I have a theory that the advent of the Apple Watch has made serious waves in the “wearables” market. In particular, it’s forced the hand of other companies to get something–anything–out as quickly as possible.

Now, the Apple Watch looks like a fine piece of hardware, but I’ve never been the kind of person to pay $400 for a watch, and that’s not changing just because a company has lengthened the runway on another upgrade treadmill.

Not that I’m against fitness trackers. I consider my original  (pre Apple Watch era) FitBit purchase the best investment, dollar-for-dollar, I’ve ever made for my health. It helped me get more fit, improve my BMI, and dial in the right amount of exercise to manage some joint-related issues that had nearly sidelined me.

Let’s just say the most recent round of products in this space provide an opportunity to see how well they handle technical support.

I upgraded to a FitBit Charge HR, which is one of the first consumer devices to do continuous heart rate monitoring without a chest strap or other hardware, which it does with flashing green LEDs right on your wrist. It has an advertised battery life of 5 days, and recharges with a proprietary cable that’s USB on one end. Overall, it has worked very well, and I find that a wrist-worn device is much more convenient than a belt clip one, which was continuously at risk of falling off ( and the belt clip attachment would never last even six months, so I went through several).

A quick note about continuous heart rate monitoring: I like it. Especially during workouts, it’s very useful, and it’s helped me improve my cardio fitness. During a workout, it’s non necessarily best to crank your heart rate up to max for long periods. For endurance training, it may be better to keep the heart rate in a lower “cardio” zone, which you can see in real-time in the FitBit app. With this setup, y0u can precisely target a particular workout. The app also calculates the resting heart rate and plots it over 30 days. I’m a bit more suspect about this. For example, as I sit here, comfortably resting but also typing rapidly, I have a real-time heart rate of 62 BPM and yet the app thinks my ‘resting’ rate is 67 BPM. There were some fascinating data during my week of high-altitude hiking as well, but that’s for a different time.

The problem with technology is that it doesn’t always work. The FitBit Charge HR has a peculiar failure mode that goes like this: if you are looking at the app, it fails to sync, or even connect over Bluetooth. The device’s screen, normally blank unless you press a button or double-tap, stays stubbornly blank. Effectively the watch has crashed, but the green LEDs on the bottom furiously continue blinking and drawing power. This doesn’t happen often, and it seems to depend on a particular set of circumstances that fall in just the right pattern. The only way to break out of this loop is a hard reset, and the only way to do a hard reset is to connect the device to power through the proprietary cable (so sorry if you just got on the bus) and hold down the button.  After a reset, the device is back to normal, including data sync right up to the moment of the ‘crash’, but the battery is depleted about 10% for each hour of time in the stuck state.

I contacted FitBit support about this, and the battery life comment seemed to be the magic words. They immediately sent me a replacement device and suggested taking the old one to electronics recycling. In a few days I had a replacement device. The replacement still crashes, but less frequently. Overall, I’m pleased with the product and consider FitBit’s support to be stellar.

In brief, the FitBit Charge HR wins at:

  • Continuous heart rate monitoring.
  • Excellent step counting.
  • Basic sleep tracking.
  • Excellent tech support.

Not so good for:

  • Telling time. (you need to push a button)
  • Not waterproof. You need to take it off in the shower.

Through a corporate rewards program, I had an opportunity to try out another device, so I picked up a LifeTrak Brite 450 watch. It’s unique selling feature was light tracking–the amount of blue light you receive helps you wake up in the morning and getting less blue light in the evening aids your sleep. So this device has a light sensor that measures overall and blue light exposure, and can tell you when you’re getting too much or too little. It also advertises a six-month battery life (using an off-the-shelf lithium battery) and better waterproofing.

The app is clunkier, though. It requires a more cumbersome manual syncing process, and is finicky about Bluetooth pairing. It worked well for about a week, then stopped syncing. This device has more pixels on the screen and can show some basic stats, including distance, calories, and steps right on the device. But the only way to see light exposure information is to sync to the app. Once it stopped syncing, there was no way to get this benefit at all.

Despite not getting any low battery warnings, LifeTrak support recommended replacing the battery. It seemed weird that a product with a six-month battery life should ship from the factory with a battery that only lasted a week, but oh well. I replaced the battery and it worked again. For another week. Same symptoms–one day it just stopped syncing. When it doesn’t sync, you lose the collected data forever. Unlike the FitBit, a hard device reset erases all stored data, so even troubleshooting what’s going on (have you tried turning it off and then on again?) is data-destructive. I went back to support and they recommended replacing the device. But instead of just sending me a new one, I had to send the old one back first. They sent me a FedEx label, and I trekked to the nearest FedEx store to send the device away. About a week later, a replacement device arrived. I’m pretty sure the replacement has a smaller-sized wrist band, because this one can barely fit my wrist.

After about a week, this one too stopped syncing, and I lost several more days worth of data. Then I want on my summer vacation for two weeks and didn’t have time to deal with support, and mailing, and so on. As of this writing, I have a third support issue open with the company, and we’ll see what happens.

And I haven’t even mentioned this to support yet, but this one started “fogging up” on the inside during the strenuous portion of my hikes, so I fear the waterproofing might not be up to standard.

So the LifeTrak Brite 450 is good for:

  • Telling time. No buttons to press, just glance at your wrist as God intended.
  • Waterproofing. Keep it on in the shower, or swimming.
  • Light tracking. Brilliant concept.
  • No need for daily battery charging or proprietary cables.
  • Better sleep tracking, including a wake-up alarm sensitive to your sleep cycle.

Not so good at.

  • Continuous heart rate monitoring. You have to hold a button to measure heart rate. You get a tiny ECG readout even, but I can’t see any way to record it.
  • Syncing.
  • Tech support.

I want to like and use this watch. We’ll see what happens next.

Update 1: LifeTrak’s excellent support team just informed me that an update to the B450 is available, and specifically addresses battery issues. I’m doing another exchange, and we’ll see what happens.

Update 2: Fitbit has released a firmware update to the device. The device crash issues have gone away completely. Now, when you flip your wrist as if to look at the time, the watch actually lights up for about a second. This makes is surprisingly more useful as a device to, well, tell the time. Even though this uses a bit more battery, it’s a welcome addition.

 

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