Fitness devices that do (just) a bit more

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jun 23 2014, 21:49pm hrs
SmartwatchIf fitness bands are going to include smartwatch features, they should integrate with more apps.
WEARABLE technology is having an identity crisis. Take the LG Lifeband Touch and the Samsung Gear Fit. These new devices, both released this spring, combine smartwatch features like providing the time, fitness tracking and notifications of incoming calls and texts with bigger and more interactive displays. They are gadgets that do a bit of everything but excel at nothing. And they face exceptional consumer skepticism.

The NPD Group, the research firm, reports that one in three consumers has heard of wearable fitness devices. Of the people who know about wearable devices, just 28% intend to buy one. More have heard of smartwatches, said NPD, but a smaller percentage23%intend to buy one. Although larger numbers have heard of the Google Glass eyewear device, fewer want to wear one.

And research from Endeavour Partners, a strategy and consulting firm, finds that a third of buyers are abandoning their wearable fitness devices after just six months of use, and more than half of those who own an activity tracker no longer use it.

Are LG and Samsung swimming upstream with their new offerings Its hard to argue otherwise. At first blush, the LG Lifeband Touch appears to be the better band of the two. First, it costs $150, while the Gear Fit is $200. Second, the Gear Fit works with only a handful of Samsung devices, like the Galaxy and Note phones and a few Samsung tablets.

Both bands work in conjunction with free phone apps. The LG Fitness app is available for iOS and Android, but the flexibility is misleading. The app functions on an iPhone and looks lovely, but you cant receive email or text notifications on the band if youre using iOS. You can receive an incoming-call notification, but there is no caller ID and no way to answer or reject the call from the band.

As a point of comparison, Samsungs Galaxy Gear allows you to receive email, text and call notifications, as well as social notifications from apps like Twitter and Facebook. You can also answer and reject calls from the band or respond with a canned message.

The LG Fitness app works with some Android phones, but not new devices like the Samsung Galaxy S5. And even on Android, you can receive only text and call notifications, not social updates or even email. On a positive note, you can connect the LG Fitness app with third-party apps like RunKeeper, MapMyFitness and MyFitnessPal, which I like to use to track calories.

But the integration is a one-way street: Theres no calorie-counting or food-diary feature built into LGs app, and it doesnt import that information from MyFitnessPal. It just sends the food-tracking app information about activities, so MyFitnessPal can deduct calories accordingly.

The Lifeband Touch also cannot measure heart rate, which the Gear Fit can do. Instead, LG has developed headphones that can sense your heart rate. Thats innovative, but those heart-rate-sensing headphones cost $180.

The Gear Fit, on the other hand, has a heart-rate sensor built into the band. In my experience, it works only if you wear the band upside down, but thats a more convenient way to wear it to view its unusual horizontal display.

While the Lifeband Touchs screen is dull, with black-and-white text thats nearly unreadable outdoors, the Gear Fits touch-screen display is brightvisible outside and insideand rich with vibrant colours. The Gear Fit also offers more information than the Lifeband Touch: You can receive social notifications and even updates from third-party apps like EasilyDo, which reminds you about meetings, shows commute times and tracks package deliveries. It also has a built-in pedometer, timer and stopwatch and the ability to choose between exercise types, like cycling and running.

While LGs software relies heavily on charts and feeding other apps, Samsungs S Health suite (which was introduced in 2012 and has been frequently updated since) is so complete that it almost obviates the band itself. It includes a few of the tools that might actually make a fitness band worth keeping: There are separate goals for walking and workouts, and a food diary that allows you to specify a calorie goalyou can even take pictures of your food. Theres also a lightweight Coach app that you can use to create motivational goals like exercise more, eat less.

If you sign up for a Samsung account, you can receive a free six-month trial of Workout Trainer, an app that includes exercise suggestions, photos and videos and integrates with S Health. That, to me, is where all wearable fitness software should be headed: toward personalised nutrition and exercise recommendations, with workouts included.

Of course, LG and Samsung arent the only big companies trying to make it in fitness tech. Questions remain regarding the plans of Nike, arguably the first household brand that tried to popularise these products. Apple and Google announced software for their mobile operating systems that will aggregate activity and health information from a variety of apps and devices. Apple has HealthKit and Google has Google Fit.

The industry appears to be waiting to see whether Apple will announce a smartwatch, which has been rumoured for some time. Or perhaps the Google empire will get there first with the Moto 360, a concept for a smartwatch that runs Googles Android Wear operating system for wearable computing devices and has been promised for this summer.

Still, if fitness bands are going to include smartwatch features, they should integrate with more apps than the few fitness-oriented third-party apps that the Gear Fit and Lifeband Touch support. Where, for example, is my Starbucks card app The Gear Fit comes closest to a fitness wearable that gives you a reason to keep it around, and it also acts as a lightweight smartwatch. But I cant recommend you spend the money on either the Gear Fit or the Lifeband Touch.

If you want an activity tracker, try the easy-to-wear Jawbone Up, which is slim and unobtrusive and collects basic activity data well. If you want a smartwatch, the Pebble Steel is still the gold (or steel) standard.

What I believe is that there are probably one or two killer-use cases for wearables that will be uncovered in the next two to four years, Sonny Vu, the chief executive of Misfit, a company that makes activity trackers meant to be worn like jewelry, said in a recent conversation. Activity monitoring is not one of those. So, what are those one or two use cases I dont know.

Molly Wood