Eight days of wearing two fitness trackers

As anybody who went to CES knows, this is the year of wearable fitness trackers. I didn’t go to CES, but I did go to both DLD and Davos, where it was almost impossible to avoid various companies giving the things away. Thus did a natural experiment emerge: I wore two of them — the Shine, from Misfit, and the Fitbit Force — on the same wrist for eight days.

The main lesson that I learned is that although the “10,000 steps” goal is a great one, it’s not a particularly accurate one. Here’s a chart of the number of steps I took each day, as measured by the two devices (which, remember, were on the same wrist):

The number of steps I took each day, according to Fitbit and Shine. On Thursday, the difference was 3,470 steps.

It probably doesn’t make sense to say that one of the devices is more “accurate” than the other. Steps are a metaphor, a way of turning real-world physical activity into something intuitive. By far the biggest discrepancy came on Thursday, where Fitbit measured 13,656 steps and Shine measured 10,186. That’s also the day I spent an hour at the gym, so my guess is that Fitbit turned my gym activity into steps, while Shine was being more literal and realized that I wasn’t, well, stepping very much. (I also noticed that on the day I went skiing in Davos, Shine didn’t give me much credit for that, presumably for similar reasons. But I wasn’t wearing my Fitbit that day.)

In other words, the main reason to wear one of these things is not to try to reach some set number of steps every day, but rather to track your own activity over time (ideally, it will go up), and against your friends.

Which is why companies like Fitbit and Shine are busy giving away their wares at high-profile conferences: these devices are fundamentally social, and the winner in this space is not going to be the company with the best technology, but rather the company which gets the broadest adoption the most quickly.

I’m a great example of this. The Shine is, overall, a better product than the Fitbit — but now I’m going to a single device, I’m going to use the Fitbit, not the Shine.

I do really like the Shine. For one thing, it’s waterproof, which is great: you don’t need to take it off in the shower, or when swimming. And it has a much more elegant design, which fits very easily under a shirt cuff. (The Fitbit is much thicker and chunkier and generally less comfortable.) It also has a much longer-lasting battery, while the Fitbit needs to be recharged quite often using a bespoke USB cable you’ll probably lose.

Neither device works very well as a watch: in both cases you need to tap at the thing before it will tell you the time. But the Shine is particularly clunky and difficult in that regard, while the Fitbit will happily just display the time when you press its button.

Still, we’ve reached the point now at which fitness trackers have become pretty commoditized. The real value in such things is now in the network, rather than in the device. So I’m going with Fitbit, just because I reckon that has the largest network: it’s the place where I can track myself against the largest number of friends.

At least until I get a real watch.

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