The Fitbit Force fitness tracker isn’t available in the UK yet, but when I met with Fitbit while I was at CES in Las Vegas recently, I was given a sample to take home and review. The Force should be hitting UK streets in March with an estimated price of £99, which makes it around £20 more expensive than the Fitbit Flex that I reviewed last month.
While I really liked the Fitbit Flex, it lacked a few key features, most notably an integrated display. The Force has been designed to address the shortcomings of the Flex while maintaining the simple modus operandi beloved by Fitbit fans.
So, is the Fitbit Force the ultimate fitness tracker?
What’s in the box?
Despite the Force representing a step up from the Flex, there’s not quite as much stuff in the box. The reason for this is that the Force is a sealed device, just like the Nike+ FuelBand SE or Jawbone UP. By contrast the Flex can be removed from its wrist strap, allowing Fitbit to provide both small and large wristbands in the box.
It’s therefore important that you get your sizing right before buying a Fitbit Force, but that’s no different to the majority of other wrist-based fitness trackers out there. The Force comes in large and small sizes, and the large sample that I received fits my somewhat small wrists fine, with one hole left on the strap – exactly the same as the Flex.
Even though the Force can’t be switched between wristbands, Fitbit has implemented the same removable clasp system as seen on the Flex. That’s not a problem, but the functionality does seem to be a little superfluous in this case.
The Fitbit Force wristband is made from the same soft and tactile rubber as the Flex, which means that it’s incredibly comfortable to wear all day and all night. I did find that I needed to wear the Force a little tighter than the Flex to stop it moving around, though.
Also in the box is a USB charging cable. Unfortunately Fitbit has once again chosen to use a proprietary connector for the charging cable, which means you’ll need to carry it with you if you think you might run out of juice while you’re out and about.
To be fair, though, you’re unlikely to get caught short when it comes to power. Fitbit claims that the Force is good for close to ten days of battery life, and in my tests it managed at least that, if not more. And that includes tracking sleep every night too!
The last thing you’ll find in the box is a USB dongle for syncing the device to your computer. This is a great addition to the bundle and allows your Force to sync wirelessly whenever you’re near your computer. Strangely, though, even if your computer is equipped with Bluetooth 4.0, you still need the dongle, which seems a little counterintuitive.
Feel the Force
The major addition that Fitbit has made to the Force over the Flex is its integrated screen. The only display built into the Flex is a five LED array, each of which represents 20 per cent of your daily goal. It’s a rudimentary indicator at best, and still leaves you needing to take your phone out to of your pocket to check your progress.
The integrated OLED screen in the Force makes the device far more user friendly, and even though it’s not the largest of displays, it gets the job done. There’s a single button on the left of the force that activates the display. Pressing the button once will show the time of day, while consequent presses will cycle through the other information fields – steps taken, distance walked, calories burned, flights of stairs climbed and very active minutes logged.
You can customise the data displayed using the app, so if you’re more interested in the distance you’ve walked than the number of steps, you can move that to the front. You can also customise the way the time is displayed, but the standard format makes the best use of the display.
Although the Force looks similar to the Flex it’s a much wider device and is far more obtrusive on the wrist. In fact, the Force is the widest fitness wristband I’ve tested. The extra girth helps accommodate the screen, which runs across the width of the band rather than along its length like the Nike+ FuelBand SE.
It’s good to see that Fitbit has put the altimeter functionality into the Force that was missing in the Flex. Just like the Fitbit One before it, the Force will count how many flights of stairs you climb in a day. This is handy to have, since otherwise all that climbing will just be logged as standard steps.
Like every other fitness tracker on the market the Force is essentially a pedometer and it pulls all its data from the ability to be able to count your footsteps. And just like all the others, you need to understand that the Force is a great way to measure yourself against yourself.
The number of steps you take will be a pretty accurate measurement, but the distance travelled will depend entirely on the length of your stride, which will change throughout the day depending on terrain and how fast you’re walking. Likewise the number of calories burned is an estimate based on the steps you’ve taken, but without a continual heart rate measurement it will never be accurate.
As I’ve said, though, all the activity trackers are subject to the same caveats, and even the Withings Pulse, which can measure your heart rate, can only do spot measurements, which won’t really help track calories more accurately. That said, the Polar Loop, which has just launched in the UK can be used with a chest strap heart rate sensor, as can the forthcoming Garmin vivofit and iFit Active. But whether you’d want to be wearing a chest strap all day, every day is another matter altogether.
The Force will adjust your calorie burn stats depending on the very active minutes total. Just like the Flex, the Force can tell when you’re putting some effort in, rather than just strolling along in a daydream. However, there’s really no differentiation between you walking briskly and sprinting at full pelt apart from the number of steps per minute.
Unlike the Flex, the Fitbit Force is not waterproof. The Flex can be submerged up to 10m, which means that it’s fine to wear it in the bath, shower and even when you go swimming. By contrast, the Force is only water resistant to a depth of 1m, which means you should still be okay wearing it in the bath or shower, but probably shouldn’t swim with it.
The Fitbit Force will track your sleep as well as your activity to give you a clear picture of how healthy your lifestyle is. While being active and exercising is important, it’s just as important to get enough sleep, and for the amount of sleep you get to be beneficial.
Like the Flex and the Jawbone UP, the Force will track how long you’ve been asleep, how many times you woke up during the night and how much of your sleep time was light and restless, or deep and restful.
While it’s good to know about the quality of the sleep you’re getting overnight, it’s hard to say what you can do about it if you’re not happy with the data. Obviously you can go to bed earlier if you’re not sleeping for long enough, but ensuring that you’re getting quality sleep is slightly more tricky. There are plenty of natural sleep aids, so it might be worth some investigation in that area if the Force is telling you that you’re not achieving enough deep sleep time.
You can put the Force into sleep mode by simply holding the button for a few seconds. After a while the device will vibrate and a stopwatch will start. While in sleep mode pressing the button again will display the stopwatch time, and holding it down again will end the sleep session.
As with the Fitbit Flex and the Jawbone UP, you can use the Force as your alarm clock, and a very handy one it is too. Using the app you can set a silent alarm via your Fitbit Force, which essentially causes the wristband to vibrate when the clock hits the desired time. As I’ve said before, this is a great feature for anyone who shares a bed and needs to get up early when their partner doesn’t. After all, if you want to be up at 5am for an early morning run, it doesn’t mean your other half wants to be woken too!
Syncing your data
The Fitbit Force uses the low power Bluetooth 4.0 standard to sync its data, which means that it’s always connected to your phone via the app, or to your computer via the USB dongle. The low powered nature of Bluetooth 4.0 also helps the Force achieve its outstanding battery life.
The Fitbit app is available for both iOS and Android devices, but the list of compatible models isn’t that extensive. Obviously the Force will only sync with phones and tablets that support Bluetooth 4.0, which means the iPhone 4S onwards and a handful of Android devices. Of course, as Bluetooth 4.0 becomes more ubiquitous the list of devices will grow, but if you want to make sure the Force will work with your phone or tablet, check the Fitbit app compatibility list.
The app is attractively designed and well laid out. There’s no shortage of data available and you can dig into historical data directly through the app too. Thanks to that Bluetooth 4.0 link, there’s no need to initiate any kind of syncing procedure – as soon as you fire up the app you’ll be presented with your latest stats.
The Fitbit app can track more than just your activity too. You can log your weight, if you’re looking to lose a few kg. And if you also have the Fitbit Aria scales, your weight will be automatically updated whenever you weigh yourself, as with the Withings Smart Body Analyzer scales.
There’s also the option to log your food, essentially allowing you to measure the calories your eating as well as the calories you’re burning. Unfortunately the Fitbit app still uses a US food database, which means that a lot of what you eat in the UK may not be in there. The result is a lot of time consuming manual food entry, which you can soon become bored of.
When I spoke to the Fitbit team at CES I was told that they were working on incorporating a UK food database into the app, which would be welcome. I’d also like to see barcode scanning, as seen in the Jawbone UP app – that makes it incredibly quick and easy to log your food, and ultimately means you’re more likely to do so.
You can log specific training sessions within the app too, but unlike the Nike+ FuelBand SE, you can’t trigger a training session from the device itself. This means that if you go for a run, you’ll have to remember to go into the app or web portal and manually enter the details afterwards.
Everything you can do with the app can be done via the web portal and Fitbit really has made the browser-based dashboard a pleasure to use. With all the relevant data displayed within tiles, the user can configure the dashboard to look exactly the way they want it – ideal for at-a-glance checks throughout the day.
The Force packs quite a feature set, but Fitbit isn’t ready to rest on its laurels. The company claims that it will be implementing some smartwatch-like functionality in a firmware update soon.
So far Fitbit has confirmed that the Force will be able to display caller-ID information when your phone rings, but whether that means just the number calling or the name associated with it on your phone remains to be seen. It’s also worth noting that this feature will only work with iPhone users running iOS 7.
If the caller-ID feature is accompanied with a vibrating alert I’d potentially find it useful. I’ve often found myself missing calls in noisy environments when I can’t hear my phone ringing in my pocket.
While some may find it useful to be able to see who’s calling them by glancing at the Fitbit Force on their wrist, I can’t see any further smartwatch functionality being squeezed into the Force since it’s screen is simply too small – I really wouldn’t want to be reading text messages or emails on it!
The Fitbit Force is a great activity tracker and goes a long way to address the shortcomings of the Flex before it. The addition of an integrated screen is a huge step forward, and may even convince existing Fitbit One users to upgrade.
The OLED screen is bright and easily readable, but it is small. By contrast, the matrix LED display on the Nike+ FuelBand SE is far larger and the button is also much easier to access and press. One advantage that the Force has over the Nike device is real-time updates on its display. If you’re looking at your step count on the Force while you’re walking, you’ll see your total increasing in real-time. On the FuelBand your updated total is only displayed each time you press the button.
It’s also good to see that Fitbit has included altimeter functionality in the Force, giving you a measure of how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed each day. This is one of those inspirational features the helps you push yourself that bit further – if you know that every flight of stairs is being logged, you’re far less likely to use the lift while you’re at the office.
Battery life is truly outstanding, with the Force matching the Jawbone UP when it comes to power longevity. That’s quite an achievement given that the UP doesn’t sport a built-in screen or altimeter functionality.
However, there are a few areas where Fitbit could still improve things. It’s very disappointing to see the continued use of a proprietary cable for charging. I’d much rather see a standard micro-USB charging port, since you’ve probably got loads of those cables already.
I’d also like to see improved food logging capabilities, preferably with barcode scanning included. Hopefully Fitbit will manage to include a UK food database in its app by the time the Force launches here in March, though. There are lots of other food tracking apps out there, but I can see the appeal of having everything rolled into one.
Fitbit hasn’t included any form of heart rate measurement within the Force, but then both the Nike+ FuelBand SE and Jawbone UP also lack this functionality. However, with devices like the Polar Loop and Garmin vivofit pairing with heart rate chest straps, and the Withings Pulse offering spot heart rate measurement, it’s a shame that the Force offers neither.
While the Fitbit Force isn’t perfect, it’s still one of the best-designed and most fully featured fitness trackers currently available. How long that remains the case is uncertain with so many new devices announced at CES earlier this month. But if you’re looking for a fitness tracker to kick off your new, healthier lifestyle in 2014, the Fitbit Force is well worth considering.
9/10 see update below.
- Built-in OLED screen
- Comfortable to wear
- Altimeter functionality
- Bundled USB wireless dongle
- Tracks sleep
- Silent alarm feature is great
- Well presented app
- Great web portal
- Outstanding battery life
- Caller-ID functionality on the way
- Reasonable (estimated) price
- App can log weight & food
- Screen is quite small
- Not as waterproof as the Flex
- Much wider band than the Flex
- Can’t switch wristbands like the Flex
- No heart rate measurement
- Can’t log training sessions on the device
- Food logging could be better
Price: £99 (estimated)
Update: You may have reports about the Fitbit Force causing a rash on the wearer’s wrist, and while no such condition appeared during the testing period for this review, after about three months of use a large and painful rash did appear on my wrist. Fitbit has now recalled all the Force units and offered refunds to all customers. It’s a shame, since the Force is one of the best fitness trackers to have hit the market, but ultimately it’s not fit for purpose.