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I'm confused is this a step counter or not? And apologies for the length of the review...
on 2 July 2013
I have a Fitbit Ultra Wireless Activity Plus Sleep Tracker (now replaced by the Fitbit One Wireless Activity and Sleep Tracker). I've had it for eighteen months and I'm never without it. However, like anything else, if something different comes along I'm willing to give it a go. This looked ideal. The flex101 is about a quarter of the size of the ultra and fits neatly into a wristband (trendy). So this review is written from the point of view of a fitbit product user testing and comparing a new fitbit product against an existing fitbit product that supposedly does more or less the same thing.
Fitbit products all come with a basic website that logs the information the pedometers generate and you can link the website with other websites like MyFitnessPal to transfer data between sites. You can pay more money for the premium Fitbit site, which includes motivational tools and other material. I tried it when I bought my Ultra but it didn't give me any more useful information so I cancelled it before the end of the trial period.
I'll declare straight away that I'm not a fan of this new piece of kit. Yes, the wristband is neat (You do get two; one large and one small), you can even shower with it on, you can set it to discreetly wake you up or remind you of something (set up via the website) and the size of the flex101 is amazing, but... and it's a big but... I have some major concerns as detailed below.
Background before comment. I set up a dummy account, using a different email address and entered all my current details onto that account's database: height, weight, stride length, etc. So I have my Ultra on one account and the Flex101 on the dummy both containing exactly the same information. So far so good. Because I wear my watch on my left hand (non-dominant, the one Fitbit recommend you wear the flex on) and I'm a fairly large (6'4") I had to use my right (dominant) hand and thicker wrist to wear the wristband on (it only just fit) - the website does allow you to identify that you're using the (effectively) wrong hand, so I presume the algorithm the Flex101 uses takes this into account. The Ultra you can wear just about anywhere - waist to neck, I wear mine on my trousers waistband.
My first concern is to accuracy. After wearing both the Ultra and Flex101 for 11 days there is a significant difference between the two in steps recording. The Flex101 is recording anywhere between 30-40% more steps than my Ultra. The fewer steps and the greater the disparity between the two. Because the Ultra has a display that will stay on for a few seconds when pressed I can actually see what it's recording in real time and can step count actual steps and see that those are being recorded. I also know my Ultra is correct because over the last eighteen months I've checked the distance against a portable GPS device Garmin Forerunner 410 GPS Sportswatch with Heart Rate Monitor, maps, and steps multiplied by stride length, each method gives figures within 50 metres of each other on a 15k walk.
So, first problem. If I can't trust the information on the number of steps recorded then it becomes worthless. Because the Flex101 (like the Ultra) works on an algorithm that converts steps into other information this then impacts the number of calories burned, activity levels and distance. So my Flex101 was telling me I was burning more calories, more active and walking further than my Ultra, and like I said I know that from [number of steps x distance recorded] that the Ultra is reasonably accurate (99% on my usage), so this one fault of the Flex101 massively over-recording the step count renders the information it provides useless. Some may say that it's recording activity: i.e. more upper body movement = more activity so the calorie burn and activity indication is more accurate, but it isn't sold as that. It's sold as a high tech pedometer. So again if the step count is significantly out it's not doing the job you've paid £90+ for.
Second problem. No display on the Flex101, for me that is another serious problem as it doesn't give me any usable information when I'm nowhere near the computer I download to. With the Ultra I get basic information; time, steps, floors climbed, calories burned and activity level in real time, the Flex gives me nothing, no indication, not even basic information through the day, nada. I am aware that you can use a smartphone to sync, but in some respects I am a techno-dinosaur my phone is basic.
Thirdly, speaking from personal experience of having lost my first Ultra, I have doubts about how long this will last before I lose it. Well I should clarify that. I don't think I would necessarily lose the Flex101 itself but my main concerns would be as follows: 1) the charger unit is small enough to misplace (then you've no means of charging it) and just as important is 2) the incredibly small dongle that you sync your flex to your computer with. In the Ultra both these functions are performed by a fairly large base unit. Fitbit don't do separate bits of kit so if you lose, or misplace, either of these items you're stuffed and currently will have to buy another Flex. ** see update note below **
Another negative point for me is that it doesn't record the number of floors, or height, climbed which the Ultra does and on the Ultra this information feeds into the algorithm that then shows calorie burn and activity level based on what you've done. If all you are recording is the number of steps but not the type of terrain then you're not getting an accurate indication of activity levels that then means that your calories burned figure is also going to be inaccurate.
I did email Fitbit support about a week after I got this to share my concerns that there was such a massive discrepancy between the information the two products were recording but to date haven't had a reply. I am really confused as to how two products that reportedly do the same job can be so far apart in terms of the information recorded.
Both are supposed to be able to hold information and charge for a week but I normally (habit) recharge every three days so I'll have to trust the company stats on that one. Both can record sleep by a simple tap (Flex101) or holding the button (Ultra).
Because of all of the above concerns I am sticking with my Ultra. From my experience with it over the last two weeks there appear to be significant problems with the Flex101 of over-recording which you do not want, particularly if you are using this as part of a weight management and exercise programme, because of the knock-on effect this over-recording has on the other information generated. If it's over recording by at least 30% then that is no good. I also have concerns about losing one or both of the two small pieces of kit that either charges it, or transfers the data, given that you cannot buy any of the Fitbit accessories separately. You have to be incredibly organised keeping this kit together.
In summary; it's tiny, its (!?) trendy and you can wear it in the shower and you can set an alarm. But if it's inaccurate it's worthless. If you're going to spend this amount of money on an advanced pedometer then you'd be better off with an Ultra or Fitbit One.
Update: 14/7/13 After writing the review I swopped wrists to see if it made a difference. After wearing it for a further ten days and getting similar results the answer is no. There is still a 30-40% disparity in recording with the Flex101 over-recording when compared to the Ultra. The over recording is worse the less active you are. Another reviewer has also pointed out that you can now buy accessories on the FitBit website. However, the list of accessories you can buy does not include a charger for the Flex101, although you can buy the dongle as it's the same dongle used for the FitBit One & FitBit Zip.
Update: 22/7/13. I've now worn the flex next to my Ultra in the belt loot of my trousers and there has been a significant decrease in the over-recording. The disparity between the two is now between 10-17% depending on activity: i.e. The less walking I do, the greater the difference. Usually if I'm walking less then I'm on a bike, either at my geriatric spin class or on a static bike. So by the looks of things this is picking up activity. It's one of the few things where I complain about the Ultra, in that I have to manually input time spent on non-walking activity, as generally if you're not walking the Ultra assumes you're sedentary.
Update: 10/8/13. For the last fortnight I've worn the flex clingfilmed to my Ultra so they're in exactly the same place. It's still managing to over record but now it's consistently at around 7% (spread from 2% to 9% with the greater disparity remaining on less active days), however this is much better than the 30+% that I was getting when I was wearing it on my wrist, but then that's the point to even get close to the figure produced by my Ultra it's now no longer on my wrist it's on my belt loop. I'd still recommend the Ultra/fitbit one if you want an intelligent pedometer.