Sleeping and walking into surveillance - reviewing the Fitbit Blaze

January 05, 2017

I recently got a Fitbit, without really meaning to. When a friend showed me his a few months ago, I’d been slightly scornful. Why would you want to track every aspect of your life? Besides, the device looked incredibly dorky, like a Star Trek fan’s vision of the future. I wanted a watch that looks like a watch. Even as a small child in the early 80s, I never really bought into the idea of gadgets like calculator watches.

Quite apart from the privacy concerns, and the vague unease about what Aral Balkan would call people farming, I’m not quite sure if I like having all these measurements on everything I do. As Joe Leech asks in a different context, what am I actually going to do with this data? How does it help me to know how many steps I’ve taken in a day? I know just by how I feel whether I’ve done enough exercise. Besides, do I really need another thing to charge up?

But for a while I’ve been wanting to be able to see how far I’ve run while I’m still running, so when I looked at what I could spend my American Express points on, and saw the Fitbit Blaze, I decided to treat my self, in spite of a slight pang of guilt at noticing that I could have donated the points to charity.

When it arrived, actually setting it up and connecting it to my account was a lot more hassle than it should have been. The Android app’s claims that it could set up the watch via Bluetooth seem to be bogus - it all got a lot easier when I plugged it in to the computer via USB. The onboarding process was mainly negative, with something jarring about the tone of the copy - it’s faintly patronising, as if it’s written for fat idiots who might forget to breathe if they didn’t have a device to remind them.

Once I’d got over that initial minor hurdle, it seems to work pretty well. It doesn’t feel too much like a computer on my wrist, although I tend not to bother with using it for text message notifications, mainly because I want to keep Bluetooth off on my phone to save the battery. Compared to a normal watch, there’s something a little odd about wearing a dark square on my wrist - in theory it wakes up when you lift your arm, but that doesn’t always happen.

The user interface is effective - simple and clean design-wise, with some subtle animations when swiping between functions. It doesn’t try to offer too much functionality, which keeps things manageably simple. The interaction it offers is limited to three buttons, tapping and basic swiping, so there isn’t anything too complicated - and nor should there be on a screen that size. For example, the alarms can only be turned on and off from the watch - to set the time, you have to use the app.

There are some guided workouts, although I haven’t used them - I tend to just want to go for a run. When I’m running, it’s really nice to be able to see my current pace and distance - it’s definitely been a factor in breaking my personal best for 5 km. Sometimes it takes a while to pair with my phone to get location - perhaps there’s something not quite right about the Bluetooth, either on the watch or the phone.

The thing that has had the biggest impact on me is the reminders to move. For a while, I’ve been trying to encourage myself to take more breaks from staring intently at a screen, mainly for the sake of my eyes and my mind. I sometimes used to wish that I smoked, so that I’d have a reason to get up from my desk from time to time. The Fitbit helps with this, with a tap on the wrist 10 minutes before the end of every hour in the working day if I haven’t taken 250 steps that hour, to remind me to get up and walk around (although there is something mildly ludicrous about walking up and down the stairs just to hit an arbitrary goal set by my watch).

A minor annoyance that the count of how many hours you’ve been active for the day is always out of 9, rather than the number of hours that have actually elapsed so far. If it’s currently 10.30, and I’m aiming to be active every hour from 9 AM to 6 PM, I’d expect my best possible “score” to be 2/2, rather than 2/9.

Until recently, the sleep stats seemed to measure time lying down, rather than actual time asleep - mine were showing a solid 8 hours, even if I knew I’d woken at 4 and tossed and turned. There seems to have been a recent update, because now the stats are the opposite - if the device is to be believed, there are only 2 nights in the last 2 weeks that I’ve had more than 4 hours sleep.

It seems to hold a charge fairly well - tends to need charging every 2 or 3 days, via a slightly fragile-feeling cradle. It would have been nice if they had just put a micro USB socket on there, but they’re not the only company to like non-standard cables.

Trying to use it as a remote control for Spotify seems a little hit and miss. The only way I’ve managed to get it working reliably is to set myself up to be bombarded with a notification every time the song changes.

The watch also gives me an odd, faintly futuristic feeling of being a slave to technology. When you take the watch off, the sensor leaves a mark on your skin, and you can see green flashing lights that feel a bit sinister to someone who watched The Tripods at an impressionable age, or Battle Royale at a slightly less impressionable age. Incidentally, thinking of that film reminds me of another Lucky Soul connection - one of our songs was used as the soundtrack to one of Beat Takeshi’s lesser known TV shows.

So the overall verdict: not bad, considering I didn’t have to pay for it. How long will I carry on wearing it? I don’t currently see any reason to stop. Maybe if there’s some scandal about what the company are doing with the data. Or if I get to the point of wanting to reduce the number of gadgets and things that need to be charged. But for the moment, I’m happy enough to carry on being farmed.