Episode 018: Tech Talk Tuesday – Fitness Trackers

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Today I am not going to focus so much on current tech news and more on something that I have been struggling with in technology myself lately and that is Wearable technology or specifically, Fitness Trackers in the wearable tech space.

This topic is a branch of a gripe I have with technology which is that it makes life really simple when it works, but when it doesn’t go as smooth as the commercials make it seem like it should, it can smuggle away precious minutes and even hours away from you.

Product and Service Fails

An example, I have a non-smart TV presently because I seldom watch TV, I do not even have the satellite TV decoder for the dish already provided in our apartment building. Instead, I have a Google Chrome Cast plugged into the back of my TV which I may use for some Netflix or YouTube while on the treadmill. This evening, it took several attempts to get the Netflix to launch on the Chromecast and then eventually play the content I wanted to play. I almost gave up.

I am digressing a little but my point is that these things are great when they work but when they do not they are extremely frustrating.

The same can apply to services like medical or life insurance providers and their incentive programmes to track your health and fitness – thereby reducing their risk – by dangling the carrot of premium reductions or other perks if you try to be more healthy.

South Africans listening to this show are all too familiar with Discovery and their Vitality programme. They have also worked to bring their clients access to the top wearable products at a discounted rate – depending on their fitness level – including the Apple Watch or Samsung Gear range of devices.

Personally, I am not a Discovery member of any of their products, instead, I subscribe to some of their rivals including Momentum’s Multiply, a Vitality variation. This has got me looking into fitness trackers again recently as I am trying to improve on my weight and general health.

Samsung Gear S3Samsung Gear S3 and Gear Fit 2

So let me start off with the disclaimer that I am employed by Samsung and have the opportunity from time to time, to experience their products for different periods of time. The same is true for the Gear S3.

For a few months, I had the fortune of making use of this product. It was not the first time I had used a Gear smart watch having even owned the very first Gear before I even worked for Samsung.

There are two versions of the Gear S3, I prefer the Frontier edition styling wise plus the leather straps that generally come with the Classic version are not ideal for exercising with. I must point out that in Africa, the Gear S3 is only available in Bluetooth option so that you cannot make calls from it if it is not in range of your phone. (Something I miss about the first Gear S model which had a SIM slot that you could change SIM cards on yourself).

While the Gear S3 it a little big for many, I enjoyed the size of the watch generally. While you cannot swim with it, it is water resistant and I never had issues with it getting wet on occasion.

Coming back to the ability to take and make calls when the watch is paired and within the range of your phone, this is likely the feature I miss the most on a daily basis from the Gear S3. It is extremely handy to make a quick call or chat while busy in the kitchen etc.

The other thing I have come to miss about the Gear S3 since having to hand it back in is the interface. The rotating dial around the face of the watch is fantastic, it has to be the best device to navigate. If you have the budget to allow you to purchase the Gear S3, it really is a great smartwatch.

Since I had to return the Gear S3 and still wanted to track my fitness activities mainly, I opted to get myself a Gear Fit 2. It features the built in GPS and Heartrate monitor like the Gear S3 and benefits from a sleek design.

It offers a great compromise product on features vs price particularly if you just need the fitness tracking functionality.

My only issue personally, is that my insurance provider does not support the Samsung (and to the best of my knowledge, even the Apple) health applications in their Incentive programme for healthier living. This then requires me to connect Samsung Health apps with a few other apps to share data that can then sync back to the health incentive platform. It is frustrating. In light of this, I have had to explore some other options potentially or face paying more for premiums.

Fitness Trackers – The Top Players

As I have looked at other products, with the critical criteria being that they must cost 200USD or less, I have kept coming back to three or four main products for the general fitness tracking requirements. They all came from Fitbit and Garmin.

I must highlight that my search is biased by the fact that I am looking at brands supported by my insurance provider’s platform, but even in reviews, these two brands seem to face off often, and I suspect this will increase given that some wearable companies are exiting the consumer market.

This raises the point though for me, is the wearable market in trouble?

My personal view is that while sales are maybe flattening out faster than people expected, retailers continue to have a big focus on the segment and consumers seem to still have an interest in the products, but it is also not a need for many and I think the sector suffers from hype that feels a little familiar.

Turn the clock back to Apple’s launch of the iPad and the craze that followed. The market was meant to be massive for tablet devices and sales shot up rapidly with a graph that made people feel certain they had found the next product to replace smartphones. Sadly a few year later people realised they were wrong.

The upgrade cycles were longer and the use case for tablets different to smartphones, the product was just not as essential and the sector never really got near the volumes that smartphones offered.

The same for wearables. There is certainly no need for every smartphone to have a wearable paired to it, yet that doesn’t mean that wearable devices, particularly smart watches and other fitness trackers, do not have a viable business model now or in the future. It will just feature fewer brands moving forward.

Somehow though, I think the market is too cluttered with products and so consumers are to baffled with products to buy.

Let me just highlight this with the models I have identified.

Fitbit Blaze and Charge 2

At the time the Fitbit Blaze launched, I figured it might have a short life cycle. It was entering the market where other brands offered a lot more in smart watch design and functionality. I was wrong perhaps.

My dad was given one as a gift and he is happy with it. He is not a fitness geek by a long shot, but I think it has created a sense of curiosity in him regarding his health.

The Fitbit Blaze recently got a software update that also brought it up to speed in features with Fitbit’s most popular device among those of my friends who responded to a Facebook poll, the Charge 2.

Like most other smartwatches, the Blaze is water resistant but not suitable for swimming or even really taking a long shower. It offers heart rate monitor but no built in GPS relying rather on being paired to your phone and using the phones GPS.

I am not going to go into all the feature here, but my main point with this device is that it has benefited from a software update that gives the same hardware a new lease on life. This is really the kind of tech people want. You don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars on something that will be obsolete in a year with no new features being supported by updates.

In many ways, the Charge 2 offers the same fitness functionality lacking only really the smart watch, touchscreen features of the Blaze. it is by far the most popular tracker among those I know it seems.

Garmin Vivosmart HR+ and Vivosmart 3

The Garmin Vivosmart HR+ is a bit of a different device from the two Fitbits I mentioned (keep in mind I am focused on devices under $200).

It is suitable for swimming (though reports say it is not great at tracking swimming) and offers GPS built in when many of the rival products at this price do not.

The Vivosmart 3 drops the GPS but offers additional fitness tracking features including VO2 max and stress-tracking. This is where Garmin seems to be differing in their approach compared to Fitbit. The update to the Fitbit Blaze I mentioned, brought to the older hardware the features of the Charge 2 like stress tracking for example. Garmin however, has not been able to, or have chosen not to, give Vivosmart HR+ the features of Vivosmart 3 in an update.

Conclusion

There you have some short ramblings and views on fitness trackers and the wearable market.

What fitness tracker are you using and what made you choose to buy it? Let me know.

(Find last week’s episode of Tech Talk Tuesday here.)

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