A foray into fitness tracking

Mon Jan 9, 2017

Shelling out for a fitness tracker in January seems like a cliché. Yet, here I am - shelling out for a fitness tracker. I don’t have a New Year’s resolution to get in shape, and I’m not planning on buying one of those ill-fated gym memberships that everybody regrets signing up for after one too many holiday pig-outs.

It is true though that I haven’t gone running for a while. I entirely blame the anomalous snowy weather we’ve been having on the West Coast for that. I also know that a fitness tracker won’t work miracles in getting my butt off the couch - only good old-fashioned discipline can do that.

I guess buying my first fitness tracker just kind of happened.

It all started a few days before Christmas. I was still in that trigger-happy purchasing mode you get into after ordering all your gifts online. This unbelievable deal came up on a Garmin Vivofit HR fitness tracker. Forty bucks. It was a one-click impulse buy.

Anyway, the deal ended up on the Red Flag forums so of course hundreds of thousands of people tried to order one. Or two, or three. Needless to say, most of the orders were cancelled, including mine.

But by that time I’d already researched the hell out of the Vivofit I thought I’d be getting and really warmed up to the idea of wearing a dedicated fitness tracker. Although wearables in general have had a bit of a rough year, fitness trackers have carved out a niche market for themselves. Where smartwatches try to do it all, fitness trackers are far more focused and useful. I was ready to jump in and give them a try.

So, I did some more research - this time with more careful consideration of the design and features I liked. Only one fitness tracker stood out for me.

This tracker comes from a company who has started taking more risks in the last few years. A company who has moved from ripping off design to playing on the bleeding edge of design. A company who tries to get it right with a strategy of frequent reiteration. Sometimes their risk-taking backfires horribly. But sometimes they come up with something really intriguing. That company is Samsung.

And their fitness tracker, the Gear Fit 2, although not perfect, is quite simply the most compelling one out there today - at least for me it is (everybody is, of course, entitled to their own opinion).

I don’t want to bore you (and me) with a hyperbolic rhapsody about how the curved AMOLED display wraps subtly around the wrist in a sleek, understated design, or how the inky blacks and vibrant colours make data visualization on the device a pleasure to view. So, I’ll stop right there.

But you can’t argue with any fitness tracker that packs in so many sensors, including a heart rate monitor, GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, and barometer for only $150 (on sale at Best Buy). These sensors are what allows the Gear Fit to automatically detect your activities, determine your speed and distance, and plot your route on a map. Throw in sleep tracking, move reminders, step count, and floors climbed and you’ve got yourself a winner. That kind of functionality is on par with the Apple Watch Series 2 - except that the Apple Watch costs over $500.

The Gear Fit 2 has been out for about half a year now for Android phones only. I knew that Samsung was working on supporting iOS sometime this year and that was good enough for me. As luck would have it though, one day after I ordered it (and before it even arrived), Samsung announced iOS compatibility at CES. So I was ready to go out of the box with syncing up to my iPhone.

Not all the phone sync stuff made the port, but I can receive notifications from my iPhone, as well as view my health metrics in Samsung’s “S Health” app, among other things. You don’t really need much else for a fitness tracker. However, if I was buying a full-fledged $500 Samsung smartwatch, like the Gear S3, the limited functionality would give me pause. I would probably just shell out for an Apple Watch in that case.

But perhaps smartwatches are ultimately a failed experiment. Even though Apple has pivoted on their watch to position it more as a fitness device, it is still, by virtue of it’s original form factor - a watch. Also, a fitness tracker does not need premium materials, such as a sapphire screen and a gold housing. For example, as was obvious even when it first debuted, nobody wants to pay $20,000 for a solid gold Apple Watch.

The fact of the matter is that Apple doesn’t make a fitness tracker. They should though, because it would be great. It actually seems very un-Apple like to make something that does too much by trying to please everyone. If they really are trying to continue Steve Jobs’ legacy, you would expect a more intentional device with a singular purpose and a simple user interface but with that undefinable richness to it that elicits that one emotion that Apple is perpetually chasing: delight. Maybe that’s asking too much?

I should mention that the Gear Fit 2 uses a modded version of the open-sourced Tizen operating system, not Android Wear. From my experience, it is fluid and responsive and perfectly fine for a UI on a small screen. However, there is virtually no third-party app support, so I don’t hold out much hope for viewing twitter feeds or calling Ubers on this thing - not that I’d want to.

What I’m really looking forward to is just doing it - getting out there and running. At the moment, all my Gear Fit 2 is doing is nudging me to move when I’ve been sitting for too long. But there are benefits to even this limited amount of activity.

I talk a big game when it comes to running through the winter, but all the snow on the ground this year has made it physically impossible to get out there much. My brother-in-law suggested hammering in a bunch of screws onto the soles of my running shoes for traction, but this seems a bit extreme. He lives in Edmonton though, so maybe that’s how they roll over there.

Anyway, to wrap up, let me just say that I give the Gear Fit 2 a big thumbs up for anybody who wants to get their first fitness tracker. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few years brings to this market - that’s something I wouldn’t have said a few years ago.

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