The Jawbone Up isn't exactly a novel gadget. Rather, there are a number of competitors in the fitness activity tracker space, with one notable pioneer being the Nike Fuelband (not officially available in Singapore as of now). The basic idea behind such gadgets is to create awareness of how active you are. The user is presented with data, with the aim of comparing against other friends, or against your past self, in the hope that you’ll be motivated to do more; walk more, work out more, get active more. Did the Jawbone Up inspire us to get us out and about? That's what we intend to relate in this review.
In a meeting with a Jawbone executive prior to the Singapore launch of the Up, the device was labelled as "functional jewelry". Nike’s taken some steps to make the Fuelband more physically attractive by introducing some see-through designs, but the Up actually looks like a bracelet accessory that’ll look quite at home on one’s wrist. Designed by Yves Behar, the Up has no clasp per se, instead the two ends overlap slightly. Some rigid curves help keep the Up securely in place, while also being very easy to remove.
Coming in a rainbow selection of colors, the Up’s exterior is made from medical-grade hypoallergenic TPU rubber. The bright colors are really attractive, though it really doesn’t appear to wear very well. For example, the review unit we've been using for the past couple of months or so (in blue) is beginning to look a little faded, and we dare say, a little yellow around the edges. Looks this gadget doesn't age gracefully. Speaking of wearing the Jawbone Up, the company offers the gadget in three sizes: S, M and L, to cover varying wrist sizes. You'll have to choose the correct wrist size prior to buying, which fortunately, Jawbone has that all covered on how to select the right size as well as a physical size guide that you can download.
The Up is designed to be waterproof, and so far, had held up pretty well as I wore it throughout the day, sweaty workouts and soapy showers inclusive. Of course, I wasn’t quite ready to risk dipping it underwater during a recent visit to the pool with my toddler. And speaking of toddlers, my little boy took quite a liking to the Up as a toy of sorts, twisting, flexing and pulling at it with abandon. If anything, despite the punishment from a curious little boy, the Up still continues to work just fine.
Inside the Up is a rechargeable battery that Jawbone says lasts 10 days (for once, vendor's estimate seems to be spot on), a vibration motor and an accelerometer. One end of the bracelet has a single button to quickly change settings, while on the other end is a 3.5mm plug used to connect the Up to your smartphone, as well as to charge it via USB port. The plug is protected by a small cap, which you could very easily lose.
Functions-wise, the Up lets users track how many steps they’ve taken throughout the day, as well as tracking your night of sleep. The former is part of activity tracking, turning motion sensed info into data points including the number of steps taken, active versus inactive time, and even the number of calories burned. It works well for walking, and decently for running, but beyond that, you’re left with manually entering data for activities like cycling or lifting weights. You can also input the level of exertion for your workout, though this particular data point can be a little arbitrary; my threshold for an intense workout might be a light workout to some others.
For couch potatoes, or those who spend long hours tethered to their desks, the Up has an Idle Alert function. You can set it to vibrate at regular intervals if you’ve been inactive for too long, and remind you to stretch your legs every so often.
Sleep tracking is particularly useful, showing how long it takes you to fall asleep, how many times you wake up during the night, as well as how much time you spend in both light and deep sleep. If you’ve ever been woken up while in deep sleep, that groggy feeling isn’t fun. The Up takes care of that problem, as you can program it to rouse you by vibrating towards the tail end of a light sleep cycle, up to 30 minutes before a specified alarm time. Sure, you might lose a couple of minutes of sleep here and there, but every time I’m woken up by the Up, I actually feel fresh.
One caveat here is that you have to manually place the Up in sleep more, by holding down the button on the band until it vibrates, and a little green crescent moon lights up right next to the button. Similarly, coming out of sleep mode involves pressing the same button, until a green sun pops up.
Double-tapping the button, followed by pressing and holding it down, turns on power nap mode. Similar to sleep mode, power nap mode instead vibrates to wake you up 25-45 minutes later, depending on when you fall asleep, and where you are in your sleep cycle.
You can also turn on Stopwatch Mode to time an activity. To do this, simply press the button once, and then press and hold it until the green sun flashes and the band vibrates. While likely useful to some extent, there’s no way to note down the time recorded, short of plugging the Up to your smartphone and syncing.
The final key feature of the Up is in tracking eating habits, though that’s done more by the accompanying app on your smartphone, rather than the Up itself. The Jawbone folks admit that the food database is currently more skewed towards North America.
You can scan barcodes from items consumed, and it’ll add in nutritional information to your daily data dump. Of course, you can still manually add food items to the list, as well as input specific nutritional values, but that data stays on your device and isn’t added to a global database for everyone else to refer to. The Jawbone rep we spoke to says it’s more a matter of verifying the authenticity of the data added. This is probably one of the more limiting features on the Up, at least for us in the region, as apps like MyFitnessPal offer a far better way to track food intake, with a better curated database of food items common to Singapore. You can take a photo of what you eat too, and add that to your timeline, for whatever that’s worth.
The app for Jawbone's Up is available on both iOS and (only recently) for Android. At a glance, you can see how much sleep you had last night, as well as the number of steps walked for the day, measured against goals that you can pre-set. As mentioned earlier, the only way you can sync data from your Up band to the app is by physically plugging the band into your smartphone, after which the app will display how much battery life the Up has left (in percentage, as well as an approximate number of days), while also uploading the data to your Up account on the Jawbone servers. For a company which made its name on Bluetooth accessories, this comes across as really strange.
Below the steps and sleep charts is a timeline, where you can see your activity details, as well as those of your friends, which you follow by adding them to your "Team", based off your contacts on Facebook and Twitter who also have Up activity trackers registered on those social networks. You can comment on your friends’ activities, but that’s pretty much it. Furthermore, despite trawling through your Facebook and Twitter contacts to find other Up users, the app doesn’t really integrate the two social networks into your Up timeline.
The Up app also offers something called Insights, basically observations based on your sleep, activity and food data. For example, the app would show that my step average over the past days was, say, 85% of my goal of 10,000 steps daily. In another "Insight", the app might note that Saturday and Sunday were the most active days of the past few weeks for me. The app then offers up some tidbits such as "besides feeling good, activity also helps you lower cholesterol", or gems like "Experts suggest avoiding your clock - when you’re not thinking about time, you sleep better". We're sorry, Jawbone, but these "insights" are no better than obvious statements like "You should walk more today than you did yesterday". On the other hand, Jawbone also says that the longer you use the band, and the more data you input, the smarter the Insights will be.
Last but not least, Jawbone also recently updated the Up platform to include support for external apps and services such as RunKeeper, MyFitnessPal, IFTTT, Withings and more. This enables, say, the Withings Wi-Fi-enabled scale to instantly relay your weight to the Up app. Similarly, the RunKeeper app can relay workout data to the Up app. Even better, connections are two-way, so third-party apps can also access Up data for their own purposes. This does address in some way the limitations of Jawbone’s food item database, letting users use MyFitnessPal to handle that part instead, though this does mean having to fire up separate apps to do so. On the plus side, the Up is now primed to position itself as a single hub for your health and wellness data. The list of connected apps on the Up platform is limited to just 12 for now, though Jawbone is looking to expand compatibility as their newborn platform grows.
Bottom line, the Up is a bag of hits and misses. It’s got a couple of glaring weaknesses, such as the need to physically connect it to your smartphone to sync, as well as the lack of important visual cues that let you know where you currently are with regards to your daily goals. Of course, removing the wireless radios from the equation means better battery life for the Up, and the band does last the 10 days as advertised (at least for the initial few months that we've been trialing).
Being able to quickly check your step count is a major omission, in our opinion, as there can be a big difference between being 5000 steps away from your daily goal, versus being just 500 steps away. If my day hasn’t quite ended, all it takes is a quick couple of hikes up and down the stairs to meet my step count goal for the day. Having to manually sync just to see your daily goal status is simply one step too many.
Having to manually activate modes can be a bit of a bummer too, as you can just as easily forget to activate (or deactivate) sleep mode, though you can still manually log sleep data after the fact.
The only other problem is that it’s significantly expensive at S$189.90. Not very many people would be willing to shell out that much for what can be essentially called a pedometer with some extra functions thrown in.
On the other hand, despite its faults, the Jawbone Up is a pretty impressive device. Assuming you bother to diligently track what you eat and remember to log your sleep cycles, you can get something out of it. Like any gadget, you really need to use it to get its full worth. Devices like the Nike Fuelband still do a lot better when it comes to encouraging users to be more active, but the ability to log and analyse your sleep, as well as other data points related to your lifestyle i.e. workouts and food, give the Up a big boost in the overall usefulness category. And for the thirtysomethings like me who are finally realizing that it’s time to get a handle on one’s health, the Up is not only built to withstand the stresses of family life (read: it makes a superb occasional plaything for a bored toddler), but also gives me a good excuse to both indulge my gadget habit and help me get healthier at the same time.