Friday, January 1, 2016

Year of the Pebble

Another year, another fitness tracking ecosystem ...

In 2013 Danielle started using the Fitbit One. At that time, I did not appreciate why one would use this sort of thing. Late that year, I noticed that my employer was offering incentives for doing activities including step tracking. What the heck, the incentives would pay for the new gadget so I got one too.

I wore the Fitbit One during 2014. The company health portal directly pulled step data from Fitbit so this was a zero-effort endeavor - focus on the walking, not the book-keeping. Along the way, I got hooked on the game aspect of getting more steps and competing with Danielle. Yeah, I guess that is the point of these things. I started tracking real workouts using the Wahoo Fitness iPhone application and importing the data into SportTraks for analysis and storage. As the novelty of the shiny gadget wore off, I got annoyed with its lack of water resistance and having to remember to move it around between clothing items. I killed several of these just from sweating too much. I really wanted a waterproof wrist-based solution that stayed on 24/7 but still displayed time and stats right on the device. I tried the Force briefly but returned it during the recall. Since then, I continue to be disappointed with the feature set and comfort of Fitbit hardware. We also considered waiting for the release of the Polar Loop, but were turned off by their very closed ecosystem with no facility for exporting data.

In early 2015, we both moved to the Garmin ecosystem after getting a pair of the original Vivosmart devices. This change was not without pause for thought - the Fitbit ecosystem gave me integration into my employer's corporate wellness portal and Fitbit's device-to-app syncing technology was much more robust. In the end, we were sold by the size and comfort of the Vivosmart and its support for real text notification. I switched to using the Garmin Connect portal to combine step and sleep data with pushed activities. Ah, the addiction of the quantified self. It was an effective solution. However, we started having problems with OLED "rot" in which the display pixels progressively died away starting at the periphery. I went through three of those before giving up. Over the holidays, we looked for a replacement device.

We both tried the new Vivosmart HR device which has a much better display, but we both found it to be bulky and uncomfortable. The integrated optical heart rate monitor seemed like a bonus but I found the sensor prevented the device from seating on my wrist correctly and created a pressure point. Adding insult to injury, the heart-rate monitoring was an epic fail for me. In a 30 minute comparison test on the stationary cycle, it was within 30 bpm of the correct rate less that half of the time. What a shame Garmin didn't just provide an updated display rather than creating such a bulky device. The original Vivosmart was a brilliantly simple concept.

I also tried the Vivoactive GPS watch for a couple of days. I really liked the feature set of this device and the promise of off-loading GPS tracking during hikes and mountain biking from my phone to the watch. However, it was even more uncomfortable than the Vivosmart HR. Despite being amazingly light and thin, I could not find a way of wearing it comfortably, possibly because it is not curved and the band is so wide. My last affordable option from Garmin for activity tracking and notifications was the new Forerunner 230. The size again proved to be a problem for me. The device is also too focused on pure running, the one activity I am not interested in.

The show-stopper on the Garmin options, however, proved to be the intensity of the vibration alerts. I used these for my morning alarm. I could barely feel the vibration on any of the new devices when awake, never mind being woken up by them.

On a whim, we tried the new Pebble devices after reading an article about the new Pebble Health feature which makes step and sleep tracking an integrated part of the device rather than a third-party afterthought.  Here they are, a Pebble Time Round for her and a Pebble Time "square" for me.

After a day of use, these look like keepers. On mine, though the size of the watch face is exactly the same as the Vivoactive, this one is very comfortable so far. This even though the Pebble is thicker and heavier. I would actually have opted for the even thinner round model like Danielle but that one is not water resistant and the battery life is not so good (but still more than twice that of an Apple Watch). We will check the accuracy of step data over the next few days, comparing it to the Fitbit One which Danielle still wears. The smart notification functionality and app store offerings are much much better in the Pebble ecosystem than in Garmin.  Both watches are shown with the Ecliptic watch face, one of many such user-contributed faces.

However, the fitness functionality is less rich than either Fitbit or Garmin. They provide no on-line portal opting instead to integrate into the Apple iOS Health system. I can easily export step history from there as a *.csv file using the QS Access reporting app but have to hand enter it into the corporate system from there. I will also lose the ability to see sleep, steps, and activities in one place, other than in the iOS Health dashboard which is pretty primitive. For real workout tracking, I will probably continue to use the iPhone and Wahoo Fitness to collect GPS, heart rate, cadence, and speed sensor data.

Update Jan 3 - Looks like I may switch from using the Wahoo Fitness app to the iSmoothRun app. I would lose the ability to customize Magellan Echo screens on a per-activity basis and to configure more than one swipable page on the iPhone display. However, I would gain direct auto-export to both and Dropbox. I had been wanting SportTracks support for some time. Importantly, I would also gain the ability to use the Pebble as a remote display instead of or in addition to the Magellan Echo thanks to a iSmoothRun watch app running on the Pebble.

The following posts chart the rise and fall of Pebble in my wearable world:

Recording Pebble Steps Rube-Goldberg Style
Accuracy of Sync Solver Health to Fitbit
Sync Solver Back on Track
Pebble Steps to MyFitnessPal
Pebble Health - Not a Success
Pebble - Another Epic Fail

My Pebble now rests uncharged in my desk drawer, about as useful as its name implies.

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