Fitbit Force review: A tiny display makes a huge difference

The holidays are indeed one of the most wonderful times of the year, but they’re also one of least healthy. Thanksgiving roars in with stuffing and pie, and December keeps the good times (and the hors d’oeuvres) rolling. By the time the new year arrives, my resolution to lose weight is often brought on less by wishful thinking than by necessity. This year, though, I’m trying something different. Since the beginning of November I’ve been wearing an activity tracker.

It started with the Jawbone UP24, which, thanks to the inclusion of Bluetooth, is a tremendous improvement over its predecessor. But lately I’ve been wearing the new Fitbit Force – and I’m pretty sure it’s the activity tracker I’m going to be wearing well into 2014.

Fitbit Force vs watch

What’s new

For anyone interested in a fitness tracking band from Fitbit, I think the $129.95 Fitbit Force is absolutely worth the $30 premium over the $99.95 Fitbit Flex. But if you already own a Flex, it might not be worth it to upgrade, as there is only one key difference between the two bands: a display.

Sure, the Fitbit Flex has a display in the form of LED indicator lights, but they’re small and tricky to understand. The Fitbit Force, on the other hand, puts a wealth of information at arm’s reach in the form of a tiny, sharp OLED display. It’s black and white and it only stays lit for a few seconds at a time, but it makes an invaluable difference.

Now whenever you want a quick update on your daily activity progress, you no longer need to pull out your phone or get to your computer. Instead, you can simply press the single button on the side of the Force to access information like the amount of steps you’ve walked, the calories you’ve burned, the floors you’ve climbed or your total active minutes. You also get the time of day.

I do wish the display remained lit for more than just a few seconds, so the Force could feel more like a wristwatch. But I understand the need to conserve battery life. As it stands, the Force can last for 7-10 days on a charge, which is a bit better than the UP24’s runtime of 7 days.

Fitbit Force

Good hardware, great software

Aside from the addition of a display, not much has changed between the Flex and the Force, but I’ll go over it here in case you aren’t familiar. Essentially, the Fitbit Force looks like a watch that’s missing a face. When the band is fastened around your wrist and the display isn’t on, it simply looks like a chunky wristband. The band fastens around your wrist much like a watch as well. It was a little difficult to fasten at first, but I quickly became used to it. There isn’t much reason to take the band off, though, as the Force is water resistant. You can’t wear it while swimming, but it stood up to the shower and dishwashing just fine.

Many reviewers favor the coiled look of the Jawbone UP24 to the Fitbit Force, but I’m not one of them. Compared to the spare, minimal Force, the UP24 looks somewhat affected. I still wouldn’t wear the Force to a formal event, but I found myself removing the UP24 even before a casual night with friends. (One night when I didn’t, someone asked if my bracelet was “from the future.”)

There’s just one button on the Force, to the left of the display. Pressing it allows you to cycle through the various stats being tracked. The first press tells you the time. After that you can pick and choose which stats you see, either through the Fitbit website or app, which I’ll get to in a bit. It’s easy to tell which stat you’re reading, because a corresponding icon is shown before the stat appears. The amount of steps you’ve taken, for instance, is preceded by a shoe icon. I didn’t need to read a manual to know which stats I was seeing, which is a nice change from the somewhat elusive indicator lights on the Flex. Press and hold the Force’s lone button down, and you’ll switch the band into sleep mode.

Fitbit dashboard

Setup is fairly simple too. You’re not given a manual out of the box. Instead, you’re told to go to Fitbit’s website, where you’ll download a tool that walks you through the setup process. The Force also syncs with Android(s goog) and iOS(s aapl) apps via Bluetooth 4.0 (as long as your phone supports it – you can find a list of phones that do here). I used the band with my iPhone 5s and MacBook Air. The only thing I’m not crazy about is that, to sync with your computer, you need to keep a USB dongle plugged in. The Force will automatically sync whenever it’s within 20 feet of the dongle, but it takes up a USB port, which is annoying. I’m also not a fan of pieces that are small and easy to lose.

Once you’re up and running, though, Fitbit offers one of the best software experiences around. You get both a comprehensive desktop site, as well as a simple, effective mobile app. I found myself using the app more than the site, if only because my phone is always on me, but both are excellent.

The Fitbit site gives you an attractive dashboard through which you can track all of the information being monitored by the Force, as well as some information that isn’t – you can add your weight and track calories in the food you’ve eaten, for example. Or if you have a Fitbit Aria scale, which uses Wi-Fi, your weight will automatically be logged for you every time you step on. And while Fibit’s calorie counting systems isn’t as comprehensive as Lose It!, my food tracking app of choice, you can sync certain apps (including Lose It!) with your Fitbit account, and it will automatically populate into your stats.

Fitbit Force app

The Fitbit app is just as good. I noticed the band syncs with the app more quickly than the Jawbone UP24 does; my latest information was often right there, waiting for me, as soon as I opened the app. You’ll find the same categories in the app that you can track online, and I like the way they information is laid out on progress bars.

Fitbit sends you push notifications when you’re close to achieving a goal, and the band vibrates lightly once you’ve reached it. You also get congratulatory emails for your accomplishments, all of which are surprisingly effective motivators.

Fitbit Force email

And like the Jawbone UP24, the Fitbit Force does a nice job of tracking your sleep. It shows how long you were awake, restless and sleeping. It doesn’t break your sleep down into light and deep cycles the way that Jawbone does, though. And while you can set up vibrating alarms, it doesn’t have the ability to automatically wake you up at optimal moments in your sleep cycle like the Jawbone UP24 can.

Fitbit Force sleep

May the Force be with you

While wearing the Fitbit Force, I actually found myself more motivated to get up and move around. Sometimes the motivation came from within – knowing that it was noon and I’d only taken 1,700 steps so far that day made me realize I should probably go out and pick up lunch rather than order in. Other times it was a push notification, telling me I only had 2,000 steps left to reach my goal.

So in that sense, both the Fitbit Force and the Jawbone UP24 are entirely successful at what they do – monitor your activity levels and encourage you to become more active. But for my money, and I imagine for many others, the Fitbit Force is a better bet. A lot of it comes down to that display, which really makes a huge difference when you’re on the go. But I also prefer the Force’s design, as well as the mobile app. It’s also worth noting that the Jawbone UP24 is $20 more expensive and lacks a desktop dashboard.

For some, though, the Jawbone UP24’s internet of things capabilities – hooking into IFTTT and allowing you to flicker your Philips Hue light bulbs when it’s time for a jog – is worth more than a display.

Fitbit Force loops

I still haven’t tested two of the other big activity trackers, the Nike+ FuelBand SE(s nke) and the Basis B1. But I’m not crazy about the way the FuelBand measures activity, which uses Nike’s own system of activity points rather than real world measurements like steps taken. And while the Basis B1 looks very cool, it also seems much less appealing to casual users, with measurements like skin temperature and perspiration, and a high $199 price tag.

So if you’re looking to find an activity tracker before you’re forced to find a new pair of pants, the Fitbit Force is undoubtedly one of the best available. It’s worth checking out, and the one I’m hoping to receive this holiday season.

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