On the right track
Garmins are great, Fitbits are fab and Misfits aren’t the oddballs you might expect. There are loads of great fitness trackers out there. But none has quite nailed every single aspect of its being to the point where it’s indispensable.
It makes you wonder: what exactly would go into the perfect fitness tracker? Does it need to let you take voice memos, so you can wax on about your latest PB like James T Kirk after a marathon? Probably not. But should the battery last at least 10x longer than an Apple Watch’s? Actually, yes.
After hours of playing around, writing things on whiteboards and pointing at things while wearing white coats, these are the 15 things we’ll be looking out for in the fitness trackers of the future – we’d love to hear your own suggestions in the comments.
At least a week’s active use, or a marathon-plus
Battery life in the wearable world is even more of an issue than it is with phones. You want us to charge a smartwatch every day? Are you for real?
The situation is much less upsetting with fitness trackers, but that comes at a cost to functionality. You need to keep a close eye on what you’ll actually get when you’re out for a new band.
Our minimum is a week’s use – and we mean active use, not a week kept in a drawer. And when using GPS we want at least a marathon’s worth. We’re not talking a sub-three-hour superhero marathon either, but a solid six-hour ‘semi-reformed couch potato’ marathon.
The kings of this sort of stamina are real runners’ watches. The Garmin Fenix 3 lasts for 20 hours of GPS or a good few weeks as a pure watch. Even the slim Garmin Vivoactive lasts for 10 hours of GPS. On the naughty step, the Fitbit Charge only lasts five hours of GPS goodness.
The latest bright hope for future band battery life comes from Samsung. In late 2015 it unveiled a 0.3mm-thick bendy battery that can live in a watch’s strap, which would solve a lot of these issues.
GPS is a must for any self-respecting fitness tracker designed for people who are after a bit more than just a reminder of how sedentary they are. If you’ve only ever heard of GPS in your car’s sat-nav, here’s a quick run-down.
GPS uses a chip that tracks the position of multiple satellites in Earth’s orbit, enabling it to pinpoint your location to within a few feet. It’s kinda amazing, and all fitness trackers would benefit from it.
For bonus points, we’ll also take GLONASS support. This is the same sort of thing, but where GPS uses a system of ‘at least 24’ US satellites, GLONASS uses another 24 Russian satellites as well – so you double your chances of success, to put it in simple terms.
Surprisingly, few fitness trackers actually use GPS, because it eats battery like it’s discount chocolate and is likely to get under-informed people upset, as it can take a little while to ‘lock on’ to the signal.
We want more, though, particularly in smaller devices. The key to that? The new battery tech we’ve already talked about.
A wrist HR monitor that actually works
It has become rather trendy to put an optical heart rate sensor into anything even approaching a fitness tracker. Loads of Android Wear watches have them, as does the Apple Watch.
The problem is that not many of them work as soon as you start moving. They’re fine, as long as you’re not actually ‘doing any fitness’.
To find out why, we only need to look at how they work. Optical heart rate sensors (usually) fire green LEDs into your wrist, and then use a tiny little light sensor to measure the level of light. Increased blood flow causes increased absorption of the green light, letting the monitor tell when your heart beats. In theory.
In practice, as soon as you start moving the reliability of the thing goes out of the window because the sensors are micro-jiggled about, meaning the area they’re looking onto changes. The Apple Watch seems to combat this pretty effectively by using what appear to be mini lenses to enlarge the sensor’s read area – but it doesn’t like reading heart rate when you’re moving, which is a bit of an issue.
Mio’s wrist-worn HR trackers are generally okay, and you can check out the Mio Fuse or TomTom’s watches if you’re interested. However, the accuracy pales in comparison to a chest strap, and we want to see the tech improve before it becomes ubiquitous.
Here’s a head-scratcher: how can a fitness tracker accurately track your performance on an exercise bike? We’re not up for suddenly moving the thing from wrist to ankle, thanks very much.
What you need in this instance is an ANT+ sensor. Support for these is common among real sporty wearables, but rare in the more casual Fitbit-style crowd. ANT+ is a comms standard (like Bluetooth), a way for trackers to talk to bike cadence sensors, chest strap HR sensors and the like.
One of the few real casual-style devices to support ANT+ goodies is the Garmin Vivofit, because Garmin puts it into virtually all of its wearables. What we want to see is ANT+ and Bluetooth support in all trackers, as that means compatibility with smartphones and sensors alike.
Waterproofing for shower safety
We don’t want to have to take our fitness tracker off every time we get in the shower. Sure, not everyone needs to be able to swim with the thing, but every time we see what seems to be a basic band of rubber that still needs to be left on the sink every morning, we sigh.
You have to read the blurb on this subject carefully when buying a fitness tracker. For example, Fitbit used to describe its trackers as waterproof, but has now toned down its wording. If you say something is waterproof, someone on the internet is going to prove that, somehow, it isn’t. That seems to be what happened to Fitbit.
Misfit is one company that has held onto its ‘completely waterproof’ claim, meaning you can not only shower with one of its trackers on, but swim with it too.
Others, like the Moov Now, are picking up the baton as well – this is a trend that has to continue.
Consistent OS support
One pitfall of the wearables world is that you can’t always be sure before you buy a device that every single feature will be available when you hook the thing up to your phone. Sometimes iOS owners get a better deal than Android owners, sometimes it’s the other way around.
And Windows 10 phone fans? Good luck.
In an ideal world we’d like to see a near-identical experience across all platforms, which would probably require the device to be doing a fair bit of the grunt work itself, rather than being at the mercy of how the phone’s operating systems work.
The good news is that new wearable-grade CPUs will make wearables more intelligent, without making them massive. The Intel Curie chip is the ‘size of a button’, while the Cortex-M series is improving at a speed which full-size mobile phone CPUs can only look back on wistfully.
The ability to track different activities used to be something only top-tier fitness watches could do. But as tracker smarts get smarter, we’ll see more of this.
The model that has really changed things recently is the Moov Now. It’s a £60 tracker with separate modes for swimming, cycling, running, interval training and even the awesome Cardio Boxing, which is like Guitar Hero but with punches.
This little wrist tracker also gives you voice coaching through its app, but it sadly needs the phone for a lot of functions; it has a lot of the right ideas though.
On our most-wanted list of tracking styles are running, walking, cycling and swimming, with the device working out which is which automatically.
While we’re asking, we’ll also take hiking and golf – Garmin’s trackers actually let you see how far you are from the hole while you’re on the course, and others are starting to add such functionality too.
One nasty surprise about fitness trackers is that some people find they irritate their skin. Some get an itchy wrist, or a full-on rash break-out.
There are two causes. Either the strap will be trapping moisture, and the extra friction and wetness will get your wrist narked, or you might get a flare-up of contact dermatitis from something you have an allergy to in the strap – nickel seems to be the most common offender.
Apparently even the Apple Watch wasn’t fully tested for this kind of allergic reaction. It may not be exciting, but this one’s important. No nickel, please.
Altimeter elevation tracking
A little unsung hero of the simple fitness tracker is an altimeter. This enables a device to calculate not just how far you walk, but when you walk up an incline, or up stairs.
An early implementation of this was in the good old Fitbit Ultra way back in 2011. Because it was worn on your belt rather than your wrist, it’s probably still more accurate than a lot of today’s models.
Trackers like this use an air pressure gauge to tell when you climb up or down. And unlike GPS it uses virtually no power. It’s of particular use when you’re using light tracking, getting you richer feedback than a pure pedometer while not munching down loads of battery.
Music playback via Bluetooth
The dream fitness tracker doesn’t need a phone. Sure, taking one with you on a run is often a good idea if you might end up far away from home, but with average screen sizes getting larger by the year they’re hardly becoming more convenient.
However, only a few fitness trackers will work as standalone music players. We’re not expecting a 3.5mm jack on the thing, but the ability to hook up with a pair of wireless headphones and, say, 8GB of internal storage would be neat.
There’s no major technical issue here besides the little bit of space needed for the extra storage chip. Few companies bung it in because it’s going to raise the price for what is still a side order many people might not use.
Music-ready trackers of today include the TomTom Spark, MiCoach Smart Run and the Lenco Sportswatch (we can’t vouch for the quality of that one, though).
Any Android Wear watch will be able to do this too. Not that any of them tick many of our other wishlist boxes, mind.
Very basic LED screen or a lit e-paper screen
If you want a fitness tracker that lasts for ages and is very easy to use, the best choice for your display is a) have no screen at all, b) use a very basic LED screen, or c) use an e-paper one with a front light like you might get on a classic Casio watch (or a Kindle, if you like).
The benefit of the various e-paper-style screen technologies is that they hardly use any power, and you can keep the screen on at all times without them lighting up dark rooms like a mini torch.
We’ll see some pretty exciting developments in this area soon too. Ultra-low-power screens generally rely on reflecting ambient light rather than using a backlight or lit pixels (like OLED), meaning they use just a fraction of a single per cent of the power of an LCD display.
One of the pioneers in this area is Japan Display, whose latest wearable-ready display gets you 1.34 inches of round screen with a pretty sharp 320 x 300 pixel resolution. We’ll take one of those, please – it seems to be a generation ahead of what something like the Garmin Fenix 3 uses.
Customisable, basic phone notifications
Put phone notifications into a fitness tracker and your need for a smartwatch flies out of the window. For the most part anyway.
The problem with some current trackers is that notifications feel a little squeezed in at the last minute – probably because that’s just what has happened in some situations, to appeal to people vaguely interested in ‘something like an Apple Watch’.
We want to be able to read full WhatApp messages and texts, and see a bit more than just the subject lines of emails. Being able to customise which apps’ notifications get through is a must too.
The problem here is that a good deal of app-level work will have to be done, particularly on the iOS side, to get the feel of a fitness tracker’s phone notifications right. Even the Apple Watch isn’t really there yet.
Oh, and having demanded them, we also need to be able to switch notifications off entirely, of course. Many people will just find them annoying.
Gender-neutral and great looking
Chunky 42mm watch faces for boys, pink straps for girls? Don’t make us groan. Looks matter a lot with something you’ll (probably) wear on your wrist, but few companies nail both features and design.
The Garmin Vivoactive is a good example of this. It has most of the features we’re after, but looks duller than an inkjet printer from 1995.
Some of the best-looking trackers of the moment include the Withings Activite and the good old Fitbit Flex. They’re slimline, they’re not at all showy and they won’t dominate your wrist.
What we need are a few more waves of miniaturisation tech to kick in before the prettiest, slinkiest wearables can offer the features of the less-pretty crowd.
There are lots of clever charging mechanisms for wearables. The ends of some straps turn into USB cables; others use clip-on charging docks that hook into the underside of your wearable; some actually have little micro USB sockets built in.
However, wireless charging is generally limited to fancier ‘smartwatches’ like the Moto 360 and Apple Watch. Pretty much all of them are based on the Qi standard (although Apple has locked you down to only using its proprietary docks… grrr), meaning you can use lots of third-party charging plates and not have to worry about cables anymore. Bliss.
We’d like to see this migrate down to smaller, more affordable trackers. Please.
You don’t want to be chained to a fitness tracker’s third-party software. Lots of trackers play nice with some of the most popular platforms out there, which are apps you may well have bumped into already.
We’re talking about Strava, Runkeeper, MapMyRun and a handful of others. Once you hook the two systems up, whatever you track with your hardware will automatically show up in your account for the respective platform.
It’s happening in a few of the top-level wearables already – TomTom and Garmin are pretty good for this – but we want everyone to give data to everyone else. Is that too much to ask?
The only question is which software do you want to get in bed with? Picking between Runkeeper and Runtastic really isn’t easy these days, and that’s before you even step into the ultra-competitive world of Strava.
The good news is that none of the features on our wish list require a huge amount of engineering or money to make them awesome – just a few tweaks here and there, and a healthy dose of innovation to bring them to the masses.
Not too much to ask, is it?