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Nike FuelBand Review: An Exciting Entry into the Gamification of Health

We’ve been closely following the gamification trend in mobile health, and Nike has taken it to the masses by recently releasing the Nike FuelBand ($149) to immense demand and sold-out inventory.

The FuelBand joins the other two current players in the fitness tracking market released in the fall: the Jawbone UP (currently not on the market after being recalled; $99) and the Fitbit Ultra ($99).

I tested all three devices for the past two weeks to see if the extra $50 for this device really equates to more than just marketing and the Nike Swoosh.

First up for review is the Nike FuelBand. (Check back for individual product reviews, followed by a comparison review).

Hardware Design: Nike Does Not Disappoint

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The FuelBand looks like the offspring of a black Live Strong bracelet and a thin wristwatch. It snaps around your wrist via a clasp emblazoned with a Nike Swoosh.

In addition to being available in 3 sizes (small, medium, large), the band comes with 2 extra spacers that can be added to adjust its circumference. While its rubbery surface stands up well against abrasions, its shiny metal clap is particularly susceptible to scuff marks.

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One of the unique features of the FuelBand is a dazzling display made up of an array of 100 white LED lights used to display statistics and a thin strip of 20 color LED lights used to display a gauge of how far you are towards reaching your goal for the day.

Whereas Apple’s Retina Displays impresses with its high resolution, the FuelBand’s 20 x 5 pixel resolution impresses with its slick animations and simplicity. The display lights up out of seemingly nowhere on the black surface, showing the time and various statistics as they sweep across the screen.

Pictures simply do not do it justice.

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It deserves to be mentioned that the FuelBand features a clock that shows the time, essentially eliminating the need for a watch. While it doesn’t display the day or month, I found the clock feature to be quite convenient.

Unfortunately, some of that convenience is negated by the fact that you must press the button to activate the display. I would have at least liked the option to leave the FuelBand as always showing the time.

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Battery life is advertised as lasting up to four days. In my experience testing the battery, it lasted at least 5-6 days on average before I had to recharge the battery. One critique I have is that there is no obvious way to check battery life without plugging the FuelBand into the syncing cradle.

When the battery finally runs low, a battery icon appears on the display, but until then there is no quick way to gauge battery life, and this led the device to run out of battery once.

Syncing: Bluetooth for the Win

The FuelBand is the only contender out of the three products that syncs wirelessly via Bluetooth to the iPhone. You simply:

  1. hold the button down until the screen displays “Sync,”
  2. open the app on your iPhone
  3. wait for the syncing process to complete.

It really is just that simple, although the entire process did take noticeably longer than I expected. Logging about 7 days of data took approximately 45 seconds, and the app must remain open during this time. Overall, though, the process is so smooth that it’s a shame that the Jawbone UP and Fitbit Ultra don’t utilize Bluetooth.

For those that don’t have iPhones or prefer a more traditional method, the FuelBand also comes with a small USB cradle that charges and syncs the FuelBand with your PC or Mac.

What It Measures: Activity, but No Sleep or Meal Tracking

The FuelBand utilizes a 3-axis accelerometer to measure activity, recorded as one of several statistics: Nike Fuel, Steps, Distance, and Calories. Nike sets itself apart from its competitors by focusing much of the user’s attention on Nike Fuel, which will be discussed at length later in this article. I was disappointed to find out that the FuelBand does not currently allow any support for tracking meals or sleep, both of which can be found on the Fitbit Ultra and Jawbone UP.

Measurement Accuracy: Do You Believe in Nike Fuel?

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As one might expect from an accelerometer attached to the wrist, the potential for detecting False Positive “steps” is extremely high, although Nike seems to counterbalance this by creating a new measurement in Nike Fuel. Over a 14 day span, the FuelBand consistently overestimated the number of steps relative to the Fitit Ultra (worn on the torso, and presumably more accurate) by up to 25%.

However, many users will soon find that precision in counting exact number of steps does not matter as much as one would think. In practice, both the FuelBand and FitBit Ultra were fairly accurate in measuring relative activity: on my busier, more active days, the devices both measured more steps, and vice versa.

Interestingly, this is where Nike might be onto something by prioritizing Nike Fuel.

What is Nike Fuel? According to their website, Nike used oxygen kinetics to measure the intensity of various activities on athletes wearing FuelBands, and then created Nike Fuel as a currency to best estimate the intensity of activities based on the accelerometer data from their FuelBands.

In theory, this research allows the FuelBand to accurately gauge the intensity of a certain activity using its accelerometer, as it should be able to differentiate between steps from a short walk and from a rigorous sport. Nike states that an average person will earn approximately 2,000 “Fuel” on an ordinary day, and 3,000 on an active day. The default goal is for 3,000 Fuel every day, but can be changed via either the iPhone app or website.

In order to test the ability for Nike Fuel to differentiate between activities better than a pedometer would, I walked at a very relaxed pace for 30 seconds. During that time, the Nike FuelBand logged 42 steps, and 8 Nike Fuel. Then, I did jumping jacks for the next 30 seconds, and the gadget logged 71 steps and 29 Nike Fuel. While the number of steps measured by the FuelBand differed by about 75% between the two activities, the amount of Nike Fuel rewarded was more than tripled for the jumping jacks.

As a general trend, the amount of Nike Fuel earned on a certain day seemed to correlate fairly well with my level of exertion. I earned significantly less Nike Fuel on my days off compared with my long days in the hospital. On a particularly lazy afternoon, I could earn as little as 300 Nike Fuel, but earn up to 750 during a single workout session.

While promising, the Nike FuelBand is still limited by the fact that it monitors activity via wrist movement. In a similar experiment, I clapped my hands for 30 seconds while seated at my desk. The FuelBand logged 60 steps and 14 Fuel points for essentially no physical activity. Furthermore, when using a stationary bike with handles, the FuelBand recorded zero steps and Fuel points.

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In practice, I was initially frustrated by the FuelBand’s overemphasis on measuring what seemed like an arbitrary statistic in Nike Fuel, but over time I grew to appreciate the simplicity of it all.

By lunch, if I was still under 1,000 Nike Fuel (and my linear gradient was still in the red), I knew I was not being active enough to be on track to hit my goal of 3,000 by the end of the day. When I did a quick run on a treadmill, I would find that I had earned a surprisingly high amount of Nike Fuel.

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Author:

David Ahn, MD (@AhnCall)

Staff Writer for iMedicalApps, and 2nd-year Endocrinology fellow at UC San Diego. His primary interests include Diabetes, Fitness/Metabolism, and wearable technology.

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22 Responses to Nike FuelBand Review: An Exciting Entry into the Gamification of Health

  1. Carmen April 11, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    I can’t say I am impressed with the Fuel Band. Right now, with my iPod I have Nike’s Fitness app which allows me to gauge my running and walking workouts (using my monitor which fits into my Nike shoes). Meanwhile, my iPod also plays my tunes during my workouts and features a watch. The iPod costs $70, not a whopping $150. I do not see the benefit of the Fuel Band when I have the synching capability off the iPod. Oh, and the iPod shows you battery life when you turn it on.

    • David Ahn, MD April 11, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

      I definitely understand your point. I think the FuelBand is very much a fad or trend that is inessential, but helpful to those who buy into it. To help justify its cost, though, it’s use as a watch has proven helpful to me, and I have found its oversimplified metric of using a linear meter effective in keeping me active throughout the day. But I agree with you, it’s definitely not a must-have item for everyone.

      My next review is of the FitBit Ultra and should be published shortly. It sounds like that one might be more to your liking (although it sounds like you have a nice setup already with your NikePlus).

      • Carla April 4, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

        I just purchased a Fuel Band and I can’t wait for it to arrive in the mail. As far as the watch function goes, is it possible to have that appear first when you click? As opposed to fuel coming first in the menu?

        :) Thanks, Carla

  2. Jon April 17, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    @Carmen
    The bands are not for everyone. Where I work I do not wear sneakers and due to the information we handle I am not allowed to use my cell phone. The fitness bands allow me a way to make sure I’m not sitting on my rear too much pouring through data.

    I too have the UP band and the FuelBand. I like both products, but the FuelBand seems much more durable. I have had my UP band since around November and I had to request a replacement already. The people at Aliph that make the UP were very easy to work with and asked for some info and now two days later my new UP band is on its way. The UP band is a great product that I feel was released too soon. They should have tweaked it a little more to make it something really great. I do like the extra things in the UP app, such as the meal tracking and the different challenges. The FuelBand is a lot more useful though just because of the time feature. I too wish they would make a way to view battery life. Maybe they will update he firmware in the near future. Great review!

    • David Ahn, MD April 18, 2012 at 2:11 am #

      i echo much of your concerns. i’m glad i’m not the only one who appreciates both.

  3. April May 31, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    I appreciate the arrticle and agree with everything said. The fuel band is not perfect, but the simplicity of the band and ease of use with the blue tooth sync makes a world of difference. I feel it is a fantastic motivational tool. I like the sense of accomplishment when I reach the goal. I

  4. me June 3, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    the nike fuel band rocks….. however when syncing with the iPhone app it won’t do it in the back ground… you must be on the app…. this is a big No No in my opinion …. I should just push the sync button and look when I want to …… need an update nike

  5. James Ketchell July 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    Thanks for the great review. Just one additional comment to add. It is possible to check the battery life via the iPhone app wirelessly. You do this via settings/device settings. Icon is displayed at the top of that screen.

  6. Sunny July 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    Hi! Thank you for your posts. I’m a bit obsessive and like several other folks, I purchased both a Fit Bit and the Fuel Band. I have been using both for about three weeks. Of course due to the bands flashing lights and on line the “little Nike guy” doing flips, etc…when I reach my goals – I love the Nike graphics & feel like I am a bit more motivated by the fuelband.
    The Fit Bit has it’s fine points as well though – such as flights of stairs.
    I do have a frustration with both as two of the activities which I do a fair amount of: C2 rowing & both mountain and road biking. Neither seem to log much for either activity. For rowing (vigorous) the fuel band logs more than the fit bit (even after wearing the fitbit on my wrist for rowing); last evening we went for a bike ride – 24 miles RT (12 miles shallow incline uphill). The band (which I had tied to my leg as I knew the wrist would do nothing) recorded a rough average of 1000 steps / mile and the Fit Bit barely registered anything (less than 1000 steps for entire ride)!
    Anyone have a suggestion for where to place the Fit Bit for biking / rowing? I’m still figuring it all out – but it HAS made a difference in my activity levels! Thanks ;-)

    • Juan-John January 3, 2013 at 11:54 am #

      I did a 40-minute row on my C2 and earned 1200 points, FWIW.

  7. Sunny July 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    Oops, actually – I forgot one thing and am wondering if anyone has run into this: I travel frequently for business and upon returning from one of my trips last week I was in the airport – checked my fit bit to see flights of stairs (one downside to both – obsessive checking)! Anyway – I checked the Fit Bit flight calculator and it showed only one flight. I knew this was incorrect as I’d just climbed three flights of stairs. So I set my bags down (I was now in the parking garage) and ran up one flight, ran back down (where my bags were left), checked – no additional flights. SO – I ran up again. Ditto. And again. Ditto. I ran those stairs up and down six times in a row and nothing changed on the stair meter (but it did seem to be tracking steps).
    Anyway, haven’t had the problem since….just wondering if anyone has seen this?

  8. Y J July 23, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Excellent review. I agree that the lack of accuracy does not matter as much when I look at the bigger picture. I stumbled upon this site as I was trying to resolve some update issue with a fuelband. I got my parents fuelbands as their “Parents Day” gift in early May (it’s a Korean thing). My mom hits 3,000 to 5,000 points daily without any trouble. My dad? His first full day score was 1,200. Since day 2, he had never missed 2,000. He started to take a long walk in the morning and would go for another long walk in the evening if his score has not hit his daily goal. He has not missed his target after the first day and this had been going on for over two months now. By now I would to think that the fuelband helped forming a healthy daily routine for my dad and I could not be happier.

    My mom’s fuelband got bricked during the upgrade. I had another one shipped to me ASAP so that she won’t be without it much longer. BTW I paid over 350 bucks for each as I currently reside in a country where Nike does not sell these and the government has some ridiculously high import duty. It was worth every penny.

  9. ColbyDigital July 28, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    Hey David, if I buy a larger Nike Fuelband and wear it on my right ankle will that track calories and fuel better? Seems it would eliminate the issue of riding a bike with handlebars and other lower body workouts.

  10. Bill Floggenegger August 24, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    My Nike FuelBand has motivated me to work out more. I like it.

  11. Liz November 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    Hi Sunny I’m a rower as well and I’m looking at buying the fuel band but I was wondering if the band was in your opinion accurate of your rowing workout?

  12. Paul December 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    Does the Nike Fuel Band works with stationery cycle/bikes?

  13. Kean January 7, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    I just recently bought the nike fule band and suddenly realized the possible unhelpful effect
    I would like to know if it gives off any sort of radiation. Because this may be a possible health issue I would like to know ?

  14. Ulugbek April 13, 2013 at 4:40 am #

    Battery life is terrible. 2 days max, support is terrible too

  15. Tonic April 24, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    I purchased the Nike+ because I am not very active and I wanted to push myself a bit. I’m never going to run a marathon, but I wanted a baseline on my current activity so I could tell how to punch it up, and I liked the idea that knowing how close to my goal I am might motivate me to do a bit more just to make it. It has been successful on both counts (altho it would be really great if actually zapped me in the a$$ when I was being lazy). I also cannot wear sneakers to work and the band is convenient. However, I do not seem to get “credit” for the treadmill. The days I use the treadmill instead of an outdoor walk I seem to get less Fuel, even tho I walk further. Putting it around my ankle doesn’t seem to improve it much. Any ideas?

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