What I learned from my first wearable activity tracker

In 2011 I decided I was going to get a Jawbone Up. Activity and sleep tracking, movement prompts and silent alarms all seemed like good ideas at the time. Unfortunately, the Up had some critical design flaws and Jawbone replaced their order page with a ‘check back here when we have our shit together’ page. While Jawbone was busy fixing the Up, I started tracking my runs with RunKeeper and my interest in wearable trackers dissipated to zero.

Ideally, you want to track all your activities with a wearable. Currently, my most intense daily physical activity is Brazilian jiu jitsu and wearing an activity tracker simply isn’t possible. The prospect of an incomplete activity profile significantly dents the attractiveness of an tracker. Wearing something on my wrist in general also something I’m not very keen about which is why I don’t bother with a watch.

Between cycling, running and bjj, I’m not concerned about my overall activity level so I’m not interested in how many flights of stairs or steps I take. Two features brought me back to the idea of using a wearable tracker. Runkeeper made me curious about heart rate tracking. Perhaps I could optimize the time I spend running by targeting a specific heart rate zone. Secondly, wireless earphones removed any direct control over music navigation during my run and some trackers include this ability. An additional feature I’m interested in is sleep tracking. Correlating the quality of my sleep to how I feel in the morning could be useful as well as getting an aggregate picture of the quantity of my time in bed.

There are many activity trackers that provide both heart rate monitoring and music controls, although they tend to be more expensive. The Apple Watch is one such tracker. Arguably, I’m an ideal candidate for an Apple Watch. I’m heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem and I’m actively looking for functions the Apple Watch provides. Ultimately, I feel the Apple Watch is too expensive and bulky. I’ll reexamine the Apple Watch after it gets cheaper and goes on a diet.

I came across a refurbished Garmin Vivosmart HR tracker at a price that alleviated any lingering hesitations about bulk or utility. After living with this device for a while, this is what I discovered.

thin beef-jerky wrists plus early adopter technology = house arrest chic aesthetic

Music Controls
The Vivosmart HR allows me to play, pause and skip tracks forward and backward. I would also like volume controls, but track skipping in both directions is most important to me. One can swim with the Vivosmart, so a little rain isn’t going to bother it, but moisture from sweat or rain renders the touch screen mostly unresponsive. Physical software-assignable buttons would be better.

Heat Rate
Now I know a lot more about my heart rate, and none of it is very useful. For example, my resting heart rate with a cat on my lap is about five beats per minute slower than my resting heart rate without a cat. Fascinating! When I’m running, my heart rate is already in a zone that, if I’m to believe the ‘220 BPM minus my age maximum heart rate’ formula, I should be probably be dead.

exhibit A

Sleep Tracking
The data produced by the Vivosmart for sleep tracking is of dubious quality and usefulness. I can also confirm that while I can tolerate wearing something on my wrist during the day, night wearing isn’t going to happen. The Vivosmart seems to heavily rely on the manually entered data for your normal sleeping hours to determine when you settle down and actual sleep tracking was often off by hours.

Battery Life
The Vivosmart HR needs to be charged every 4–5 days and that’s pretty good. I do wish the home page display had some sort of battery life warning. The lack of this requires an awareness of how long it has been since it has been charged, and the battery indicator is buried quite deep in the user interface.

So, the only real win here for me from the expected utility is the music controls functionality. I’m still wearing it all day, though. Why?

After a lifetime of shunning watches, it turns out I having the time on my wrist is quite useful. Weird! Weather is nice too.

I didn’t have to do anything special to get notifications set up. It just worked automatically and suddenly I’m more connected. My family appreciates me not missing their phone calls and texts and its unobtrusive enough to not be annoying or distracting. I also recently installed a front door security camera with motion detection and now I know if someone is at the door or if a package arrived. That’s pretty awesome.

Bluetooth Alarm
I can be forgetful and getting separated from my phone is fairly traumatic. In fact, Apple’s Find My iPhone is one of my favorite features of iOS. I have the Vivosmart HR vibrate when it loses bluetooth connection with my iPhone and this provides valuable peace of mind.

When I’m preparing for competition, it would be useful to have a comprehensive picture of my calories in and out and correlate that with a networked scale capturing my weight, but there is still so much guesswork and estimates and variables that we’re only kinda in the ballpark with the collected data. Still, I’m surprised with how I’m using my activity tracker. My number one gripe is still bulkiness, but I feel we’ve hit a threshold where these devices are usable and will get cheaper and smaller.



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Associate Professor, Electronic Production and Design, Berklee College of Music Opinions: my own