The FitBit Ultra is a wireless activity tracker that measures a range of daily activity data including steps walked and stairs climbed. Is it an effective fitness tool?
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The FitBit Ultra is a compact device that's about the same size as a USB key. It's designed to clip to your clothing: it comfortably clips onto a pair of pants or a belt and it can even be kept in your pocket. The FitBit Ultra is so small and light that we barely even noticed we were wearing it all day. FitBit suggests the device is best worn on a waistband, a belt or in a pocket and says women can wear it on their bra. For thicker belts, FitBit includes a plastic belt holster in the package that will more effectively secure the device.
The FitBit Ultra is simple to operate and only has one button, which is used to cycle through its small OLED display. Pressing the button will display how many steps you've taken, how many kilometers you've walked, how many calories you've burned, and how many sets of stairs you've climbed. The device also displays the current time and shows a "recent activity level" in the form of a flower — if the flower is short, you've been inactive recently. The more steps you take (and hence the more active you are) the longer the flower grows. The idea is to keep the flower tall by keeping active: it may sound like a gimmick, but it quickly becomes a great motivational tool.
The FitBit Ultra really comes into its own when its synchronised with the FitBit.com Web site. You can manually synchronise the FitBit by placing the device on the included base station charger, but if you keep the base station plugged into your computer, the FitBit will sync whenever you're within 15 metres of the dock and relatively inactive (if you're sitting at your computer, for example). Syncronising worked without issues during our testing and the device can be used with either a PC or a Mac. If you have multiple FitBit users in your house, a single FitBit base station will sync multiple FitBit devices.
Once you've registered for a free account the FitBit.com service tracks your data, calculates your daily results and displays them on multiple graphs and tables. You'll need to enter a fair bit of manual information when you first set up the FitBit: log your age, sex, height and weight and you're ready to go. Armed with your daily FitBit data, the Web site allows you to set personal goals, for example how many steps you want to strive for each day, or how many floors you want to climb. You earn badges for achieving these goals.
The FitBit service also calculates and displays your daily activity breakdown, showing how long you've been sedentary, lightly active, fairly active or very active. Checking your results and setting new goals quickly becomes an addiction, helped along by a simple and straightforward online user interface.
The FitBit Ultra can also monitor your sleep using an included sleep wristband. It's a comfortable, velcro wrist strap: put it on, slip the FitBit into the band and hold down the FitBit's button until a stopwatch icon appears when you go to sleep. When you wake up in the morning simply hold down the button again to stop the sleep tracker. The device claims to monitor your sleep, tracking any movement in the night and giving you a sleep efficiency score. Once you've logged your sleep data, the graph makes it easy to see exactly when you've woken up during the night. However, we found our sleep efficiency score was always in the high 90 per cent range, even when we didn't feel we had a great nights sleep. Overall, we found this feature his and miss and not anywhere near reliable as the primary step counter function.
In addition to its step, stair and sleep functions, FitBit also allows you to log your food intake and any physical activities you do, such as running or playing sport. The food log is a good idea in theory but because this is a device designed for a US audience, it is difficult to log correctly in Australia. Most of the foods in the FitBit database are American brands and although you can add your own food entries, it's very much a time consuming process. The activity log is a better story: simply enter the start and end time of your activity, the duration and the distance and FitBit will create a graph with all the details. Unlike basic step counting, you have to enter a great deal of information manually in order to get the most out of FitBit's food and activity logs.
FitBit also has an iOS app (the company has promised an Android app in the near future) that allows you to log activities and food while you're out and about. However, it's only available in the US iTunes store at this stage, that is until the product officially launches in Australia. If you want a FitBit Ultra right now, you can order the device from Amazon: it retails for US$99.95: we had it shipped to our door in just three days for a total of $107AUD.