The Apple Watch and other Activity Trackers

20 Years Without a Watch

Until recently, it had been about 20 years since I’d worn a watch. Back in the 1990s, my classic Casio analog watch cost under $20 and served me well for many years. In part, my desire to stop wearing a watch was a result of not wanting to be so focused on time, and it was one less object of distraction in my field of vision.

In October of 2016, I purchased an Apple Watch which arrived in November of 2016. Recently I had someone ask my opinion of the Apple Watch. Having used it for a few months, would I go back and do it again? In other words, is it a product that seems worthwhile owning. My response was not the typical enthusiastic fanboy reply that I’ve had with some products I own: “Yes! I love it! It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever owned!” Instead, I had to think a bit. Was it worth it?

What would I advise others about this almost embarrassingly expensive watch? The reply I’ve had from some people when I ask them about their Apple Watch has been “Oh, this? I didn’t buy it. It was a gift.” One person I talked to won theirs at a conference. These people wanted me to know that they would never have made such a frivolous ridiculously extravagant unnecessary purchase. Once over that hurdle, we’re able to talk about the watch. Usually people are proud to show off expensive clothing, handbags, or sports cars, but with the Apple Watch, for some people it seems almost embarrassingly excessive.

In the past, I’d been an early adopter of technologies, buying new technology the moment it becomes available, or even decades before it’s commonly available or used. That’s expensive. My first computer-attached CD drive was a big box that cost $1,200. Today they are $20. My first scanner was $1,200. Today they cost $40. We pay a premium when buying technology early. It may give you a competitive edge in business. Maybe not. Maybe it never catches on. Some buy technology early, without any concern about its longevity, because their purchase is to show others that they are a risk taker or so extravagantly wealthy they need not care about price.

Sometimes early adopters are viewed as ‘chumps’ who pay way too much for products just so they can impress their friends and gain attention by being the “first on their block” with some new technology. This presumably conveys to others that they are wealthy and have “money to burn” on something that has up until recently been so unnecessary as to be nonresistant. For some consumers this may be true. For many people, it’s good advice to avoid new technologies that tend to be expensive, buggy, and possibly short-lived.

As someone in the industry, I like to know about new emerging technologies, and I also like to feel I’m giving back financially to the industry I’m working in. It’s a way of joining with other consumers to tell manufacturers that we collectively want this new product to succeed. It’s what we refer to today as a kick-starter. When I first learned of CD drive technology for computers, I thought, “Hey, this CD drive seems like it might become a big deal.” So, in support of the concept, I bought one, and actually found it quite useful. I suppose the same was true for early adopters of automobiles — those people probably seemed foolish to purchase something that to that point was so unnecessary that it hadn’t even existed before.

It’s been about two years since the Apple Watch came out, and now other similar products are on the market. So, my purchase comes a little late in the product cycle. This article shares what I believe are some of its benefits and drawbacks. I offer this as advice to those thinking about purchasing a fitness activity tracker or wellness wearable device.

FitBit One (July 2013)

A few years ago, when I became interested in purchasing an activity tracker I wanted one that could clip on or fit in my pocket. In July of 2013, I decided on the FitBit One ($80 from Amazon). It has worked well for many years to track my daily activity (steps and stairs climbed) as well as my sleep time and quality. I find that the FitBit website and app provide an excellent comprehensive wellness hub for not just activity, but everything relating to a person’s overall health (exercise, sleep quantity/quality, food consumption, weight, water consumption, etc.).

Yesterday, watching “The Zoo” on Animal Planet, I was surprised to see the FitBit One being used at the Bronx Zoo for tracking activity and behavior of Fennec Foxes. Each fox actually had their own FitBit wellness dashboard where their steps were displayed. Very cool. The FitBit One was an ideal device to use because it’s small, light, very rugged, waterproof, and can be fitted into a collar.

Original Apple Watch (April 2015)

The Apple Watch was first released in April 2015. To me it seemed expensive, a bit bulky, short on battery life, and its functions were limited. I didn’t want to go back to wearing something on my wrist. The FitBit was providing me with activity tracking. My iPhone had all the features I’d ever need. I wasn’t so lazy that I couldn’t reach in my pocket and use my iPhone for anything that the Apple Watch would offer on my wrist, and with the iPhone I would have a much larger screen. At a cost of $350 to $17,000, it seemed to me that the Apple Watch was an expensive unnecessary extravagance that would quickly depreciate and soon be discontinued.

The Downfall of FitBit (August 2016)

By 2016, it seemed to me that the FitBit ecosystem was beginning to crumble. Here are a few core reasons why I became less enthusiastic about the FitBit system:

  1. Data. FitBit advertises that they believe a person’s personal health data is their own, and should be downloadable. Presumably some companies don’t offer an easy way to get information downloaded from their cloud services. So, FitBit was distinguishing themselves as data download friendly. In reality, their data download feature is quite limited, allowing for downloads only one month at a time. These downloads creates spreadsheets that are workbooks with multiple pages. So, there’s no way to click a button and download several years of data, and there’s no way to easily get all of your data in one place for longitudinal analysis. If you weigh in several times a day to check variations, you’ll be frustrated to see that the downloaded data only includes one weight measurement per day and no time is included.
  2. Food. The FitBit food database seems to increasingly have common foods that are not listed. In some cases, it seems that certain restaurant foods are listed, but some are missing. Other entries seem incorrect. When you look on the label and check what’s in the FitBit database, the information is sometimes wrong or incomplete. I eventually started manually entering my foods to make sure the values were correct.
  3. Sleep. FitBit had developed one of the best sleep analysis reporting systems available. Then they broke it. Here are a few of the things that no longer work properly.
    1. Ambiguous Tracking. In the past, the FitBit software would show when you were in deep sleep, light sleep, and awake during the night with the exact time displayed so you could look into what might be disrupting sleep. At some point in 2016 the software was ‘upgraded’ and the ability to see these details was gone.
    2. Bad Synchronization Issues. In the past, when you’d wake up in the morning and tap the “I’m Awake” button, you would immediately see your sleep chart. With their latest ‘improved’ version, it takes a long time for the chart to show up. It’s as if the FitBit One device is not synchronizing periodically throughout the night even though that setting is on. So, one must wait sometimes several minutes for it to work.
    3. Duplicate Synchronization. Sometimes an error message will appear on screen saying there is already a sleep entry for the current day. It’s as if the synchronization with the cloud results in some duplication.
    4. Problems Adjusting Sleep Range. When you go to make slight corrections in the sleep range, the chart immediately shows the adjustment, but then, before your eyes, it will adjust itself back to what it had been. So you change it again. This can happen a few times. It’s as if the cloud data has priority over the changes you’re making and so the cloud wins out unless you go slowly. Because the detailed time is no longer showing in the graph, it’s not possible to quickly tap on the graph to see when you went to sleep. In other words, if you’re entering your sleep time the following morning, and didn’t start the sleep timer the night before, or the sleep timer crashed, when you go to adjust that time, it’s guess work because you see red lines and blue lines but no indication of the actual time. So, each time you guess a time, and enter it, the chart adjusts and then goes back to what it had been. It’s a bit frustrating.
  4. Weight. The Fitbit Aria WiFi Smart Scale was one of my favorite FitBit products. Every day I would weigh in, and moments later my weight and percent body fat would show up. There would be a delay, sometimes of several days, between the time I’d weigh in and when the weight would show up in my FitBit app or online. I began manually recording my weight every day, which defeats the purpose of having it automatically recorded. Eventually I went back to using my old Tanita Ironman InnerScan Body Composition Monitor which game me a much more comprehensive body composition analysis.

I’ve reported the above to FitBit and was told they will take these things under advisement. Since then, multiple firmware updates have been released and numerous app updates have been released. The company doesn’t seem to be interested in fixing the above issues. Becoming less enthusiastic with the FitBit caused me to look at what the Apple Watch might be able to do.

The Improved Apple Watch (September 2016)

In September of 2016, Apple announced the Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 models with some significant improvements over the original model. The Series 1 is the same as the original Apple Watch, but with improved internal computing power and lower price of $269. The Series 2 offers a faster processor, built-in GPS, water resistant enclosure, a brighter display, and other benefits. For $100 more than the Series 1, the Series 2 at $369 seems to be a better value.

Deciding to Purchase the Apple Watch

The improvements offered with the Apple Watch Series 2 were part of what motivated me to consider purchasing the Apple Watch. Here are some additional thoughts and considerations that motivated me to purchase the Apple Watch.

  • Brightness. One of my concerns about the original Apple Watch was that the screen seemed a bit dim. The Series 2 has a brighter screen.
  • Consumer Interest. When I purchase a product or service, I feel that in some way I’m offering my ‘vote of support’ for seeing that product continue to be developed and available in the future. In the past, I’ve purchased and used products while they were in their infancy, and so excessively costly that purchasing them was almost an act of absurdity. In the 1980s, while in college, I sat in lectures halls using a laptop computer (TANDY Model 100) about 15 years before laptop computers became widely available and economical. In the 1990s, when the Apple Newton became available, I paid about $800 for what was essentially the first iPad, about 20 years before the technology was widely adopted. As mentioned previously, my first scanner was $1,200 and my first CD ROM drive was also $1,200. These all became tools I used and relied on, but the act of being an early adopter to me was, in part, a way to support the industry and products. The Apple Watch is a product I want to be supportive of, even if in its current version it’s still a bit expensive, Early adopters help make it possible to have continued development of products so in the future they can be better and less expensive.
  • Cost. At a cost of $269 for the base model, the Apple Watch Series 1 is priced similarly to other fitness tracker smart watches and wellness wearables. TomTom offers more advanced smart watches for up to $350. Garmin has smart watches for up to $450. FitBit has activity trackers for up to $200. Polar has smart watches for as much as $372. So, at $369 for the Apple Watch Series 2, it’s not the most expensive smartwatch available.
  • Future of Wellness Wearables. There are some wearable wellness technologies on the horizon that I think will make wearable devices commonplace. The next generation of wellness wearables such as AIRO and the Healbe GoBe promise to provide realtime blood analysis to determine our actual caloric intake. The FDA has approved wearable pancreas technologies that may eliminate Diabetes. I’d like to embrace the idea of using wellness wearables, and the Apple Watch seems like a good place to start.
  • Improved Activity Tracking. I like the idea of more accurately tracking my other activities besides just tracking my steps during the day. The Apple Watch can track calories burned during bike riding, weight lifting, as well as exercise on elliptical and other fitness equipment. I like the idea of having a single consolidated data collection system for all my activities.
  • Informed Support Provider. As a tech support person, I find that immersion is the best way to learn a new technology. I want to know how to purchase, setup, use, diagnose, and fix the technologies that I support. In addition to that, I enjoy looking for creative ways to use technology that I can only discover once using it. So, even if I’m doing very little in the way of helping people purchase, setup, use, or fix these new all-in-one solid-state modular mobile technologies, I think what I can offer of value are insights into creative ways to use them.
  • Product Demand. Seeing the market expand with a wide array of similarly priced watches seems to indicate that wearables are not going to be a passing fad. I’ve seen more and more people using some kind of wellness wearable. So, I’m not concerned about potentially investing in a technology that won’t be around in a year or two.
  • Pulse Monitoring. Something my pocket FitBit doesn’t provide is pulse monitoring, and this got me thinking that smart phones can do just about anything, but they don’t offer realtime pulse monitoring while exercising. For that we need wearables.
  • Speed. One of my concerns about the original Apple Watch was that it seemed a bit slow to open apps and perform functions. The Series 2 has a faster processor which should work with future upgrades at least for a couple years.
  • Waterproof. A drawback to the original Apple Watch is that it can be easily damaged by water. I’m reluctant to purchase a product at any price that’s potentially damaged by exposure to a little bit of water. The new Apple Watch Series 2 is water resistant to 50 meters. That’s important to me. Whatever product I would be wearing, I want to be able to wear it in the rain on my bike, sweating at the gym, or while doing dishes.

Which Apple Watch Model to Purchase

With their various products, Apple typically offers some very persuasive reasons for spending a little more on an upgraded product. For example, a bigger screen on the iPhone is just $100 more. Getting 4-times as much memory (up from 32 to 128GB storage) is $100 more. Getting the newest model with improved features and camera rather than last year’s model is just $100 more (Apple offers the previous year product at a $100 discount off the current year). It seems foolish to spend so much money on a phone and not spend a few hundred dollars more to make it an amazingly fast, big, super-duper phone. Their laptop computers, desktop computers, iPad devices, and the Apple Watch have similar pricing that makes you want to get the nicer models for “just a little more money.”

When you visit the Apple Watch purchase and configuration page, you’ll see a list of models, features, and options to choose from:

  • Series – 1 or 2. The Apple Watch Series 1 costs $269. As mentioned above, for another $100 the Series 2 offers a long list of additional benefits such as a faster processor, built-in GPS, water resistant enclosure, a brighter display, and more. So, the Series 2 seems to be the best value.
  • Case Size – 38mm or 42mm. At a cost of about $30 more, it makes sense to have a larger display. For the Series 2, this brings the price to $400.
  • Case Material – Aluminum, Stainless Steel, or Ceramic. The case material is fairly important since the watch is something that will likely be bumped into objects. Aluminum and the accompanying watch crystal are more susceptible to scratches and damaged. Stainless Steel provides a much more durable case and crystal option. At a cost of $200 more, it makes sense to have such a costly product protected from damage. This brings the cost to $600. The Ceramic case version costs about $1,300 which makes it impractical for most people, although Ceramic is reportedly much stronger than Stainless Steel.
  • Watch Band. There are a variety of watch band options with the Apple Watch. The Sport band is a comfortable, durable, stain resistant band which happens to be the least expensive option.
  • Apple Care. For a cost of $49, it’s possible to get a two-year warranty rather than a one-year warranty. This also provides “up to two incidents of accidental damage coverage, each subject to a $69 service fee, plus applicable tax. In addition, you’ll get 24/7 priority access to Apple experts via chat or phone.”

So, an Apple Watch, Series 2, 42 mm, Stainless Steel Case, with the Apple Care extended service costs about $650 and seems to be a good choice. You can see how it’s fairly easy to reach a price that’s twice the cost of the basic model. Anyone wanting to save a few hundred dollars on the Apple watch could consider purchasing the basic model for $269. Those with less concern about cost, and desiring the latest style can spend $1,300 or more.

Most Used Apple Watch Features

Having used the Apple Watch over the past 5 months, here are some of the functions I find useful.

  • Driving. I’ve had a variety of GPS systems that work fairly well, but most distract me from my driving as I look to the map to double-check for my position and approaching turns. With the Apple Watch, I like having the vibration and sounds that alert me to upcoming turns without having to look away from the road to an on-screen map.
  • Messages. While riding my bike, if I receive an email, phone call, or text message, it’s nice to be alerted on my watch.
  • Payments. It’s handy at stores to use the Apple Watch for payment during checkout at the register. So, when going into stores that accept Apple Pay, I don’t need to carry my bag.
  • Pulse. In the past, I found it very convenient and accurate to use my $10 classic Casio analog watch to check my pulse. However, I do find it’s nice to have realtime ongoing monitoring of my pulse. I like being able to see my pulse at a glance while riding my bike or exercising — not having to interrupt my workout. At night, my pulse is monitored to provide enhanced sleep quality data.
  • Relaxation. A person doesn’t need a fancy watch to remind them to relax. Even so, it is nice to have the watch remind me to stand if I’ve been sitting for too long, and to do focused breathing periodically throughout the day.
  • Sleep. With the AutoSleep app ($2.99) it’s possible to use the Apple Watch for very advanced sleep tracking.
  • Time. In the past, I’ve not wanted the time to be so visible throughout the day. However, these days I’m finding it nice to be able to look at my wrist and see the time. If I decide I don’t want to be reminded of the time, it’s easy enough to display only the weather or my activity progress for the day. In the same way the Apple iPhone is often used for everything but phone calls, the Apple Watch is becoming a device that will be used for many tasks other than checking the time.
  • Weather. I’ve configured my watch to show (among other things) the temperature, daily predicted high/low temperature, and precipitation (if any). So, just lifting the watch, in one place as I’m going out the door, I know what outerwear I should grab for my walk, bike ride or other activity.
  • Workout. When walking, riding my bike, working out on the elliptical machine, or lifting weights, I like using the Apple Watch to track my workouts. The watch uses my pulse to calculate my level of exertion and calories burned. For outdoor activities, I can review a map of my route with variations in speed represented by red (slow), yellow (moderate), or green (fast). All of my activity during the day, week, and month can be charted.

Third-Party Programs

The above functions mostly make use of the built-in functions without additional third party software. For decades, whether using Windows or Apple computers, I’ve made a choice to do as much as I can with the included software. I find computers (or watches) tend to work faster, more reliably, and have a longer battery life. When necessary I’ll use a third party program or app, but I try not to overdo it. I consider how necessary it is, and whether or not I could do something similar with built-in features. I know there are other people who fill their computers, iPads, iPhones, and Apple Watches with hundreds of games, utilities, and programs many of which no longer get used. I try to avoid that other unnecessary clutter. With the Apple Watch, I don’t want too many distractions and pop-ups during the day. I can configure the watch to alert me to just what’s essential.

Concluding Thoughts

With regard to activity trackers, smart watches, and wellness wearables, there’s clearly no single obvious best choice for everyone. Each person will have their own needs, budget, and sensibility about what works best for them. I hope the above observations help those trying to decide what to do with their own wearable technology purchase.

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