on March 11, 2014
I've been using an activity monitor for a couple of years now, and have owned the following in addition to the Vivofit: Fitbit One, Fitbit Flex, Fitbit Force, and Polar Loop. Since the Fitbit devices are very popular and widely used, I'll orient this review around a comparison to those (and the Polar Loop for good measure).
First, my main activity is road biking: I average about 2,000 miles a year, mostly from March to November. In winter I try to regularly ride a trainer or a recumbent gym bike. I wear a heart monitor when riding or training because I like to see how I'm doing as a late middle-aged male. As you'll see, one of the advantages of the Vivofit is its ability to pair with a HR strap, something the Fitbit products lack. So here we go:
The Vivofit is a bit reminiscent of the Fitbit Force as far as the form factor. They have similar bracelet styling, though the body part of the Vivofit is slightly thicker. The clasp design is similar to the Force, but locks more positively. The actual Vivofit unit is removable from the bracelet unlike the Force (more like the Flex), so you can replace the band (it comes with both large and small bands) and change to different colored ones.
The biggest differences from the Force are these: 1) the Vivofit uses two small watch batteries that are purportedly good for at least a year versus the rechargeable battery used by the Force, and; 2) the Vivofit display doesn't light up like the Force (which has both positive and negative attributes; read on).
I liked my Force - even though I think Fitbit's customer service is abysmal, perhaps rivaled only by Comcast among companies I've dealt with - but the Vivofit is ultimately what I wish the Force had been. Here's why.
I didn't particularly mind having to recharge my Force periodically (about once a week), but the battery always seemed to go dead at the most inopportune times, i.e., when I didn't have my charger available (and remember it only charges with USB via a computer). So there were times where my activity tracking would be interrupted until I could get to a charging source, and then of course you can't use the device while it's charging. Not so with the Vivofit. I like the idea of using watch batteries: they add just a smidgen of bulk, but you don't have to worry about recharging. The batteries are the common 1632s, so they're easy to find if even if you don't keep spares on hand, and with a year of life, continuous operation is a given.
As to the display, I actually prefer the Vivofit's overall even though it isn't lighted. With the Force you have to press the button when you want to read it, although you can then read it even in pitch darkness. The Vivofit displays continuously; you cycle through the different readings by pressing a button, just like on the Force. It's readable in all but near darkness (reminds of a Kindle), so the lack of lighting is a non-factor for me. It's also VERY sharp, with gold characters on a black background. I'll sacrifice a lighted display for the year-long battery life and continuous display of the Vivofit.
The other nice thing about the Vivofit vs. the Force is that it pairs with a HR monitor strap. So if you like to keep track of your heart rate when doing vigorous exercise - like I do - then the Vivofit is the hands-down winner. In fact, I think it slightly beats the Force even without that feature, based on the better battery configuration, continuous display, interchangeable bracelet and more secure clasp.
A word about the clasp. It's basically the same design as used on the Force and the Flex, but for some reason is more secure. The Fitbit bands have a tendency to uncouple, especially the Force, but the Vivofit is rock solid. I think the reason is that the Vivofit's material is slightly less neoprene-like than the Force's: it's a tad less springy, so when the clasp pins penetrate the holes they're held firmly.
I'll finish the Fitibit comparison by mentioning the Flex and the One. The Force tried to integrate the best features of both of these: in effect it's a One incorporated into a Flex-like bracelet design (albeit a larger one). With the One you have a display that lights when the button is pushed (like the Force) and gives you a readout of various measures by cycling through with repeated button pushes. With the Flex the display only shows a series of dots that track your progress on a measure of your choosing (steps, calories burned, etc.). You can check your stats at any time by pairing the Flex with your smartphone (you can also pair the One and the Force to a smartphone) or by syncing it to your computer with a USB wireless dongle (also supplied for the One and the Force). I found the One too easy to lose, since it's not a bracelet, and found the battery life of the Flex to be a bit on the short side, probably because of its small size (which is why I upgraded to the Force).
One of the best features of using a Fitibit is the excellent website. I haven't found a competitor's website that even comes close. Polar's site is in beta and tracks almost nothing. Garmin's site is good, but is mainly for tracking just activity from their various GPS devices for biking, running, etc., albeit in exhaustive detail. Fitbit's site is a full-featured health tracking and monitoring tool. It displays all activity measured by your tracker, allows you to log your food intake (huge food database), regularly record your heart rate, blood pressure, weight, and even custom measures of your own design. It's too comprehensive to describe here, but suffice to say it's reason enough to favor a Fitbit device over others. This is where the Vivofit has a leg up on other non-Fitbit devices: it will automatically sync to the Fitbit site using Garmin Connect software via an arrangement between Fitbit and Garmin.
So now with my Vivofit, I get a device that to me that has all the advantages of the Fitbit Force with none of the disadvantages, allows for HR monitoring, AND syncs to the Fitbit website. It's the best of both worlds.
On to the Polar Loop. It's a well made device that's roughly the same size as the Force and Vivofit, but has the most secure clasp of the bunch. It's a deployment buckle like you'd find on an upscale watch (think Breitling or Omega). Like the Vivofit, it allows for HR monitoring via a Polar HR strap (and its worth noting that Polar HR monitor straps auto sync to a lot of gym exercise equipment that is "Polar ready"). It has a brilliantly lit red display, activated by pushing a button that you then push repeatedly to cycle through different measures. However, unlike the button on the Vivofit or Force, the one on the Polar is very imprecise: you frequently have to push it two or three times before it does anything. That's because it's recessed so as to be almost flush with the strap and is very small, such that when you push most of your fingertip is pushing on the surrounding area. And as noted, the Polar website (beta) is pretty much useless at this point. If the Polar had a better button, and if the website were the equal of Fitbit's or could sync to it, then it would be slightly ahead of the Force (because of the HR feature) but still behind the Vivofit (because of the need to charge it periodically, and because when syncing to a computer it has to be connected to a dual-use charging/syncing cable rather than using a wireless dongle like the Force and Vivofit, though it will sync wirelessly to a smartphone using Polar's app).
Form factor: basically a tie among the Vivofit, Force and Loop (Flex has a smaller form factor, which some may prefer; the One is basically a fob made to be clipped to a belt or carried in a pocket).
Display: the Vivofit for its continuous (and very sharp) display and positive button feedback for cycling through data, although you may disagree if you plan to check your unit regularly in the dark.
Accuracy: the Vivofit and all of the Fitbit units seemed to be very accurate (they yielded nearly identical measures when compared); the Loop seemed to overstate my steps, and - like the Vivofit - it doesn't measure flights of stairs climbed (all Fitbits do).
Clasp: the Polar is most secure, very closely followed by the Vivofit. The Force and Flex tend to uncouple, and the One is a fob rather than a bracelet.
HR monitoring: It's between the Vivofit and the Loop since Fitibit doesn't offer it. If you already use a Garmin HR strap with a Garmin bike or running computer, then you might prefer the Vivofit for that reason. If you want to auto connect your HR strap at the gym, then that might argue for a Polar strap, and the Loop (both the Loop and the gym bike or elliptical, etc. will simultaneously record HR activity).
Smartphone software: all three offer good smartphone apps, but they specialize in different areas. The Fitbit app mimics its website, so most of what you'd upload, enter, sync or track at the website can also be done on its smartphone app. The Garmin app is set up to focus on bike rides, runs, etc. in conjunction with a GPS unit to record routes, route segments, etc. The Loop app is focused on heart rate activity.
Website: Fitbit by a mile, though as noted you can sync all your Vivofit data to the Fitbit site automatically. Thus you can essentially treat the Vivofit as if it was a Fitbit device. Garmin's website has the same focus as it's smartphone app; it's not a full-fledged fitness site. Polar's site is useless, though it's only in beta...perhaps it will eventually be more competitive.
I vote for the Vivofit. Note that the Force has been recalled and is no longer being sold.