There’s plenty of evidence to support the argument that smartwatches need to get smarter. But even activity trackers, which don’t integrate communication or notification functions, may not be immune to questions about intelligence. Many users have long been suspicious about the accuracy of the step counts or calorie estimates that their fitness trackers offer, and it’s no secret that plenty of activity trackers are pretty inaccurate.
Fitbit, one of the biggest names in activity tracking, is currently under fire after a range of tests have determined that Fitbit’s tracking technology isn’t nearly as accurate as the company claims. Here are four reasons why you may want to reconsider purchasing a Fitbit, and instead opt for a smartwatch (or even the new Pebble Core “ultra-wearable”) from Kickstarter darling Pebble.
1. Rumor has it that Fitbit’s activity-tracking is inaccurate
As Mike McPhate reports for The New York Times, the jury is out on whether Fitbit’s activity tracking is accurate. But things aren’t looking so good. The latest study to weigh in on the matter was released by the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Fitbit, but conducted by researchers at California State Polytechnic University. The researchers had 43 subjects wear the devices as they ran, jogged, jumped rope, and completed other activities.
They then compared Fitbit’s readings with those of an electrocardiogram, and concluded that the pulse-monitoring tech used in the Surge and Charge devices was “highly inaccurate during elevated physical activity,” resulting in readings that were off by an average of about 19 beats per minute. The study wasn’t peer-reviewed and had been commissioned by the plaintiffs’ law firm, so was strongly denounced by Fitbit. The plaintiffs accuse the company of misleading its customers about the reliability of its PurePulse technology and claim that the devices’ inaccuracy could potentially lead to dire medical consequences.
Another recent study, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, tested the step and calorie-counting functions of Fitbit and Jawbone devices. In that study, researchers tracked 30 healthy adults as they performed various tasks, and found that the devices did well when users were sedentary but both undercounted and overcounted as activity intensified. However, the researchers found that their lab equipment also got the measurements wrong, and concluded that “the Fitbit and Jawbone monitors worked about as well as the best we can do as far as measuring physical activity.”
Pebble’s activity-tracking functionality hasn’t been subjected to the same level of public scrutiny as Fitbit’s, so we can’t say for sure that the tracking abilities of Pebble devices, even the new Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2, or Pebble Core, are more accurate. But anecdotally, fewer Pebble owners than Fitbit owners seem to complain about their devices’ tracking abilities. And if you can choose between a device that’s known to be inaccurate and one that hasn’t gotten nearly as much bad press, it seems like a good idea to go with one that you can give the benefit of the doubt. Pebble is currently crowdfunding three new wearables, the Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2, and clip-on Pebble Core. The first two are heart-rate enabled and the Core enables you to go for a run while leaving your smartphone at home and keeping your wrists free. If we were shopping for a new fitness tracker, we’d absolutely consider those new Pebble models over a Fitbit device.
2. While heart-rate tracking is unproven, Pebble is more transparent
McPhate notes that the accuracy of pulse trackers, which have been a relatively recent addition to activity trackers, hasn’t been easy to determine. Most pulse trackers use optical sensors that reflect light onto the skin to detect blood volume, and independent attempts to settle the question of whether the technology is really accurate or not haven’t been able to settle the question. Some tests have claimed that the devices equipped with such technology offer accurate readings, while others concluded that they are inaccurate during exercise.
Only Pebble’s newest devices are equipped with activity-tracking capabilities, but we’re already more comfortable with Pebble’s approach than we are with Fitbit’s. As Spencer Hart reports for TechRadar, Pebble waited to launch a fitness-tracking platform until it had developed Pebble Health, an activity and sleep-tracking “experience” that’s integrated throughout the OS. The platform was designed in collaboration with researchers at Stanford University, and Pebble granted developers access to the Pebble Health API, so that they can build their own apps and watch faces to make use of the data that’s collected.
But what we really like about Pebble’s approach is that the company worked with researchers at Stanford’s Wearable Health Lab in order to create a truly accessible and transparent health platform. Dr. Christy Lane told TechRadar that “Transparency at the algorithmic level is an essential missing piece in the progress toward making wearables valid for use in health applications. By making the right data available, Pebble Health allows us to perform proper validation studies on activity tracking for the first time.”
The idea is that the methods of data collection will be transparent, and Lauren Goode reports for The Verge that the lab is publishing the algorithm so that scientists can access it and replicate it for research purposes — a stark contrast with other wearable companies, like Fitbit, that don’t share information on how they calculate your activity levels. So even though some of Pebble’s basic smartwatches, or the new clip-on Pebble Core, don’t include either the heart rate sensor or the GPS found on other wearables — like the Fitbit Charge HR or the new Pebble 2 that’s currently on Kickstarter — we’d still prefer to go with the company that’s willing to be conscientious and transparent about its activity-tracking methods.
3. Pebble devices are great smartwatches, as well as activity trackers
Even if you’re not that worried about the accuracy of the data that your fitness tracker or smartwatch generates, you probably still want to make the choice that’ll help you get the most out of your device. So why not determine which company makes the more capable device, and choose the wearable with the best functionality? If that sounds like a reasonable approach to you, then you’ll be interested to learn that Pebble comes out ahead on this count, too. A surprising number of Pebble watches made it onto the list of the top five smartwatches under $200.
But none of Fitbit’s devices appear on the list. The reason why? Most of Pebble’s devices qualify as smartwatches, with the ability to keep you updated on notifications from your phone, whether you use an iPhone or an Android smartphone. Fitbit, on the other hand, mostly makes activity trackers. Sure, Pebble’s new Pebble Core isn’t a smartwatch. (It doesn’t even have a screen.) But if you’re looking for an all-around useful device, not one that’s limited strictly to activity tracking, you’re more likely to find what you want in Pebble’s lineup than in Fitbit’s.
Even Fitbit’s Blaze smartwatch — which can give you call, text, and calendar alerts, or enable you to control the music on our smartphone from your wrist — is still very much a fitness-focused device. That’s great if activity tracking, heart rate monitoring, workout goals, and multiple sports modes are important to you. But if you’re just looking for a smartwatch that will keep you accountable when it comes to your daily activity levels and step goals, you really don’t need something that integrates fitness features to the exclusion of everything else. The great thing about Pebble’s smartwatches is that you can make them into anything that you want them to be — which brings us to our next reason to choose Pebble instead of Fitbit.
4. You can’t add apps to Fitbit’s devices
While you can choose from among a wide variety of apps on Pebble’s watches, that’s not the case for Fitbit devices, even the Blaze smartwatch. While there aren’t nearly as many apps for Pebble’s platform as there are for your iPhone or your Android smartphone, there are still enough apps that you can add the features and functionality that are most important to you. But you don’t have that luxury if you choose a Fitbit device.
As Brian X. Chen recently reported for The New York Times, Fitbit chief executive James Park thinks that making a smartwatch like the Apple Watch into a computing platform is “really the wrong way to approach this category.” While he plans to make Fitbit products more sophisticated to stay competitive, and envisions high-end Fitbit devices that could eventually support mobile payments or control smart home products, he doesn’t want the brand’s products to resemble the Apple Watch. He told the Times, “We’re going to be very careful with how we include these things over time. I think one of the general knocks against smartwatches is that people still don’t know what they’re good for, so they’ve crammed everything in.”
We’re all for making sure that the device you’re building (or buying) has features that really make sense. But as consumers have realized on smartphones, apps enable them to customize their devices and make sure that they can add the functions that are most important to them. After all, we may love our iPhones, but we still recommend replacing the apps that come preloaded on them with better options from third-party developers. If you care about loading apps onto your smartwatch, Pebble once again is a better choice than Fitbit.