-cool piece of hardware. It’s a sleek, rounded-edge spring clip, two inches long and half an inch wide. You can clip it to a pocket edge, a bra strap, whatever. Inside, the Fitbit contains an accelerometer — a three-way motion sensor like the one in the Wii or the iPhone. This instrument tallies how much it’s jostled during the day. (Note: Accelerometers don’t register much when you’re doing other exercise that doesn’t make your torso bob, like biking or weight lifting.)
The Fitbit seems to be solid black plastic — but when you press the sole button, cool blue lettering appears from nowhere. With each press, this display cycles through how many steps you’ve taken today, how many miles, how many calories burned and how generally active you’ve been. This last item is represented by a blue flower whose stem grows the more active you get.
The Fitbit is also supposed to track your sleep. It’s a bit of a nuisance: you have to put on a black Velcro wristband, put the Fitbit inside and then hold down the button for two seconds to tell it that you’re asleep. (Can anyone spot the logical flaw here? Anyone? Anyone?)
The Fitbit waits until your arm is still for awhile before timing your sleep, but realistically, it can’t really know when you’re sleeping and when you’re just lying there. But even a rough idea of how much sleep you’re getting is a neat statistic; the thing also shows you how many times you woke up in the night and how restless you were.
The coolest Fitbit bit is the way it sends your collected activity data to its little U.S.B. charging stand. If you leave that stand connected to your computer, with the Fitbit software running, then just passing within 15 feet is enough to trigger a wireless transfer to the Web. Then, at Fitbit.com you can view graphs of your exertions, right down to the minute. (The spikes represented by my weekly tennis games were especially impressive.)
The Web site also makes it easy — well, as easy as drudge work can be — to record every bit of food you consume and all the water you drink each day. Here’s also where you can set goals for yourself and track your progress.
And that, really, is my beef with the Fitbit: who’s it for?
The simple design, the automatic wireless transfer, the one-week battery life, that cute growing Tamagochi-like flower, all seem to suggest that it’s for the casual masses who’d like to get a bit more fit.
Yet other aspects of the Fitbit suggest that it aims at much more hard-core fitness buffs. For instance, once the data is on the Web site, it’s just a mass of data. There’s no analysis, not much guidance; if anyone’s going to figure out how to turn it into a fitness program, that’ll be you. And that business about manually entering everything you eat and drink is well-meaning, but come on — how many non-obsessive compulsives are really going to make that effort day in, day out, for months?
The DirectLife, from Philips ($80 until January, then $100), doesn’t try to track your sleep. It doesn’t have the wireless transfer, either; instead, every so often, you snap it magnetically into its U.S.B. docking cradle/charger connected to your Mac or PC.
And it’s not as cool-looking; the DirectLife is a white, flat, one-inch square plastic doodad that you can wear on a neck cord under your clothes, carry in your pocket or slip into a belt pouch.
There are no numeric displays. If you set the DirectLife down on a flat surface, a row of little green indicators lights up to show you how close you are to your activity goal so far today — one dot, you’re a couch potato; nine dots, you’re a superjock. But that’s it.
Yet despite all that, if your goal is to lose weight or get in shape, the DirectLife is far more likely to help you succeed. First, it’s waterproof, so you can wear it swimming (or in the shower). Second, it’s crushproof. (My first Fitbit, on the other hand, fell apart when I accidentally dropped it once.) Third, the Web site and setup instructions are far more professional, complete, well-designed and classy. (The Fitbit’s entire user manual is a terse Web page.)
But the DirectLife’s real killer feature is the personal coach that comes with it. The company employs a team of fitness and nutrition experts (20 so far) whose sole job is to look over your activity data, answer your questions and egg you on.
You get 12 weeks of coaching with the purchase price (thereafter, it’s $12.50 a month). Now, I didn’t have that much time to work with the DirectLife, so I asked my Twitter followers if any were DirectLife buyers who’d be willing to share their coach’s e-mail exchanges with me.
Three of them did, and I was impressed. The coaches are upbeat and knowledgeable. They help you choose a realistic goal for weight loss or increased activity, and they’re filled with helpful little tips. “Your week 3 activity level was on average 783 calories per day, which equals 97% of your target,” went one of the e-mail comments. “You were so close! To make next week’s target, think of ways to squeeze in even more activity. You’re so close to your target that a 7-minute walk every day would probably be enough to get you there.”
Both of these gadgets do the primary job: making you aware of how much you move. You really want your Fitbit flower to grow; you really want to light up more DirectLife dots (and please your coach). As a result, you really do wind up finding your own little ways to eke out a little more exercise.
I hate to admit that it took some plastic gadget to change my own habits, but I found plenty of tiny ways to move more. (My favorite: I’ve taken to parking in the farthest spot instead of the closest one. It took some explaining when I took my children to a movie, but they took it in stride.)
Other gadgets confer this same awareness, of course: you can use put Nike’s $30 accelerometer in your running shoe and track the data on your iPod screen, or you can buy more expensive gadgets like the BodyBugg. Those are more elaborate, conspicuous approaches.
What’s so likeable about these new gizmos is that they’re so tiny and simple and cheap, it’s almost no effort to use them. We all know that few people actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions. But I’m betting that you’d stick with these wearable plastic bits longer than you would with a gym membership — and pay a lot less.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.